LONDON — As told by Alexander Skarsgard, the idea for what eventually became his final film, “The Northman,” has its roots on a long, slender island off the coast of Sweden called Oland, where his great-great-grandfather built a wooden house a hundred years ago.
“Some of my earliest memories are of walking with my grandfather in Oland and he was showing me these huge runestones and the inscriptions,” he explained over lunch on a recent rainy Monday at a hidden central London hotel. “Telling stories of Vikings who sailed the rivers, to Constantinople.
“So in a way,” he continued, “you could say the dream of one day doing or being a part of a Viking movie was born at that time.”
In a gray crewneck sweater and dark jeans, he was centuries away from the bloody, slimy berserker he plays in “The Northman,” the highly anticipated action-adventure that marks director Robert Eggers’ leap into big-time moviemaking. budget.
Skarsgard, blond and unarguably attractive, would seem like a no-brainer to pitch a Viking movie, but getting this movie made took a while. Skarsgard said that he spent years working with Danish film producer Lars Knudsen trying to determine what form the project would take. Then, in 2017, he met with Eggers, who had fallen in love with Iceland during a visit two years earlier, to discuss another project.
Skarsgard and Eggers describe that meeting as “fated”, and it eventually led to Eggers, along with the Icelandic poet and author Sjon, writing “The Northman”. Eggers, who said he had $70 million to make the film, was inspired by 1982’s “Conan the Barbarian,” which he watched as a child.
Skarsgard’s character is a Viking prince, Amleth, hell-bent on revenge after his father’s murder. Skarsgard is a producer on the new movie, which opens April 22 and also stars Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman and Björk, among others.
“It was a real pleasure as an actor to be a part of the project from the genesis,” said Skarsgard. “Being a part of that journey and being able to continually have these conversations with the writers as they shape the story, talking about the Amleth arc, the story, the essence of it, that was very inspiring to me.”
The 45-year-old and unfailingly educated star has played a Viking before. In fact, she’s played a Northman before: Eric Northman, the ultra-sexy, proudly undead Viking vampire on the HBO series “True Blood.” But the main character of “The Northman” is a Viking from the heart of Skarsgard, one faithful to the medieval tradition of the Icelandic sagas, one who does not question fate or faith. And one that, by design, doesn’t have much to say.
The sagas on which the film is based are “very terse,” he said. And the characters “don’t really speak unless absolutely necessary.”
Skarsgard himself is open, with an easy smile. He knows the world around him, including keeping up with the latest news from Ukraine and knowing that asparagus season is upon us. He gave the questions his full attention, pausing to collect his thoughts before answering, and never once glancing at a cell phone.
Although he grew up hearing Viking stories, Skarsgard read books and watched lectures about them to prepare for his role. He said that the most interesting thing he learned was that the Vikings believed that each person had a female spirit that guided them.
“I thought that was quite fascinating, the juxtaposition between that and the brutality that you see when you first meet Amleth,” Skarsgard said. He added, “That he would have believed that there is a feminine spirit within him that guides him, I really liked that idea.”
With his preparation complete, it seemed like everything fell into place for the film. Just when filming was scheduled to begin, the pandemic hit.
“For about 48 hours we kept going, but everyone was like, ‘Is this happening? Are we doing this? What is happening?’ And finally, they pulled the plug and said we had to break up and go home.”
Although Skarsgard considers New York to be his base, returning home meant heading to his hometown of Stockholm.
He took refuge with his large family in his mother’s country house. He is the eldest son of actor Stellan Skarsgard and his first wife, My, and one of eight siblings. Three of his brothers are also actors, including Bill Skarsgard, who played Pennywise the Creepy Clown in the “It” movies; another brother is a doctor who kept them informed about developments in the Covid crisis. Skarsgard said that despite the terrifying circumstances, he enjoyed spending time with his family.
“We cook dinners and hang out, we garden,” she said, adding that getting the whole family together can be difficult because work gets in the way. “I really enjoyed it. Then I felt almost guilty because it was a pandemic and people were dying.”
Family and Sweden, where Skarsgard grew up and spent time in the army, are important themes in his life.
“We are all a very close-knit group,” he said. “They all live two blocks apart in the south of Stockholm and we see each other all the time when I’m home.” (He is not married, but he answered with a resounding “no” when asked if he was single).
He started out as a child actor, but took a break in his early teens before fully embracing an acting career in his 20s. He has said in the past that he didn’t like the attention acting brought him when he was young.
