Vogue Magazine (UK) - November 2004

A MAN APART

Among cinema's elite, Stellan Skarsgård is considered the best actor of his generation. Even if you don't know his name, you'll have seen his work in films as diverse as Good Will Hunting, Dogville, and now Exorcist: The Beginning.

With a beatific look on his face, the Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård is telling me about a wonderful dream he once had while shooting in Hollywood. Was it of fame? Fortune? An Oscar, perhaps? "No," he says, "I dreamed it was raining. I could hear the sound of the rain on the roof... It was lovely. But then I woke up and the sun was shining again. I couldn't live in LA - you wake up and the weather's always the same. It's like Groundhog Day!"

This counter-intuitive way of looking at the world (good weather is one of the few positive aspects of Los Angeles its inhabitants can agree on) is, you soon realize, something of a signature for Skarsgård, a man who has worked with Ingmar Bergman, been an "older brother" to the celebrated experimental director Lars von Trier, and so inspired his friend Paul Bettany that Bettany named his son after him.

"Stellan is all about life," the British actor says when asked to explain this decision. "In every city, he knows the best place to eat oysters. He knows how to cut meat properly, so you get the most flavor out of it. He has untold numbers of children, and he's never wanted his children to respect him. In the absence of Jesus, he's a very close second."

Skarsgård has a warm, almost bear-like demeanor. When we meet for breakfast in New York - he is here to shoot a short film about Franz Stangl, the Nazi commandant at Treblinka - I'm surprised by how slim he is. (He is long, lithe and, in a black T-shirt and dark jeans, an effortless advert for Helmut Lang.) He radiates such enthusiasm that everything he says is robust, enveloping, gutsy and spoken with a slight Scandinavian lilt. He readily voices frank and unpredictable opinions, and he's quick to growl-like laughter. Even when he's at his most agitated, you have the sense that he might put a hand firmly on your shoulder and invite you for a few beers and a slap-up meal. Paul Bettany confirms this suspicion by reporting with some relish that Skarsgård once "kidnapped" him and kept him drunk in Paris for three days.

But when it comes to working on a film with him, the qualities that make him "a first-rate human being," as director Mike Figgis puts it, are merely "a bonus to his brilliance as an actor". "There isn't a better actor working right now," Figgis enthuses. "I would like to see him being given the lead in something weighty, where he would undoubtedly win an Oscar."

The prequel to The Exorcist, in which he plays Father Merrin, may not turn out to be that exactly, but it is his first lead role in a big-budget Hollywood movie. Skarsgård speaks about the experience with one eyebrow gently raised. "Hollywood is good for work," he says good-naturedly, "but when you're not working, you have to have a life."

His name may not be as familiar as his face, but Skarsgård  has provided a psychologically complex and sexually charged backbone to so many films that he can be found lurking in various corners of our cinematic memories. He first achieved wide-scale recognition eight years ago when he played Emily Watson's husband in Breaking the Waves. He went on to do Steven Spielberg's Amistad, and played Matt Damon's math teacher in Good Will Hunting. He was Mike Figgis' murdered alter ego Alex Green in Timecode, Al Pacino's counterpart in the spectacular original version of Insomnia, Nicole Kidman's grubby rapist in Dogville and Clive Owen's nemesis in King Arthur.

His powers of intellectual ambiguity are such that he has managed in different films to sustain a business conversation on the phone while crying silently; to show how a decent cop can become so "worn down by the dark side of humanity" (as he puts it) that he can slip into crime; and to crack jokes when paralyzed from the neck down. Probably the most famous actor in his native country, as a result of both his film and TV appearances over the past 36 years, and of his 15-year tenure at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, Skarsgård has been voted "sexiest man in Sweden" on a yearly basis for what seems like several decades. While resisting stardom, he has managed to combine Hollywood success with a very distinguished art-house career.
 

He has also managed to devote himself to an eventful domestic life. He and his wife My have six children between the ages of eight and 28. He likes to be at home in Sweden as much as he can, and when he's due to be on a shoot for a long period, he takes the younger children out of school and brings the whole family with him. His wife - who qualified as a doctor but doesn't practice - teaches the children, they rent a big house and bring friends along too. "You can't bring just family," says Skarsgård, "because then they're isolated in a foreign country, so you have to bring friends as well. Then you come home and there's a huge party going on, and you can say, 'Oh look, everybody's happy. Good night!'"

