You won’t get far trying to pin a single label on the characters Stellan Skarsgård plays, except that whatever they do, they do with intensity. That even goes for the taciturn ex-con Skarsgård plays in A Somewhat Gentle Man, a withdrawn, sometimes almost immobile figure whose reluctant return to the outside world finds his problems waiting just where he left them. First introduced to American audiences through Lars von Trier’s Breaking The Waves, Skarsgård went on to a career that’s taken him from the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise to an atypical role in Mamma Mia!, and most recently to the American remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. On a day off from torturing Lisbeth Salander, Skarsgård called The A.V. Club from Stockholm to talk about Arctic bonding, why 40 takes isn’t too many, and the unimportance of the penis in Lars von Trier’s films.
The A.V. Club: A Somewhat Gentle Man is the third movie you’ve made with Hans Petter Moland, after Zero Kelvin and Aberdeen. What’s special about your working relationship?
Stellan Skarsgård: In some ways, we’re rather different, but in the first film, we found a way of working together and a closeness that became very productive. We were working under very harsh conditions on Zero Kelvin. We were up there in the Arctic, closer to the North Pole than to a hospital. Sometimes you had to sleep in small Arctic tents with guns to protect yourself from polar bears and stuff. It does something to you. Mainly, I think we both encourage each other to take challenges and risks. He’s a very smart man, very thoughtful, and I’m more impulsive, and I think we sort of look after each other, make sure that none of us becomes too much of what we are.
AVC: So you make him more impulsive, and he makes you smarter?
SS: [Laughs.] Yes, exactly, and I need that.
AVC: How much does he have to say to get you interested in making another film with him? How did this film come together?
SS: It’s longer than we thought since we worked together last time, which was Aberdeen, and we were looking for something to do. They sent me this script; some producer thought it was a very dark and sad drama, and I read it and I thought it was funny. I thought we should do a comedy for once, and I said that to Hans Petter, and then we discussed the script, and there were some small changes; the ending is a little different than the original script. Then we had rehearsals, because since it’s not totally realistic, you have to find a tone amongst all the actors that is very precise. The dialogue is actually very precise and well-written, and there’s no room for small talk, and most of the fun things happen in the pauses. We discussed that quite a lot. Then we just started filming. He’s the kind of director who tells you what the scene needs, he doesn’t tell you how to do it, and that’s very good. Then you can try different things and different ways of doing it, and he’s happy as long as it benefits the film, and so am I.
AVC: You’re wary of having your performance too planned-out in advance, right? You like things to happen on set.
SS: I do, definitely, but I’m always well-prepared. The rehearsals are not to decide exactly how to do it, it’s more to investigate the possibilities you have. They’re more about getting the discussions out of the way and trying different things to see what direction you should take the scene, and then when you shoot, you’re still pretty loose, and you can try new things all the time.
AVC: You mentioned going for a specific tone in A Somewhat Gentle Man. Can you put it into words?
SS: Well, I don’t know. What we talked about was that they’re all extreme characters, but they’re not extreme to themselves. Which means they have to be played with, even if they all have to be played in an extremely serious way. Otherwise, it won’t be funny. We also talked about how everything, all your instincts when it comes to rhythm in the scene, you have to forget. Because some of the humor is in the totally fucked-up rhythm of all communication. People don’t quite communicate. [Laughs.] Which I think is hilarious.
AVC: One of the things about Ulrik, from the very first scene on, is that he tends to speak very little and say even less. He’s an inexpressive character in some ways. How does that work for you as an actor?
SS: When I read the script, after like 60 pages, I had one line or something. It’s like, “Am I in this movie?” [Laughs.] But I realize that, and I talked to Hans Petter about it. As a character, he’s totally passive. He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t do anything. It will not work unless you see what’s happening in him, or at least something that’s happening inside of him. So the way we shot it was, the camera always returns to Ulrik, which means everything that happens with those weird characters bounces off him and has an effect on him. Then as an audience, you follow him and you wonder “What is he thinking? How does he react to this?”
AVC: In the scene between him and his landlady, where she lies down on his bed and takes off her underwear, he climbs on top of her without saying a word. She’s clearly enjoying herself, but he stays quiet all the way through. It’s so much about what he does and not what he says.
SS: Yeah, it is definitely. But you could see, “Okay, this guy doesn’t really even want to fuck, but he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings. He’d rather eat, really.” [Laughs.] I think that’s funny.
AVC: Or watch Polish TV.
SS: Yeah. Even Polish TV would be better.
AVC: You’ve also worked frequently with Lars von Trier. A lot of people work with him once and decide that’s as much as they want. He’s loose on the set and wants to try things any number of different ways. Is that why you work well together?
