Variety - January 26, 2020

Göteborg Listens to Stellan according to Skarsgård

By Marta Balaga

GÖTEBORG, Sweden — Laughs were aplenty at the Stora Theatern, where Göteborg Film Festival artistic director Jonas Holmberg welcomed the recipient of the Nordic Honorary Dragon Award, fresh off his Golden Globe win for HBO's "Chernobyl".

"It wasn’t planned. I thought that will be my only award this year, that's why I said yes!" – joked Skarsgård, before jumping right into discussing his impressive career. Starting with 1960s series "Bombi Bitt och jag", a still from which was met with delighted giggles. "This little boy? He didn’t want to be an actor, he wanted to be a diplomat" – he explained. "Dag Hammarskjöld was the hero of my childhood and my idea of a diplomat was someone who travels the world to bring peace. I still haven't decided what I want to do when I grow up."

As hard as it is to believe, it wasn't an easy start for the acclaimed actor. "My first feature was called "Raid in the Summer" and it was the kind of film where you can't shoot anymore because there is no stock to shoot on. It was supposed to be a summer comedy, all about running hand in hand into the water, and I was running hand in hand into the water in October." Theatre roles and, as he put it, semi-light porn films by Torgny Wickman were to follow. Until 1982's "The Simple-Minded Murderer", shown just before the master class, gave him a long-awaited break. "I developed camera-fright. I was afraid of it because I made so many bad movies. I remember [director] Hans Alfredson was watching me when I was reading the script. He wanted to see my reaction. This man was fantastic to work with because there was never any pressure. That's how it all started."

Although the author behind his thriller "Code Name Coq Rouge" complained Skarsgård was too thin ("He said I looked like an asparagus!"), huge international success was just around the corner. Courtesy of Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves", which started a years-long collaboration rivaled only by that with Hans Petter Moland. "I went: Yes! Finally a love story I can relate to!" – he said about a film that saw a religious woman having sex with other men to please her paralyzed husband. "When you work with Lars, you do what you want. His scripts are extremely structured, like 'Raiders of the Last Ark,' but the way he shoots makes them so alive. A director needs to have something to say and it has to be personal, but you also want someone who is interested in what is happening between the lines. In 'Chernobyl,' the relationship between Jared Harris' character and mine wasn’t even on the page."

Already a staple in European cinema, over the years Skarsgård also managed to enter the dark world of Hollywood blockbusters. Quite literally. "When they finished the film, they realized nobody understood what was going on" – he said about "Thor: The Dark World" and its infamous chalkboard scene. "They needed a scene where at least some of it was explained, so they flew me in to do it! I was reluctant to do the first "Thor", but I had great respect for Kenneth Branagh and compared to these other films, it was a slow-burner. During our first read-through, and Kevin Feige was there as well, I asked: This comic-book stuff, is there really any money in that? The whole table just froze. I was stuck with Marvel for a while but I enjoyed it, even though when you read the script there is a good scene and then four pages of people throwing each other at the wall. I don’t understand everything about it, but I had fun doing it."

Encouraged by Holmberg, the actor found time to address Martin Scorsese's Marvel controversy as well. "In his article for The New York Times he wrote that it's not Marvel's fault, because it's not. It’s not Netflix's fault either that the streaming services are taking over. For decades, we have believed that the market should rule everything. That's the root of it all" – he pointed out. "It's monopoly everywhere and all the midrange movies don't exist anymore. 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' played in Stockholm for 20 years! That won't happen again. All these brilliant writers and directors went to television, but the same mechanisms will kill it too. They make more series than we need, Netflix is buying out every talent and the diversity in terms of voices will eventually end. It's not Marvel's fault – it's this idea of how economic systems of the world should work."

As the evening progressed, things got personal. "I don't want to do moral films. I have done semi-moral films, and by that I don't mean the sex films, but I don't think everything in art needs to be immediately useful. You give the audience a new pair of eyes to look at the world" – he said, swiftly moving onto his ever-growing acting clan. "Hiring a Skarsgård is like hiring a BMW – you know what you get!" – he joked. "I have no influence over my children, they hit puberty and never respected me after that. If you interfere and they are successful, they think it's thanks to you. If they fail, you get shit for it." Still, he will soon join son Gustaf in a project written by his wife Megan Everett. "It’s a Swedish story, so of course it will have a Chinese director. Cultural appropriation can be good – look at what Ang Lee did with 'Brokeback Mountain' or Wim Wenders with 'Paris, Texas'. It's good to have an outside eye looking at your society sometimes."

And yet, while already in his late 60s, things aren't necessarily looking up for Skarsgård. "For several years, the only offers I got from Sweden were to play some serial killer in 'Wallander 43.' If I play a one-dimensional baddie, it better be in an American movie where I get good damage for it" – he observed dryly. "This summer I did 'Dune' and I had so much fat on that just moving around was horrible. Physically, that was the hardest job I have ever done" – he told a curious member of the audience. "For thousands of years, actors have learned by acting and by stealing from more talented actors. Just steal from several of them so they can't trace it." And as to his future legacy? "I don't care. I am not saving all the scripts, like Bergman did, to have my own museum later on. I have eight kids. What kind of legacy is that?"