‘Melancholia’

11.09.11

Alexander Skarsgard on 'Melancholia,' 'True Blood,' and More

Voted ‘Sweden’s Sexiest Man’ five times, Alexander Skarsgard became a breakout star on HBO’s True Blood and, with his complex role in Lars von Trier’s masterpiece Melancholia, is ready for his closeup. The actor opens up to Marlow Stern about his early role in Zoolander, dating co-stars, how his naval background prepared him for next summer’s  Battleship opposite Rihanna, and more.

When Sookie Stackhouse, the protagonist of Charlaine Harris’s The Southern Vampire Mysteries series of novels, first lays eyes on the chiseled, naked body of Eric Northman, she remarks, “if there were an international butt competition, Eric would win, hands down—or cheeks up.”

On the hit HBO series True Blood, adapted from Harris’s books, Northman, a vainglorious Viking-cum-vampire, is played with great panache—and frequent nakedness—by Alexander Skarsgard, a blond, 6-foot-4 actor whose slight bags under his eyes only seem to augment his power to “glamour,” or hypnotize. The hunky role isn’t too much of a stretch for Skarsgard, who was voted “Sweden’s Sexiest Man” five times in a row, much to his actor-father Stellan’s chagrin.

“He pushed me off that throne and I’ll never forgive him,” the elder Skarsgard told The Daily Beast. “I was Sweden’s sexiest man once and then my son comes and becomes it five times in a row just to show Daddy.”

Now, after melting the hearts of women—and some men—on HBO’s flagship show, the aesthetically pleasing younger Skarsgard is angling into more serious fare, starring alongside his father in celebrated Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, in theaters Friday. Set during and moments after Justine’s (Kirsten Dunst) wedding, the movie centers on two sisters—the depressed Justine and distraught Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg)—who struggle to grasp each other’s peculiarities, all while the Earth is about to collide with a new planet. Skarsgard plays Michael, Justine’s new husband, who hopes to fix this broken woman.

Despite von Trier’s recent “I’m a Nazi” comment at Cannes, which Skarsgard told The Daily Beast was “very stupid” and a byproduct of the eccentric director’s “bizarre sense of humor,” the enthralling film is being hailed as von Trier’s masterpiece. And the effete, vulnerable Michael is a far cry from the brooding Northman, showcasing Skarsgard’s range as an actor. With a diverse array of future roles—as the victim of identity theft opposite Jason Bateman in Disconnect, an eco-anarchist alongside Ellen Page and Brit Marling in The East, and one of the leads in next summer’s $200 million-plus blockbuster Battleship, Skarsgard seems ready to make the jump from TV heartthrob to Hollywood star.

But Alexander Skarsgard never wanted to be famous.

At the age of 7, he co-starred with his father in Åke and His World, a traditional Swedish children’s story. Skarsgard played a young boy battling tuberculosis and seemed to possess an innate screen presence. “I saw that he was very good,” said Skarsgard’s father, adding, “He had very expressive eyes.” Michael Nyqvist, known for his starring role in the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo films, lived just two blocks from the Skarsgards in south Stockholm and echoes the praise. “I knew him since he was around 7, and he has this open, honest way in everything he does,” Nyqvist told The Daily Beast.

Then, at 13, Skarsgard achieved his first lead role in the TV film The Smiling Dog. Since Sweden only had a handful of TV channels then, Skarsgard became a local sensation—and hated it.

“You want a cute girl in school to look at you because you’re cool or cute, but it made me paranoid because suddenly I just assumed that everybody looked at me because they recognized me from television and I didn’t like it,” said Skarsgard. “So I quit television and acting for eight years.”

When Skarsgard was 19 he applied to do his national service, and became team leader of a group of four men in the Royal Swedish Navy stationed on the archipelago for 18 months. The men were, according to Skarsgard, training in “anti-sabotage.” Following his military stint, Skarsgard, then 21 and attending university in England, reached a crossroads.

“I had taken eight years off of not doing anything, and like most kids that age, I got to a place where I thought I should start thinking about my future and what I wanted to do,” said Skarsgard. “I started thinking about acting again and figured I should try it before I dismiss it for good.”

So Skarsgard moved to New York City and enrolled in an acting class at Marymount Manhattan College. He fell back in love with it immediately and returned to Stockholm to sharpen his skills doing theater work.

Then he got lucky.

