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Playing it cool: Alexander Skarsgård talks politics, homebrew and turning his hand to comedy
From a teenager drinking homemade beer on the bus in Stockholm to a Hollywood power player at home in New York’s hip East Village, Alexander Skarsgård has had quite the journey. Stylist catches up with Sweden’s coolest export
Words: Amy Rose Spiegel
Photography: Filip Van Roe
It’s not every day you get to have lunch with Alexander Skarsgård. But that is exactly what I did last Monday, much to the chagrin of the Stylist office, who were stuck eating their lunch al desko in London while I dined with the 40-year-old Stockholm-born actor in New York. The venue? A table for two at his restaurant of choice, Vic’s, a casual Italian close to his East Village neighbourhood of two years. Over spaghetti alla chitarra with crab, lemon, chilli and mint (take that, Pret) and a salad, the die-hard football fan (he supports Swedish club Hammarby – “I’m crazy about that team”, he tells me) reveals he’s been trying to put down roots in New York but can’t decide between buying a city pad or a suburban escape. “I’m moving out of my place in two days to spend four months filming in Berlin but the East Village is one of my favourite neighbourhoods in Manhattan because it’s weird and diverse.”
Moving to Berlin for the autumn is not the only transition in Skarsgård’s life. His new film,War On Everyone, is a change from his usual oeuvre. His recent work has paired him with a variety of impressive actresses – Kristen Wiig and newcomer Bel Powley in 2015’s The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, Margot Robbie in this year’s The Legend Of Tarzan and Keira Knightley in next year’s World War Two drama The Aftermath – but War On Everyone is his first comedy role for a decade, and teams him with The Martian’s Michael Peña. “I’ve been actively looking for a comedy but [film companies] don’t send comedies my way,” he laments. Why not? I ask. “I don’t know! Because I’m f**king boring?” he retorts, laughing.
A far cry from his breakout role as Eric Northman in HBO’s cult vampire drama series True Blood, Skarsgård plays Terry Monroe, a corrupt, depressed police officer prone to taking bribes, seducing witnesses and lashing out at clowns who cross his path (both figuratively and literally). “I was excited when I read [the script for]War On Everyone towards the end of filming The Legend Of Tarzan, which was intense and all-consuming because of the training and diet,” he explains. “Tarzan was such a good guy, and then I got a script where the first scene is hitting a mime [artist], stealing his coat and driving around drunk. I was like, ‘Yes!’ It felt quite cathartic.”
Over the course of lunch, as we discuss everything from quitting acting and making homebrew beer to who he thinks will win the US election, I realise if there’s one thing Alexander Skarsgård is definitely not, it’s “f**king boring”…
What was the trickiest part about playing your crooked cop character in War On Everyone?
His moral compass is completely off, which is always fun to play. But I need the audience to be on his side, even though he does and says horrible things. You can do stuff that makes people cringe and feel uncomfortable, but the audience has to like and understand him on some level so they’re with you when he does something truly altruistic for the first time in his life. You have to find something in your soul but you can’t be too deliberate, because then you’re playing the audience. I react very strongly to that when I see it on-screen – it feels a bit manipulative.
Were there specific comedies or people that you referenced when preparing for the role?
Everything from cerebral stuff to Will Ferrell – he’s a genius. I’m really into Veep. I think that the showrunner Armando Iannucci is a genius. He did the BBC’s The Thick Of It too, which is also irreverent and out-there, with really smart dialogue.
You’ve lived in the US for over a decade, first LA then in New York. How does it compare to Stockholm, where you were raised?
I grew up in an apartment building in south Stockholm, similar to where I am now. It is now very trendy but when I was a kid it was a working-class neighbourhood. I loved it – a lot of artists and creative people moved there because they wanted space, then people with money followed, but it still has a lot of character. To me, it’s still the most interesting part of Stockholm. I’m definitely a city kid.
Were you ever curious about what kids did in the suburbs?
When I went to high school, we visited the suburban kids when someone had an empty house. Forty of us would take a bus to the suburbs to party. I brewed my own beer behind our refrigerator where it was warm enough for the yeast to grow. I didn’t care if it tasted good, I just wanted it to be strong. It was like 8% [ABV], it was horrible! I think my dad [theatre and film actor Stellan Skarsgård] tasted it once and was like, “Mmm, you can hold onto that.” That was what we did – chugging bottles of thick beer-sludge on the bus. The goal was just to get drunk.
