Alexander Skarsgard’s Viking Dream – The New York Times

LONDON — In Alexander Skarsgard’s tale, the idea for what eventually became his last film, “The Northman,” has its roots on a long, slender island off the coast of Sweden called Oland, where his great-great- grandfather built a wooden house a hundred years ago.

“Some of my earliest memories are of walking with my grandfather on Oland and showing him these massive runestones and the inscriptions,” he explained on a recent rainy Monday over lunch at a hotel nestled in central London. “Telling stories of Vikings who sailed the rivers, all the way to Constantinople.

“So in a way,” he continued, “you could say the dream of someday doing or being part of a Viking film was born at that time.”

Dressed in a gray crew-neck sweater and dark jeans, he was centuries away from the bloody, muddy berserker he portrays in “The Northman,” the highly anticipated action-adventure that marks director Robert Eggers in big budget cinema.

Six-four, blonde, and undeniably handsome, Skarsgard would seem like a no-brainer to launch a Viking movie, but it took a while to make. Skarsgard said he spent years working with Danish film producer Lars Knudsen to try to figure out what form the project would take. Then, in 2017, he met Eggers, who had fallen in love with Iceland during a visit two years earlier, to talk about another project.

Both Skarsgard and Eggers describe this meeting as “destined”, and it eventually led Eggers, along with Icelandic poet and author Sjon, to write “The Northman”. Eggers, who said he had $70 million to make the film, was inspired by the 1982 “Conan the Barbarian,” which he watched as a kid.

Skarsgard’s character is a Viking prince, Amleth, bent on revenge after his father’s assassination. Skarsgard is a producer on the new film, which opens April 22 and also stars Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman and Björk, among others.

“It was a real treat as an actor to be part of the project from genesis,” Skarsgard said. “Being part of this journey and being able to continually have these conversations with the writers as they shape the story, talking about the arc of Amleth, the story, its essence – that was very inspiring to me. “

The star, 45 and always polite, has played a Viking before. In fact, he once played a Northman: Eric Northman, the ultra-sexy, proudly undead Viking vampire from the HBO series “True Blood.” But the main character of “The Northman” is a Viking after Skarsgard’s heart – one faithful to the medieval tradition of the Icelandic sagas, one who does not question fate or faith. And the one who purposely doesn’t have much to say.

The sagas the film is based on are “very laconic”, he said. And the characters “don’t really speak unless absolutely necessary”.

Skarsgard himself is open, with an easy smile. He is aware of the world around him, including being aware of the latest news from Ukraine and knowing that asparagus season is upon us. He gave the questions his full attention, pausing to collect his thoughts before answering – and not once while looking at a cell phone.

Although he grew up hearing Viking stories, Skarsgard read books and watched lectures about them to prepare for his role. He said the most interesting thing he learned was that the Vikings believed that every person had a female spirit that guided them.

“I thought it was quite fascinating, the juxtaposition between that and the brutality you see when you first meet Amleth,” Skarsgard said. He added: “That he would have thought there was a female spirit in him guiding him, I really liked that idea.”

Its preparation finished, it seemed that everything was linked on the film. Just when filming was supposed to begin, the pandemic hit.

“For about 48 hours we kept going, but everyone was like, ‘Is this happening? Are we doing this? What’s happening?’ And then finally they pulled the plug and said we had to break up and go home.

Although Skarsgard considers New York as his base, returning home meant traveling to his hometown of Stockholm.

He shut himself up with his large family in his mother’s country house. He is the eldest son of actor Stellan Skarsgard and his first wife, My, and one of eight siblings. Three of his brothers are also actors, including Bill Skarsgard, who played Pennywise, the creeper clown in the “It” movies; another brother is a doctor who kept them informed of the evolution of the Covid crisis. Skarsgard said that despite the frightening circumstances, he enjoyed spending time with his family.

“We cooked dinners and hung out, worked in the garden,” he said, adding that bringing the whole family together can be difficult as work gets in the way. “I really enjoyed it. Then I felt almost guilty because it was a pandemic and people were dying.

Family and Sweden, where Skarsgard grew up and spent time in the military, are important themes in his life.

“We’re all a very tight group,” he said. “Everyone lives within two blocks of each other in southern Stockholm and we see each other all the time when I’m home.” (He’s not married but responded with a resounding “no” when asked if he was single.)

