Stellan Skarsgard Is Finally Seizing the Spotlight
With roles in “Dune,” the Star Wars series “Andor,” and “Hope,” the character actor par excellence has never been more popular. He talks to Marlow Stern about his stellar career.
Few if any actors have built a resume as impressive as that of Stellan Skarsgård.
After achieving teen-idol status in his native Sweden—even releasing a pop single—due to the TV series Bombi Bitt, Skarsgård transitioned to film acting. It was in the mid-’90s, with roles as a sadistic oil rig worker in Breaking the Waves, a fiery abolitionist in Amistad, and a haughty mathematician in Good Will Hunting, that the towering, stone-faced Swede would cross over into America, and establish himself as one of the finest character actors alive.
He’s since maintained a healthy diet of what he calls “experimental films,” including a total of six with Danish auteur Lars von Trier, and Hollywood studio fare, such as the Pirates of the Caribbean and Mamma Mia! films, the Thor and Avengers superhero extravaganzas, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Cinderella. And right now, at the age of 69, Skarsgård is at his most prolific. There was his Golden Globe-winning turn in HBO’s Chernobyl, the upcoming villain in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, and a main role in the Disney+ Star Wars series Andor, which he’s filming right now in London. Oh, and he’s fathered eight children, including the actors Alexander, Gustaf, Bill, Sam, and Valter.
“There’s no competition, really,” the elder Skarsgård tells me of his talented brood. “There’s some joking competition at the dinner table, but I know they’re better than me, so I’ve given up.”
Skarsgård’s latest is the Norwegian drama Hope. Directed by Maria Sødahl, the wife of his frequent collaborator Hans Petter Moland, it is a heartrending autobiographical film about a long-married couple, Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig) and her theater-director husband Tomas (Skarsgård), whose atrophying bond is put to the test when Anja develops terminal brain cancer. As they fight for Anja’s survival, the two reevaluate how their relationship went off-course, and why they fell in love in the first place. (The U.S. remake rights were quickly snapped up by Nicole Kidman and Amazon Studios.)
In a wide-ranging conversation, Skarsgård opened up to The Daily Beast about his many great films, the controversy surrounding pal Lars von Trier, being a nudist, and much more.
How have you been passing the time during the pandemic?
In different ways. The first half of the year I was at our summer house on an island outside of Stockholm, and all my kids—who were also actors, most of them, and they weren’t working either—were all out there in two houses eating dinners together, having a good time, and seeing the spring inch-by-inch, everything grew, which you never get time to do otherwise. But this job I’m doing here now [in London], I was supposed to fly back and forth from Stockholm because I’m shooting this Star Wars series called Andor, and it would have been very convenient because it’s only a two-hour flight, but because of the quarantine I’ve been stuck here. For more than a month I’ve been alone in a hotel room staring into the wall.
Speaking of the Skarsgård household, I read a quote from your son Alexander who said that when he was a teenager, “Dad was always walking around [without clothes] with a glass of red wine in his hand.” Was that your vibe during the pandemic?
Not this time! Is it the wine that worries you? [Laughs]
Did the stress of the pandemic make you feel less… free?
No, I’m still taking off my clothes when I get home very often—and my kids also, some of them do. It’s not a big thing. We’re Swedes! And we have no God that says we can’t show our body parts.
What about it do you just find so liberating? I don’t go the full monty but when I go home, I do tend to take off my pants and let loose a little bit, because it is constricting.
If it’s warm enough you don’t need clothes, right? Unless you’re ashamed of your body—or taught to be ashamed of certain body parts. For me, it’s all upbringing. It’s cultural. Some cultures don’t care about what part of the body you show, and some cultures are very precious, and some cultures the women can’t show their faces.
I’m curious what life was like in the Skarsgård household, because you’ve helped produce so many talented kids. Alexander described it as “bohemian,” similar to what you described during the pandemic, filled with dinner parties and a free-flowing atmosphere.
It’s always been a very open house, and the kids’ friends, it’s been easier to sometimes be in our house than their houses—especially during puberty, when conflicts arise—because we’re very relaxed and non-judgmental in our family. It’s really, truly pleasant. And my kids are more like pals to me. There’s no hierarchical relationship at all. It’s very nice. We just have fun!
It’s a very talented—and frankly, attractive—family. How did this happen?
How did I make kids that look so good? [Laughs]
Is that something you’re particularly proud of?
[Laughs] Well, the looks I don’t care so much about, but I’ve had two beautiful wives—and very smart wives—and that’s helped a lot. I’m not going to take much credit for anything. But what I’m proud of is, when I hear from other people in the business about Gustaf or Sam or Bill or Valter or Alexander, I hear that somebody worked with them and they were really nice on the set and totally cool with everybody, and how no matter what menial job anyone had on the set they were nice to them, then I’m proud. If they win awards it’s secondary to that, because that is a lottery anyway. Awards are sort of like reality shows.
