No matter what generation you grew up in, if you watched movies, you probably had a Tarzan. From Johnny Weissmuller‘s iconic run as the character to the 1999 Disney Animated Feature, Edgar Rice Burrough‘s vine-swinging hero has been King of the Jungle for a century now. However, it’s been quiet on the Ape Man front for the last few years, but director David Yates is looking to change that with The Legend of Tarzan.
For his first post-Harry Potter film (before he heads back into the land of magic with Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them), Yates is introducing a strapping new Tarzan in Alexander Skarsgard. But for those only familiar with the character’s jungle-bound exploits, Skarsgard’s spin on the character may be a new take on Tarzan, or as he’s introduced at the beginning of the film, Lord John Clayton III of Greystoke. Set after the events of his wild upbringing, after he returns to England with his beloved Jane (Margot Robbie), The Legend of Tarzan finds the title hero pulled back to his roots thanks to the machinations of the ruthless, greedy Captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz).
In the fall of 2014, when The Legend of Tarzan was in the thick of filming, I visited the sets at Warner Bros.’ Leavesden studios in England, where the sound stages were converted into the lush jungles and rock quarries of Tarzan’s home. While I didn’t get to see Skarsgard swinging from any vines, I did get to watch him manhandle some of Captain Rom’s goons in a fight scene before joining a small group of journalists for a chat. Skarsgard talked about why his Tarzan is different than what you might expect, why you might not see the famous loin cloth in this film, how he gets amped up for an action scene, and more. Check it all out in the interview below.
Question: So what’s Tarzan up to today?
ALEXANDER SKARSGARD: He’s very busy today, as you can see. Yeah, we’ve just landed on the roof of this train. It’s quite early in the journey, and they have a lot of slaves captured, these Belgian soldiers. It’s the first time John, who grew up out here but spent almost a decade in England — he just came back to the Congo — it’s the first time he realizes what’s going on in his home, what they’re doing to his people.
This is definitely a new spin on the Tarzan story. It’s almost like a sequel to the origin that we’re not seeing, but how much of the iconic stuff are we going to see? Everybody’s sort of been joking that there’s no loin cloth.
SKARSGARD: [Laughs] Well, I heard you all saw me get caught for a second, yeah — but during a fitting.
Right, but do you get to do the Tarzan scream, or…?
SKARSGARD: We did have a fitting today, but for the majority of it, it’s basically like this, and layers come off — again, this is pretty early on — and then throughout the story, the adventure, a lot of things, happen. The clothes will come off obviously, but that’s one of the things that attracted me to the project in the first place, that it’s a very classic, epic tale, and it’s been told many, many times, but it’s almost always the origin story of him growing up in the jungle. In this one, even though we do see some flashbacks of him as a child — you learn more about the backstory — the emotional journey isn’t the man from the jungle trying to readjust or adapt to life in modern day or in Victorian London. It’s quite the opposite. When you first meet him, he’s in England. He’s very civilized and a British Lord, and then he goes back to his home, his emotional home, the Congo, and it’s that kind of dichotomy between man and beast.
He’s not really happy in England. He’s got an amazing wife, a fantastic manor, a really good life on the surface, but he’s not happy. He’s not really himself there. I think he realizes that when he returns to his home and meets the people that he met as a teenager and spent many years with them, together with Jane. To me, that’s an aspect of the story that I thought was really fascinating. I think it’s something we’re all dealing with, that kind of “man versus beast,” those primal instincts and urges. To a certain extent we are just animals, but we try to function in a civilized modern-day society. I thought that was really interesting.
Before the fight scene we heard you emitting these kind of guttural animal noises. Is that your way of getting psyched up for the action?
SKARSGARD: [Laughs] Yeah, it is. It’s always tricky when you’re shooting a scene like this, because there’s obviously so much sitting around. You sit there and you talk or you read, whatever. Then you’re thrown right in the middle of a big fight sequence, where the adrenaline is up here. So you just have to kind of pump yourself up and get ready for it. You don’t start the scene with a yawn, you know?
Is that kind of a taste of what you’re like in full ape mode?
SKARSGARD: No, it’s not that I try to channel that. I think it’s just something I do as an actor. I’ve done that on other projects where I don’t play Tarzan, just to get ready, to get the adrenaline going. You know, do whatever’s necessary to get to that place.
Do you have a favorite Tarzan from the many, many iterations?
SKARSGARD: Well, I’ve got to go with Johnny. Good ol’ Weismuller, of course.
It seems like a very wonderful thing for an actor to have this character that grew up in the wild and is now a very sophisticated man. What was your process of crafting, like you said, what used to be a very animalistic person that is now refined?
