The Swedish star talks The East, What Maisie Knew, Disconnect, and his upcoming post-apocalyptic film.
26 Jul 2013 - 4:56 PM  UPDATED 26 Jul 2013 - 4:56 PM

Whenever Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård has ventured outside television's vampire realm into movies, the tall blonde and handsome True Blood star has experienced little success. After the demise of his Hollywood ventures, the 2011 remake of Straw Dogs (straight to DVD here) and last year's Battleship, he has opted for smaller, more intimate dramas.

On The East: From the moment I read the screenplay, I wanted to be a part of it

Hoping to get a kick from the new True Blood season, three of such movies recently released in the U.S. Fox Searchlight's The East (currently in cinemas earning US$2.2 million so far) is doing better than the excellent divorce drama What Maisie Knew, which took in just over US$1 million (“People don't want to see kids go through that,” opines an American colleague) while Disconnect, about a group of people searching for human connection, grossed almost US$1.5 million and was always going to be a tough sell.

In Australia, The East is only screening at film festivals, while Madman will release What Maisie Knew after its MIFF screenings. Disconnect is nowhere in sight.

“I'm thrilled when I read a screenplay that's different from anything I've done before,” admits Skarsgård, 36, “and I definitely felt that way with these movies. But I feel all the characters I've played represent different parts of me. I am Eric Northman, I am Lincoln, I am Derek and I am Benji. If I can't find them from within, then I am going to fake it and it's not going to be real.”

The eldest of Stellan Skarsgård's eight children, Alexander, or Alex as he is called, is more pensive than his outgoing father, who famously says what he thinks and can be quite outrageous. They are extremely close. Still, growing up and acting beneath the shadow of Scandinavia's most famous stage and screen star must have been difficult. Moving to the U.S. was a healthy option. Alex returns home to Stockholm regularly and occasionally works there.

When he lent his voice, together with his dad and Denmark's Mads Mikkelsen, to a Scandinavian animated feature, Moomins and the Comet Chase, which premiered in Cannes in 2010, I relished the chance to speak to all three actors, but as usual Alex was busy on his TV show. Still, old buddies Skarsgård Sr. and Mikkelsen were there, and well aware of their lively sense of humour from previous interviews, I put it to them: “Who is the most famous actor [between them]?”

Stellan bellowed and harrumphed and Mads laughed, jokingly conceded to the older actor, though neither really answered. Soon afterwards I asked Danish director Susanne Bier who was Scandinavia's most famous actor and she immediately replied, “Alexander Skarsgård”.

Still, it remains to be seen if he will ever play one of Bier's tortured souls, given his status as a broad-chested Hollywood hunk. He hopes to escape this status, albeit momentarily – he was recently considered for the role of Tarzan in a feature film and is reportedly a contender for the Fifty Shades of Grey movie – by displaying diversity in his recent roles.

In The East he's certainly a vastly different kind of leader to his naval commander in Battleship and his vampire leader on True Blood. He's the unofficial leader of The East, a group of anarchists and activists who target Big Oil execs, chemical manufacturers and other professional polluters.

“It's very important to Benji that there's no hierarchy and that he's not the leader but that he's one of the founding members of the group,” Skarsgård says of his soft spoken though forceful character. “He is more militant than some of the other members.”

The East is the second film by writer-director Zal Batmanglij and actor-writer-producer Brit Marling after their 2011 film, Sound of My Voice, which also dealt with cult subterfuge. The film follows Marling's protagonist Sarah, an undercover operative for a private intelligence firm who infiltrates the group. She particularly warms to Benji, who invites her to participate in one of their operations.

“From the moment I read the screenplay, I wanted to be a part of it,” recalls Skarsgård. “It's an entertaining spy thriller and love story dealing with serious issues and raising important questions. It didn't feel preachy. It's unclear who is the bad guy and who is the good guy in the group. They all are capable of both. With Zal and Brit on set there were no egos involved. They were always keen for my input. I love moments when you come prepared with an idea and then go in another direction and they were up for that.”

In What Maisie Knew, Skarsgård's Lincoln is a soft lovable guy who becomes involved with Julianne Moore's recently divorced out-of-control rock star. He basically looks after her daughter, Maisie, in the film. Here it wasn't just his voice that he softened but his whole physicality. Lincoln is slightly hunched over as if he is protecting himself.

“That's how I envisioned him,” admits the actor. “Lincoln is not a guy who goes to the gym and he doesn't care about his body that much. So it was important to do that. It was the same with Derek in Disconnect too. He has a little belly. I did my best to get a little belly for that role,” he chuckles.

Skarsgård has since shot a Warner Brothers film called Hidden, which he says has been his toughest movie yet. The hulking actor who stands at 1.94 metres (6' 4½") had to lose a lot of weight.

“It's a post-apocalypse movie about this family,” he explains, noting that the film marks his first chance to work with his good friend, British actress Andrea Riseborough. “It's a studio film but it's small in terms of it being about three characters in a basement bomb shelter, where 80 percent of the film takes place.” So there's a lot of talking? “Yeah, and a lot of action down there as well.

“I had to look emaciated because all we had to eat were some baked beans. Coming off the show I felt I was too big and it didn't make sense for the character to be muscular since we'd been down there for so long. So I was on a horrible diet and I didn't enjoy it all. I like food too much. For two months I ate kale salads and drank water basically.”

The East and What Maisie Knew both screen at the 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival. Visit the official website for screenings details.