They really are a popularity contest. Let’s talk about Hope. It could have very well been called Grief.
I thought it sounded bland to begin with, but in fact the film is about hope—and about love. It’s not a normal cancer film where it’s all about beating the cancer or fighting against it, but it’s about someone who gets a death sentence in a family situation with a lot of kids, like I have, and everything that was petrified in the relationship floats up again. It’s about how they rejuvenate their relationship, and through those horrible circumstances, find love again.
There’s one very powerful scene in the film that really encapsulates many elements and themes that it explores, and it’s the sex scene between you and your wife. It manages to capture the joy of reconnecting as well as the grief you’re experiencing.
I think it’s a great scene, because it starts beautifully—very gently—and it looks like it’s going to be really nice for both of them, and then her anxiety sets in, and things start to bad. And it does go bad pretty fast.
On another level, I’m an American and we don’t see sex very often in movies. And when we do, we don’t see it in the service of such complicated emotions.
With sex in film, it’s difficult, because sex is something that feels fantastic when you do it, and it looks ridiculous when you watch. Those humping movements like a dog? It’s not sexy at all! So, you can’t do a sex scene that looks like it feels, so they always have to be about something else. The sex scenes I had with Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, it was about her curiosity, because she discovered her first penis, she discovered sexuality, and it was totally about the relationship. The sex was just there. And in this film, the scene is not really about sex but about something else. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sex scene that looks like it feels, and that can convey that beautiful thing that sex can be.
Really, in America, we get almost no sex scenes in movies. And it’s 2021.
It’s very strange. It’s not as bad as during the Hays Code, when you couldn’t let the lips meet for more than one second.
You just had a train going into a tunnel.
[Laughs] Yes, that very subtle image. But in America, you have a strong, strong tradition of bigotry or fear of sexuality. Only two years ago, in nine states in America, it was still illegal to have sex outside of marriage, and my American friends have told me that when they were growing up, it was even regulated how they could have sex—you couldn’t have oral sex or anal sex—so it is so ingrained in American culture that people’s sexuality is not a private thing, but something that everybody should interfere with.
Hope is also an exploration of mortality. Is that something you think about often?
I’ve never been that interested in it. I’ve always been aware of it. It’s the only thing you know in life—you’re gonna fucking die. But already many years ago, I thought I’d had such a fantastic life that it would only be fair that I died, because I’ve already lived more than most people. So, I don’t feel any injustice in death. And I’m not afraid of death because I’m not religious, so I don’t have to worry about whether I’m going to end up in hell or heaven. But I have small children still, my youngest is 8, and I’m no spring chicken anymore, so I think about how I should stick around for at least another ten years until everything is set.
I read that you’d studied a bunch of religions in the wake of 9/11 and reached the conclusion that it was all sort of bunk.
I grew up with total freedom of religion—my parents weren’t religious, though my grandmother was very religious. It was taught to me without judgment, and it was a very tolerant upbringing I had. But I hadn’t read the Bible. And after 9/11, when I saw George W. Bush standing in front of TV cameras and claiming that God had put him there, I thought maybe it was time to read what they actually believed in. So, I read the Quran and I read the Bible. There are some fantastic stories—as fiction, it’s sometimes brilliant and sometimes boring—but the God in both the Quran and the Bible, there’s only one reason to really worship them, and that is fear. It’s a power that says, “If you don’t worship, you’re going to die—and not only die, but burn in eternity.” It’s a bit autocratic and dictatorial, I would say. It’s very hard for me to worship something under threat.
And if God put George W. Bush in the White House, then God has a very cruel sense of humor.
[Laughs] Yeah, he does. And the latest president said the same thing.
But he doesn’t believe in God. He only believes in himself.
Yeah. I think that if he had more appreciation from the liberals in America, he would have just as well gone populist-liberal.
I think so too. You know, I read that your Dogville co-star Nicole Kidman already picked up the remake rights to Hope for Amazon.
She’s picked up the remake rights, yeah.
Both you and your son Alexander have shared some pretty intense scenes with Nicole. There’s that dramatic scene in Big Little Lies where Nicole hits your son in the dick, and it almost seemed to me like payback for what you put her through in Dogville.
[Laughs] Yeah, I’ve done two films with her and Alexander just finished doing The Northman with her. But she’s lovely. I really like her. She’s so cool.
At least it was a prosthetic and not Alexander’s real thing.
Yeah… coward! [Laughs]
I gotta say, between Chernobyl, Hope, Dune, a Star Wars series, and even a Simpsons cameo as yourself, how does it feel to be at your most prolific at 69?
