Alexander Skarsgard interview: The Legend Of Tarzan, Leeds
The new big screen Tarzan on The Legend Of Tarzan, how living in Leeds turned his life around, and being Alexander Skarsgard...
Once he’d finished his military service in Sweden, Alexander Skarsgard – the new big screen Tarzan – decided to move to the north east of England. Specifically: Leeds. On the eve of The Legend Of Tarzan being released in the UK, we picked things up from there…
How was Leeds, did you like it?
I loved it.
Can you do a Leeds accent?
No, it’s not very good. We ended up there, a buddy and I. We wanted to go to England after high school, we just wanted to go to England to have some fun.
Leeds is a fun place.
The thing is, most of our friends were in London, a lot of people from Sweden in their twenties go to London and work in a café or sell shoes or whatever on Oxford Street, so we wanted to avoid that. It’s such a cosmopolitan city, and we already had twenty of our friends from Stockholm here, but we wanted a real British experience so we looked at a map and said ‘All right, let’s go to Leeds.’ We had a flat, I loved it.
I went back a couple of years ago, and it’s become more cosmopolitan. But great people, I really enjoyed it.
So, I hear you had to really train for that Tarzan body. What was the first thing you ate after it wrapped?
Banoffee Pie. A week before we wrapped, Tess in the costume department made it. I didn’t know what banoffee pie was, but she brought it to set and everyone was enjoying it, Sam Jackson was walking around with his cake and I’m like, ‘oh, you motherfucker!’ So when we wrapped the movie, it was a pickup of me on a soundstage, and they dropped the sheet behind me and there was a cold beer and a massive banoffee pie there. I started crying. It was brilliant.
The two words the director used to talk about you were ‘grace’ and ‘verticality’.
Does that ring a bell?
I wanted to put on weight. I wanted to get a bit bigger, because I’m naturally quite lean, but I didn’t want him to look like a broiler. It was important that when Tarzan moves through the jungle, it was important that every muscle was there for a reason. When he moves through the jungle he has to look like somebody who belongs there. It’s his home, his natural habitat. I had the pleasure of working with Wayne McGregor, who’s one of the greatest choreographers in the world, and he was with us every day on set, and exploring the physicality of the character was so much fun.
It was more than just lifting weights and eating chicken breasts, it was important that he was flexible and nimble, so we worked a lot with Pilates and yoga, that kind of stuff. And mapping it out. I thought it was such an interesting take on a classic, iconic character and a classic story, because he starts out as Lord Greystoke. I didn’t know what to expect when I got the script, and I open it up and one page one he’s sitting drinking tea with the Prime Minister. Very buttoned-up. But because he grew up in the jungle, he’s a great observer and he adapts, because you have to in the jungle. He went back to London, he’s been there for eight years now, and he thinks ‘this is my legacy, this is my obligation to be Lord Greystoke, to run the manor because my parents are gone.’ So he does it, but he doesn’t belong there.
In terms of his physicality it was interesting to play someone who deep down is an animal, but he’s learned how to play the part of a British Lord. Slowly, together with Wayne, we worked on when he goes back to the jungle, to his roots, and slowly he goes from John Clayton to Tarzan. To map that out, and find these moments, maybe even at the beginning of the movie, for a split second when the animal comes out; it can be a little movement or a sound, something where he loses it, not when he’s around people but when he relaxes for a minute. I loved that, because it’s so small and detailed.
What’s the biggest challenge of playing the role?
There were quite a few challenges, taking on a role like Tarzan.
It’s like you were the first one.
What made you want to do it?
I wanted to please my father. He’s a massive Tarzan fan.
Were there conversations around the dinner table at Christmas where you were spilling the beans on Tarzan?
He grew up watching Johnny Weismuller, in the fifties and sixties. He would save his money and every weekend he would go to the Saturday matinee in Sweden, and watch Tarzan. So, he was more excited about this than I was! I thought it was a brilliant script. It’s a brilliant take on a classic, iconic tale. It’s almost the opposite of the novel, or most of the old movies. You see the origin story in flashbacks, you get to see how he ended up in the jungle, what happened to his parents, him growing up with the apes. But the main story is this Victorian gentleman who is forced to go back to the place where he was born and raised; a place he loves, but he’s also afraid of going back. He made some enemies there, and he’s also afraid of himself, and what he’s capable of there. And slowly, he reverts back to a more atavistic state.
