Since becoming a famous person by playing Eric Northman on True Blood, Alexander Skarsgård has seemed to poo-poo the typical Hollywood offerings. There hasn’t been the role of playing Mark Wahlberg’s buddy in Contraband 2, or whatever. Sure, he did have a supporting part in Peter Berg’s Battleship, but it’s almost the exception that proves the rule… and if Skarsgård was going to make a failed huge studio movie, well, he picked the one. While his father, Stellan Skarsgård, has been making Marvel movies, Alexander has spent his time making movies with Lars von Trier, Zal Batmanglij, and now with Marielle Heller with The Diary of a Teenage Girl.
In The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Skarsgård plays Monroe, a character who should be repulsive, but the way Skarsgård plays him, it winds up being frustratingly confusing. Monroe seems like a nice guy, but it just so happens he’s sleeping with his girlfriend’s (Kristen Wiig) teenage daughter, Minnie (Bel Powley). Monroe knows this is wrong and tries to end the relationship, but is weak and can never seem to turn Minnie down. Monroe could have easily, and probably pretty effectively, been played as an “asshole,” but Skarsgård gives Monroe depth that Monroe might not even deserve.
Next year, Skarsgård will play the lead in the no-doubt-about-it big budget Tarzan. Directed by David Yates (who has four Harry Potter movies under his directing belt), this at least sounds like a much more interesting Tarzan than we’ve seen in awhile – a Tarzan that is fully domesticated, living in England with his wife. Ahead, Skarsgård explains what he’s looking for when he picks a role, and explains why his Tarzan probably isn’t what you’re expecting.
I’ve been involved in a lot of debates about Monroe. What is your opinion of Monroe?
Well, I can’t really judge him because I play him. So, that was really important for me when I read the script — I just have to approach this in a very non-judgmental way, because if I can’t do that, I won’t be able to play him. For me, that was the challenge that I was quite interested in and intrigued by: How do you play someone without justifying or condoning what he does? How do you make him real? I wanted to find a way to make it uncomfortable for the audience. It makes me very happy to hear you’ve had conversations with people where you’re disagreeing on Monroe.
It’s easy to hate his actions, but he knows it’s wrong and is often trying to break things off. It is uncomfortable because you play him in a sympathetic way.
Because of what he does, it could have so easily been a case of “alright, here’s the bad guy.” You know, the creepy dude who sleeps with a teenager. I felt like, how do you make it more uncomfortable for the audience. How do you find a way to find moments where they go, “Well, he’s not so bad.”
Right, which is uncomfortable because you want to be able to just say, “Oh, screw this guy.”
And I didn’t know how to do that, but I felt like that would make it really interesting.
Some actors would approach this guy as just being a smarmy asshole, but then you wonder why Minnie is interested in him in the first place.
I also think that would have been interesting for a scene or two, but I was worried that if you play it that way, it’s not going to be interesting for an hour and 40 minutes. Then you can just lean back and go, “Okay, douchebag, I can’t wait for her to get rid of him.” In many ways, he’s a teenager himself and I was looking for moments that were genuine and beautiful.
After playing Eric Northman on True Blood for so long, what roles do you seek out? Between this and The East, you’ve played a few roles in which you play charming guys who are doing bad things.
Well, I’d would actually say that even with True Blood, I love that introduction to Eric. It’s kind of the same thing there. What I loved about it the first time you see him on the show, he’s on his throne and he’s kind of menacing and wearing all black…
And then we grow to like him.
And that’s what I thought was really interesting. I think, to most people, when they see that episode, they go, “Okay, here’s the bad guy.” And, again, they go, “Easy, I can label him now.” But then you’re like, “Oh, sh*t… he’s compassionate and loyal and cares about Pam.” And it’s confusing because you’re like, “Wait a minute, I already labeled him as the bad guy.” And that’s always interesting. Obviously that’s over 70 episodes, but here it’s the same thing. It’s always interesting and I’m drawn to characters that are good and bad. I think we’re all capable of good deeds and bad deeds. And it’s that dichotomy that makes us human and what makes it interesting. To play someone who is just “a good guy” and is super nice in every single moment, that doesn’t give it depth and it doesn’t feel real. Same thing if you play a villain or the bad guy, you’ve got to connect that and find something interesting in that and not just walk around as pure evil, because then it’s a caricature.
You do have a big budget studio version of Tarzan coming, but a lot of your movies roles are smaller and well thought out. Do you even want to be a “movie star?”
I feel like if it’s something that makes sense to do because of the budget, or because it’s going to be seen by so many people, or it’s cool — for all those reasons, if I don’t connect to the character, if I’m not genuinely intrigued by the character or creatively excited about playing him, I just can’t take it on. It’s going to be sh*t. Because if I have to spend months preparing for the role and discovering how he is, then spend more time playing him, I have to love playing him. And I have to be curious to discover new thing about him. And it doesn’t matter it that’s a little indie or Tarzan, I have to feel that connection.
And your dad is out doing the Marvel movies.
Oh, he loves it. He loves working with Marvel.
He’ll make fun of things like the costumes…
Well, he makes fun of it, but he’s also having a blast because of the creative freedom he gets there. Even though they are huge big budget movies, he gets to play and be goofy and have fun. Creatively, they really trust their filmmakers and their actors. The only time he’s having a hard time is when he’s being micromanaged and/or, creatively, they don’t trust him, and that’s definitely not the case on those Marvel movies.
He seems like a strong-willed enough guy that if he weren’t enjoying himself, he wouldn’t keep coming back.
Exactly. [Laughs] But, that’s right, he’s doing the big action movies and I’m doing the little indies now.
Well, you do have Tarzan. When I first heard about it, I was skeptical. I still remember sitting through Greystoke with my parents. But when you learn more abut it, that he’s back at home and has already adapted to civilized life, that sounds a lot more interesting and I get why you’d want to do it.
Well, it was a combination. I agree with you, when I first heard it, I was like, “Oh, here we go another remake.” Then there was the combination of the script and the take on it, because it’s a story that’s been told so many times. But, like what you just said, and what drew me to it, instead of someone who grew up in the jungle and is in a way an animal – like the story in Greystoke or in the novel where it’s him coming to England and learning how to function in that civilized society; and learning how to eat with silverware and sleep in a bed – it’s someone who for 10 years has been Lord Greystoke. And he is there with his wife and wears a suit and rides in a carriage and has afternoon tea with the Prime Minister. But what’s interesting, it’s more about the animal within and him being afraid of himself, in a way, and trying to keep that inside. Then they go back to the Congo where he’s from and then, slowly, like an onion, the layers peel off and he’ll become who he really is deep down. But it’s that dichotomy that I could relate to and I think human beings can relate to about being man and beast at the same time.
And David Yates is directing, who obviously directed the last four Harry Potter films. You do seem to work with good directors. Do you seek that out?
That’s why I was so excited about Tarzan. It was the combination of the script, where I was genuinely intrigued by the character — and then a filmmaker like David Yates, who is unbelievable. And even though this is a big action-adventure movie, he cares so much about the story and the characters and the relationships and on a deeper level… again, when you find those collaborations, that’s the dream, you know? It doesn’t matter it it’s a $200 million Warner Bros. movie or a $1 million indie. It’s about finding those filmmakers and those stories that you’re dying to tell and filmmakers you’re dying to work with.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.