First a Vampire, Now a Leading Man: Alexander Skarsgård Can’t Be Tamed
“Use your phone and shine a light over here,” says Alexander Skarsgård, whose indefinitely appropriated Southern twang echoes off the walls inside one of the many vast stages at Hollywood Center Studios in Los Angeles. It’s True Blood’s final day of production before the show’s annual hiatus (they’ll reconvene in November for season five), and the near-empty lot we’ve been wandering feels like a schoolhouse abandoned by its students for the summer. Most of the cast and crew have driven out to Malibu this afternoon to film the pyre-heavy final scene of the HBO series’ fourth season, but Skarsgård and his costar Stephen Moyer have been directed here to re-shoot a close-up. “Follow me,” he says as we edge closer to the darkest part of the hangar-size room.
“I wish I could find a fucking light switch,” he adds, before eventually flipping one. The chamber we’re in—done up like a dank basement with black columns and intimations of evil—suddenly becomes awash in the glow of overhead lights. “This is where I tortured Lafayette,” he says with a satisfied grin, referring to the show’s second season, in which his character Eric Northman, the sheriff of Area 5, chained Nelsan Ellis’ drug-abusing, cross-dressing fry cook to a post. He waves me through another door into what looks like a nightclub filled with barstools, dusty liquor bottles, and a poster of a vampiric George W. Bush. “Welcome,” he says with exaggerated gravitas, “to Fangtasia!”
For the past four years, Skarsgård’s spot-on portrayal of a seemingly cold-blooded exsanguinist—who this season upended expectations by betraying more than a little amnesia-induced emotion for Anna Paquin’s Sookie Stackhouse—has turned the 35-year-old Swedish actor into an object of desire for men and women around the world. Still, the alpha male label doesn’t fit, at least not entirely. “In most of the projects I’m recognized for, I’ve played leaders,” he says. “And so, of course, that’s how people want to pigeonhole me. You’d be shocked by the number of offers I get to play Eric Northman under a different name.”
Skarsgård’s latest role in this month’s remake of the ultra-violent Sam Peckinpah film Straw Dogs won’t do much to change the public perception of the 6’4″ actor as a man with testosterone to spare. In director Rod Lurie’s adaptation of the 1971 cult thriller, Skarsgård plays Charlie, a small-town football hero whose emasculation at the hands of his high school sweetheart, Amy, and her new husband, David—played by Kate Bosworth and James Marsden—results in a simmering rage, which inevitably boils over into a symphony of wildly ungovernable carnage. “Humans are animals,” he says resolutely. “And like other animals we struggle between instinct and rationality. Of course I believe we’ve evolved, but I think it’d be naïve to claim we’re nothing like the rest of the animals with whom we share the planet. At the end of the day, we’re nothing but frappuccino-sipping savages.”
Or beer-chugging savages, a more accurate description of Charlie, who David, a Hollywood screenwriter, commissions to renovate his isolated property’s farmhouse. Tensions build throughout the film as Charlie and David try to out-brute each other, each time with greater consequences. “There were times when Alex really did beat the shit out of me,” says Marsden of the film’s many physically demanding scenes. “There was a moment when he launched me into a wall, smacked me right in the face, and pressed a gun into my forehead. He pressed it so hard you could see the ring of the barrel on my forehead afterward. But the second they cut the scene, he’d go right back to his compassionate, considerate self: ‘Are you okay, Jimmy? Everything fine?’”
While David is out hunting one afternoon—a display of barbarism into which he’s been pressured by Charlie and his crew—Charlie drops by the house, where he corners and attacks Amy. The rape scene, which caused a stentorian uproar when the original Straw Dogs first screened four decades ago, is no less difficult to watch in the remake. After violating Amy, whose mix of pleasure and pain while being assaulted lends the scene a layer of uncomfortable ambiguity, Charlie sits back and watches as one his hulking cronies follows suit. “It fucking breaks his heart, watching her get raped by someone else,” says Skarsgård, the gaze of his piercing greenish-blue eyes difficult to match in this moment. “It’s not like he ever says, ‘Yeah, fuck her!’ In a way, he feels like she’s his territory. He thinks, ‘You’re my woman. I offered to protect you for the rest of my life, but you didn’t want that, did you? If you don’t feel this passion, this real thing we share, then fine, you’re on your own.’ It’s definitely more complicated than him fucking her because he can’t have her.”