I tell him I'm impressed he has six children. He shrugs, and adds dryly, "It took six minutes." Does he have any wisdom he'd like to pass on? He suggests children should sleep in their parents' bed. "When my oldest son was six, he decided, 'OK, I'm big now' and he went to sleep in his own bed. The first night he did it, I went into his room, brought him, asleep, and put him back in our bed. It felt so strange without him." And how many other children were there in the bed? I ask. "At that time, there were two more." He smiles. "It can be crowded."

Skarsgård operates on the principle that predictability breeds panic. Things are only interesting, he thinks, if you leave yourself open to change. "Life," he tells me, "is like rafting - you have to make quick decisions all the time in order not to bounce into a rock. And then maybe you can steer the raft a little and get into a nice run of slow water." It's perhaps for this reason that he never actually decided to become an actor. "I'll do it until I grow up and find a real job," he says.

Skarsgård is 53. He has made 78 films and television programmes - not to mention his work in theatre. He laughs, and explains that because he started young - his first significant role came when he was 17, as Bombi Bitt, a Huckleberry Finn-like character in a Swedish TV series - and has continued to work, he has been able to postpone the decision indefinitely. "I wanted to become a diplomat, because I thought that could be cool- all over the world at cocktail parties." But on the whole, he says, he doesn't plan his life or his career ("You don't know who you are in two years - you might be somebody else by then"), a tendency that has led, no doubt, to what Mike Figgis describes as his "wonderfully healthy ego". Skarsgård is, he says, "a man who continues to be interested in and fascinated by the world around him. He just happens to be an actor."

His open mind is related to his professional abilities, though. Skarsgård thinks that control freaks rarely elicit great performances. "If you plan everything ahead," he says, "there's no room for the small, vibrant irrationalities that create life." Lars von Trier, a reformed control freak who has worked with Skarsgård three times, says he admires him deeply. As an actor, he thinks, Skarsgård is "very unselfish. He's capable of submitting entirely to a film, and he even helps other characters to take up more space. That I find beautiful." When I ask Skarsgård how he coped with his rape scene in  von Trier's harrowing, highly praised Dogville, he says - in a tone of voice you might use to report back from a fairground - that it was fun. "It's fun doing the dark stuff," he says, with typical sang-froid. "Nicole [Kidman] is not only talented, but a very courageous actress as well"

Skarsgård's ability to play things by ear has served him well recently. John Frankenheimer, the veteran director of the The Manchurian Candidate, was initially slated to direct Exorcist: The Beginning. He became ill and died from complications following an operation, and Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver and directed American Gigolo, was hired next. "With that director and that cast, Skarsgård reasons, "you should know that you'll get a $40 million art-house movie. But they were surprised." The producers, he says "panicked, and said, 'No - we gotta do re-shoots, we gotta make it scarier, and throw in monsters and shit!' It was more a psychological  thriller. They wanted a horror film." They fired Schrader, and hired Renny Harlin, with whom Skarsgård had worked on the blow-out shark flick Deep Blue Sea. Skarsgård was kept on as Father Merrin. Then the film was re-shot entirely on the same soundstage in Rome. "So I went back to Rome and put on the clothes I had on a year earlier. I recognized the stench," he jokes, hammily sniffing his armpit. "Everybody was there, as if nothing had happened!"

It was a pleasure for Skarsgård, though, because Cinecitta's studios are imbued with so much history. "My dressing room was half of the apartment that Fellini used to have on stage 5. My sister visited me, and she was so impressed that she had me take a photograph of her hugging the toilet, because, she said, 'Fellini shat here.''' He thinks about this, and mumbles, with a smirk, "That's my sister for you."

After a year and half in Hollywood, he's taking a break by making the short film about Stangl with Theatre de Complicite founder Simon McBurney. It's the third role Skarsgård has played that relates to the Nazi era. He has an unshakeable political conscience and voracious, highbrow reading habits. As we leave the restaurant and sit out in the Soho sun - Skarsgård has to have a cigarette before going off for a day's shooting - he talks about class, ideology and his love of The New York Review of Books. "I would say it's a responsibility to be interested in politics," he says. "If you want democracy, you have to be involved. Because democracy without any knowledge of what's going on is no democracy at all."

Skarsgård is not a pessimist. "I'm generally a very positive person," he reflects. "I'm not afraid of dying at all. It would be inconvenient at certain points, and it's not good for my family, but I don't mind. We're going to die, all of us, and I've already had a fantastic life - 10 times better than most people in the world, so I don't deserve really more. I touch wood as an automatic reflex, and he laughs - loudly, broadly - then gets up and gives me a sturdy hug before going on his way.