He started out as a child actor, but took a break in his early teens before fully embracing an acting career in his twenties. He has said in the past that he didn’t like the attention the game brought him when he was young.

His path to “The Northman” crosses dozens of film and television roles, seemingly different sides of the same coin. He played an Israeli spy (“The Little Drummer Girl”) and a German coming to terms with life after World War II (“The Aftermath”). A young Marine who helps the United States invade Iraq (“Generation Kill”) and a sadistic Army sergeant who leads young recruits astray in Afghanistan (“The Kill Team”). An abusive husband (“Big Little Lies”) and an extremely gentle stepfather who steps in to care for his neglected stepdaughter (“What Maisie Knew”).

He also landed a small but pivotal role in HBO’s prestigious comedy-drama “Succession,” playing Lukas Matsson, a Swedish tech billionaire.

Mark Mylod, an executive producer on the show who directed Skarsgard in two of the three episodes he appears in, said the actor “was really the only choice for the character because of the cleverness of his work.”

The creators of “Succession” had imagined a character with the charisma of “that kind of Elon Musk” but not necessarily based on the CEO of Tesla. Matsson’s character was to have the gravitas of being a real rival to the family behind Waystar Royco, the fictional company at the heart of “Succession,” Mylod said.

“He found a way to make this character so fantastic, watchable and totally believable,” Mylod said. “With a small number of scenes, he had such an impact.” (Mylod wouldn’t say if Matsson will return in Season 4.)

Rebecca Hall, an actress who worked with Skarsgard on “Godzilla vs. Kong,” said she struggled to secure funding for her own passion project, “Passing,” her adaptation last year of Nella’s novel. Larsen from 1929 about the friendship between two black women in New York, one of whom poses as white.

While working on “Kong,” Hall plucked up the courage to ask Skarsgard to read his script. He did and agreed to play the role of a racist husband. “I feel like he cares about good art in the world and will do whatever he can to support it,” Hall said in an interview, adding that the character was the kind he was good at. cheek. “He’s no stranger to complicated characters doing bad things.”

For Skarsgard, “there is no strategy or plan” in his career. “The sweet spot is when I’m intrigued by the character, and I understand certain aspects of him and he makes me curious to know more,” he said. “It’s super fun because it means I’d probably like to dive in and explore that a little deeper.”

On “The Northman,” diving meant bulking up. He’s also reunited in the film with Kidman, who played his wife in “Big Little Lies,” for which he won an Emmy, SAG Award and Golden Globe. This time it’s his mother.

The two actors traveled with the rest of the cast to Northern Ireland, Ireland and Iceland for the grueling shoot of “Northman.” Skarsgard described it as “seven months in the mud”.

Eggers, a demanding and meticulous director, said he was “not a sadist to be a sadist”, but was serious about detail and precision, which will come as no surprise to viewers of his films. previous films, such as “The Witch”. and “The Lighthouse”.

Skarsgard has spoken in interviews of being chained up and dragged through the mud. But Eggers said that, like him, Skarsgard wanted the best result. “When we started together, he was only looking for perfection.”

Eggers added, “Alex sort of talked about me pushing him over the edge, but there were many times I remember him asking for another take because he’s just as much of a perfectionist as I am.”

The director admitted that the working conditions were difficult. “I’m not trying to make it difficult for us,” he explained, “but when you’re telling the story of the Viking Age in northern Europe, you’re going to look for places that are punishing, with harsh weather conditions. and extreme terrain. And that’s exactly what it takes to tell this story.

Working with such a large budget and cast was a plus, Eggers said, but also meant a lot of pressure. “If this movie doesn’t work, that’s going to be a problem,” he said.

After all the hard work, Skarsgard said, “I just want people to see the movie, that’s all,” adding, preferably on the big screen.

As is the case with a Skarsgard project, he is nude in parts of “The Northman”, including during a fight scene in a volcano.

Has he ever said no to getting naked? He said he recently did this during a photoshoot after being asked to take his shirt off, saying, “I think there’s enough nudity in the movie.”

Skarsgard, who had spent the morning doing press on Zoom and had traveled across Europe promoting in the days leading up to our conversation, had by the end of the interview somehow slid down the bench seat, laying his head against the pillow. He said he realized his films tended to be heavy. “I may have to do a comedy soon,” he said, adding that he would love to work with satirist Armando Iannucci or British comedy actor Steve Coogan.

“The Northman,” he said, “was so intense. It was the greatest experience of my career but, my God, it was intense.

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