The set of Straw Dogs, the production of which Skarsgård admits was “exhausting on an emotional level,” seems an unlikely place for romance to blossom—nonetheless, it’s where he met Bosworth, whom he dated for two years until they broke up in July. “Kate is such a great actress, and she’s so much more than a good-looking Hollywood starlet. We were just really good friends at the time,” says Skarsgård, who lives on his own in a rented house in the Hollywood Hills. “But we shared a really special experience on that film.” (Although I didn’t know it at the time, Skarsgård was safeguarding a secret—the dissolution of his relationship with Bosworth had yet to become public fodder—which partly explains why our easy banter atrophied into guarded responses so quickly when the subject was broached. It didn’t last long. A downright neighborly guy, he generously explained, “I make it a rule not to talk about myself and Kate. I so desperately try to keep my private life out of the tabloids because becoming a celebrity rather than an actor can really get in the way of a good performance.”)
Skarsgård and I are now in his dressing room waiting for him to be called into hair and makeup. He strips down to a pair of black briefs, consulting a rack of clothes he’s meant to wear for today’s shoot: tattered military pants, a dark, ripped shirt, and “WWI–style” combat boots. There’s not much by way of interior design except for a couch and a wooden desk, on which sits a set of True Blood posters awaiting his autograph (they’re for the family members of two of the show’s head accountants), a second pair of folded black underwear, and a white box decorated with a crimson bow. “Aw, look how sweet this is,” he says, holding the contents of the box up to the light. “It’s a hand-painted vampire!”
After he gets dressed, we move to a similarly barren room, where Moyer, who plays his nemesis Bill Compton, is wearing a costume almost identical to Skarsgård’s, his hair being parted by a doting stylist. Skarsgård sits down next to him and, almost immediately, a makeup artist begins applying dots of red corn syrup to his cheeks, chin, neck, and chest. “Don’t you want to know why Eric’s face is all bloody?” Moyer says in a surprisingly thick British accent given the seeming authenticity of his Southern drawl on the show. Skarsgård nods at Moyer to continue. “He rips somebody’s heart out and then drinks blood from the aorta like it’s a straw. It’s so fucking cool!” Skarsgård, who’s been known to deliver some of the show’s wittiest one-liners, says, “When I’m finished, I just look into the camera and burp. It’s so gross.” Perched next to one another like the Bobbsey Twins as imagined by Quentin Tarantino, True Blood’s two greatest adversaries catch each other’s gaze and erupt with laughter.
Skarsgård grew up in Södermalm (a district in central Stockholm that he says has the same artsy vibe as Lower Manhattan), the oldest of seven children. Despite the fact that his father, Stellan Skarsgård, is one of Sweden’s most revered actors, he insists theirs was a normal life. At 13, he lived for six months in Budapest, where his father was filming Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg. While there, he attended a school run mostly by American teachers. He attributes this experience and the short time he spent studying theater at New York’s Marymount Manhattan College in 1997 with the almost total evisceration of his Swedish accent. (Although he looks like a Norse god, Skarsgård talks like a Texan rancher, an incongruity he says came from working with his Straw Dogs dialect coach. “This slight twang will stick,” he says, “until I work on the next thing.”) After six months at Marymount, he moved back to Sweden to chase after a girl he’d met only three weeks prior to his trip to New York. “This was before Skype, and it was really expensive to call,” he says. “She broke up with me after six months and I was devastated, very naïve—not old and bitter like I am now. After she dumped me, I was like, I’m coming home, baby! Please take me back! I rode into town on my white stallion thinking I was saving the most beautiful relationship in the history of mankind. She dumped me again a couple months later.”
Heartbroken but still determined to pursue acting, Skarsgård bounced around a series of plays, the most demanding of them being a three-hour Swedish production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which he embodied Nick, an impotent overachiever, six days a week for nine months. (That and Generation Kill, the seven-episode HBO miniseries about the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, were, he says, the most challenging roles of his still-young career. Of Generation Kill, which first aired in 2008, he says, laughing, “It’s funny, I spent seven months in the African desert, putting my blood, sweat, and tears—my heart and my soul—into that project, and still, more often than not people want to talk about the six hours I spent filming the music video for Lady Gaga’s ‘Paparazzi.’”)
In 2000, Skarsgård took a trip to Los Angeles from Sweden, where he’d been working steadily in film and on stage, to visit his father. At the suggestion of Stellan’s manager, Skarsgård went to an audition on a whim. “I was just a tourist and it seemed like a fun adventure,” he says of the experience, which landed him his first American film role as a goofy, dumber-than-dirt male model named Meekus in Ben Stiller’s Zoolander. “I would love to do another comedy,” he says, although his upcoming film slate won’t do much to calcify his funny bone.
He’ll next appear in Lars Von Trier’s matrimony-and-Armaggedon drama Melancholia as the fiancé to Kirsten Dunst’s despondent bride-to-be (a performance that won her the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year), whom he can feel slipping away from him on their wedding day. “I’m so madly in love with her and this is supposed to be the best day of my life,” he says. “But I can’t seem to stop us from drifting apart.” The film, which will be released in November, also stars Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, and the elder Skarsgård, who plays his son’s friend and best man.
