Stellan Skarsgard on ‘Out Stealing Horses’, Why He Joined ‘Dune’, and HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’

     February 22, 2019

Sweden’s Stellan Skarsgard is one of the funniest actors you are ever likely to meet. Paul Bettany loved him so much when they worked together on Dogville (and later two Avengers movies) that he and his wife Jennifer Connelly named their son after him. Alexander, his Hollywood actor son and one-time vampire leader, considers his dad his best friend.

The 67 year-old actor now makes his fifth film with Norway’s Hans Petter Moland, Out Stealing Horses which just won a cinematography award in Berlin. It’s a beautiful art film, set at the end of the millennium in 1999 and is based on Per Petterson’s bestseller (Stellan loves books) where he plays the role of a grieving widower who after relocating to a remote Norwegian village, reminisces about his painful and occasionally wonderful upbringing.

Still, my favourite Skarsgard-Moland collaboration was 2014’s In Order of Disappearance (original title Kraftidioten, English translation Prize Idiot). It’s a cinematic gem with lots of bloodletting—and humour—set on the pristine Norwegian snow as Skarsgard’s snowplow driver ignites a gang war when he exacts his revenge for his murdered son. In our previous interview for Return to Montauk where he played a novelist, Skarsgard granted his blessing for Liam Neeson to appear in Moland’s English-language remake, Cold Pursuit. As he notes today making a film in Hollywood would help his friend finance future Scandinavian efforts.

As well as his six films with Lars von Trier, Skarsgard has appeared in two films in each of the Pirates of the Caribbean, Thor and Avengers franchises, the David Fincher-directed US remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mamma Mia! and its sequel, and is coming in Dune, The Painted Bird and the HBO mini-series Chernobyl. There’s also Terry Gilliam’s long-gestating European co-production The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, where he plays Adam Driver’s boss. “He’s the advertising guru,” he notes of his role in the film that finally premiered last year in Cannes.

Before our interview, the film’s publicist made it clear that the Neeson drama was off the table. Even so, in our interview I note how critics have favoured Skarsgard’s portrayal in In Order of Disappearance.

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Image via Marvel Studios

What do you think of Liam Neeson in Cold Pursuit?

STELLAN SKARSGARD: I haven’t seen his version because if I did then I would get those questions, right? Our version did very well but I hope that every film Hans Petter does should enable him to do another one. That’s the problem: you have to bring in some money or you can’t make films any more. Out Stealing Horses was really hard to finance. If you send it to a banker they say, “There is not a gun, not a chase, nothing.”

But the book is really well known.

STELLAN SKARSGARD: Yeah, by people who read books.

You play a stock Scandinavian character, a curmudgeonly older man, living alone in the wilds of freezing Norway.

STELLAN SKARSGARD: I can’t understand how he lives because I can’t stand being alone. That kind of personality has to do with the long distances and the dark winters that affect social behaviour.

How cold was it?

STELLAN SKARSGARD: Always in this film it was 30 minus (Celsius) and indoors it was 20 minus. It was also 30 minus in In Order of Disappearance. Hans Petter loves it. He is that kind of person. It’s not me. I have a winter coat that Canada Goose handed out. I’ve never bought any winter clothes, ever.

You prefer no clothes, don’t you?

STELLAN SKARSGARD: Yes I prefer no clothes. And I can do that all winter. I walk naked in my home and it’s nice and comfortable.

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Photo by Helen Barlow

The core relationship in the film is between the father and son. How do you remember your own father?

STELLAN SKARSGARD: He was the opposite to the father in the film. I had a wonderful upbringing. I had parents who were egalitarian. You were treated as an equal as a child and no one talked down to us. If there was a dinner at home with a lot of adults and you wanted to say something, my father would make everyone listen. But on the other hand if somebody had another opinion you could attack that child’s opinion with full force. When I was a teenager I always invited my parents to parties, because they were fun and were cool. There were no hierarchies. I’ve tried to be the same with my kids and my kids’ friends as well.

So they invite you to their parties?

STELLAN SKARSGARD: Yes.

Because you’re a cool dad?