From a character perspective it was interesting to play, to work on that, that duality, the dichotomy that I think is a metaphor for being human. Being civilised but at the same time being an animal, and the friction that creates. Exploring that with David, and also with Wayne McGregor and the physicality of it, of letting the animal come out, in a way.
You mentioned earlier that every muscle is there for a reason. When you are literally reshaping your body for a role, how does that change the way you perform, the way you interact with the character? Not just picking up a script and learning, but the additional physicality.
Because it was so specific, it’s so detailed, which was new and exciting for me. Physicality is obviously a very important aspect of a character, and part of finding a character and creating a character, but it’s never been this specific. It was more like, ‘I think this is his general posture, or this is how this guy moves’ – this [Tarzan] was an amazing opportunity to find those moments and in detail work on ‘where are we? – is he John Clayton or is he Tarzan, where are we on that scale right now? How much do we want to show, how much are we holding back? Is he relaxing, is he letting it out, how much is he holding back?’ There were so many aspects of that, in terms of the diet, or working with the trainer, working with Wayne, it was unlike anything I’ve ever done before.
David made a parallel about that, about Tarzan being between two worlds and about you being between old Europe and new America. Is that how you feel in the film industry?
A little bit, I guess. I’ve been in the States for twelve years, so it is my home, but at the same time, it’s not. When I go home to Stockholm, I don’t have a place there anymore, like an apartment, but it still feels like I’m going home and I still say ‘I’m gonna go home,’ even though I’m only there a few weeks a year. I spent my formative years there, and every street corner will have significance to me – there’ll be a childhood memory like ‘that’s where I fell,’ or ‘that’s where a girl broke up with me,’ everything means something. I moved to LA, and I didn’t have any memories; I had nothing, no history. Everything in LA or New York, I mean now I’ve lived there for a while, but it’s created as an adult, within the last ten years, so it’ll never have that depth or that significance as my home will. In a way, both places feel like home and I am, at the same time, out of place.
Did you have any issues with doing the English accent?
Yeah, it was tough. I worked with Roisin McCarty, who’s an amazing dialect coach. It was important to get it – he didn’t grow up speaking English, so I would have gotten away with a slight accent, because he didn’t speak it. I mean, he met Jane, but she’s American, so he would have learned it in an American accent and then eight years ago he moved to England. It would have been fine with a bit of an accent, but at the same time it was very important to me … I didn’t think that he would. I thought John, or Tarzan, is a master at adapting to the current surroundings, the current situation. If he wants to fit in, to blend in, he would be able to do that, because that’s how he survived in the jungle. So I had to work with her quite a bit.
You quit acting when you were thirteen because you couldn’t handle being a celebrity. How do you handle it now, and how are you going to handle it, because Tarzan is going to be a lot bigger than anything you’ve done.
Um … I don’t know! You’re scaring me, now. Thirteen is a rough age for any kid, it’s like, I was insecure. I think most people are insecure when they’re thirteen. It’s hard. Your body, your mind, everything is changing, you’re going from a child to an adult – that’s when it all starts, or around that time – so to be in the spotlight at that time was very uncomfortable for me, and I didn’t like it. It made me insecure. Then when I was twenty, I found my way back into it, when I was in Leeds, and that’s when I decided to give it another go. I applied to a theatre school in New York, and I went there, to Marymount.
But it all started at Leeds Metropolitan, I went to the library at the uni and had them help me select a monologue, and I borrowed a video camera and shot the audition at the uni library, submitted it and got in, and that’s how it started. I missed it. I remember it being fun as a kid, and I felt like, ‘well I’m twenty now, as opposed to thirteen, maybe it’ll be easier, maybe I can handle it differently, and maybe see it that if someone comes up to talk to you or give you a compliment, instead of being uncomfortable with that or insecure, see it as a good thing. It’s nice that something you were so invested in meant something to someone.’ Which is quite lovely, isn’t it? I tried to think of it that way, and I still do. Because I’m so passionate about what I do for a living, and these projects and these characters, and if that means something to somebody, that’s quite lovely. I’d rather have that than no-one reacting at all.
Did you have a Plan B in case the acting wasn’t going to work out?
