Vogue Magazine (UK) -
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
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
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
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
"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."
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.
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"
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."
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."
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.