The mighty Stellan Skarsgård needs no introduction. He has over a hundred movies on his CV, covering the box office-annihilating likes of Thor and The Avengers as well as more experimental fare like Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. He’s also starred in River very recently on the BBC.
Back in February, Mr Skarsgård was in London to talk about his new movie Our Kind Of A Traitor, a twisty John le Carré adaptation in which he stars as Dima, a Russian mob financier who forms an unlikely friendship with a holidaymaking teacher named Perry (played by Ewan McGregor). This bond leads them down a dark path as Dima tries to sell out his gangster pals to MI5 using Perry as a middleman.
We sat down with a very dapper Stellan Skarsgård in a swanky hotel room to talk about the movie…
Dima feels like a perfect role for you. He’s an eccentric guy, he’s got a darker edge and a softer side to him as well. What were your first impressions when you read the script?
Well, of course I saw that. And I liked that. But it was also that… most of the characters I play, I under play. Almost to a fault, sometimes. It’s a… I’m almost sometimes too subtle in my acting. But this time, this was a character where I could definitely go full out. And I was really excited to be allowed to do something with a character that is so larger than life and so expansive. And I of course had a lot of pleasure doing it.
But also it is the contradictions. It’s a very ambiguous character, because you… of course he’s a bad guy in some ways; he’s a killer and a criminal and comes from very hard background and probably spent half his life in prison. But at the same time he’s like you and me, and he’s human and he’s vulnerable. I really liked the idea of this tough guy letting his guard gradually fall because of the friendship with the Perry character [played by Ewan McGregor] and eventually expose him in his vulnerability.
And were you familiar at all with the book beforehand?
Err, I hadn’t read the book before I got the script but I read it as soon as I got it. I’ve read most of John le Carré’s books. I’m familiar with the man.
When you did The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher told you not to read that book. What are the benefits of reading or not reading, do you think, when you’re playing a character that’s pre-existing?
I don’t know… the reason I read it is because I knew it would be a good book. If I had any fear that it would be a bad book, I wouldn’t read it. Because it’s not worth it. There’s so many films made out of bad books, and I don’t have time for those. And I there was one film I made where I unfortunately read the book which was really bad, and I did press for it and they asked me what I thought about the book and I told them it was really bad, and created such a… it became such a mess.
When you take on a character that has such a murky past, how do you get into that mind-set?
Well, it’s not that difficult. And it’s not a mind-set, really. It’s… he’s like a child in some ways, he’s very… his background is so simple and so brutal, that his reactions are on instinct in some ways. And, at the same time he has this mathematical brain which makes it possible for him to understand and remember long lists of numbers. And he’s one of the richer guys in the world right now and he’s handling enormous amounts of money. So all those contradictions are interesting.
Basically, I made him the brutal naïve guy in one way…. but, of course, smart as hell. And I like that he’s not… he’s very hard to… he’s not what you expect from him all the time. Killing a man is nada to him, and his own death is not that important to him either because he’s been living so close to his own death all his life. So the only thing that is important to him is, based on instinct… based on being a kind of traditional patriarch… is family. And that’s all.
And then I think he’s… the friendship he develops with Perry, I think he’s surprised about it because I don’t think…. in the world he lives… that sort of friendship doesn’t exist. And he hasn’t any friend that are unselfish and as good as Perry is, and it rocks him to the very foundation of his world.
And what was it like working with Ewan McGregor to build up that rapport?
We’ve worked together once before, on Angels & Demons, and we had a lot of fun. We didn’t do much acting together in that film, but we had much fun on the set. And I wanted to work with him again and I was very happy that this project came up. I have fun with that guy…
Did that help to bring the friendship of the characters together?
Of course, of course… that sort of growing intimacy between them, that is not scripted. That is something that the actors do.
This must be one of the more intense shoots that you’ve done, it was six locations in ten weeks or something like that… did that help to understand the urgency that the characters were facing, in a way?
I don’t know, maybe it did, but shooting is always such an intense and weird thing. Even if you’re in the same spot all the time, it is extremely intense. So the change of location didn’t add much to that, but it’s kind of cool. There aren’t many films that are shot like that anymore. Where you actually move between countries to shoot it.
For Avengers, in the Albuquerque desert, we shot New York there. And I was standing on a platform, nine feet high… and it was the rooftop of a skyscraper in New York. And it was all desert around me! So, you don’t travel as much as you used to do, so I was very happy to get around a little.
A lot of the scenes in Our Kind Of Traitor are really tense. One tennis match in particular comes to mind. What’s it like on set when you’re trying to build that kind of tense atmosphere?
Well, the tension is the easy part to act. And then it is, of course, in the editing. How they sort of cut it to create that tension. The hard part is hitting the ball, because I’m absolutely worthless as a tennis player. And if you see, they have carefully cut around my playing. Ewan turned out to be a much better tennis player than he promised me, and it was extremely humiliating.
Susanna White proves here that she’s a really talented director. What was her style of working, and how does it compare to the directors you’ve worked with before?
She’s a very good director. She’s a very talented woman. And I think she knows what film she wants to make. And that is always comforting as an actor. But she is also a person that you can reason with, and she listens to everybody, but she makes the decisions. I really liked working with her.
I checked her up beforehand, because my son Alexander worked with her on [2008 TV miniseries] Generation Kill. So, I called him first and said ‘how is she?’, and he said she was great.
