Stellan Skarsgård is one of the funniest, most adventurous and most uninhibited of actors. At the Berlin Film Festival when Lars von Trier wasn’t saying a word (only wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with persona non grata) and Shia LaBeouf was stomping out of a press conference (and wearing a bag over his head), the 63-year-old Swede was holding the fort.
In our interview for a far more interesting film, Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland’s In Order of Disappearance (Kraftidioten, English translation 'Prize Idiot'), Skarsgård made light of the von Trier situation, noting how his character’s penis in one of the final scenes of Nymphomaniac Part Two was, in fact, von Trier’s. Was he joking? It was truly difficult to tell given von Trier’s own eccentricities and the fact that Nymphomanic marked their sixth film together. They know each other well.
One thing’s for sure, Skarsgård relished his vigilante role in Moland’s wry action movie, which afforded him the chance to exercise his own particular sense of humour. The film has been compared to Fargo and it would be great to see Skarsgård one day team with the Coen Brothers.
Standing at 1.9 metres, Skarsgård has eight children: five sons and a daughter with his doctor ex-wife, My, with whom he was married for 32 years, and now he has two young sons from his second marriage to Megan Everett, 37. Four of his elder sons have entered the acting profession, most prominently his eldest, Hollywood heartthrob Alexander, who is tall like his dad and made his mark in HBO’s True Blood; Gustaf was in Peter Weir’s The Way Back as well as the Oscar-nominated Norwegian film, Kon-Tiki; while Bill appeared in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina. The new heartthrob of the family looks set to be 18-year-old Valter, even if his new Swedish teen gamers movie, IRL (in which he stars with Alba August, daughter of Bille and Pernille), hasn’t gone down so well in Sweden.
HB: You have such a commanding screen presence as has Mikael Persbrandt and Mads Mikkelsen. What is it with Scandinavian actors?
SS: I don't know. We have good theatre skills, I guess.
It’s not the Viking thing?
No, it’s not. My wife doesn't even consider me as a man really. She says I am a big girl.
You do have that sensitive side, but not in this movie.
This is your fourth film with Hans Petter Moland after A Somewhat Gentle Man, Zero Kelvin and Aberdeen. What was it like going back to working with him?
It was lovely. I have a couple of favourite directors who are good friends and when you come back it’s like you are children in a sandbox. It’s the ideal environment to be creative.
How did this role read on the page? Obviously, he doesn't say a huge amount.
It’s like A Somewhat Gentle Man – I read 40 pages before I had my first line. I didn't know what I was supposed to do with it, but film is not a literary form, it’s an art form, so the less you have to express through lines and the more you can express with your face, the better. When I read this script, I couldn't see what kind of film it was and usually I have an idea. Hans Petter said I had to trust him. So I just did it, but the script was all over the place, switching between different genres and going from really banal humour to big drama and everything. But Hans Petersen trimmed it down and created a universe for it, this absolutely fictional Norway with a capital with glass and steel amongst the mountains.
There’s so much ironic dialogue in the movie, like when the killers talk to each other about welfare.
We Scandinavians are very much known for being self ironic or self deprecating, so it’s nice to have this little part of the world where you live better than anywhere else making fun of itself, talking about the welfare state from a different perspective and people picking up dog poo from the streets. Why do they do it? What do they do with it? I don't know.
The film has been dubbed the Norwegian Fargo.
It’s very different but they share a lot of snow.
Do you like Fargo?
Yeah, of course I do. It’s a wonderful film.
You've never worked with the Coens have you?
No, I haven't. They don't like me.
They like Peter Stormare.
Yeah, well that’s good, he is an old friend [and the godfather of Gustaf Skarsgård] so he can work with them for me.
Did you enjoy working in the snow?
I must say that I am an indoor man and this was 25 to 28 degrees below Celsius. You can see that I cannot move the muscles on my face because it’s so fucking cold. But I was better off than Bruno Ganz and the Serbian gangsters – they had to die in 25 minus in suits only. That was horrible, of course. When it’s that cold, it’s not like you don't feel cold, you just feel pain.
So presumably Nymphomaniac was a perfect job for you because you were sitting in a bedroom.
Absolutely! Two weeks in a bedroom, that’s my kind of job!
Which was more difficult?
Physically, this film of course, but the other film I had about 90 minutes of dialogue. That’s a lot of words to remember.
You did show your penis, though.
I claim that in Nymphomaniac Part Two, where my penis is exposed, it’s Lars von Trier’s penis because it’s small and floppy!
After Nymphomaniac, acting and creating an onscreen bond with a snow plough in Moland's film must have been easy?