Your father did a lot of theatre when you were young. Did you see any of his plays?
I didn’t go to any plays at all. I wasn’t into him doing [Swedish playwright August] Strindberg and stuff. It wasn’t like growing up with a famous dad. He wasn’t working in the States a lot until he did Breaking The Waves when I was 19, then Good Will Hunting the following year. But he worked with [acclaimed Swedish director, writer and producer] Ingmar Bergman when I was a kid – I remember running around the theatre and this weird old man would be talking to my dad on stage. My favourite part was the hair and make-up room with all the prosthetics and crazy wigs. It was obviously a dream for a little kid to put that stuff on. There was one big, crazy nose that scared me a bit.
How often do you go back to Sweden?
A lot. I go four times a year – I was there for the whole of August. My family is all there – my mum is still in the apartment we grew up in and my dad and his wife live a block away. My siblings [Skarsgård has four brothers, two half-brothers and a sister] are all in a three-block radius.
Where in Stockholm would you recommend for Stylist readers?
Nytorget Square in Södermalm – it’s a little square overlooking the city. It’s the epicenter of south Stockholm where I grew up. It’s a great area for shopping, especially antiques and record stores. There are also lots of great bars and restaurants, including Nytorget 6. That’s a lovely afternoon, to have lunch there and wander around. A 15-minute walk away is Fyra Knop, a low-key creperie run by some friends of mine from Algeria and Morocco. They’re the loveliest people.
What was the biggest adjustment you had to make when you realised you’d become famous?
I quit – I stopped acting for eight years. I did a TV movie [The Dog That Smiled] when I was 13 which got some attention and it made me uncomfortable. People would recognise me but I just wanted to be normal. I think a lot of kids feel that way – you just want to blend in. I found my way back to acting when I was 21 after I finished in the military [Sweden had mandatory military service until 2010] and didn’t know what else to do. The reason I quit had nothing to do with the work, it was everything around it. So I thought, maybe I should give it a go and see how I feel as an adult. I didn’t want to wake up when I was 55 and think, ‘Ahh sh*t, I should have tried that’. So I went to New York to theatre school to check it out.
And now you’ve lived in the US for 12 years – can you vote in the upcoming elections?
No, I’m a Swedish citizen. But I’m more interested in the American political system than the one in Sweden. What happens in the States will reverberate around the world. I think Hillary will win. On a global scale, the way Trump talks about dealing with foreign policy is very scary. The consequences, were he elected president, would be devastating.
Would you stay in the US if Trump were elected?
I don’t know that I would, actually.
As we head into winter, everyone is looking forward to the new crop of TV shows coming to our screens – would you ever consider a return to TV?
Maybe! True Blood was the most amazing adventure of my life; I met some of my best friends. We wrapped that two years ago and I can’t say I’m dying to sign another six-year contract, but it’s all about the material and who’s behind it. When Big Little Lies, a mini-series that I shot for HBO in the spring, came up with Jean-Marc Vallée [Dallas Buyers Club] directing all the episodes and a brilliant cast [it also stars Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon], it was an amazing experience. I’m doing a Netflix movie next, then a studio movie. The landscape has changed completely, it’s not the old dogmatic TV versus film [debate].
Tell us about the Netflix movie…
That’s what I’m shooting in Berlin. It’s called Mute, by Duncan Jones, who directed Moon. It takes place 30 years in the future. It’s about a guy who severed his vocal cords when he was a kid, which is my role. It’s a murder mystery. His girlfriend goes missing, and he’s trying to find out what happened.
How is the packing going for your extended stay in Berlin?
I’m a very light packer. Two days from now, I’ll figure out what I need for the next few months and bring one suitcase. I’m not very attached to my stuff. Although I will bring a couple of books – I’m currently reading Dark Money by Jane Mayer. It’s about how a select group of powerful people in America have got some moderate Republicans to adhere to a way more conservative agenda, which has changed the tone of the current political discourse. It’s fascinating.