Stellan Skarsgård, 66, is incredibly productive. He's appeared in big budget American productions, including two films in each of the Pirates of the Caribbean, Thor and Avengers franchises, the David Fincher-directed US remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Mamma Mia! and its sequel subtitled Here We Go Again, which arrives on 19 July. Although, unlike his just as prolific US-based son, Alexander, he still lives in Stockholm.
“I don't see why I should leave,” Skarsgård says. “You pay high taxes, nobody’s starving, you have free schools and universities, women are treated well and children are treated like human beings. It's a good place to live.”
Even so, he rarely makes films in Sweden. Over the years, he has developed close associations with Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland (Zero Kelvin, Aberdeen, A Somewhat Gentle Man, In Order of Disappearance) and has gladly embarked on six wild adventures with Denmark’s Lars von Trier, most prominently appearing as Emily Watson’s paralysed husband in Breaking the Waves and starring alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg in the sexually explicit Nymphomaniac. Still, he won’t be in the upcoming The House That Jack Built.
“Lars said, ‘I’m gonna make a Skarsgård-free film,” he quips, “and the film should be in Cannes.” As should Terry Gilliam’s European co-production The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, in which Skarsgård does appear alongside Adam Driver, who replaced Johnny Depp. “I’m playing Adam’s boss, the advertising guru,” he notes.
Mostly it’s been at the Berlin Film Festival where the statuesque Swedish star has been a fixture, ever since his career breakthrough with The Simple-Minded Murderer (directed by Hans Alfredson, father of Tomas), which won him the Best Actor Silver Bear. “That's 35 years ago,” he sighs.
His Berlinale films have all been memorable, especially in 2014 when he had to do all the talking for Nymphomaniac as Cannes bad-boy Von Trier refused to say a word.
In 2016, Skarsgård presented Moland’s In Order of Disappearance, in which he plays a vigilante dad, a role Liam Neeson has just reprised in Moland’s English-language version, Hard Powder. “I like Liam a lot; he’s a lovely man, so I’m really happy he’s doing it,” Skarsgård says.
Watch 'In Order of Disappearance'
Genre: Comedy, Action
Language: Norwegian, Swedish
Director: Hans Petter Moland
Starring: Bruno Ganz, Stellan Skarsgård, Peter Andersson
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).
Then, in 2017, he co-starred with Nina Hoss in Volker Schlöndorff’s competition entry, Return to Montauk, based on Max Frisch’s novel and a screenplay by Colm Tóibín (Brooklyn). The romantic drama, about a successful European novelist who hooks up with a woman from his past when he is promoting his latest book in New York, is now screening around Australia as part of the Young at Heart Film Festival.
One of the most forthright and funniest of stars, Skarsgård never holds back on his opinions. When I ask about his greatest achievement in life, he replies, “Undoubtedly all my children. That's the best thing ever.”
He insists his four adult actor sons with his first wife, physician My Skarsgård, did not follow in his shadow. “I’ve never interfered with their lives. After the age of 16, they were on their own because you should not manage your children’s lives.”
They are all doing well, to say the least. Eldest son Alexander recently won an Emmy and Golden Globe for his portrayal of Nicole Kidman’s husband in Big Little Lies; fourth child Bill headlined horror remake IT and plays the boyfriend of Australia’s Odessa Young in the Sundance sensation Assassination Nation; sixth child Valter was also in Sundance with Lords of Chaos, Jonas Åkerlund’s true story about a '90s black metal band in Oslo; and second eldest Gustaf is known for Kon-Tiki and his role as Floki in Vikings.
United Kingdom, Norway, Denmark, 2012
Genre: Adventure, Biography, Action
Director: Joachim Ronning
Starring: Gustaf Skarsgard
What's it about?
In 1947, the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl crossed the Pacific ocean in a balsa wood raft, together with five men, to prove that it was possible for South Americans to settle in Polynesia in pre-Columbian times.
“I’ve got two more in the pipeline,” he says of his young sons with his second wife, Irish producer Megan Everett, 42. “But I’ve had a vasectomy now, so you will soon be out of work!”
His other son, Sam, is a physician like his mother, while sole daughter Eija is not part of either family business.
Here, Skarsgård talks about some of his most recent projects.
'Return to Montauk'
Now screening at the Young At Heart Film Festival
Did you know Nina Hoss before?
I knew of her, but I didn't know her and she’s fantastic. It’s fun working with actors like that when you find a chemistry and you don't have to do anything. You don't have to act; you just have to be there and things start to happen.
I call her the Cate Blanchett of Germany.
Volker said he loved her and was probably jealous that I got to kiss her.
It’s a very convincing screen kiss.
That was a bit because of the way they moved the hair. Sometimes they get it right.
You have a younger wife, so the relationship was probably not hard to imagine.
But this wasn't written to be about any age difference. It was just that they happened to cast me. I didn't think I was older when I was filming, but when I saw the film, I realised, “S***, I’m older”.
The film is about memory and how it changes over time.
I am very different from Max in the film and from Max Frisch and probably from Volker, too. I do not dwell on the past very much. I do not nourish my regrets. I file my mistakes and move on. Probably if your life is miserable, then you do want to go back and see where it went wrong. But my life is not miserable, so I don't feel the need to do it. I think that, compared to the present, the past is much less interesting. The present is who you are. I don’t dream much about the future, either. It usually disappoints you, doesn't it?
So the art is to live in the present?
Yes, it’s really important and I’m really good at that. My accountant doesn't approve of it, though.
It’s incredible how you remain so close with your kids. Alexander says you’re his best friend and you get on well with your ex-wife. You seem to have an idyllic existence.
Yes, it’s strange, isn’t it? How lucky you can be.
Why does Max Zorn have such problems?
He’s creating his own problems because he doesn't see the women in his life properly or interest himself in their lives. He has his own universe in his head, and he tries to fit them into his dreams, which means he doesn't listen properly. He probably has a different constitution than I have. I also have two very smart wives. The decision you have to make when you break up, whether it's a pleasant break-up or not, is to say, “OK, I have been hurt, and I can nourish that and indulge in being hurt and f*** up the rest of my life,” or you can say, “That hurt, you bastard, but let’s get over it and get on.” And you can have a fantastic life. To me, it's a simple equation, but I know it’s not mentally easy to always be so rational about things. Fortunately, both my wives were and helped me to be rational, too.
'Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again'
Was it fun?
It was lovely to meet the old gang again. It was 10 years [ago] and it was like continuing where we left off. We had a lot of fun on the first one and we continued to have fun on this one, and hopefully the joy we had will be contagious.
Did you get to sing and dance?
You’ll see me dancing. I think they’ve cut out all my singing this time. There will be younger and better singers. But my body! Ha ha ha!