I’m just working! I’m doing my job and having fun doing it. I’ve been lucky and a lot of good projects have emerged. It goes up and down, you know, throughout life. And I don’t think I could have a better life than I’ve had. I don’t have any regrets. And I don’t have to be the star or be in something very successful, I just have to have fun.
Nice. Do you feel you’re underrated? I think you’re someone who’s so consistently great in everything that it can almost be taken for granted how great you are. I know you won a Golden Globe recently, and that was long overdue, even if it’s mostly bullshit.
I don’t know! I can tell you: it’s much better to be underrated than overrated. So, I’m very comfortable if I am underrated. But I’m a Swede with an accent—or most of the time I have an accent—and for being a Swede with an accent, I have been extremely successful internationally, so I can’t complain. When it comes to the big studio movies, and I’ve been in four or five gigantic franchises that have paid a lot of bills for me, their concerns are financial, and I’m not a ticket-seller. I’m a solid fucking actor, and I’d rather be an actor than a star.
It gives you the mobility.
Exactly. The freedom I have. I can easily do small, experimental films and strange stuff—films that could ruin another actor’s career—so I’m in a good position.
I wanted to ask you about Breaking the Waves, because it’s the 25th anniversary this year and I consider it a masterful film. And it was Emily Watson’s first film, which is just extraordinary. How did you two establish such strong chemistry?
She’s British, which means she comes from a rather prudish society too, and to take on a role with an obscure Danish director—who wasn’t that famous at the time—and to take on a role with such explicit sex and nudity took enormous courage, but she was fantastic. My job was to love her, and that felt easy, but I think that she felt loved, and I think that she felt secure, which is essential for being able to do anything courageous. But she’s such a brilliant, talented, wonderful woman. I finally got to work with her again in Chernobyl. I mean, you just have to look at her and everything comes.
There’s this longstanding debate over whether Breaking the Waves is misogynistic or not, and I personally find it to be a misreading of the film. I’ve always thought of it as a biblical allegory of sorts about a desperate woman navigating a deeply sexist world.
Absolutely. Lars doesn’t have that in him. Those fantastic female roles that he has written, if you want to defend women in film, you’ve really got to take care of him because he writes the best roles for them. Those roles are very much him, and he definitely doesn’t have a negative attitude toward women. He loves them. There’s a plague of labeling people—not for what they’re really saying, but for what they appear to say. He was stamped as a misogynist and then he made a bad joke about Hitler at Cannes, and everyone stamped him as a Nazi, which is the furthest thing from what he is.
You stamp people as a “racist,” a “fascist,” a “communist,” I mean this fucking stamping is as smart as QAnon. It’s frightening. The fantastic thing about mankind is that we’re not one thing. We’re all capable of the most brutal and horrible crimes and we’re all capable of love. We do good things and we do bad things. There are nuances. The way of seeing people as “good” or “bad” guys is forcing something upon humanity that is really dangerous, because when you say someone is the “bad” guy then you’re saying you are the “good” guy, and it’s forcing you to not look at your own flaws.
I’m a huge fan of Lars’ films but I think one thing that’s really colored people’s opinion of him are the allegations that Bjork made against him on Dancer in the Dark. You didn’t have the biggest role in that film, but is it something you witnessed?
I’ve never seen him do anything like that. It’s not him. And if you talk to any of the other women who have worked with him over and over again, you will not get those kinds of accusations. But the Bjork and Lars conflict was enormous during the shoot, and it had very little to do with #MeToo. Lars, like all directors, in the end is a control freak, and Bjork has controlled everything in her career—from the music, to the costumes, to the way she sounds—and if two control freaks try to make a film, there will be conflicts. I got phone calls from Lars during the shoot where he was in tears. She left the set several times, and it had nothing to do with sexuality. She tore up her clothes. They had a very difficult relationship. But you’ve gotta pick your toxic males. You can’t put a “toxic male” label on everybody, otherwise it will be watered down, that label.
I’m so excited for Dune. What can you tell me about it? Denis Villeneuve said that your Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is different from the comics or the David Lynch film in that he’s not as much of a caricature but a calmer, more sinister presence.
The thing about it, and why I’m looking forward to this film as well, is because it’s Denis Villeneuve. Whatever he does, he creates an atmosphere that is dense, that you can touch, and you’re just sucked into it. You’re never bored—even if he does long, slow takes. The atmosphere builds up, and you’re in his universe. I think it will be the same with this one. He’s lovely to work with, and a beautiful man. I did eight or ten days on the movie, so my character doesn’t show up for too much, but his presence will be felt. He’s such a frightening presence where even if he doesn’t say anything, I think you’ll be afraid of him. And I’m extremely fat. I had eight hours in the makeup chair every day. And in some scenes, I look very tall because I levitate. You’re going to have a lot of fun with it.
The whole HBO Max day-and-date thing is weird, and I hope as many people as possible get to see the film on the big screen.
