Alexander Skarsgård on his new role in ‘Battleship’
Alexander Skarsgård grew up among artists and intellectuals in one of Sweden’s most famous families. All good training for life as an all-American sex symbol.
a golf cart at the Universal Studios lot in Los Angeles, zipping along the soundstages, I pass Danny DeVito going the other way. He’s waddling along, saying hi to all and sundry, and I have to concede it’s a cute set-up: to go from one of the smallest stars in Hollywood to one of the tallest. Alexander Skarsgård is 6ft 4in, aged 35, and seemingly getting bigger by the day.
I find the heart-throb star of True Blood and the forthcoming Battleship– a man described by Vanity Fair as “one of the most beautiful creatures to ever walk the face of the Earth” – sequestered in a musty old make-up/changing room tucked away down one of the sun-starved Universal alleys. The room hasn’t been touched since the Seventies judging by the aggressively mustard carpet and leatherette sofas, but he doesn’t seem in the least put out. If there is such a thing as a Swedish Jimmy Stewart, he’s it. He fills the room with rangy easy-going charm as he stretches out his long legs, swivelling in a distinctly non-Ikea chair.
We start off with Battleship, an unabashed summer blockbuster and his first attempt at a popcorn movie. It pits the US navy against alien spaceships, and keeps things grounded by casting the singer Rihanna as an on-board weapons specialist and Liam Neeson as an admiral. Skarsgård plays a steely-eyed commanding officer of a destroyer — one Stone Hopper of the USS Sampson — and I wonder if his 18 months’ national service in the Swedish military helped him bring credibility to the role. “I’ve dealt with real aliens before, yeah,” he deadpans of his time with Stockholm’s “SäkJakt”, or “protect and hunt” unit. “No, I wasn’t too cocky about it. I was in an anti-sabotage terrorist unit in the archipelago protecting the ships, but never on the big ships. We definitely don’t have big aircraft carriers in Sweden, so landing on the USS Ronald Reagan in the middle of the Pacific was a pretty humbling experience for me. I wasn’t like, I was a sergeant in the Swedish army, I got this.”
Before filming, he went on a recce to Pearl Harbor with the film’s director, Peter Berg, and met real destroyer captains. “We’re fighting aliens, so it was important to make the real parts as real as possible.” He admits he was initially sceptical about the prospect of making an effects-heavy action film conceived by Hasbro, the toy-making creatives responsible for the Transformers franchise – he’d heard “horror stories” from actors on similar tent-pole films. But he was convinced by the “‘ironic macho” attitude of Berg, and stresses the key to his part was not overreacting to approaching danger, however massive and intergalactic. “I learnt this on Generation Kill,” he says of the acclaimed 2008 Iraq War docu-drama that made his name in the US. “The soldier I played was called Iceman and for good reason. They played me tapes from inside the Humvee from when they were being shot at and the tone of his voice is no louder than we’re talking now. You hear the bullets ricocheting off the outside and he just remains composed and precise.”
The emotionless Swede has long been a stereotype. But of late the arts have seen a boom exploring the homicidal flip side of all this repression — Stieg Larsson’s novels, Wallander, et al. Skarsgård merrily expands on my sweeping generalisations about the binary nature of his country’s national temperament.
“Swedes are such a civilised, perfect society – at least on the surface,” he explains. “There’s a great safety net, a huge middle class, free education, free health care. People are very polite, they wait their turn. They’re not too loud, they’re not too quiet, but sometimes it’s a little too perfect. Sometimes people need to explode.” He arches his eyebrow – the fabled “Skarsbrow” manoeuvre.
“There’s no in between. People work nine to five all week, and then they go to a football game and fight. That’s why if you go out on Friday night in Stockholm everyone’s getting s— faced.
“As an actor, what’s interesting is what’s hidden away beneath the surface. You want to be like a duck on a pond — very calm on the surface but paddling away like crazy underneath.” There is a similar polarisation in his tastes in film and television. His favourite movies are mostly sensitive dramas like Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander and Kvarteret Korpen (Raven’s End), a gritty slice of life about the working-classes in Malmö. But his favourite television shows are bawdy British comedies like Benny Hill and Blackadder. “When I grew up we only had two TV channels, commercial free, so whatever was on, the entire nation watched. Every week, the whole country would sit down to watch Blackadder in English.”
Alexander is, of course, the son of veteran actor Stellan Skarsgård, whose dazzling array of credits include Breaking the Waves, Amistad and Pirates of the Caribbean. Today he’s the Swedish Robert de Niro, but when Alexander was a child, Stellan was still only a stage actor: “He was in repertory in Stockholm and it was tough. You do the play at night, and rehearse the next one during the day. You do it six days a week, come home super late, then have a day off, then do it all again.” So the younger Skarsgård would often find himself spending time backstage at, say, the latest Ingmar Bergman production, familiarising himself with the workings of the costume department.
He was one of six children and life Chez Skarsgård was a hive of artistic socialising. It was the Seventies and they were, he says, “a very bohemian hippie family. I’d fall asleep under the table while people were partying til five in the morning. I loved it. I was probably stoned from second-hand smoke. I loved falling asleep hearing Mum and Dad laughing, having a good time.” Whereas Alexander is the energetic outdoors type, heading off at weekends to snowboard, Stellan’s idea of aerobic activity is uncorking a fine wine while he cooks. Skarsgård Snr says he was too busy smoking pot to perform his military service — “It seemed terribly inconvenient.” Skarsgård Jnr says, “I like being outside more than he does.” And besides, “I didn’t want to just be somebody’s son.”
