Sweden used to be known for peace, Abba and long hours of daylight. These days, from the novels of the late Stieg Larsson to the cult film Let the Right One in, its dark side appears to be taking over the world. And in Alexander Skarsgård, who stars as the 1,000-year-old Viking vampire Eric Northman in the American drama series True Blood – soon to start its second series on Channel 4 – it has an actor who has brought a new level of cool to the vampire genre. Tall, blond and beautiful, Skarsgård mixes sex, danger and laconic humor in a way that sets femoral pulses racing.
True Blood, created by Alan Ball, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of American Beauty and Six Feet Under, is based on the Southern Vampire Mysteries series of novels by Charlaine Harris. Its dark tales of ‘glamoring’ vampires, who can hypnotize their human victims; fangbangers, who are addicted to vampire sex, and users who get high on ‘V’ – vampire blood – have made it the most watched series on HBO in the US since The Sopranos, as well as an internet phenomenon. In Britain it opened with more than two million viewers. Skarsgård says its appeal is that ‘you can sit back and enjoy it, but it’s also really intelligent. It says a lot about society today and about how we relate to each other.’ His appearances as Eric in the first series were few but mesmerizing, and instantly propelled him to the status of the series’ sex symbol. We are going to see a lot more of him in the second series.
There is more to Skarsgård than his fangs, though. He also starred as Brad ‘Iceman’ Colbert in Generation Kill, HBO’s acclaimed drama series about the US invasion of Iraq. And he is currently shooting Lars von Trier’s new sci-fi film Melancholia alongside Kirsten Dunst, John Hurt and Kiefer Sutherland, as well his father, Stellan Skarsgård, best known for his roles in Breaking the Waves and Mamma Mia!. They are filming in Trollhättan – or Trollywood as it is sometimes known – where von Trier has made three previous films. The town is said to have got its name because people believed trolls lived in the nearby river. It seems an appropriate location for an interview with the vampire.
At the gates of the 15th-century manor house where the cast are staying, a small group of Swedish autograph hunters tell me that Skarsgård went out for a run an hour ago and has only just returned. They already have his autograph. ‘He’s really nice,’ they say.
It is not long before Skarsgård bounds up the steps to the lobby, showered and dressed in a simple grey T-shirt and jeans, looking very tall – he is 6ft 4in – and glowingly healthy. The contrast with Eric, whose deathly pallor projects cold menace, is heightened by his friendliness, but common to both are the most striking pale-blue eyes. He is buzzing from the experience of acting with his father that day for the first time ever. ‘We had a little interaction going. It was a lot of fun.’
At 33, he is the oldest of Stellan’s six children from his first marriage: three of his brothers – Gustav, 29, Bill, 20, and Valter, 14, have established acting careers. Sam, 28, has also dabbled in the family business. His sister, Eija, 18, is a model; his mother, My, a doctor. He grew up in Stockholm, on the island of Södermalm. Family life, he says, was ‘pretty chaotic’, the atmosphere ‘very liberal’. His father strolled around naked a lot. Aunts, uncles and grandparents all lived close by.
‘The doors were always open. On any given night, there would be 10 to 15 people around the dinner table. It was very loud, very crazy, there was a lot of food, a lot of alcohol, but it was also very loving. I was very much part of the chaos but I also had my room, and in there, when I was four or five, I would organize my cars and my action figures. I needed some kind of structure, I think, because it was so chaotic in the rest of the apartment.’
His father was performing in repertory theater at the time, and would often be rehearsing one play during the day and performing in another in the evening. ‘He worked a lot,’ Skarsgård says, ‘so I would hang out backstage at the theater and just play there because it was pretty much the only chance I got to spend time with my dad. A lot of the plays were Ingmar Bergman-directed, but I didn’t care about him. It was more fun to play around in the costume department.’
As a young boy he also acted in a number of films, including one, The Dog That Smiled, that brought him stardom at the age of 13. Girls would hang around outside the house. ‘It should have been flattering,’ he says. ‘They came to say “Hi”, or get an autograph, but it made me kind of paranoid and very insecure. I didn’t like it at all.
‘I wasn’t like a Hollywood child actor – “I’m five! I can sing, I can dance, I can act! I wanna be a star!” – the movie I did was because the director was a friend of my dad’s. I told my parents, I don’t want to do this any more. My dad said, “You have to love it, if you don’t feel that way, do the other thing, whatever it is.” I’m very grateful that he did that. I would have listened to him if he’d said, “Keep going”. I would have tried, and I would have done it for a few more years probably, but I’m absolutely sure I wouldn’t be acting today. I would have crashed and burned after a while.’
He briefly considered becoming an architect – ‘I spent a lot of time drawing buildings, even entire towns’ – but changed his mind. He spent his teenage years ‘not hanging out with his family’, listening to punk with his friends, getting drunk at the weekends and following his local football team, Hammarby, home and away.
