From Uli Kunkel in The Big Lebowski to Slippery Peter in Seinfeld to Gaear Grimsrud in Fargo and Jeff in Dancer in the Dark, the versatile Peter Stormare has turned in many unforgettable performances while working with some of the world’s top directors. In his latest movie, the futuristic sci-fi action thriller Lockout, he plays Secret Service chief Scott Langral who offers a falsely convicted ex-government agent (Guy Pearce) a chance at freedom if he will undertake the dangerous mission of rescuing the daughter (Maggie Grace) of the U.S. President when things go horribly wrong during a humanitarian mission to an experimental maximum security prison in outer space.
We sat down with Stormare at a roundtable interview to talk about the unusual film co-written and produced by Luc Besson. He told us what it was about the script that drew him to the project, why he prefers the old school style European filmmaking that Besson exemplifies to the Hollywood paint-by-number action formula Michael Bay is best known for, and how he believes good storytelling is all about building characters, using the imagination and inviting an audience to fantasize. He also discussed what it was like working with master filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, how he would like to do a film with Terrence Malick, and why Close Encounters tops his list of all time favorite films.
Question: This is quite an interesting role for you.
STORMARE: Yeah, why not?
And you play it so well that we’re never quite sure which side of the fence you’re on.
STORMARE: No, the sequel will be out next year. (laughs) It’s a nice part. It was a beautiful script to get in your hands. Sometimes scripts are a little bit all over the place. But, I think Mr. Besson is quite an extraordinary visionary and he’s sort of the old school. Before something gets the green light, he sees that everything is there. When I read the script, it was like he was almost flirting a little bit with the movies of the past. He always gives the characters some room. I’m not trashing the Hollywood action formula, but sometimes it becomes like one person and maybe a female lead. She is somewhere there. But usually, it’s one guy all the time and the rest are shoot ‘em ups. For me, this is a little bit of old filmmaking where you build a film with characters. You just don’t have one guy running around. Of course, Guy does a lot of running around and following here and there. But, at the same time, there is a place for me and Lennie (James) and also for the criminals up there. We get to know them a little bit. I think it would have looked very different if this would have been an entirely American production. The script would not have looked the same. I must say, I haven’t seen the whole movie. I’ve seen segments of the movie throughout the work, as you do as an actor. Sometimes you have to put some new voice on, and if something is wrong, you see some snippets, but the whole start of the movie was there from the beginning. It’s like an old Philip Marlowe, [a fictional character created by] Raymond Chandler. I could have seen Humphrey Bogart sitting there in black and white with that light. It’s good old [fashioned] filmmaking for me and it was just a beautiful script. For me, the part was nice because it was like “Wow, he’s eluding me all the time. What is he up to? Is he really a bad guy or a good guy? What side is he on?” You never find out, which is kind of cool.
That’s why Luc Besson belongs to [old style filmmaking] – not just because he’s European. There’s an old saying about when they did movies in the good old days. You have to allow the audience to be part of the script, to write the script. Give the audience 60 percent and they’re going to fill in 40 percent. If you shove it down their throats, they’re just going to feel full and then want to throw up. But, if they’re part of the writing, they’re going to remember the movie and each person is going to have different opinions about the movie. That is like the old fairytale, the old way of telling a movie, which I like, and some directors do that in Hollywood still. Some directors are daring, but we see, in my opinion, too much of boom, crash, bang, things blowing up, falling from the sky or tumbling around, and you get bored because you can’t [be a part of it] if you’re denied the use of your fantasy. I love to fantasize still, as I did as a little boy. If I see a movie, I want to fantasize about what it’s all about. This movie invites the audience. It doesn’t kick the audience out. It says to the audience “Come, be part of this journey.”
Is the sense of humor important also?
STORMARE: Humor? Yes, absolutely. Guy also thought it was important. We changed a couple of lines, I think, in the beginning, and there was also discussion with the director and Mr. Besson before we started shooting. We had a couple of days of rehearsals and we found some golden pieces in the opening segment that sets the tone. It feels like it could’ve been The Big Easy or whatever. For me, it feels like Humphrey Bogart who is a guy’s character.
Does that make you Claude Rains?
STORMARE: (laughs) Yeah, I wish. You feel the humor when you have a character that is not all over you all the time. There’s also an old saying – this is like old school that I grew up with, people telling me – because I started as a director, but I was too bored with actors. I preferred to act. But, when you introduce a character and show him for the first time, don’t show him fully lit. Don’t show him one hundred percent to the audience. Show maybe fifty percent or sixty percent so the audience can fill in the dark spots. Sometimes it’s cool to have one light hanging. They did that in the good old days. You could sit in a room like this and have dinner, and they dimmed the light down and the camera was here, and it went to dark and they all ducked down and they did it like this, and another character came in and the same camera just focused in on the characters standing there. “Just sit down” and it continued on the scene over there and then it came up with the light. You see that in movies up to the sixties and then there became too many lights and too many technicalities.