Not really. I was thinking about architecture – I was interested in that as a teenager, and still am. So I thought, maybe that.
You studied political science, didn’t you?
Yeah. I couldn’t really… I was eighteen, nineteen, I was in the military after college, and I was trying to figure out what to do. There was nothing that I was like ‘ooh I have to do this,’ so maybe that’s what I started thinking, ‘well, I did acting before, I tried that as a kid’ and I remembered it being fun, I remembered enjoying the experience. I didn’t think that twenty years later I would still do it, but I felt like I should probably give it a go, now, so I can at least dismiss it if I find out it isn’t for me, so I won’t look back in thirty years and go ‘oh shit.’ Then I kind of got stuck doing it.
I’m curious about how you select projects. What is it about a role that makes you go, ‘that’s for me’?
Next question. No, it’s a combination of the script, the part, the director. Those components. I did Diary Of A Teenage Girl, a tiny indie movie, before Tarzan.
That was amazing, by the way.
I mean, he was a creep, but you made him not creepy.
That’s why I got excited about that. I read it and thought ‘this is an interesting challenge, is there any way, without justifying what he does, of at least making it uncomfortable for the audience, where you’re conflicted and you’re like, ‘I want to hate him but it’s not that easy’.’ In meeting Mari, the filmmaker, I was just so excited. It was a less than a million budget, tiny tiny, and then after that I read Tarzan, and I thought it was a brilliant take on an iconic story and character, I met with David, who’s just the most amazing filmmaker, and I got really excited about that, and after that I did War On Everyone, which is tonally completely different. It’s also an indie with John Michael McDonagh as a filmmaker. It’s those components that you get excited about; the filmmaker, the script, the character.
Do you have a wishlist of roles you want to play, or directors you want to work with?
Any Swedish projects?
Yeah, I haven’t worked in Sweden in a while. We shot Melancholia in Sweden. It was set in England. I would love to do something in Swedish, it’s been a while. It’s not like I feel I’ve left Sweden behind and I’m now in the States, and there are a lot of really interesting young filmmakers in Sweden now, a lot of great stuff coming out of Sweden.
When you back to Sweden, do you stay with your mum?
Yeah. Or my dad. They’re divorced but they’re best friends, and they live on the same street in South Stockholm, a block from each other.
And when you go home is it just business as usual? Bring your laundry down…
Yeah. Which is so lovely, and I still have my childhood friends who I grew up with, and South Stockholm is now quite trendy and expensive, but growing up it was a working-class neighbourhood. All my childhood friends are from working-class families, and none of them are in the movie business. It’s quite lovely when you get home, and my best friend’s a carpenter and another one works at a retirement home, and they’ve known me since I was six, so there’s no bullshit. They don’t take that.
Many of your family members are acting, so what is the conversation at the dinner table? Is it shop talk?
A little bit. It’s such a big part of my life and my brother’s and my Dad’s – my other brother is a doctor like Mum, and so you talk about it, you ask ‘how’s work, what are you working on, what are you excited about?’ But it’s also a way to escape and just be with your family, and we don’t talk too much about it.
Presumably you’re all under NDAs for all the projects that you’re on.
Can you say anything about the HBO series you’re doing next?
It’s called Big Little Lies, it’s a miniseries directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, a French-Canadian director who did Dallas Buyers Club. We’re shooting right now, I’m flying back there tomorrow. It’s a miniseries, not an ongoing show, about an affluent neighbourhood in Monterey, California, all these Type A personalities, all very competitive, they all have kids in the same kindergarten. It’s sort of mundane, trivial, jealousy, that kind of stuff, domestic drama. But it cuts between that and an interrogation room, and you find out somebody’s been murdered, leading up to a trivia night at a fundraiser at the school. You realise that someone is going to get murdered by another parent.
Those fundraisers are rough!
People say exactly that, in the interrogation room. It’s really fun, because it’s very trivial stuff, like an argument between two parents in a kitchen, knowing that it might lead up to murder, or knowing that it will but you don’t know who the victim is, or the murderer, everything gets heightened. So you watch it, and you’re going ‘oh, is this the spark of something that’s going to lead to …’ We’re shooting that and having a lot of fun.
Alexander Skarsgård, thank you very much!
The Legend Of Tarzan is in UK cinemas from July 6th.
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