Sterling Magazine - Interview with Stellan Skarsgård

March 2008

Changeable as the Stockholm weather, Stellan Skarsgård has been a chameleon-like presence for almost 40 years. In a year that takes him from holocaust drama to musical debut, the star tells Sterling how he keeps things fresh.

Stellan Skarsgård is run off his feet. As the Swedish star sits down in his beloved Stockholm for a chat he is still a tad weary from a recent, challenging shoot for the BBC in Glasgow, one of the many projects he’s been juggling during the past few months. Not that Skarsgård, who has put in one commanding performance after another for nearly 40 years, minds his hectic schedule.

“I am at my happiest and most comfortable when I am making films,” the 56-year-old explains. “In fact, when things are going well on a movie set it feels like I’m in heaven.”

Apart from the BBC production – a 90-minute drama set in Auschwitz called GOD ON TRIAL – Skarsgård can also be seen in big screen, gritty thriller WAZ, in which he plays a conflicted American detective investigating a spate of grisly killings. That will be followed by the considerably lighter film version of the musical MAMMA MIA! (the actor takes the role of Bill Austin) and BOOGIE WOOGIE, a black comedy about the art scene in London.

Sterling: Why have you chosen to live in Stockholm rather than in Hollywood?

Skarsgård: It’s a lifestyle choice rather than a career choice. I like distinct seasons and changing weather. If I spend too much time in Los Angeles, I feel like it’s Groundhog Day. You wake up to the same sunny day every morning and it’s kind of annoying.

Sterling: You’ve had a very varied career. How important is it for you to alternate between blockbusters like the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies and small independent films?

Skarsgård: It’s important because it is almost two different professions. They have some things in common but the smaller, dangerous stuff usually has very little money. I like to be a bit dangerous and risk something.

Sterling: WAZ certainly qualifies. Not only is the material really dark, but I understand the shoot was tough as well?

Skarsgård: Well, we shot for 12 hours a day, six days a week in a pretty wet Belfast, which meant you never sat down so it was hard work. I prefer that because I am very impatient. Instead of pacing around the set I’d rather be working. As for the material being dark, I’m not the kind of method actor who becomes the character and lives in that world. I come from theatre, which means you sometimes play three different characters in a Shakespeare play on the same night. You cannot become any one of them. You have to train up and work on being able to switch on and off – so I have no problems coming out of character at the end of the day.

Sterling: Over the years you’ve had a great working relationship with Danish director Lars von Trier. What is it about him that you like so much?

Skarsgård: Working with him is lovely because you feel like two kids playing. The thing about a Lars von Trier shoot is that when you show up having done your homework and having decided how to do the character, he immediately tells you to do it the opposite way and try something else. When you work with Lars, you have total freedom and you are exploring the possibilities of the scene. You can start talking to him in the middle of the take discussing things, and the camera is just rolling and rolling. It’s such fun. He also has a great sense of humour.

Sterling: What was it like growing up in Malmö? Did those early years shape our career path in any way?

Skarsgård: I actually grew up in many places in Sweden as we moved around a lot. My father, who was a mid-level executive in business, had to get better jobs because he had five kids to support. He didn’t make very much money to start with and then he made a little more, but he always tried to get better jobs. So I moved a lot, which meant that every second year I had to start a new school and make new friends. That teaches you certain social skills just to survive. I don’t know what that has to do with my choice of profession because originally I wanted to become a diplomat. I started acting when I was very young with amateur theatre and then television and eventually acting just took over. So I still haven’t decided what I want to do when I grow up! Acting is just something I do while I make up my mind…

Sterling: And now you are passing on your skills to the next generation. What was it like working with three of your sons on ARN: THE KNIGHT TEMPLAR? Did they constantly seek advice from you?

Skarsgård: (Laughs). No, they laughed at my false beard and I laughed at theirs. It was very funny. They very rarely seek advice. They are absolutely capable of taking care of themselves. They’re really good.

Sterling: How has fatherhood made your life richer?

Skarsgård: Oh, fatherhood has enriched my life a lot. It is the most fantastic thing to have children, especially if they are nice people you can talk to and have fun with. When they get older you can go out and have a drink with them, go to clubs with them and you can discuss everything. It’s beautiful. But also, as an actor, when I had my first children I studied them and I got the idea that if I just copy them but talk like an adult then I can express something. Basically, a grown up person is just a more refined child. The basic reactions are the same.

Sterling: How often do you get the opportunity to sit down with your children and have proper discussions?

Skarsgård: I sit down every night with them when I’m at home in Stockholm. I cook for them and they eat with me.

Sterling: Are you a good chef?

Skarsgård: (Laughs) I’m a good chef, yes. I cook everything from all over the world. I’m very fond of Italian cuisine, but also French dishes with a lot of stock that can stand and bubble away for days.

Sterling: Do you ever speak up if the catering isn’t up to standard during a shoot?

Skarsgård: Yes. I get very upset when the catering is bad. It doesn’t have to be expensive but it has to be cooked with care and love. I’ve gone up to the catering department before and said that it is not good enough. When we were filming INSOMNIA in Norway, the catering was so bad that I lost 8kg while working on it. I gave a speech on the last day to the entire crew and said I would never work in this country again unless the catering was of the highest standard. Then a couple of years ago when I was doing a film called ABERDEEN, which was partly shooting in Norway, I had long negotiations about the catering. I didn’t care what they paid me but the food had to be good!

Sterling: Next we’ll see you giving your vocal chords a workout in MAMMA MIA! What was it like acting in a musical?

Skarsgård: That was fun. I had never done a musical before and I was really scared when I started because I can’t sing very well. But once I gave up my worries I enjoyed it immensely. It’s a very fluffy but sweet thing. I’d love to do more musicals in the future.