From writer/director Dan Krauss and based on the same events that inspired his award-winning 2013 documentary of the same name, The Kill Team follows Andrew Briggman (Nat Wolff), a young soldier in the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, who finds himself under the direction of Sergeant Deeks (Alexander Skarsgård). What he first thinks is someone to admire and expect is quickly revealed to be a sadistic leader that leads the other Army recruits in the platoon to kill innocent civilians, and Briggman must decide whether to report them to higher-ups, which could end up making himself their next target.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Alexander Skarsgård talked about why he wanted to be a part of telling this story, how valuable it was to have the filmmaker also be a resource, how he understood Deeks, and how much he appreciated being able to add to his character. He also talked about playing Randall Flagg, the villain in Stephen King’s The Stand, for the CBS All Access series that reunites him with The Kill Team co-star Nat Wolff, the dynamic between their characters, and why the book has been an important resource, as well as why he was attracted to his Godzilla vs. Kong character and what makes him a different kind of protagonist, and what made him want to be a part of the Showtime series On Becoming a God in Central Florida.
Collider: This is definitely tough subject matter, but I thought you guys were all so great and this, and it’s such a well done film.
ALEXANDER SKARSGARD: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much.
What was it that interested you in this project and made you want to be a part of telling the story? Did you know how intense, challenging and difficult this could be?
SKARSGARD: Oh, absolutely. The documentary that (writer/director) Dan [Krauss] made was very, very disturbing. It was incredibly important, but difficult to watch. So, when he reached out and wanted to meet, I was very interested in sitting down with him and talking to him, listening to his take on why he wanted to turn it into a narrative feature, and his insight into the subject matter and these characters. I got excited about the opportunity to play Deeks. I thought it was a really fascinating character that was well written and wasn’t the stereotypical villain. It had a real depth to it. This movie felt very topical and timely, and of great importance.
It’s rare to have a director who is so immersed in the subject of the film that, having already done a documentary, and then writing this narrative feature, as well. What was it like to have him, as not just a collaborator but a resource, throughout the production?
SKARSGARD: It was obviously so valuable to have Dan and his knowledge about the subject matter. He didn’t personally know the guys these characters are based on, but he had spent a couple of years on this project, so he knew everything about these guys. What was important to me was having someone to collaborate with who would also open to letting us actors, when we came in, find our own characters. At the end of the day, it’s a fictionalized version of a true story. It’s based on a true story. So, it was important to me to have that freedom where, if I wanted to take the character in a specific direction, Dan was open to that, or at least open to having a dialogue about it, and he often was. Even though we wrote the script and it was based on a documentary that he had made, it felt like he was genuinely excited when, if we wanted to work on something, or if a scene wasn’t quite working on the page and wanted to rewrite it, or play around with stuff, or discover things on the day that he might not have thought of. In that regard, it was tremendous to work with him.
Was this a character that you found challenging or difficult to get into the mindset of, or was it easy, in the sense that you really got who he is because it was there in the script?
SKARSGARD: It wasn’t that difficult, which I probably should talk a shrink about. I had a quite clear idea of who Deeks was, from pretty much the first time that I read the script. It was more about shaping it and mapping out the trajectory of the manipulation of the young soldiers. That was something that I was really excited about working on ‘cause it’s almost like a love story with jealousy. He plays these guys against each other. It has a seductive quality to it that I really wanted to explore. I didn’t want it to be about him using intimidation, at least in the beginning, uh, to get these guys to do what he wants them to do. He doesn’t have to intimidate them. They admire him, to a certain degree, so with charm and just a little bit of manipulation, he can get them to do whatever he wants them to.
You and Nat Wolff just can’t quit each other, as you’re teaming up again for The Stand. In all seriousness, what do you like about working with him? What does he contribute, as a scene partner?
SKARSGARD: We had a really great time on The Kill Team. It was obviously a tough movie, and psychologically very draining, at times, but off set, Nat and I had a great relationship. We shot in Madrid, Spain, which is a fantastic city. We really became close – Dan, Nat, Adam [Long] and the other actors, as well. So, when there was another opportunity to work with Nat, on The Stand, I was excited about it. It’s a similar, but also quite different relationship on The Stand. They work together. Lloyd, Nat’s character, is my character Randall Flagg’s right hand guy. The difference is that, in The Stand, he’s loyal and he’s being a good pet, as opposed to in The Kill Team, where he goes against his superior.
When it comes to The Stand, are you just using the scripts for that, or are you also referring to the book?