When he was 19 he applied to do his national service in the marines. ‘I come from a family of pacifists, so it’s not like I was going to join the war. Sweden is not like the States or England where you might get sent to Afghanistan next month. For me it was just a personal challenge. I’m very happy that I did it. It was tough. I hated it at times; the unit I was in dealt with anti-sabotage, anti-terrorism in the archipelago, so some of the people who applied were total warheads. There were a lot of really cool guys, but the mentality sometimes got a little too testosterone-fuelled for my tastes.’
After he finished his national service in 1996, he and a friend left Sweden for Leeds Metropolitan University, where he studied English for six months. ‘We wanted to see the real England, so we just looked at a map. We both liked Leeds United, so we thought, let’s go there. We didn’t study much, we just had a blast. People were super-friendly and I had a great time. I still support Leeds United.’
Ever since his national service, though, Skarsgård had been thinking about trying to act again. ‘I thought I owed it to myself to check it out, because the reason I quit when I was 13 had nothing to do with acting per se.’ He applied for a theatre course at Marymount Manhattan College in New York by sending them videotapes of himself performing monologues, filmed by his friend. He landed a place on the course and moved to New York in 1997, renting a room in an apartment off Times Square from a flamboyant French-Filipino designer named Rene.
But after just six months he flew home to Stockholm. ‘I had met this girl in Sweden three weeks before I went to New York. We had this long-distance relationship. We would speak on the phone once or twice a week. She broke up with me because it wasn’t working out, and I was heart-broken. I thought, I can’t do this, I miss her so much, I’ve got to go home.
‘So I did. I got back and we hung out for a little while, but we were just too young and too different. She was 18 and I was 21. She’s a lovely woman but I didn’t even know her. I spent six months creating her in my mind.’
Skarsgård stayed in Sweden and began to pick up acting jobs there. He starred in soap operas and theatrical productions, as well as films. His romantic life, however, continued to be turbulent. In a recent radio interview, he dedicated the Buzzcocks’ song Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t've)? to another former girlfriend from this period in Sweden, whom he dated on and off for three years. ‘It was very passionate,’ he says, ‘but we just couldn’t get from the passion stage to the nice relationship phase.’
I ask him how such an impulsive, emotional person came to be known for playing two characters who are so outwardly cool as Brad Colbert and Eric Northman.
‘I can definitely relate to them,’ he says. ‘But I’m different in real life. They’re subdued and calm, I’m more playful. I’m pretty intense when it comes to relationships, platonic ones as well. If I feel a connection with someone, I’m willing to go there.’
Is he attracted to extreme situations? ‘Sometimes, yeah, but I also know I have to be careful because there is something destructive within me, I think, and I can have a tendency to just search for the kicks. I can’t really get too close to someone who’s too destructive, or too dark, because then I might go down the rabbit hole myself.’ It wasn’t long, though, before he decided to try his luck down perhaps the biggest rabbit hole of them all, and flew out to Hollywood in 2004. ‘The industry is very small in Sweden,’ he says. ‘There are a lot of great young filmmakers coming up now but 10 years ago it was very different. I was fortunate enough to be working, but when I was 28 or 29 and the offers were still “college guy, misunderstood, wants the girl”, I just needed something different.’
He had had a small role in the 2001 Ben Stiller comedy Zoolander, for which he auditioned while visiting his father, who was filming in New York, ut he says reality hit when he arrived in LA.
‘I realised that I was number 499 to audition for a small part in a bad horror movie,’ he says. ‘I read so many bad scripts. I wasn’t a snob. I just needed to connect with the character. I didn’t leave Sweden for that.’ The breakthrough finally came three years ago when he landed the role of Brad Colbert (known as the ‘Iceman’ because of his ability to stay cool under fire), in the adaptation of Generation Kill, the journalist Evan Wright’s book about his experiences as an embedded reporter during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. After four auditions, in New York, London and Baltimore, he learnt he had got the part just 36 hours before he had to fly out to Namibia to begin seven months of filming.
At first he didn’t mention to his fellow actors that he had been in the military. ‘I didn’t want to show up for boot camp being like [puts on jock voice], “Yeah, I know this guys, I was in the Swedish marines for 15 months so I can tell you all about it.”
‘I was scared, you know. I was the lead of this huge mini-series for HBO, there was a lot of weight on my shoulders. I remember the night before we were supposed to start on day one of the shoot, I was still trying to figure out this whole “Iceman” thing. I didn’t have a chance to talk to the real Brad Colbert because he was in England with the SAS at the time. Then Evan Wright played me a short clip from inside the Humvee during a firefight in Iraq. They’re being shot at, you can hear bullets ricocheting off the Humvee, and he’s talking to the guys, giving orders. I was blown away by how calm he was. It was the last piece of the puzzle.’
At around the time he was up for Generation Kill, he had also auditioned for a part in the pilot of True Blood, that of the vampire Bill Compton, eventually won by the British actor Stephen Moyer. ‘Everyone read for Bill,’ he says. When the series got the go-ahead, they called him in Africa, offering him the part of Eric Northman instead.