We forget sometimes about telling a story for an audience. Storytelling is all about using the imagination, for me at least it is. That’s why I’m bored sometimes to see movies. I’m bored to see TV. I never see TV. I see news sometimes. I’m sorry to say, I work in this business and I love working in it, but I haven’t seen a movie in so many years. I don’t see TV. I have a lot of TVs at home, but if I see something, it’s an art channel, or an opera maybe, or some news and the Lakers. (laughs) They don’t give me a single minute to use my own fantasy. Thank God our kids can watch an old Peter Pan or some old Disney [film] and then I’m just sucked in again, instead of the Ninja Turtles or Power Rangers.When I was a little kid growing up in Sweden in a small village, we had a tradition. Now and then, we had someone elderly tell a story and it was always late afternoon and sort of dark. It was so beautiful to hear the story and you used your own fantasy. Being a kid, listening to the radio when someone told you a story, you had your imagination. You created the outer space. You created stuff. I don’t like to be spoon fed everything down my throat. It’s hard. They block out my fantasy and that’s my only friend on Earth really. It’s my own fantasy because I fantasize a lot and I’m very curious. I’m sitting here dissing moviemaking of today and that’s my livelihood.
Do you think that this movie can give the audience this kind of fantasy?
STORMARE: Yes. I think so because it’s set in the future. It doesn’t say a year. It says ‘in the nearby future.’ It’s ordinary, regular people. One movie that did the same thing for me was the first Alien because I didn’t know anything about that movie. I went to an early screening where there was nobody in the audience. I sat in the front and I saw it from the beginning. I like science fiction. But, all of a sudden, they were regular people on a spaceship eating corn flakes and trying to open stuff. They were regular people so I could identify with these people. I think in this movie too, it’s not Star Trek with strange ears and we’re fighting monsters and giants and everything is CGI. It’s not all those monsters in Michael Bay’s Transformers. I just came back from doing a movie with him. I love him to death, and he’s raising the bar in all the action, but it’s got to be boring. When I was a kid, at least they gave you a little bit. They told you “Use your fantasy. Come with us on this journey. Use your head, use your soul, use your heart.” Now it’s just being slapped. “If you don’t like this, we’ll hate you.” As a kid, I was always invited to listen to stories. I was always invited to the movies that I loved. Maybe it’s because of my age that I don’t understand, but I think it’s kind of boring, and this is a different kind of movie for me than the science fiction movies. It’s related to Alien a little bit but without the monsters. I think you can identify with Guy’s character even if he’s doing extremely good out there on his own. He’s a guy. He doesn’t eat pills like they do in a lot of movies. You have pills and people are walking around in strange outfits and pointy ears. For me, it’s just a very good script and hopefully we did some good work and the audience will come. But, I haven’t done my dream movie yet, even if Luc was the producer and oversaw everything. I would really love to work with Terrence Malick. I would love to do just a poetic journey. It doesn’t have to have a story just as long as it’s beautiful and you can lean back. That’s why I love opera sometimes because you’re allowed to lean back and fall asleep.
I had a chance to see You Said What or the title that I prefer, Help, We’re in the Film Industry. Was that fun to play a spoofed version of yourself?
STORMARE: Yes, absolutely. I’m glad you saw that. That’s a funny little thing. But also, I love Japan. My wife is Japanese and there’s something called the Noh theater, which is also funny because it’s ‘no’ instead of ‘yes.’ The Noh theater, if you know it, is very slow. You sit there on the floor sometimes and they act so slowly. In the beginning, I didn’t understand. I mean, people are falling asleep here. Do they get upset? And then, I befriended some actors. I worked with actors there who said no. One of the main purposes behind the Noh theater is to transport you to a higher level. So if you fall asleep, maybe if you snore too loud, they’ll get [upset]. But the whole thing with Noh theater is to transport you into another dimension. I think as human beings we need that. We need that in this country, too, to be elevated. I hope that people get an urge to go and see movies in the future that are beautiful. I’ll make it up about poetic movies with beautiful colors, fragmented stories, and nice music. You lean back and you’re sort of half asleep, but it’s something that you’re going to carry with you for the rest of your life. Some movies I’ve seen I don’t remember at all. But then, there are some movies that I remember a couple of seconds and I want to carry those couple of seconds in my heart forever, or wherever it is, and that’s worth it. Also, my mentor, [Ingmar] Bergman, when we worked on stage, he said you can’t convince a thousand people at the big stage where we were working. You can’t convince everybody, but just pick one every night that you perform for and make sure that he or she will have an experience that alters their life in a more positive way. So, just one every night. That’s worth all the struggle and screaming.