Have you ever thought about directing yourself? You’ve worked with so many, you must have an idea of what makes a good one…
Yeah, but the thing is, you don’t know… theoretically, I could probably match any industrial director. In terms of just setting up the shots and getting the story told. But what you can’t tell is if you can use those tools to create something personal. And if I can’t do that it’s not worth anything. And, it’s also, I don’t think I have the patience. I can make three films in a year, instead of making one film every five years. And, I really enjoy acting. But of course I interfere anyway.
Did you do much interfering on this one?
No, not much. But I think that every film has to be the director’s film, because if it’s not personal, it doesn’t become good enough. Which means you can have a lot of ideas, but you just place them on the floor in front of the director and then the director picks and uses whatever they want.
Recently, British viewers have seen you on TV in River. That’s another quite complex character, isn’t it? What’s it like getting into a character that’s so fractured, mentally?
Yeah, it’s… a lot of it is actually playing the moments. The way it’s written becomes the fractured character. The fantastic thing with the River character was that, normally, most male characters are… because of male culture… not showing their emotions. And, so you play with a lid on. But with River, all the action he has manifests… the dead people he imagines and is having conversations with… he doesn’t have to protect himself, which means he can be absolutely emotionally naked in those scenes.
And that is fantastic for me as an actor. That is normally…. a lot of actresses get to do it all the time, but for a male actor to do that is fantastic. So I really wanted to make myself as vulnerable as ever possible in those scenes, but while I was doing the scenes in the police office I just kept the lid on.
What’s the difference, from your perspective, between doing a TV series and a film?
I haven’t done that much television. I mean, really, River is the first serious attempt to do television. I did a couple of episodes of Entourage a couple of years ago, and stuff. But it is… the big thing is, of course, the time. You don’t get as much time when you do television usually. Other than that, sometimes, you can feel that the artistic centre is sometimes, in television – not so much on River, but especially American TV shows – the artistic centre is the writer, it’s the show-runner. And the director is basically just a runner who puts up the camera.
Which is sort of creating a generation of TV directors that get their egos destroyed a little. But then of course they usually go and do some singles for television and then they can build up their ego again.
All of the films I make now are either $100 million or $3 million, and everything in between is gone. And those medium budget films were the films that were written by the best writers, acted by the best actors and directed by the best directors. And all those people have now moved into television. And that is where the future is, and independent films are living a very hard life and trying to just find a screen to show them is very difficult. Since the distributors and the theatres have sort of adjusted to the popcorn movie culture where you go out with 5,000 copies and vacuum clean the market in three weeks.
But I don’t mind. Storytelling. There will always be storytelling, whether it’s on the big silver screen or it’s your television or your iPhone or whatever, people will keep on telling stories. And in some ways it’s liberating with television because you used to have to make a story in one and a half to two hours, and that was it. Two shows, in the evening. But now you can adopt the size of the show to the material, so some stories need four hours, some stories need eight hours, and that is of course fantastic.
Lars von Trier is of course a special case, who did five and half hours for cinema! [Laughs]
And you’re in all of the formats!
Why not? [Laughs]
Our website is Den Of Geek, so many of our readers will have seen all of the Marvel movies that you’ve done. When you first signed up for Thor, did you have any idea that you’d still be talking about Erik Selvig five years later?
No, I had no idea. I was also very unprepared. It was in the very beginning of the Marvel empire’s success, so I didn’t quite know where we were heading. I don’t think they knew either. And I remember, one of the first meetings, I was sitting there with all the executives of Marvel and I said to them, “so… this cartoon superhero business, is there any money in that?”
And they looked at me as if I was an idiot, which I was of course. [Laughs]
[After I’ve finished laughing] So… you were surprised when it got so big then?
Yeah. I mean, they’ve broken record after record. I’m now on the list of the most grossing actors – box office grossing actors – in America. I’m number 13… of all times! And it’s not because I’ve added so much to those films, but I’ve been in pretty successful films.
And is that something that you’re gonna keep coming back to? Is Thor 3 on your slate?
Thor 3 is not on my slate. Err… but maybe the next Avengers. I have a five-film deal with them, and they still have one option. But I like working with them, and there are some really brilliant people – Kevin Feige is fantastic, and Joss Whedon…
I was lucky enough to interview Joss Whedon on Age Of Ultron. He was talking about how he had to fight quite hard to keep everything in, but some scenes had to be cut. It can’t have been great to find that your scenes were among the ones that had to be trimmed?
Yeah, they were. But I wasn’t supposed to be in it to begin with, and then suddenly they called me saying “we’ve got some scenes here, can you come and do them?” But they were cut down, yeah…
No, it’s really difficult stuff, to do those. Because you have a story with maybe ten leading characters that you have to follow and put together, and no one is better than Joss to do that. He’s remarkable. But it is difficult of course.
So what have you got coming up next?
I’m doing a film with Volker Schlöndorff called Montauk Revisited, which is based on the idea of Preston B. Nichols’ book Montauk. Colm Tóibín is writing the script, together with Volker, and we shoot in New York, in Montauk, in late April.
And with that we’re out of time. Stellan Skarsgård, thank you very much!
Our Kind Of Traitor reaches UK cinemas on Friday 13th May.