STELLAN SKARSGARD: Because I’m so incredibly cool. No it’s great. But also my father and mother never hid their flaws; they never tried to be perfect. So as a child you understood they were fallible, they were human and that helped a lot. I have this thing where I never lie to my kids, never, which can create some conflict. One of my kids came home as a three year old and he said in a big voice, “I can’t handle it that all the kids in the day nursery say that Santa Claus exists. Why do their parents lie to them?”

What did you say?

STELLAN SKARSGARD: “You’ve got to live with that. That’s the way the world works.”

Even if kids have great parents they often feel the need to react against that. Did your kids act out?

STELLAN SKARSGARD: We have discussions, political discussions about anything. It’s really loud. I think when it comes to rebelling against parents the hardest one was son number three who became a doctor. He was trying to rebel against me.

What are you making at the moment?

STELLAN SKARSGARD: It’s bizarre, I’m making a film called Hope with Hans Petter’s wife, who’s also directing. A couple of years ago at Christmas she got lung cancer that got cured then the next Christmas she got a brain tumour that was stemming from that. She’s written a film about a Christmas with six children when you’re told you’re going to die. So basically I’m playing Hans Petter in that film. But I’m not playing him—he’s so slow it would be too boring.

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Image via Magnet Releasing

There are six kids like you raised originally.

STELLAN SKARSGARD: Yeah there are six kids; it’s about them.

Is it funny?

STELLAN SKARSGARD: Sometimes. But with a death sentence there are some limitations to the fun.

What would you do if you had a death sentence?

STELLAN SKARSGARD: I have one already but I just don’t know when. We all have. I’m fine with it.

You’ve also been cast in Dune. Timothee Chalamet takes the Kyle MacLachlan role.

STELLAN SKARSGARD: It’s like The Avengers. It’s a delicious cast. I’ve just got the book and am going to read it now. I’m playing a small but important role. Most of all I wanted to work with Denis Villeneuve.

He seems to be a very nice man.

STELLAN SKARSGARD: Maybe I should ask you next time so you can send me the asshole list (laughs). I’m just there for the ride.

Is that why you do the blockbusters?

STELLAN SKARSGARD: I enjoy doing the work and it’s the same with my independent films. It’s not really my problem what happens afterwards. I of course hope it’s going to turn into a good film, but it’s a lottery.

How about The Painted Bird?

STELLAN SKARSGARD: It’s finished. It based on the novel by Jerzy Kosinski and is about a young boy who meets different people on the road. Harvey Keitel is one and I’m another. Udo Kier is in it too.

The producers have said they were afraid of adapting the novel, which is set during World War Two.

STELLAN SKARSGARD: Who wouldn’t be afraid of it? It’s one of the darkest books ever written and you want to shoot it in black and white and not in English? And you want to shoot it over two or three years? There’s no way you’re going to get a dime back. So that’s why it was important that it got made.

Where will it premiere?

STELLAN SKARSGARD: Maybe in Cannes.

What else have you been doing?

STELLAN SKARSGARD: Chernobyl, the five-hour HBO mini-series that comes out in May. I think it will be good. It’s very well written. It’s with Emily Watson who I haven’t worked with since Breaking the Waves. We don’t fuck in this one though! There’s no market for it any more. Jared Harris is playing the main role and he’s fantastic.

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Image via HBO

You have a main role as well?

STELLAN SKARSGARD: I play the Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina who had the responsibility to take care of the 1986 Chernobyl accident and the clean up. Jared plays a Soviet scientist who Shcherbina brings in because he knows about nuclear reactors and Shcherbina doesn’t. What’s interesting about it is not the catastrophe itself but what makes or creates a catastrophe like that. It’s because it’s a system, an infallible system. The Soviet system was infallible, that was the ideology. It’s like any religion. It could be nationalism that goes too far. You think your nation is infallible–we’ve seen examples of that. What happens then is that you have to adjust reality to fit this image of infallibility.

So there were flaws in those reactors that were hidden even from the people running them because it couldn’t be that they had bad reactors in the Soviet Union. Why don’t we immediately say we have a catastrophe and we need all the help we can get? No they said nothing happened; they said it’s all fine. Then of course that wasn’t correct.

It was the same thing with the Kursk submarine (and a movie has been made about that disaster too.)

STELLAN SKARSGARD: Yes Kursk was the same thing. It’s dangerous with great ideas that are supposed to be perfect. Beware of perfection.

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