Is Terrence Malick aware of the fact that you want to work with him? It seems like it could be a very good marriage.
STORMARE: I think so, yes. I’m going to reach out [to him] because I would love to do that. We need it more and more I think in our world. We need more and more spas. There are more and more candles being sold and more and more people sitting at home trying to find peace and space to rejuvenate. I think as a society, if I had the money, I would love to open up a movie theater that just played images and colors and beautiful music. For me, there’s nothing like listening to a beautiful opera sometimes – on a record or seeing it live – just to be sleepy and let those beautiful voices take me somewhere I’ve never been before. I dislike those people that see an opera and say “Oh, they can’t act it. They just sing. It’s boring.” Lean back and just listen to the voices.
We can do that in movies, too. I think in the modern world we really need to have movie theaters or places we can go in and rejuvenate ourselves. I think we’ll have less problems with our souls and our health. I do that in my life, and I feel healthy and happy. I need those hours in the darkness where I used to spend time as a kid, sitting in a little closet in the darkness, listening to AM radio, having glowing paint that I illuminated, just sitting there, dreaming about anything, not being disturbed for an hour or two, just alone in the dark. I’m still that little boy in my brain. It’s unfortunate that the body gets older, but the brain stays the same if you want it to. I don’t understand people who say “I don’t believe in anything. No, I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in this.” It’s got to be boring. They say, “Do you believe in UFOs?” and I say “Why not?” That’s why it’s wonderful to be part of a movie like this because it’s not the regular formula. It’s not the regular Hollywood paint-by-number action movie. It is a little bit like one of the last outposts of old European movie directing in a way that Luc Besson represents. Slowly, slowly it’s going to die out, I think, unless people like me save up and open up a movie theater. (laughs)
There are quite a few projects that you have done that really connected with mainstream audiences, like Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Slippery Pete on Seinfeld. How does it feel for you when projects like that take on a life of their own like with The Big Lebowski conventions?
STORMARE: I know, I played on two of them and it’s bigger than The Rocky Horror Picture Show now. It’s completely crazy and they’re going to go to Europe now and have conventions in Europe. They do magnificent work. Their artwork is fantastic. I must say, for me, to be born in a tiny village in the north of Sweden with a thousand people where we still have snow, and to have done this journey, living in Africa and London and New York, working here and being on stage in New York, working with Bergman for ten years, being at his side, being adopted by him as his son…for me, when I look back, it’s like wow, that’s quite a journey. I feel like I am blessed, but I’m still that little boy that walks around. I usually say I might have a talent or I’m lacking a talent, because everyday, I must tell you, I thank whatever is up there or out there that I’m alive and that I get to do what I’m doing, and I think that sends off a lot of good vibrations in different directions. If what I think is God should come down today and says “I’m God, or the thing you call God, and you’re never going to do any more movies. You’re never going to do television. You’re never going to do theater again in your life,” I would just say [claps hands enthusiastically] “What are we doing? What is the next step?” That’s how I try to approach it.
I feel so honored to be working with one of the best people in the world, and the only thing I try to contribute is tap into my fantasy and not to do one dimensional characters, because unfortunately in our business or industry, the schedule is so fast and tight. It’s all about money, more or less, so you go in to deliver your lines, say them as fast as you can, and then hit the mark and get out of there. Sometimes people are delivering typos because they think this is the line and it’s a typo. We’re living under that stress. I go in and say “Why do I have to say this line? Isn’t it better if I just cut that line and just look, and then I say this line down here as it is?” And then the director says “Yeah, that’s awesome.” That’s why I think I get to work with a lot of directors over and over again because I have ideas and I try to create characters. There’s also a saying, if you do a character, always make the character with a big question mark. Even if the character is very enigmatic and all over the place, make him always with a question mark, because if you turn a question mark upside down, like they do in South America in Spanish, then it becomes a hook. I still love Close Encounters because that’s also very enigmatic. It’s very enigmatic and it tapped right into my fantasy when I saw it as a teenager. But I was surprised when I asked Bergman and he said to me, “Hey, make a list of your top ten movies,” and I put Close Encounters among the top ones. In one of his movies, I haven’t seen all of them, but he had The Blues Brothers as his number one — it was funny — and he had Close Encounters as number three. I said “Blue Brothers?” “Yeah, absolutely, best movie.”
With this movie, you inspired me to go to another dimension.
STORMARE: Good, you’re allowed to fall asleep.
Lockout opens in theaters on April 13th.