SKARSGARD: Yeah, that’s what’s interesting about the first 25 pages of the script, where you see him with Jane in London. Again, on the surface, it’s so fantastic. He’s got a really nice life. And what we’ve tried to create in John is, he’s not happy. He’s not 100-percent there, but he’s suppressing that. He keeps a lid on. In his mind, he’s never going to go back to the jungle — because it’s not paradise. It’s not like, “Oh, I’m back with my friends and the sun is shining. I’m playing with the animals.” He’s done some horrific things in the jungle that he escaped from, that’s been haunting him forever.
To return to that is very scary. To return to who you are deep inside is frightening. For him, I think it’s something he definitely hasn’t talked to anyone about. He can’t even talk to Jane or his grandfather, played by John Hurt. The people who are closest to him, he can’t even talk to them about any of that. He doesn’t admit it to himself, so he’s like, “This is who I am. This is my responsibility.” His parents are gone obviously, so I am the next Lord Greystoke; I’ve got to take this over when my grandfather dies, and returning to the jungle is not an option. But then he has to go back, with George, Sam’s character, and Jane. Again, it’s a very physical, emotional journey but also quite internal for him, reliving that and all these memories coming up.
How do you keep it straight, because it seems like when Tarzan was younger he was very beastly. Then he came back and had to become — and then you seem to go back to that over the arc of the movie. How do you keep track of that arc?
SKARSGARD: Yeah, fortunately we had a lot of time prepping it and figuring that journey out. That’s always lovely as an actor to have that, and it’s so rich with this character obviously, to find that and layer it in a way that — to go from that really buttoned-up, proper British gentleman to towards the end of the movie where he’s a beast, basically, and to show little hints in the beginning of the film, to decide on those moments, you know, between David, the director himself, and finding — I’ve loved it. It’s really interesting to show that, because you want to see that. He plays the part of the British gentleman perfectly, but there’s something underneath there that’s just quite scary and sad. You’re just getting glimpses of that in the story, then slowly, as we follow him through the jungle more and more, Tarzan will come out, and you’ll see more Tarzan and less John Clayton III.
Is there pressure taking on Tarzan, or is it exciting to bring fans of the character your version?
SKARSGARD: I feel nothing but excited. Again, it’s just been such a dream project. I think you can all sense the vibe on set, it’s amazing, with David Barron and David Yates, the producer and the director there, their energy. It’s been incredibly collaborative from day one. It’s really inspiring to see David with a costume assistant. Like, he’s not a tyrant on set. He’s very much like, “What do you think?” He makes everyone feel involved and feel that we’re telling the story together. That makes all the difference. It sounds like a bit of a platitude, but that’s not always the case on a movie. He makes everyone here work for him because they love him and want to make a great film with him, not because they’re afraid he’s going to yell at them. Obviously, from my point of view, to do this with Warner Bros., they’re the best studio. I’m working with Sam Jackson in there; it’s pretty amazing. Christoph Waltz last night, Margot Robbie, John Hurt — of course, it’s a dream come true. So I couldn’t be more excited.
They said that they went through a very long process to find Tarzan.
SKARSGARD: No, they found me like that. [Laughs] They knew the second they saw me.
Did you do something in your audition where you were like, “I nailed this”?
SKARSGARD: Uh, no. I actually didn’t audition first. I met with David a couple of times about two years ago. The movie was supposed to go last year, as I’m sure you all know, but it is a big beast of a production. It’s very, very expensive, and it’s difficult to get all the pieces together. So it all started about two years ago. I had already kind of been training for it about a year and a half ago, getting ready for it to shoot last summer. Then it pushed, and when a project gets pushed like that, as an actor, you never know what’s going to happen. Of course, it was really devastating. I was super excited about the prospect of working with David on this, but you never know. There are so many factors that come into play. When are we going to go? Is it going to work? So it was a bit of a waiting game there for six months trying to figure out whether we were going to do it or not. Then I went on this expedition to the South Pole last year, so I was off-grid for a month skiing, with no cell phone nor Internet or anything. Then the day I got back to Novo, this Russian station on the coast of Antarctica, they actually had Internet there, like really slow dial-up. After 45 minutes of sitting there, the email popped up, and David basically said, “It’s looking really good. I think we’re going to do this next summer.”
Are we going to see the relationship with your adopted mother at all? I know there are some flashbacks, but the gorilla mother? Do you have scenes with her?
SKARSGARD: Yeah, yeah. You get to learn more about that relationship and the part that she played in John’s life. Again, that’s part of the “Who am I?” story for John. Is Kala, the ape, her mother, or is it Alice Clayton, who he basically never met? So that’s part of the journey as well.