It was the summer of 2000, and Skarsgard was visiting his father in Los Angeles, where he was shooting The Glass House. At a family dinner, Skarsgard met his father’s manager, who said he’d send him on a series of auditions. The first one was for the role of Meekus, a dimwitted model-roommate of Ben Stiller’s title character in Zoolander who dies in a freak gasoline fight accident.

“Two weeks later, I was in Manhattan shooting with Ben Stiller,” said Skarsgard. “It was crazy. But I had a contract with a theater in Sweden, so I went home after that to work for another three years with basically no time off. I got an agent and a manager because of Zoolander and my agent said, ‘When you get a little break, you should come out to L.A. to meet some producers and casting directors,’ and that’s how it started.”

“Well, of course it happens,” said a visibly awkward Skarsgard. “You have a very intense experience together and I don’t think it’s very uncommon that people meet at work.”

His theater obligations met, Skarsgard moved to Los Angeles in 2004 and, thanks in part to his military background, was cast as Sgt. Brad “Iceman” Colbert in the HBO miniseries Generation Kill, set early in the Iraq War. The series’ co-creator David Simon (The Wire) was initially apprehensive about hiring Skarsgard because of his Swedish accent, so the actor hired famed dialect coach Jerome Butler to help him sound perfectly American. “He really saved my ass,” said Skarsgard.

Following Generation Kill, he was cast as Northman in the sexy vampire series True Blood. While his vampire-sheriff was little more than a glorified extra during the show’s first season, he grew a massive following, and his character has evolved into one of the leads—meaning plenty of sex scenes with Sookie Stackhouse, played by Anna Paquin, who in real life is married to her co-star Stephen Moyer, a.k.a. vampire Bill.

“Before all [the sex] started, Stephen said to me, ‘I want you to be comfortable, I don’t want you to feel weird or anything. You’re a good friend, so just do whatever the scenes demand.’ It was great of him to say, just making sure that we were all cool with it,” said Skarsgard.

Moyer did have some grounds for concern, however, considering Skarsgard’s penchant for dating co-stars. So far, he’s been linked to True Blood actress Evan Rachel Wood, as well as Kate Bosworth, whom he tormented in the recent remake of Straw Dogs.

“Well, of course it happens,” said a visibly awkward Skarsgard. “You have a very intense experience together and I don’t think it’s very uncommon that people meet at work.” He pauses, then laughs. “I don’t f---ing know! You get to know people, you become friends, and then it leads to something else.”

And while his star is rising in Hollywood, Skarsgard says he doesn’t plan to leave the HBO show—which will resume shooting its fifth season in December—any time soon, saying, “As long as it’s fun, I’m having a blast, and they want me on the show, I’ll do it.”

It’s taken Skarsgard a few years to transition into films since he made his big splash on True Blood, in part because many Hollywood producers, according to the actor, insist on pigeonholing him for his looks. So he decided to throw a few curveballs—taking the role in Melancholia, a film that’s receiving some of the best reviews of the year, followed by the indie drama Disconnect, where he’ll play a married man caught up in an identity-theft scam—a role for which Skarsgard packed on 15 pounds. And of course, he plays the commanding officer of a U.S. Navy destroyer in next summer’s blockbuster Battleship, directed by Peter Berg (Hancock). Despite his own heavy workload, Skarsgard’s experience on Battleship left him in awe of his co-star Rihanna, who made her acting debut in the movie.

“I thought I had a busy, tough schedule, but f--- me, man!” said Skarsgard. “We would shoot Friday in Hawaii, Saturday she’d fly to L.A. to perform at the MTV Music Awards, take the redeye back after the show, land, come back to the set with a smile on her face. She’s really tough and I was very impressed.”

Skarsgard is also rumored to be in the running in a few more high-profile film projects, including Steven Soderbergh’s film adaptation of The Man from U.N.K.L.E. He’s currently filming the eco-anarchist drama The East opposite Brit Marling and Ellen Page, and just wrapped the indie drama What Maisie Knew, alongside Julianne Moore. The Swede, however, seems to be taking his newly found “It Boy” status in stride.

“It’s kind of crazy but I’m just trying to be smart, find the right projects, and enjoy every single day of it,” said Skarsgard. “I’ve had moments where my phone’s silent and I get no scripts sent my way or no phone calls from agents. I also know that a couple of years from now I might be back there, so I’m really trying to make the most of it.”