Is he glad he was offered the role?
‘I love Eric,’ he says.
So how did he manage to get his head around playing a vampire?
‘Just not overplay it. Bring it down. I’m a huge fan of all the old vampire movies, Max Schreck in Nosferatu or Béla Lugosi in Dracula. But this guy functions in a human society. He’s a club owner. So I wanted to underplay it a bit and make it real. At the same time, I try to find that animalistic quality, and the element of danger.’
Inspiration came from a documentary about lions in Africa. ‘I was fascinated by the male lion, the way he moved, the confidence. When he just sat down and looked straight at the cameraman, he did absolutely nothing, but for a second you didn’t know whether he was going to yawn and fall asleep or pounce. I thought it would be interesting to try to find that. You don’t show your teeth, you don’t say anything, you don’t show it. It’s the not knowing that’s interesting. Anything could happen.’
He says that the character of Eric really comes to life in season two. ‘After season one, a lot of people said, “Oh, you’re the bad guy,” but I’d read a couple of the books and I knew that there was a lot more to Eric than first meets the eye. He’s more than the evil vampire. He can be very loyal. It’s definitely more emotional.’
I ask him about becoming a sex symbol. Does he see himself as beautiful? ‘I see myself as most people see themselves, you have good days and bad days. I don’t think I’m better looking now than I did three years ago.’
He is not interested in pretty-guy roles. ‘I’m always looking for something that’s real and that’s got meat on it. I think it’s artistic suicide if you’re too vain, or if you’re afraid to play ugly. I would never fall for that.’
We break off as footsteps are heard behind us.
‘Say hi to my old man,’ he says. ‘This is my father. And this is Lars.’
I find myself facing a deputation consisting of Stellan Skarsgård and Lars von Trier. They want to know why he hasn’t appeared for dinner.
‘Ten minutes,’ von Trier says to Alexander, ‘or you’re fired.’
‘And you, too,’ Stellan adds, pointing at me.
‘No, you’re fired already,’ von Trier says, as they turn and exit stage left.
Skarsgård laughs. ‘Tough guys,’ he says.
I ask him what it’s like working with von Trier, the Danish director of such controversial films as The Idiots and Antichrist, who was accused by Nicole Kidman of torturing her on the set of Dogville. ‘It’s a dream,’ he says. ‘The first day we shot in a limo, and Lars was like, “Well, OK, you can just ad-lib a bit, talk back and forth, and then at some point maybe, you step out of the car,” and I said, “All right, so which side do you want me to step out?” And he just looked at me and said, “Well I don’t know. Whatever you want.” It’s so liberating. You don’t have to sit around for super-long takes. You play around with the scene, change things, it’s just so creative and, er, lovely.’ He breathes out. ‘It’s really lovely.’
The film starts at a wedding. ‘I’m getting married to Kirsten Dunst’s character, that’s the set-up. All the people are around, the siblings, family, friends. I’m not going to say where it goes from there.’
Von Trier, though, has promised a ‘dramatic’ end to their union. There have also been rumors of a planet crossing orbit with Earth.
After Skarsgård finishes here, he will go to Hawaii to begin filming Battleship, an action blockbuster, that will also star the Barbadian pop star Rihanna. Is he attracted to the idea of becoming an action hero? ‘I don’t have a plan. I don’t think five or 10 years ahead. I take it one step at a time.’
The desire to try out different projects has so far led him to roles in Lady Gaga’s video for Paparazzi – ‘We had a fun day, she’s really smart and diligent, she knows what she wants’ – and the big-screen remake of the 1970s Sam Peckinpah film Straw Dogs, originally banned in Britain for its violent rape scene. ‘It’s not a shot-by-shot remake,’ he says. ‘It’s a different movie.’
The actor who takes the role that Susan George played in the 1971 film is Kate Bosworth, 27, who has been romantically linked with Skarsgård, previously rumored to be dating his 22-year-old True Blood co-star Evan Rachel Wood (she can be seen as the vampire queen Sophie-Anne Leclerq in the new series). Paparazzi hoping for a glimpse of Skarsgård with Bosworth have followed him everywhere, from the Coachella music festival, where he lost his temper with a photographer, to a recent trip to Stockholm. I ask if he and Bosworth are dating. ‘There’s been so many rumors – who I’m dating, who I’m getting married to, who’s pregnant. I’ve never said anything. I’m going to let them stay rumors for a while,’ he says.
He will begin shooting the fourth series of True Blood in a couple of months. The third is already showing in the US. How long does he see himself continuing in the show? ‘Well I don’t know how many years. I’m not supposed to age, so we might have a bit of a problem when I’m 55 and still playing Eric, it might get kind of pathetic. We still have a couple of years. I do live in LA, so I can cheat with Botox and plastic surgery.
‘That was a joke, by the way,’ he adds.
Update: Scans added
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