Alexander Skarsgård takes moviegoers back to 9th century A.D. in The Northman, the wild new Viking epic from writer-director Robert Eggers. The actor-producer has been looking for the opportunity to bring to Hollywood an accurate depiction of his Nordic roots—primal violence and metaphysical witchcraft and all. He seized his chance to play Amleth, would-be king of the north seeking vengeance against his uncle for his father’s murder (the same Viking tale that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet).
Anyone who’s seen even the trailer for The Northman wouldn’t be surprised to hear Skarsgård call it the most difficult job of his career. The A.V. Club spoke to the Emmy-winning star about historical authenticity, Amleth’s iffy moral compass, and taking “animal acting” to the next level—seriously, wait until you see the way he bares his teeth in this fever dream of a film.
The A.V. Club: You’ve said you wanted to bring a Viking tale to Hollywood—how did you know The Northman was it?
Alexander Skarsgård: I had this dream of one day making a big, epic Viking adventure, but something that felt authentic and true to the old Icelandic sagas, the poetry, something that would capture the essence of those stories and the characters. The stark, harsh characters, the landscape, the laconic language. And I was trying to figure out, would it be possible to do something like that, but on a big scale? But it wasn’t ’til I met [Robert Eggers] five years ago, the genesis of what ultimately became The Northman.
It all happened quite organically. One of my best friends is from Iceland, so I go on a week-long hike every year, different parts of the island. I’m Swedish myself, but have a very strong connection to the Icelandic people and the culture and the history. And Rob and I met about something completely different, not Viking-related at all. And it turned out that he had just been there and had fallen in love with it. So we started talking about Iceland and Vikings and Norse mythology and one thing led to another. My producing partner Lars Knudsen and I asked Rob, “Would you want to team up and try to tell a story set during the Viking age in northern Europe?” We’re lucky he said yes, and we were kind of off to the races.
AVC: How would you describe Robert Eggers’ directorial style?
AS: Rob is all about authenticity. And I’m all for taking creative freedoms and liberties and spinning stuff and combining stuff. That’s what art and culture should be—you borrow and steal and you come up with ideas and make your own interpretation of something. I really enjoyed [Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok]. It’s completely out there, and diametrically opposite of The Northman, but I thought it was absolutely wonderful.
So it wasn’t like I was disappointed in what was out there. But I had never really seen a historically accurate Viking movie that really took the Norse mythology seriously and [told] a tale that would make the audience feel transported back a thousand years. So to feel like you were actually out there and that you would experience the world through Amleth’s eyes—and not only the physical world, but also the metaphysical world and the spiritual world and the gods—that was an aspect that I found really interesting about this. It was an opportunity to tell a story that was, in many ways, supernatural. But to Amleth, everything is completely normal. He’s heard these stories when he was a toddler, basically, so it’s as real as the physical world around him.
And Rob felt like the absolute perfect filmmaker for this. When we started working together, he hadn’t done The Lighthouse yet, but I’d seen The Witch. And it’s obvious that this filmmaker pays so much respect to the historical accuracy and the details. What he could do on a very, very limited budget was really impressive. So talking to Rob, [it] felt like he wanted to make exactly the Viking movie I wanted, that I dreamed of making. Of course, it was challenging in that Rob’s way of shooting is quite unique. It’s, first of all, shot on film, which is quite unusual these days. And almost all the fight scenes are just one long, continuous take, which demanded a lot of preparation and rehearsal and planning because they are technically quite complex to accomplish. You just don’t shoot movies that way, and definitely not action movies. [Usually] you have multiple cameras and coverage. So we knew that it was going to be challenging. And it sure was!
AVC: Many actors draw inspiration from animals in constructing characters. It seems like here, you literally had to channel wolves and bears?
AS: Yeah. I mean, [one of the character’s names] is Bjorn, which means bear-wolf. So preparation was both mental and physical. I wanted to put on some weight. I wanted Amleth, when he moves through the village, he’s shed his humanity and become a beast. It was important to see that in his eyes, he was a predator. I had to be nimble and flexible like a wolf, but have the kind of weight and confidence of a bear. A lot of it had to do with just letting go of inhibitions and allowing yourself to open up and just explore. We all have that, an inner animal, a beast! There’s something quite atavistic in all of us. I, for one, am quite naturally mellow and don’t explore that animalistic side very often. So it was quite cathartic to just open up and let him out.
AVC: This story introduces intriguing gray areas to Amleth’s righteous vengeance. What’s your take on your character’s moral compass?
AS: Not to dodge the question… but I, for one, think you have more of an immersive and engaging experience watching a movie, the less you know, or the less you hear the director or actor’s voice in your head when you watch it. All I can say is I really embraced the fact that initially, you have a very clear dynamic and a structure. It’s a narrative that you’ve seen many, many times, of a hero and villain, clear-cut. But then to blur those lines and to twist it a bit and hopefully start to ask yourself questions like, Was this righteous or not? Is he doing the right thing? Is it a happy ending or is it not? Did he get what he wanted or deserved? I think by not trying to answer those questions, hopefully it’ll be a more immersive experience for the viewer.
AVC: And you, making choices as an actor, are keeping the character open to all of those interpretations?
AS: I think so. It’s just when I watch movies, I find I have a stronger experience the less I know about the nuts and bolts of what went into making it or the psychology behind it, for sure.
AVC: One last question: Do you know that your IMDb profile photo is you in a tux, pants-less?
AS: Oh, fuck yeah. The pants came off on purpose.