There is no indication of family angst, but when Alexander rhapsodises about his father’s performance in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, he makes an interesting Freudian slip. “They did a really good job capturing the essence of Swedishness [in the film], where everything’s just slightly off. Like my character — cough – like my dad’s character, he’s such a Swede. On the surface, very proper with a beautiful modern house, a great car, but deep down emotionally and physically in the basement, all this crazy s— is going on.” Alexander followed in his father’s footsteps when young and became a star at 13 after playing the lead role in a television film, Hunden som log (The Dog That Smiled). But then abruptly, he gave it all up when he grew uncomfortable with all the attention – the girls sitting outside his house all day waiting for him to appear. His wandering years took him into the army and then, of all places, to Leeds.
“It was anything but London, that was me and my buddy’s philosophy. I love London, but there are 300,000 Swedes there and most of them are in their early twenties. They work in coffee shops, they sell shoes, they hang out and they go home. We wanted to experience something different.” He stuck a pin in a map and wound up in the heart of Yorkshire. “It was just what we wanted. Dirty pubs, genuine people, no bull—-. I had a really great time.” He studied English for six months and then left.
It was to prove a turning point for him. “I decided I wanted to try acting one last time, just to make sure I wouldn’t have to look back 30 years from now bitterly.” He went to theatre school at Marymount Manhattan College in New York and knew instantly he was on the right track. “I’d missed it so much. I loved it. Reading a play, working on it with a teacher, putting together a scene with my classmates.” Going it alone in America was crucial. “It was very important for me to make my own mistakes – to find my own way. I was kind of stubborn. I still am.”
But success in the US was a few years coming. He endured the obligatory string of failed auditions and bit parts. “I was a working actor in Sweden, but in Hollywood that’s like being a working actor in Nebraska. It means absolutely nothing. I read so many bad scripts, it was pretty tormenting. I didn’t want to do stuff I didn’t believe in, but I couldn’t sit around waiting for Lars von Trier to call.” He played a male model in Ben Stiller’s 2001 comedy Zoolander, but it only led to more bit parts until he got his big break as the Iceman in Generation Kill. “It was a huge, huge moment. I hadn’t come all the way out from Sweden to play a jock in a bad horror movie. I mean, come on. I’d rather go home. When I got my hands on Generation Kill, I was so motivated, so focused to get it.”
He spent six months with a dialect coach getting rid of his accent, and the end result is that many viewers now don’t even know he is Swedish. In fact, Peter Berg had no idea until after he’d hired him for Battleship. Was it a hard thing to master? He looks at me blankly as if to say, why on earth would it be hard? I have to remind myself this is a man who also speaks excellent French and models suits in his spare time for advertisements photographed by Annie Leibovitz.
His turn on Generation Kill led to his breakout part in True Blood, a decidedly more adult entity than Twilight playing Eric Northman, the brooding vampire “sheriff” in Louisiana. The endless shots of shirtless yearning catapulted him to a new level of mass hysteria, and have led him to becoming somewhat of an expert in – and defender of – on-screen nudity. Here is his stock answer when asked about his attitude to anything-goes nude scenes: “I’m from Sweden. We don’t wear clothes in Sweden.” Visits to the Comic-Con convention at San Diego see him mobbed by shrieking females and not a few males. (Northman’s gay love scene with a fellow vampire helped make the show HBO’s biggest ratings success since The Sopranos.) “I’ve probably signed a breast or two,” he admits, before going on to describe how “surreal” it is to be mobbed by thousands, step on a plane, then hours later find himself having a drunken dinner with his eightysomething grandmother, Gudrun.
But his biggest thrill in Hollywood so far was meeting his local football club Hammarby when they came to Los Angeles for pre-season training. “I took them out after they played LA Galaxy. I live in Hollywood and meet all these celebrities and I couldn’t care less. I was at a bar with a bunch of footballers from south Stockholm and I’m crying I’m so happy.
“Someone who doesn’t support a team will never get it. These are 22-year-old kids from south Stockholm. They’re not Lionel Messi. They’re not even the best team in Sweden. We’re in the second division right now. But I will never get more star struck than that.”
He insists he has no grand plan for his career, except to make sure it lasts, which is why he is careful to mix up his work, alternating between studio fare with character-driven films like his next, the Henry James adaptation What Maisie Knew. Before Battleship, for example, he made Melancholia with his father and their family friend Lars von Trier, as big a contrast in budget and tone as one can imagine.
Then again, when you get voted sexiest man alive in Sweden on five occasions, it’s hard to dampen the tabloid mania. He dated Kate Bosworth, his co-star in Straw Dogs, and the result was a scuffle with paparazzi at the Coachella music festival. Police were needed to restrain the actor, and one can only marvel at the cameraman who thinks it’s a good idea to provoke a 6ft 4in ex-soldier on his day off.
“I’m glad this didn’t happen when I was 17,” he says. “It would be too easy to believe the hype. If you’re too young, you think this defines me. This is who I really am.” So who is he really? It’s a good question and hard to answer because he’s so at ease on the surface. But he’s not averse to giving a few tantalising hints as to what lies below.
He spends seven months a year in Los Angeles filming True Blood, and lives in leafy, mellow Beachwood Canyon in the Hollywood Hills. At least, it was leafy, mellow Beach Canyon until a severed head was found on a hiking trail this year in a plastic bag. “That’s my favourite thing. A hike with a severed head.” He flashes his blue eyes unsettlingly. “I love that stuff. Give me the dark stuff.”