Here’s an in-depth interview Alexander gave to The Herald Scotland during the Edinburgh Film Festival. He talks about growing up in Stockholm and his military service. There’s also some more mentions of “Tarzan” (only 11 months to go now) which only gets us really, really excited as we still await our first glimpse of the Jungle King.
When he was 19 Alexander Skarsgard signed up for national service. He didn’t do it for a laugh. He didn’t do it because he’d always wanted to join the army. He didn’t do it because he wanted to fire a gun. He didn’t even do it because he wanted to react against his lefty bohemian upbringing as embodied in his actor dad Stellan Skarsgard.
He is clear on this when I suggest it might have been. “I don’t know about rebellion,” he tells me as we talk almost 20 years later. “I come from a family of anarchists and socialists and pacifists and I was never into guns myself. I wouldn’t say I did it to p*** off dad or anything.”
No, he says, it was something else. “I grew up in south Stockholm in a very urban environment and I wanted that challenge of doing something that was extreme. It’s physically and mentally quite challenging and I was really intrigued by that.”
To be fair, he wasn’t worried that it would go further than he wanted it to. Being Swedish saw to that. “If you’re in the States making that decision is quite heavy. Because you realise that in a couple of months you might be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan. Our last war in Sweden was in 1812, so I think my parents were never worried that ‘oh, he’s going to war now’.
“For me it was a personal challenge.”
And that’s the thing. Alexander Skarsgard likes a challenge. In the years since he was 19 he’s sailed across the Atlantic and skied to the South Pole. He’s even gone to study in Leeds.
Frankly the day job – like his dad, he’s an actor if you didn’t already know – must seem quite normal at times.
Well, if playing a 1000-year-old Viking vampire in HBO’s gloriously trashy horror series True Blood can seem normal. Or if appearing bloodied and naked on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine to promote said series can seem normal. Or stripping down to a loincloth to play Tarzan. Or sitting with me – as he is this afternoon – in an Edinburgh hotel discussing gay sex scenes, the offensiveness or otherwise of nipples and Cartesean dualism next to a group of locals talking about team building.
What’s he like? Polite. Chatty. And handsome obviously. Sharp features, soulful eyes. I feel inevitably a little inadequate in his company. But that’s only because I have internalised stereotypical notions of physical beauty. Or so I tell myself.
Skarsgard is in town for the Edinburgh International Film Festival promoting his new film The Diary of a Teenage Girl. In its own way it must have been a challenge too. An adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s semi-autobiographical graphic novel, it’s a very good and rather troubling coming-of-age story set in 1970s San Francisco featuring a star-making performance from English actress Bel Powley as 15-year-old Minnie Goetze. Skarsgard plays Monroe, the 35-year-old boyfriend of Minnie’s mum (played by Kirsten Wiig). That’s before he starts sleeping with Minnie too. On reflection, challenging might be the better description.
“I thought it was so different, so unique,” he says, still buzzing from a positive response at the film festival showing the night before. “I thought it was something I hadn’t seen before. Really brave and unapologetic. There have been so many stories about adolescence and coming of age from a boy’s point of view. But when it comes to girls that age, when it comes to sexuality at least, they’re in their ivory tower waiting for Prince Charming to come and save them.
“I was never a teenage girl myself but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t represent how most teenage girls feel. They’re as confused and frustrated as teenage boys. So I thought it was a really important movie.”
It might well be that. But let’s be honest. He’s playing a 35-year-old man sleeping with a 15-year-old girl. That’s going to leave a lot of people uneasy.
“I thought it would be quite a challenge to make him real,” he admits. “How without condoning what he does do you make this relationship interesting? Can you find moments where he’s the confused one. Where he’s the weak one and she’s in charge?”
To be honest Minnie seems in charge in their relationship pretty much all the time. He says he didn’t want to make Monroe “too predatory”. I think for the most part he succeeds.