Yes, well I am like everyone else. I am like a little boy and being allowed to play with 38 tonnes of snow plough is fantastic and running at 70 kilometres an hour straight into two metres of snow that goes “Pow!” like that. It was fun.
Do you think this is very different to the Scandinavian television shows that have done so well, like The Bridge, Borgen and The Killing? Here there is a layer of humour that is not really in those shows that audiences are going crazy about.
Yeah, the Nordic Noir.
Which you started with Insomnia all those years ago.
Yes, indeed. Indeed, this is very different but also we are making fun of the Nordic Noir genre as well. We are building up the genre blocks and then just tearing them down or disappointing people by doing something else. So it’s a game we are playing with the form. Or Hans Petter is.
Was everything that is in the film scripted?
No. There is much less dialogue in the film than was in the script. Hans Petter allows you on the day in front of the camera to try whatever comes into your head. My favourite line about the Stockholm Syndrome, that is something that Hans Petter came up with. I don't remember anymore what was in the script and what was invented. In the end, I don't have much dialogue.
Your character doesn't express his feelings and has little facial expression. Is that difficult to play?
It looks like you don't do anything but you do a lot. It’s just that you don't show it. It’s like Insomnia that you mentioned, which is a film where the lid is on all the time. He doesn't show anything but at the same time everything else happens inside you because the audience see in the eyes if something is going on or not. My character just doesn't have the tools to show his feelings, to communicate and share the grief with his wife even. The only way it comes out is through killing. The only thing he has left is the very primitive reaction, which is violence.
Have you ever met any real criminals or gangsters?
Yeah, I’ve met a couple here and there.
Are you a good fighter?
No, I don't fight. I am not a violent person.
Have you ever been picked on and had to retaliate?
I think I’ve hit one person once in my life in a fight. But I am not a fighter, I don't like it, I am scared.
In the film, the caricatured crimelord The Count (Pål Sverre Hagen from Kon-Tiki) tells his mild-mannered young son that he must fight school bullies. If your son was bullied, would you give him other advice?
Yeah, my parents taught me when I was bullied as a kid to feel sorry for the bullies because they were not smart enough.
But that helps only afterwards when you are older and you know better.
No, but I looked at them not as people in power and by that attitude they lost their power. They could be violent and could hit me but they could not harm me because they had no power left. They were small and reduced.
Your actor sons are doing so well. Are you going to get together with them in a movie?
I’ve worked with all of them individually. I was with Alexander in Melancholia. It’s fun working with them because you already share your view of the world, which makes it easier to quickly find a way to do a scene. But there's also something absolutely ridiculous about your son or your father pretending to be someone else. So you giggle a lot.
Have you developed a snow phobia because of the film?
I've never liked snow. It gets into your shoes and into your argh! I don't like to be outdoors, I don't have winter clothes. I stay indoors between October and April.
What do you do in the summer?
Then I’m out. I sit in the shade and have a nice cool drink.
No such thing as exercise?
No, I don't. I pace all the time; I am never still. But I don't exercise.
You’ve said before how you love saunas and it’s well known in Sweden that you walk around the house in the nude. You do not shy away from on-screen nudity either.
I was born naked and I have a very relaxed relationship to my own nakedness. My parents often walked naked in the apartment when I was a small child and I take off my clothes frequently when I get home. It’s very hard to make me blush over that, but doing sex scenes, usually the female part is more exploited. I mean, women’s bodies are more exploited in film, which means it’s usually harder for a woman to be naked because of the exploitation situation. If the woman, you are making the sex scene with feels uncomfortable then it can be painful to do it and you do your best to make her feel safe.
Looking back, what are your views on what happened following Melancholia’s 2011 Cannes press conference where Lars von Trier joked he was a Nazi? Was it the press or the festival who stirred things up?
It was both. It was the press who he trusted and who knows him and he makes a bad joke and everyone knows he is not a Nazi, but all the papers say he is a Nazi. The next day, his kids come to school and everyone says “Your father is a Nazi” and all this shit. And then the fucking cowards of the Cannes festival, they asked him to apologise, so he apologised. But then two days later, they kicked him out as persona non grata, and that was the year when the Cannes Festival called itself the Freedom of Speech festival. It’s so fucking embarrassing.
Watch 'In Order of Disappearance' at SBS On Demand
What's it about?
Nils (Stellan Skarsgård) has just lost his son, who was murdered for something he did not do. Seeking revenge, Nils wages a war against vegan gangster, the Count and the Serbian mafia boss, Papa (Bruno Ganz).