SS: I work very well together with Lars. I don’t quite understand why it would be difficult to work with him. I don’t even consider it working with him; it feels like we’re just going out and playing. He doesn’t block the scene or rehearse or anything; he just says “Do it,” and then he usually comes up and says “Could you do a little less, please?’ after a couple of takes. He wants you to do it in different ways, and he really investigates the possibilities of scenes, which I enjoy a lot. Some actors are what I call more like mirror actors, which means that they do a performance at home in front of the mirror, and then they go deliver it. I’m not that type. My performance is totally dependent on what the other actors are doing. He’s a very gentle man. He’s a bit neurotic, but he’s a very sweet man, so he’s fun to be around. He’s smart and sweet.
AVC: How different is making a movie in that style from working on Thor or The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, where every minute that goes by on the set, $100,000 is being spent on something? It would seem that there’d be less freedom to try different things in that environment.
SS: Well, there is freedom, actually. In both of those films, I didn’t feel restrained at all. I mean, of course the higher the budget, the less freedom the director has, and that’s where the problem comes in. But when I worked with Kenneth Branagh [on Thor], he protects me and makes sure I can try things. He might not like them, but at least I’m allowed to try them. We also had rehearsals where we worked on the script and changed some scenes before we started shooting. So I found it very creative in that sense, and had a lot of fun doing it. Now with Fincher, he’s not a traditional studio director. He is there to find something more than he imagined himself. He does 40 takes of every setup, but that’s not 40 identical takes, that’s 40 takes trying to find more, and I enjoy that.
AVC: David Fincher is another director who wears some actors out, where it feels like they do a hundred takes just of them crossing a room. But because you’re there to experience what happens on the set, that meshes better with your style.
SS: He shoots very fast. He shoots a lot, he shoots constantly, so the only thing you can choose is to go do another take with Fincher, or just sit in your trailer. [Laughs.] I’d rather be on set working.
AVC: Fincher and von Trier often shoot digitally, so they can basically shoot as long as they want and do as many takes as they want without needing to reload.
SS: I love that this film, we’re shooting on RED, the digital camera. Once the thing is lit, I just want to roll and roll and roll and roll and roll. [Laughs.] You warm up and things happen that you couldn’t plan, and I love the unplanned.
AVC: In addition to making different films with the same director, you also had the unusual experience of the Exorcist prequels, where you made the same film with two different directors.
SS: That’s more uncommon, yeah. [Laughs.]
AVC: What was that experience like? Did you have a sense while you were shooting with Paul Schrader that the studio wasn’t getting what they wanted?
SS: I don’t know what the studio expected when they hired Paul Schrader to direct the film and me to play the lead. I mean, of course they don’t get a horror film, they get a film about a man in crisis. So then they get Renny Harlin to do the job, and then of course they get a horror film. The weird thing was, when you think you’re finished with something, you put it behind and move on. I made another film in between, and then I have to go back to Rome and put on the same clothes again? I doubt they were even washed. [Laughs.] It was not a Groundhog Day feeling, but in some ways something worse.
AVC: It must have been difficult, because you’re playing the same character in the same clothes, but in a movie with a completely different tone. You have to play a different person, in a way.
SS: Absolutely, you do that, because his function was different in both films. Like everything else, it’s a great experience to have behind you.
AVC: The films you’ve made with von Trier have been markedly different stylistically, and in terms of process. What was the process like for Melancholia?
SS: Well, the process for the actor is not that much different, at least as long as I worked with him, from Breaking The Waves on. It was very different in his earlier films, where he was much more into the technique, which gave a certain coldness to the films. He always lets the actors loose, and he shoots and often operates himself. You just do it a couple of times, over and over, and he’s there. He catches everything, and when he feels he’s happy with it, he just says, “Thank you.” It’s a very light way of working, in a way. At the same time, of course, when you do… I wouldn’t say for Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist, it was a light way of working. [Laughs.] The places where she had to go were very hard, and he wants you to go there. But for me, it was such a joy to be with him again and play. We’re old friends.
AVC: Was he able to operate on Melancholia? On Antichrist, because of the breakdown he had before that movie, his hands were shaking too much to hold the camera.
SS: He was in better shape. He was feeling better this time. He didn’t have the enormous strength when he did Dogville, when he shot everything, but for every setup, he did a couple takes himself before he handed it off over to someone else.
AVC: Did he seem different, having been through such a difficult period psychologically?
SS: No, but I haven’t worked with him since Dogville, and he was reasonably happy. His big depression was between Dogville and now. Of course, his hands were shakier, there was medication, and he was more vulnerable than he was during Dogville. But he’s always been vulnerable. At least I saw he was feeling better than he has done in a couple years.
AVC: Some of the people who disliked Antichrist accused the movie of being misogynist, but it’s fairly obvious that Gainsbourg’s character is von Trier’s stand-in, down to sharing a lot of his symptoms.
SS: All those female characters he’s writing are him. Yeah. Definitely so. Sometimes he hears women say “He must hate women.” No, no, no, no. He’s talking about himself. [Laughs.] The penis has no importance in this.