If we can put that moral hot spot aside, there’s a temptation to map the arty liberal bohemianism of the film onto Skarsgard’s own upbringing. The oldest child, he grew up in “a very open household, very kind of artistic, liberal dad.”
In 1980 his pregnant mum, aforementioned liberal dad and a very young Skarsgard moved into a huge seven-bedroom apartment in a “not very attractive neighbourhood” in south Stockholm. More kids followed. Another seven in all. Oh, and a composer rented a room and stayed for 15 years.
And that’s not the half of it. “My mum’s brother who was also my dad’s best friend lived in the apartment above with his family. Grandparents lived across the street. Everyone lived in the neighbourhood. The doors were always open. Lots of people and wine and weird, interesting parties.”
Famously his dad – who you might know from the last Avengers film or the Pirates of the Caribbean or various Lars Von Trier movies (most notably Breaking the Waves and Nymphomania), but possibly not from 1975’s Swedish Sex Games (one has to start somewhere) – used to wander around the house naked. Maybe that explains his son’s sanguine attitude to onscreen nudity.
Skarsgard junior became famous in Sweden at the start of the nineties when he was cast in a TV series The Dog That Smiled. He was 13 at the time but he didn’t enjoy the attention he got as a result and so he retreated back home. He sums up his teenage years as “running around town, going to football games, drinking beer”. And then came national service for 18 months.
I wonder why he has continued seeking similar challenges? Why decide to trek to the South Pole alongside British royalty in 2013 or spend a month sailing across the Atlantic the year before? Isn’t 18 months of full-on physical and mental exertion enough once in your life?
“It’s just the dichotomy of life,” he says. “To find the polar opposite of this, I guess,” he says, looking around at the group a couple of booths over who are doing sterling work in ignoring us. “I’m a city boy. I live in New York now. I love the intensity of that. I love how accessible it is – the people, the weirdos, the art. It’s great doing what I do now, travelling the world with people I love, going to film festivals, meeting interesting people.
“But as much as I love that I also love to disconnect and turn everything off for three weeks and sail across the Atlantic or ski to the South Pole. It recharges my batteries, puts things into perspective.”
Are you telling me there isn’t a point when the temperature drops to minus 50 and it’s blowing a gale outside the tent that you don’t find yourself wishing you were back in New York?
“Not really. It triggers something. I get really excited when it’s shitty like that. You’re cold and you’re tired and you’re hungry and in a weird way it makes you feel alive.”
Which more or less brings us to Descartes. When you push yourself to such extremes, Alexander, do you discover if the body rules the mind? Or does the mind rule the body?
“Well, when you’re out in Antarctica or on the ocean it’s clearly the mind,” he says, laughing. “We did this survival course when we were in the military where you were out for a week. You didn’t get much food and they f*** with you.”
The soldiers had to complete tasks as part of the exercise. “It’s a test to get the hat for the unit. To prove you’re worthy of getting the hat.
“We were out for a week and we got back to base and the captain was like ‘you’ve completed this’. And then he said ‘well, actually, you haven’t. You need to go out for another 24 hours in the woods.’ And he gave us these five tasks to do in 24 hours.
“And people were crying because we thought we were home. It had already been so physically and mentally tough and we were completely depleted and when he goes from ‘congratulations, here’s a good meal’ to ‘f** you’ it was interesting.
“We all went out because he told us to. But people were staggering, crying, completely broken. And then we got to the first station which was about two hours into the woods and our hats were there. So he f***** with us again. And it was so clear that your mind rules the body because people who couldn’t walk, suddenly, once they got those hats were running back to base hugging each other. It was insane.”
So there you go. Somebody let Morrissey know, please.
When Skarsgard was in the military, he says, he always knew being a soldier wasn’t going to be his career. When he finished it he moved to Leeds to study for six months. But he didn’t really know what he was going to do or where he was going to go. And eventually he started thinking about acting again.
