A Tall Swede Steps Up to The Role of a Little Spaniard

By Christina Talcott
Washington Post
Friday, July 20, 2007

Stellan Skarsgrd may play the title character in "Goya's Ghosts," but the Swedish actor is just fine with the film not being exactly about the famous Spanish painter. Rather, Francisco Goya is merely the person from whose point of view the story is told, so Skarsgrd had to let his co-stars, Javier Bardem and Natalie Portman, take center stage. And that was okay with him: "I'm not very ambitious."

Perhaps not, but he's certainly active: With more than 70 films under his belt, the 56-year-old actor has taken roles that vary wildly, from Will Turner's barnacled dad, Bill "Bootstrap" Turner, in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise to a singing and dancing bachelor in "Mamma Mia," which he's shooting in London.

In "Goya's Ghosts," written and directed by Milos Foreman, Skarsgrd plays the Spanish painter, a portraitist to the Spanish Crown who died in exile in France in 1828. Skarsgrd says, "I thought it was an odd choice, to have a 6-foot-4 Swede playing a little round Spaniard, but I wanted the part, so I kept my mouth shut."

The plot revolves around Ines (Portman), the daughter of a wealthy merchant and Goya's muse, who is jailed during the Spanish Inquisition and becomes the object of obsession for an Inquisition insider, Brother Lorenzo (Bardem). When Ines's father asks the painter to help with his daughter's release, Goya is torn between his affection for Ines and his fear of ruining his career - or, worse, getting called before the Inquisition - by speaking out against the church. Fast-forward 15 years, and the artist reunites with both Ines and Lorenzo as Napoleon's army invades Spain and two ideologies do battle - Catholic Church on one side, Enlightenment devotees on the other.

Goya lived in "a fascinating time in history," Skarsgrd says, "with the ideas of the Enlightenment clashing with the church, and these ideas of freedom and democracy all manifesting themselves at the same time in the greatest constitution ever written, over in America."

Skarsgrd's own path from teen star in Sweden to busy international actor shows no evidence of his self-proclaimed lack of ambition. After playing the rascally Bombi Bitt in the Swedish miniseries "Bombi Bitt and Me" at 16, Skarsgard picked up a steady stream of roles in film and theater, eventually winning a Best Actor award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1982 for the lead in "The Simple-Minded Murderer." That propelled him to Hollywood, where he starred in the TV movie "Noon Wine," and in 1988 played the engineer in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," produced by Saul Zaentz. (Zaentz also produced "Goya's Ghosts.")

Skarsgrd was partly drawn to "Goya's Ghosts" because, after several visits to the Prado Museum in Madrid, home to many of Goya's paintings, he became a fan of the artist. Skarsgrd based his portrayal of Goya on the artist's different sets of works: his playful portraits of royalty and young models in the beginning, then his more macabre paintings later in life.

The film is not just a costume drama or a historical fiction, Skarsgrd says. Though the action is coiled around the stories of Ines, Lorenzo and Goya, it also mines the dark sides of the conflicting ideologies in a tangle of political, personal and military story lines. "People tend to want things to be less complicated than they really are," says Skarsgrd, praising the film's intricacy. "I think there should be more political films" like "Goya's Ghosts," he says. Prodded to name another one, he chooses Ken Loach's recent "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," about the genesis of the Irish Republican Army in the 1920s. "That film showed the world in all its complexity, that it's not just good and evil, black and white. It's not all that simple," Skarsgrd says.

That film also deals with torture - explicitly, though not as deeply as "Goya's Ghosts." It would be hard to talk about the Inquisition without touching on torturing accused heretics to get confessions. But Skarsgrd points out the link to the issue's reemergence in today's war on terror. In Portman's buzzed-about nude torture scene, as well as a similarly shocking one later on, viewers are confronted with the barbarity of the practice. And in a dinner-party scene, Goya, Lorenzo and Ines's father argue about the value of a confession exacted under duress. Skarsgrd hopes similar conversations - sans starched collars and wigs - might happen at dinner tables these days, too: "I think it's important that people talk about these things, that they're not just ignored."

Though he's clearly revved up talking about torture, the Enlightenment and obsessive artists, Skarsgrd must return to rehearsals for "Mamma Mia." In that, he plays Bill Austin, a former beau of Meryl Streep's Donna in the screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical featuring songs from another Swedish export, '70s pop group Abba.

If he was surprised to be playing an 18th-century Spaniard, he seems just as shocked to find himself singing and dancing alongside Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth, who play two of the other possible fathers of Donna's daughter. But, Skarsgrd explains with mock solemnity, "when you're an actor, these are things you're called upon to do."

While he hopes that "Goya's Ghosts" will get people talking about torture and ideology, he promises that "Mamma Mia" will be less intense. "You'll laugh your head off," he says.