Stellan Skarsgård is the type of actor you recognize instantly after seeing him, but whose body of work is so vast, so varied, that remembering his “stand role” may prove difficult. The Swedish actor has been working for over forty years, starring in a great number films produced in his home country as well as Hollywood fare like The Hunt for Red October, Good Will Hunting, Amistad and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (not to mention he helped spawn one of today’s biggest heartthrobs).
This summer, Skarsgård appeared in the Marvel comic book tentpole Thor as Erik Selvig, a scientist with a little background in Norse mythology. As anyone who saw the movie can attest, the actor’s role quickly became a vital part of the Marvel movie mythology, so I jumped at the chance to chat it up about the film as well as some of his other upcoming projects…
You have a ton on your plate at the moment. Thor hitting Blu-ray, obviously, and now Dragon Tattoo and Melancholia coming out this year. Are you busier than ever? Or have you shot them over a period of time that just worked out that way?
Actually, I work this much all the time. But a lot of the films I do are small independent films that don’t get that much attention. But the big Hollywood productions crowd themselves at the finishing line…
Do you go out of your way to try to balance that work?
I definitely have a policy of going between the big Hollywood films, and then going back—I even try to help finance small projects, sometimes, with first-time directors.
Artistic balance is important! When you came on board with Thor, what was your familiarity with both the mythic Thor and the comic book Thor? He has a legacy in both worlds.
In Scandinavia, I don’t think Thor was very big—but the Marvel Comics were very big in Scandinavia.
Yeah, but he’s also quite a distance from the mythology that I know from Scandinavia. I wasn’t that familiar with it. And I said to Kevin Feige [Marvel Producer] the first time I met him, ‘These comic books are from the fifties and sixties. Does this really play?’ And he just looked at me as if I was an idiot. Which I was. And then he gave me a stack of the modern magazines—or the books, actually—and I thought, ‘Okay. This is something totally different.’ Something I had no idea existed.
How is Thor perceived in Scandinavia? As a character or the idea of Thor.
Some people still believe it. They wear a Thor hammer around their neck, looking back to the glorious days before Christianity. But I don’t think he’s very vivid in the minds of Scandinavians. Not even as vivid as the fictional Thor is in the Americans’.
As you mentioned, these comic book movies can come off as a little silly. Thor is especially fantastical. But then you have someone like Kenneth Branagh, who has directed Shakespeare, who brings some gravitas to this project. How did he go out of his way to ground it for you, or bring you into the reality?
I was impressed when I heard that he was going to do it. And I was impressed when I heard that he wanted me in it. But the success of the Marvel enterprise—if these movies would have been done fifteen, twenty years ago, every dime would have been spent on special effects. They would have been great for the fans, but nobody else would have wanted to see them. But now, they get the best directors, the best writers, the best actors, and they suddenly become fantastic films. So, I think that Marvel’s interest in attracting quality and talent to those stories have made them so much more appealing to people who don’t even know about the superhero characters.
How do you go about crafting character in a giant film like this, as opposed to in some of the smaller movies you were talking about? Is it the same kind of process for you?
Basically, it’s the same thing. Especially if you work with a director like Kenneth Branagh, who is very much interested in the actors and building characters and relationships. First of all, you try to figure out, ‘What do I have to do to make the character work for the film?’ That is the framework so that you don’t come up with things that are counterproductive to the film. And then, within that realm, you can be pretty free. And you sort of invent things and try things. You want to create a character that shows different sides and becomes three dimensional. That’s the hard work. Especially if it’s an action-packed film where you sort of have to squeeze the psychology in between the explosions.
Was there anything that you tried that didn’t seem to work within the reality of the movie?
No, I don’t think so. But it was like we shot two movies. We were competing with realities. We were shooting a normal film in New Mexico for a month, when suddenly, three people in funny clothes show up on the set. It’s ‘The Warriors Three,’ and your immediate reaction is, ‘This is not going to work.’
It’s like a circus!
Yeah, there’s a circus in town. One of the big achievements that Kenneth managed to pull off was to marry those two realities to each other in a believable way. Of course, it is fantastic. We were doing Shakespeare up in Asgard, and down on Earth we were playing something much more realistic.
Was your character always envisioned as sort of a through-line? The Marvel movies are so connected to one another, especially with The Avengers bringing it all together. Was your character always that through-line? Because we have that tag scene at the end that brings you into the next part. Was that always the idea?
That was not an original idea. Whenever you sign up for Marvel, you sign up for a number of films. But they were not ready with the plot of Avengers when we shot Thor. So, they came to me last fall, I think, and said, ‘We’re thinking about bringing [Professor Eric] Selvig into The Avengers as well. Will you do it?’ And then I met with Joss [Whedon], and saw some pages, and here I am.
So are you in the midst of shooting that right now?
The second of September, I will do [my] last day on Avengers.
How are these experiences different for you, from working on Thor to going into this movie?
Well, it’s a much smaller role here, so I didn’t have that much material to do. Also, we are a number of actors trying to share screen time. And we all want to be in the center of attention. No, but it’s very different. Of course, Joss’ temperament is different from Kenneth’s. He comes from a different background. He’s not an actor and he doesn’t come from Shakespeare. He comes from comic books, and that world. But it’s lovely to work with him and I think he’s doing a very good job.
How are Joss’ ways of directing different from Kenneth’s?
Well, he gets happier faster than Kenneth did.
He loves it all.
No, not quite. But he doesn’t do many takes. He’s sort of like, ‘Yeah, yeah! That’s exactly what I need! I’m happy.’
At the end of Thor, you have something bad inside of you. And so this—it might be a smaller part—but is it drastically different from how you were playing Eric in the first film?
I’m under Loki’s spell, which means I can play [him] as weird as I want.
Was that fun?
I appreciated the liberty.
With the movies that you have coming up for the rest of the year—working with guys like David Fincher, Lars von Trier—how are these experiences drastically different? I assume that they’re smaller films than Thor. But when you work with directors like that, how are the relationships different? How do things change from your angle?
It’s like sleeping with different women. The personal relationship is always different. Both Trier and Fincher are directors that I really like a lot. Trier and I go back many years; he’s a very much beloved friend. They are both some of the most skilled directors in the world. But the way of working is totally different, of course. There are different techniques. They’re both aiming for something beautiful, and they usually get it. It’s a great pleasure and much fun to be part of that process. And none of them are the kind of directors who have decided at home every detail of how the shots should be. They try it out. Fisher with a more steady camera, more controlled. And Lars with his handheld camera. As an actor, you’re free to try.
Did you see the original Dragon Tattoo movies? Or did you read the book before doing this one?
I’ve seen the original film, yeah.
Is this drastically different, do you feel?
I mean, it’s based on the same book. It’s not based on the previous film. So, it’s another attempt to film the book, you might say. And it’s written by Steve Zaillian, who is one of the best writers we have, and directed by Fincher, who is one of the best directors.
So do you feel that it will be tonally different?
Thor hits Blu-ray September 13.