“I remember doing it as a kid and I remember loving it and I thought about the reason I quit and I felt like it had nothing to do with the actual job. It was everything around it that made me uncomfortable. I thought ‘well, I was 13 at the time and I did something that got me a lot of attention and that made me very uncomfortable. I’m 21 now. Maybe I shouldn’t dismiss that for good without giving it a go as an adult. I might wake up when I’m 55, 60 and I might regret it. Maybe I should go to New York and go to theatre school and see if I love being onstage and if it’s still s*** then I’ll know and I can bury the idea and move on.’”
Clearly that didn’t happen. In 2001 he turned up as a handsome but dim model in Zoolander and after a number of years working in Sweden he started making a name for himself in the US on the back of the Americans-in-Iraq war drama Generation Kill and appearing in Lady Gaga’s Paparazzi video.
But it was True Blood that made his name. Alan Ball’s series which started in 2008 applied the textbook HBO formula of sex and violence. Often at the same time. It was often silly but it was hugely entertaining. And it didn’t hurt that the cast were all “buff” (that’s the right word, isn’t it?)
It’s possible that I have that naked Rolling Stone cover in mind when I ask him my next question.
Alexander, in the wake of True Blood, do you feel you have been objectified? “No, not at all. Absolutely not,” he says, grinning that wolfish grin Eric Northman utilised before chomping down on some unsuspecting human. “There was always a lot of sex, a lot of nudity on the show. And I had even some gay love scenes on the show. I’m not a homosexual but they were fun.”
Is it my imagination or have the team-building group over in the corner suddenly got very quiet?
“It was never gratuitous,” he continues on blithely, “and I was generally excited about the stories we were telling. As long as it’s like that it doesn’t matter if you’re making out with a dude or whoever it is. It’s only uncomfortable if you don’t quite know why you’re doing it. ‘Why are we running around naked just now? Is this just to sell tickets?’”
I’m sure that never entered Alan Ball’s mind, I don’t say. It’s the same with the sex scenes in Diary too, he continues. “We were all so excited about the story we were telling every single sex scene made sense to us. I don’t even think about it.”
Anyway, why are we all so uptight about such things, he asks. “I don’t quite see why seeing a nipple is so bad? And I find it hypocritical that parents find that more damaging and more offensive than violence. I don’t have kids myself but I would rather see someone shirtless on screen than see someone beating another guy to a pulp with a baseball bat. But for some reason that’s OK, but not nudity which is beautiful.”
Well, indeed, although it probably helps when you’re good looking enough to have been voted Sweden’s sexiest man. Five times over. Some of us haven’t even won Falkirk’s sexiest man once (though it’s only a matter of time. Or so I keep telling myself.)
We should really talk about Tarzan, shouldn’t we? Skarsgard has already wrapped on the latest take on Lord Greystoke. It is, as he acknowledges himself, a big deal, “a tent-pole Warner Brothers action adventure movie”.
But it’s also well written and smart, he says, and it’s got a great director in David Yates who made the last four Harry Potter films. “It wasn’t like ‘OK, I do one for them and then one for me. I do an indie just because I love it and then I do something big because it’s a good pay cheque.’ This is a massive film but with so much integrity and so much character. It was an unbelievable experience.”
It’s also his big chance to become a proper copper-plated movie star. The weight of a tent-pole movie will fall on his handsome naked shoulders. Are you feeling the pressure, Alexander?
“Not really, no. It was tough because it was physically and mentally demanding. It was the biggest job of my career so I was excited and focused. And I thought it was a fascinating take on it. The first act you meet him he’s already Lord Greystoke, so he’s very buttoned up. He goes back with his wife Jane to the jungle and slowly the beast that he really is inside comes out.
“We’re dealing with the fact that we’re civilised human beings but we’re also f****** primal beasts. And we’re trying to function in that dichotomy. We politely line up at Starbucks for our lattes but at the same time, we’re f****** animals, you know?”
He thinks about what he’s just said and corrects himself. “We’re not f****** animals. We are f****** animals.”
I leave him there, the politest, best-looking, most enthusiastic animal in the building.