The Swedish star talks LvT, playing villains and working with a young cast for his latest role in The King of Devil's Island.
One of the most productive actors in the world, Stellan Skarsgård, has made an incredible 122 films. His ability to work across multiple languages and huge talent has afforded him the opportunity to do dark indie films, voice animations, appear in big-budget blockbusters and sing in musicals.
His new film, King of Devil’s Island, is a bleak but thrilling true drama set on a prison island for delinquent boys in the early twentieth century. Skarsgård spoke to LWLies recently about how he’s achieved a varied career, and what it’s like to be a long-time collaborator with Lars von Trier.
LWLies: What was it like working with such a young cast?
Skarsgård: Well, it was one of the reasons I did it, actually, because the director wanted to work with non-actors and wanted to find boys that had troubled backgrounds, and it’s very hard to find boys in their late teens who can display what those boys had to display. When you meet those children, who came from very difficult circumstances, they have in their eyes this combination of a hardness they have developed to protect themselves, but you also see them as a child, and I don’t think it’s possible for actors to produce that at that age, so of course it was a challenge because they were all amateurs, but it was more of a challenge for me to become as good as they are, as truthful as they are.
Was it quite a difficult film in terms of the conditions you were shooting in?
It was not easy to do. Trond Nilssen, who plays Olav, I think he was on probation when they found him, and it was very interesting to see when he took on the responsibility of playing this character, how he grew. He realised that for the first time in his life he was allowed to show people, and he was even rewarded for showing people, what he could do. He even said to the director after the shoot, ‘Did you know, this is the first thing in my life that I’ve ever completed’.
Now that Scandinavian films are so popular, are you feeling more inclined to do Nordic projects rather than American ones?
What I’ve been trying to do in my career is to go between the big American films and the small independent film, whether those are Scandinavian, American or generally European. I’m trying to find material that excites me and sometimes it’s fantastically great fun to play a sailor covered in barnacles in a Pirates of the Caribbean film, but you want to go back and do something where the director has all the power. When the budget is lower, there’s more power to the director and they can be more daring, and obviously independent films tend to be more character-driven. I don’t think I can live without any of those genres or types of films, and I feel very privileged to be able to choose them and get such a varied diet.
And it really is varied – you’ve made a fairly remarkable 122 films.
That much, wow! Every time I remember a line, I think it’s an achievement. I love what I do and I love being on a set, but at the same time it’s a constant fight against my own fear. You don’t get less nervous because you get more experience; on the contrary. You’re constantly looking for situations you haven’t been in before, and wondering ‘can I handle this?’. A lot of my work is not work that I do, it’s the situation with the other actors.
Can you feel a difference between Scandinavian productions and those you make with American directors?
The biggest difference is usually the directors as individuals then whether it’s American or Scandinavian. Of course, I come from Scandinavia, I have a culture in common with Scandinavian filmmakers that I might not have with an American filmmaker, but when I worked with David Fincher, for instance, that was like doing an independent film even though the budget was $100 million.
You got that amazing, dark laugh out of everyone in Dragon Tattoo when you played Orinoco Flow, which did feel more like something out of an indie movie.
Yeah! That was David Fincher’s idea, he put it on during a rehearsal and I said ‘fucking keep it!’.
Do you have a sort of game-plan for how you balance your projects or is it more case-by-case?
It turns out that I usually go back-and-forth, back-and-forth, because what I try to do is stay interested, so I look for a project that I don’t feel I’ve done recently. Whatever comes up, really, and sometimes that’s an American blockbuster and sometimes that’s a small independent movie that I end up having to pay to be in. I have no general plans for my life at all, but I’m enjoying it.
We're reckon you'd be a natural choice for a Bond villain. Would you?
That is something totally different: the Bond villain, he’s the archetypal villain. He’s not supposed to have a life. The closest to a Bond villain I’ve played was the character in King Arthur, where I tried to make him worse than the way he was written. That is fun, but in general what I like to do is to complicate characters. I’m very much in opposition to the view that the world is divided into good guys and bad guys, and I’ve tried to always find nuances. I don’t believe in either good or bad guys, I believe in humans and they are capable of anything.
Speaking of people who are capable of anything, do you have any good stories from your extensive collaboration with Lars von Trier?
There are so many… he called me last summer and said, 'Stellan, my next film will be a porno film, and I want you to play the main lead. You will not get to fuck in it, but you will show your penis at the end but it will be very floppy'. This is a true story.
How do you feel about your working relationship with him?
We’ve done six projects together already, and now The Nymphomaniac which starts shooting in August. I feel like a child in a sandbox: it’s like playing, it’s not work. It’s so much fun, and you laugh a lot. He’s got a brilliant sense of humour and we don’t say anything nice to each other.
Are you able to say much about The Nymphomaniac?
It’s about a nymphomaniac played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, and basically the film is flashbacks throughout her life while she and I are sitting talking. It’s a fascinating script and it doesn’t look like anything I’ve ever read. He talks about doing two versions: one softcore version for the general audience and one hardcore version for those of us who can take it.
What do you love about movies?
I love the idea of sitting together with a lot of people, as long as they don’t have popcorn, and be transported into somebody else’s universe; usually the director’s universe. My favourite films are usually auteur films and are usually about people more than special effects. I think I learn about humans a lot by being forced to see the world from another’s perspective.