SKARSGARD: A bit of both. I’m definitely using the book, as well, because even though we have the luxury of nine hours and it’s a good amount of time with these characters, there’s definitely stuff that’s not in the script, that I love in the book. Josh Boone, the showrunner, has been awesome and very encouraging. If there’s stuff that I find, whether it’s a little beat or a little moment or a line, to just add to the character, I can always do that. So, I definitely use the novel quite a bit ‘cause there are so many great little moments that it would be a shame to not use.
Stephen King is so good at visual description in his books
That makes it so hard to translate his material to film sometimes. That’s why I’m glad that some of his work is getting more than the span of time in a movie to explore.
SKARSGARD: Oh, yeah, it has to. And there are all of these idiosyncratic beats and little moments that are great for the character, that I tried to sprinkle into the script, as well. We’ve just started, so it’s early days, but it’s been awesome, so far. I’ve really enjoyed it.
Getting to play an antagonist in a Stephen King story is pretty epic, and it’s something that your own brother, Bill Skarsgård , has successfully done now, with Pennywise in It. Did you get any advice or tips from him, on doing a role like that and making it your own? And with the way that Stephen King’s antagonists are often just as memorable, if not more so, than his protagonists are, is there something so much fun about that?
SKARSGARD: Oh, yeah. I find that definitely in the Stephen King universe, but also in most literature and fiction. The juiciest roles are often the villains ‘cause there’s a psychological darkness and a complexity there that sometimes won’t find in the protagonist, and Flagg is a very iconic villain. No, I didn’t ask Bill for advice on how to play a Stephen King villain, and ultimately I think Flagg and Pennywise are quite different. He had a great time on those movies, but tonally, they’re quite different.
You also have Godzilla vs. Kong, which seems like one of those movies, when you’re a kid and you think about being an actor, that’s the kind of movie you dream about doing. Was that the appeal of that project, for you? What drew you to that?
SKARSGARD: It was excited. I’d done a row of darker, very intense subject matters and darker roles, like The Kill Team, The Aftermath, The Little Drummer Girl, a limited series that I did about the conflict in the Middle East, Hold the Dark, which was a Netflix movie that was also very, very dark, and Big Little Lies, which was about abuse. So, there was a row of extraordinarily interesting projects and subject matters, but I was also ready to play a character with a bit more levity and have a bit more fun in something that was not as dark and intense. I’d met Adam Wingard, the director of Godzilla vs. Kong, before, and I really liked him. And the guys at Legendary – Alex Garcia, Jay Ashenfelter and Mary Parent – are just awesome people and really good collaborators, if you’re gonna do a big action movie. It was a fun character to play. He’s a good guy and a likable guy, which I was quite ready to play after row of dark characters, but he’s also not boring.
Often the protagonist in a big action movie I find quite flat and not psychologically very interesting. I was really interested in my character and had some ideas, and the guys at Legendary and Adam were very open to letting me shape the character and take him in a direction that I thought was more interesting, and it was fun that they let me do that. What I liked about it is that he’s a reluctant hero. He’s a geologist, who’s not tough, or brave, or an ex-Marine, or a cool, strong leader. He’s nervous and uncomfortable, and he’s thrown into this crazy world that he’s not equipped to deal with. There was an opportunity for some levity and some fun moments in that. Having a protagonist who’s not an action hero, in an action movie, was quite fun. The stakes are higher because you know that he’s not equipped to deal with these situations.
On Becoming a God in Central Florida was a huge surprise for me. I absolutely love that show, and it’s one of my favorite shows of the year.
SKARSGARD: I’m happy to hear that.
It’s just quirky and odd and fun enough that it really stood out. What made you want to be a part of that show? Was that part of your desire to look for some lighter material?
SKARSGARD: Well, it was because of Kirsten Dunst. We worked on a movie called Melancholia, a few years ago, where we played a married couple. That was a Lars von Trier movie about the end of the world and the ultimate demise of our planet. So, again, that was also a very dark movie, but we became very close on that set and stayed in touch. We’ve been friends, over the years, after that movie. And then, when she had this show that she wanted to do, she reached out and asked if I would have any interest in coming in and playing her husband for an episode. I adore her and would have done anything to work with her again, so I was so excited. Also, what I thought was so fun about it was that I loved the tone of the show and the way it’s set up. It’s set up as a two-hander. It tricks the audience into thinking, “Oh, this is gonna be a show about this married couple, and their trials and tribulations.” And then, hopefully, it’s such a shock, in the first episode, when he gets eaten by an alligator. The show takes a very surprising turn, after that, and I always love that, when you trick the audience into believing that the show is about something, and then it really is about something else.
The Kill Team is in theaters and on-demand on October 25th.