Although he’d worked with Von Trier in 2000 on a Danish miniseries called D-Day, he was “excited and nervous to explore such a vulnerable character.” Unfortunately, Von Trier’s knack for eliciting career-topping performances from his actors was overshadowed when he uttered three little words during a press conference at Cannes: “I understand Hitler.” Shaking his head at the foolishness of it all, Skarsgård says, “Lars isn’t a racist, but he likes to provoke people. It’s almost like he has Tourette’s. If he’d been drunk and yelled it at someone—if it had felt genuine—that would be one thing, but it’s just bullshit he says because he’s trying to be funny. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and it definitely didn’t this time.”
After Melancholia, he’ll return to alpha territory as the commanding officer of a US Navy destroyer in Peter Berg’s Battleship, a big-screen adaptation of the classic peg-and-grid game costarring a bunch of aliens, Liam Neeson, and a camouflage-wearing Rihanna, whom he insists seemed “like a natural—in the few scenes I shared with her, she was very good.” Despite his initial hesitation about starring in his first mega-budget movie—“I’ve heard they can become more about the explosions than the acting”—he says it was a great experience. Just then, a portly, headset-sporting man, wearing a polo shirt emblazoned with the True Blood logo, knocks on the door to Skarsgård’s dressing room and says, “They’re ready for you on set.”
The Moon Goddess Emporium is relatively new to True Blood, as are those who frequent it, the witches who were introduced to the show this past June. Tibetan prayer flags hang from the room’s vaulted ceilings. It’s a cluttered space made all the more crowded by the 20-odd crew members anxious to film the scene and start their hiatus. Before the cameras begin rolling, Skarsgård walks up to his mark in the center of the room, Moyer kneels in front of him—his character is picking something up off the ground when the shot begins—and the director watches them from his chair in front of a camera monitor. While waiting in their places, Skarsgård looks down at his costar and says dryly, “It looks like he’s sucking me off,” to which Moyer responds by bobbing his head vigorously. Skarsgård closes his eyes and starts moaning with the intensity of a slash-fiction hero, after which Moyer stands up and wipes imaginary fluids from his mouth with the back of his hand. He scans the crowd and after taking a slight bow says, “And the Emmy goes to… ” A crew member whispers to no one in particular, “Now that’s what I call ‘Action.’”
Later that night, the fourth season of True Blood officially wrapped, Skarsgård returns home to shower before meeting me at the Hollywood Roosevelt for a burger and a few ice-cold bottles of IPA. Over two hours, he draws more than a few glances from a group of Australian tourists and even from social gadfly Rumer Willis, the daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore. “It’s you, Eric, isn’t it?” says one particularly guileless man, as if testing the waters before introducing Skarsgård to his wife. “Would you please take a picture with her?” He graciously obliges, wrapping his arm around the woman’s waist and smiling for the camera. “Would you… bite her?” This he does not oblige. When the couple retreats back to a far corner of the restaurant, Skarsgård says, “That’s one thing I’ll never really understand. But the main reason I don’t ever do it is because if I do it just once, every single person will be like, ‘Bite me! Bite me! Bite me!’”
Whereas he doesn’t at all begrudge a forward fan, he’s less patient with paparazzi who follow him to the gym and out to dinner. “They don’t care about you,” he says of the tabloid lensmen. “They just want their money. I’ll never get used to the fact that they camp out to get a picture of me eating a sandwich. It’s strange to me, and I want it to be strange—I don’t ever want to feel like that’s normal.” Which is why he’s excited to relocate for a few months to New York this fall, where he’ll film What Maisie Knew, a relationship drama costarring Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan. “LA is such a one-trick pony—80% of the people here talk exclusively about managers and agents—but New Yorkers don’t really care as much about ‘the industry.’”
Although he never says as much, it seems like this is why Skarsgård remains so connected to his Nordic homeland: Compared to Los Angeles (and New York to a lesser degree), where he’s become wildly famous for playing a pansexual, seldom fully-clothed, 1,000-year-old vampire living in a fictional backroads Petri dish for mutants and Louisianan bumpkins, Sweden seems downright normal. “All of my childhood friends are still in Stockholm,” he says. “Not a single one of them is impressed by me—they’re happy for me, but they don’t give a fuck about that shit. One guy’s a salesman, a couple others are unemployed, and they could care less that they’re hanging out with a ‘celebrity.’” I tell him that sounds like a healthy balance. Skarsgård empties his beer and smiles. “You have no idea, man. I’m so fucking balanced it’s ridiculous!”
ALEX LIKES: Paul & Andre, Los Angeles.
Photography by Andrew MacPherson. Styling by Annie Psaltiras.