Oh, definitely. I think they made a deal with AT&T—which owns Time Warner, which owns HBO, which owns my phone—that they cut a four-week deal where it’ll be just for the theaters, but I’m not sure. That could change.
I also feel culturally obligated to ask you about Andor, the upcoming Star Wars series you’re in. What’s that about, and who do you play in it?
As you know, they’ll shoot me if I say anything! I can’t even get a proper script. It’s printed on red paper so I can’t make any copies of it, it’s ridiculous! Of course I’ve seen all the Star Wars films, because I’ve had children in the ‘80s, and the ‘90s, and the 2000s, and the 2010s. I’ve had children in five decades, which means you’ve seen all the Star Wars films—and seen all the toys as well. But when I saw Rogue One, it had much more atmosphere and seemed a little more mature—and that was Tony Gilroy, who’s the showrunner on this one. So, hopefully this one will be a little more than little plastic people falling over.
Was a part of the motivation to do Andor to look really cool to your kids?
I do think like that sometimes! I’ll go and do a children’s movie for that reason. But also, I’m not the most mature person myself, so who doesn’t want to go and fly a spaceship?
Plus, now you can give your kids action figures of yourself and say, “Play with me.”
Fuck yeah. Go play with dad. Don’t disturb him! Go play with him! [Laughs]
OK, this is kind of a silly question, but do you have a favorite movie death of yours? My favorite has to be in Deep Blue Sea, because in that one you get your arm ripped off by a shark, and then the shark uses your body as a battering ram to destroy this underwater facility.
I would say that is probably, in terms of inventiveness, my favorite one too. It was Renny Harlin. Yeah. I like it! Fortunately, I didn’t have to spend that much time on that stretcher—it was a doll. But it looked really cool! And the sharks weren’t CGI back then. It was mechanical sharks, and they were pretty dangerous. The little boy in me was very excited.
Another movie of yours that I love, for entirely different reasons than some of these other ones we’ve discussed, is Mamma Mia! Is it basically a vacation filming these? I imagine the cast parties are a lot of fun, because it seems like you all are having a ball.
Well, it is. I’m not a singer and I’m not a dancer so I was scared stiff, but the only way to make it work—because it’s not much of a story—is that we had fun doing it, because that joy is contagious to the audience. And we really had fun. It was very relaxed in Greece there on the beaches, and the parties we had there were very good too. It was a nice bunch of people to hang with.
When the cast of Mamma Mia! goes wild in Greece, who is the one that parties the hardest? Who’s the VIP?
It depends what you mean by partying! I usually get pretty drunk. Down there, Colin [Firth] and I were pretty good at it. And at those parties, we also had 50 dancers in their twenties, and they had much more stamina.
I have to ask: Will the gang get back together for a third one?
I don’t know! It took 10 years between number one and number two, so if it takes another ten years, I don’t know. Some of us may just be there in urns, with our ashes!
You released a pop single in the ‘60s, right?
Yes. When I was 16, I became extremely famous in Sweden. We had one TV channel back then and I did this TV series, and it was like being a rock star. But it meant also that all kinds of shady people thought they could make money off me. So, this guy calls me from Stockholm and says, “Stellan, can you sing?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “Well, try it!” And then I hear this guitar on the other end of the line, I go, “Ahh!” and then he goes, “Perfect! Come over to Stockholm.” I went to this very shady studio in the suburbs and we recorded it, and then the guy who was running the project said, “I listened to the tape now, and I think it’s better if I sing and you speak on the record.” So, I don’t sing on the record. But there were very cruel headlines in Sweden. One paper had a headline that read, “Stellan Skarsgård, who we loved on this TV series, we don’t like anymore.”
That’s so mean! In addition to Breaking the Waves, another film that really raised your profile in the United States was Good Will Hunting—which holds up remarkably well. Some of my favorite scenes in that film are the ones where you and Robin Williams are jousting. And I know he’s a wild card, so what was it like shooting those?
He really is a wild card because anything can come out of him, and he can say anything and do anything, and he has this urge to do it because he has these three parallel brains that are constantly working on finding something funny or interesting. Sometimes, even when we would do ten takes and everybody would be happy with them, he’d say, “I have to get something out of my body,” so we would do one extra for that. You didn’t know what you’d experience when the camera would start rolling—you just had to dance with it. And it was fantastic. He was such a lovely man and had no ego. He was just a volcano of creativity and ideas.
Do you ever think about your legacy? You not only have a bunch of talented children but also have amassed such a strong body of work.
The thing is with legacy: you won’t be able to enjoy it, so just forget it. No, I don’t. And it doesn’t matter. If you’re extremely successful, it takes a decade and you’re gone from people’s minds. You can only hope that your children remember you for a couple of years, at least!
Well, they’ll have the Star Wars toys, at least.
They’ll have the toys! That’s right. [Laughs]