Stellan Skarsgård on Thor, The Avengers and Experiencing Melancholia With His Son
Some moviegoers may recognize Stellan Skarsgård as the frequent Lars von Trier collaborator who this November will appear in Melancholia, his fourth film from the controversial Danish director. But more mainstream audiences will recognize the 60-year-old Swedish actor (and father of True Blood breakout actor Alexander Skarsgård) for his work in five mega-blockbusters in the past five years including Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Mamma Mia!, Angels & Demons and most recently Thor, which starred Skarsgård as a scientist who ultimately befriends Chris Hemsworth's title character.
In anticipation of Thor's home release tomorrow, the actor phoned Movieline to discuss his upcoming role in The Avengers, his resume of onscreen intellectuals and the Lars von Trier Cannes controversy.
It seems like you, Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings had the most difficult task in the film because you had to make your modern-day interactions with Thor, this Askgardian character from 965 A.D., seem natural. How did you go about doing that?
Yes, that's true, but we also had the most fun. Being in that little car for a few weeks with those girls was a lot of fun. When we started shooting, it seemed like a normal, modern-day film but then one day three warriors in tights and funny costumes show up. The first reaction when they showed up on set was, "This is not going to work." I think one of Kenneth's biggest achievements here was that he was able to marry those two very different worlds together. Even in language, the Asgards speak differently -- almost like Shakespeare. Kenneth is such a good director though and he makes such interesting characters. After a while, you forget about the costumes and everything that is around and just play normal relationships.
I read that both you and Natalie signed on to Thor entirely because Kenneth was going to be directing. How would you describe his directing style?
Yes, well I actually took it because of Kenneth and because of Natalie because I had worked with her before on Goya's Ghosts. She is just fantastic and wonderful to act with. His way of directing, though, is from the theater, where he comes from. He's used to Shakespeare and handling enormous amounts of words and thoughts and bringing them to life. He's wonderful to work with as an actor because he gives you space on the set to develop not only the character but also the relationships with the characters. He cuts away most of the exposition and brings it to life. Then, he's very funny in a very verbal way. I laughed a lot while working with him.
Is there a particularly funny memory that you can share with us from set?
I'm the worst person to interview because I can never remember specific moments like that. Unfortunately, I remember the experience as a pleasant flow rather than specific incidents.
In Thor and a lot of your other films, you tend to play very intellectual characters. What kind of preparation goes into playing those roles?
A lot of pretension and pretending. Like in Good Will Hunting, when I played the math professor, I had no clue what I was talking about. But it looked good! I don't know why I'm so often cast as a thinking person, because I can tell you that my wife sees me as more of a silly person than an intellectual. My preparation for roles are less about the character's profession than who they are, what their dreams are and in what way are they childish. Even if you're the President of the United States, you still act like a little child and think like a little child sometimes. Childish behavior is what I look for in all of my characters because that is what makes them human.
So what were Dr. Selvig's childish impulses?
He is childish in that he is overprotective of Natalie's character. He gets childish when he is drunk. And there is also some kind of jealousy with Thor in the beginning, I think. Eventually they become friends, but he is very reluctant to accept Thor in the beginning.
I want to talk about the post-credit scene you shared with Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. At what point during Thor's production did you sign onto The Avengers and at what point was that scene filmed?
When I shot Thor, I had no clue about The Avengers, and they hadn't come up with the plot yet. Then last fall, they contacted me and had an idea for the plot of Avengers and asked me if I wanted to be in it. I met with Joss Whedon, they sent me some ideas that I liked, and then I signed up for it. So it came up long after I finished Thor.
Can you talk about how your character will play into The Avengers?
Well, as you can see in the tag scene in Thor, Loki [played by Tom Hiddleston] starts to mess with my character's mind a little bit. So my character is not played the same way in Avengers as he is in Thor but it's also a much smaller role in Avengers. There are so many superheroes fighting for attention in that film.
Which characters does Selvig interact with?
Most of my work is with Jeremy Renner, who plays Hawkeye, and Tom Hiddleston, who plays Loki.
I read that you weren't very much of a Marvel fan when you signed onto Thor. Has that changed?
Because of ignorance, I wasn't a big fan of Marvel. I hadn't read the magazines. They were not as big in Europe as they are in the United States. They're more a part of modern American mythology. I know more about the original Thor than the Marvel Thor. I actually had no idea how important those characters were to the American culture, but Kenneth made sure I got some magazines and I realized that the artistic work is great. The stories are much more advanced than I thought they would be.
Let's switch gears from Marvel to your most recent Lars von Trier film Melancholia. How was it acting opposite your son Alexander?
It was great. I play his best man in the film. I have three sons that are actors and I've worked with the other ones a couple of times. It's particularly fun on set with them because you come to an agreement on how to do certain scenes very quickly because you are related. You have the same references as each other and the same shorthand communication. It's very fluid, light and there is a lot of laughter because it's fun to see your son or your father play someone else. It has a comic effect when you know someone so well.
Do you notice any similarities between your and Alexander's acting styles, either from being on set with him or from watching him in his other projects?
Yes, I notice a certain vulnerability in the eyes that we both have.
You've worked with Lars von Trier so many times now. At what point does he tell you that he has a new project for you?
We talk even when he's not writing a new script because we're friends but he called me a couple months ago because he wanted to be sure that he could get me in his next film. He said, "My next film will be a porno film and you will be the lead. But you will not get to fuck." Immediately, I said yes.
That sounds like it could be controversial, which is not foreign territory for the director. Backtracking, what did you think of the Cannes fuss surrounding von Trier's Hitler comments?
It's silly because everyone knows that Lars von Trier is not a Nazi. He's against the restrictions on immigration and everything. Everybody that knows him knows that he was joking. It was absolutely bizarre. The problem was not the Cannes festival or the journalists. Everybody said, "This is nothing." The problem was the sponsors of the different events. They got scared.
Finally, you have starred in a number of projects that have been huge box office successes like Thor, Mamma Mia!, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and At World's End and Angels & Demons. But I'm curious, which of your American films are you most proud of?
One that I like a lot is Taking Sides. It's a very interesting and difficult theme. It was based on a play, but I find it structurally interesting that you make the audience shift their loyalties between my character and Harvey Keitel's back and forth. That is always an interesting dynamic.