|A Tall Swede Steps Up to
The Role of a Little Spaniard
Friday, July 20, 2007
Stellan Skarsgård 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 Skarsgård 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, Skarsgård
plays the Spanish painter, a portraitist to the Spanish Crown who died
in exile in France in 1828. Skarsgård
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
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," Skarsgård
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."
Skarsgård'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.")
Skarsgård 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.
Skarsgård 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, Skarsgård
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 Skarsgård,
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," Skarsgård
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 Skarsgård
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. Skarsgård
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, Skarsgård
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, Skarsgård
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.