His path to “The Northman” passes through dozens of film and television roles, some seemingly different sides of the same coin. He played an Israeli spy (“The Little Drummer Girl”) and a German man coming to terms with life after World War II (“The Aftermath”). A young Marine who helps the United States invade Iraq (“Generation Kill”) and a sadistic Army sergeant who misplaces young recruits in Afghanistan (“The Kill Team”). An abusive husband (“Big Little Lies”) and an achingly sweet stepfather who steps in to take care of his abandoned stepdaughter (“What Maisie Knew”).
He also landed a small but pivotal role in HBO’s hit comedy-drama “Succession,” playing Lukas Matsson, a Swedish tech billionaire.
Mark Mylod, executive producer of the show who directed Skarsgard in two of the three episodes he appears in, said the actor “was really the only choice for the character because of the intelligence of his work.”
The creators of “Succession” had envisioned a character with “that Elon Musk kind of charisma,” but not necessarily based on the CEO of Tesla. Matsson’s character had to have the gravitas to be a true rival to the family behind Waystar Royco, the fictional company at the heart of “Succession,” Mylod said.
“He found a way to make that character so fantastic and watchable and totally believable,” Mylod said. “With a small number of scenes, she had a big impact.” (Mylod did not say if Matsson will return in season 4.)
Rebecca Hall, an actress who had worked with Skarsgard on “Godzilla vs. Kong,” said she had trouble getting financing for her own passion project, “Passing,” her adaptation last year of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel about the friendship between two black women in New York, one of whom is posing as white.
While working on “Kong,” Hall worked up the courage to ask Skarsgard to read his script. She did and agreed to play the role of a racist husband. “I got the sense that he cares that good art is out there in the world and he will do what he can to support that,” Hall said in an interview, adding that the character was the type he had played well. “He’s no stranger to complicated characters doing bad things.”
For Skarsgard, “there is no strategy or plan” in his career. “The sweet spot is when I’m intrigued by the character, and I understand aspects of it and it makes me curious to learn more,” he said. “He’s super fun because then that means I’m probably going to enjoy diving in and exploring that a little bit deeper.”
In “The Northman”, diving meant gaining volume. She is also reunited in the film with Kidman, who played her wife in “Big Little Lies,” for which she won an Emmy, a SAG Award and a Golden Globe. This time she is her mother.
The two actors traveled with the rest of the cast to Northern Ireland, Ireland and Iceland for the grueling shoot of “Northman.” Skarsgard described it as “seven months in the mud.”
Eggers, a fastidious and meticulous director, said he “wasn’t a sadist to be a sadist,” but he was serious about detail and accuracy, which won’t surprise viewers of his earlier films, such as “The Witch.” “. ” and “The lighthouse”.
Skarsgard has spoken in interviews about being chained up and dragged through the mud. But Eggers said that, like him, Skarsgard wanted the best result. “When we embarked on this together, he was looking for nothing but perfection.”
Eggers added, “Alex has said I pushed him to the limit, but there were plenty of times I can remember him asking for another take because he’s as much of a perfectionist as I am.”
The director acknowledged that the working conditions were difficult. “I’m not trying to make things difficult for us,” he explained, “but when you’re telling the story of the Viking Age in Northern Europe, you’re going to look for harsh places, with extreme weather and terrain. And that’s just what it has to be to tell this story.”
Working with such a huge budget and cast was a bonus, Eggers said, but it also came with a lot of pressure. “If this movie doesn’t work, it’s going to be a problem,” he said.
After all the work, Skarsgard said, “I just want people to see the movie, that’s all,” adding, preferably on the big screen.
As is usual for a Skarsgard project, he appears nude in parts of “The Northman,” including during a fight scene in a volcano.
Do you ever say no to taking your clothes off? She said that she had recently done exactly that at a photo shoot after being asked to take her shirt off, saying, “I think there is enough nudity in the film.”
Skarsgard, who had spent the morning doing Zoom press and traveling Europe promoting the days before we spoke, had slid down the sidewalk by the end of the interview, resting his head on the cushion. He said that he realized that his films tend to be heavy. “Maybe I’ll have to do a comedy soon,” he said, adding that he would like to work with satirist Armando Iannucci or British comic actor Steve Coogan.
“The Northman,” he said, “was so intense. It was the best experience of my career but, God, it was intense.”