In the darkly humorous Norwegian crime drama A Somewhat Gentle Man, Ulrik (Stellan Skarsgard) is reluctantly released from prison, only to find his old gangster boss waiting for him to resume his killing ways. But, Ulrik just wants to live a quiet and gentle life, with a roof over his head and a relationship with his son, who is now a grown man with an education, a pregnant girlfriend and a promising future. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try and how many chances you’re given, things just don’t turn out quite the way you want or expect them to.
During a recent exclusive interview with Collider, for which he called from his native Sweden, actor Stellan Skarsgard talked about playing such a complicated character as Ulrik, filming humorous sex scenes, collaborating for the third time with director Hans Petter Moland, and his continued enthusiasm for the craft of acting. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Finally, for Skarsgard’s comments on David Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, being a part of the Marvel epic Thor and working with Lars von Trier on Melancholia, click here.
STELLAN SKARSGARD: It came about because Hans Petter [Moland] and I had done two films before, called Zero Kelvin and Aberdeen, and we really enjoy working together. We’d been looking for something to do together, and then he called me and said, “I’m sending you a script. Take a look at it. A lot of producers say it’s a dark drama. I don’t think so.” And, I read it and laughed. I thought it was a comedy and he thought that too, so we decided to do it. And I said, “But, we better do it in only a couple of months because I’m having a baby, so we’ve gotta do it before May 6th.” So, he got the money together in six weeks, and then we shot for six weeks, and the baby was early and fucked up our schedule anyway.
What was it about Ulrik that you connected with and made you want to play him?
SKARSGARD: He is interesting because he’s the hero of the film, but he doesn’t want to be the hero of the film. In the beginning of the film, he doesn’t even want to get out of jail. He has given up everything in life, and he’s never really had anything of value. He is a gentle man, but everybody is using him because he can’t say no. And then, eventually he learns how to say no and, not only that, but he also sees what is important in life and learns to enjoy that. Even his living conditions aren’t very glamorous. He’s in a better position than he’s ever been in his life, towards the end.
SKARSGARD: It is, and it was fun here because there was no dialogue for most of the film. For the first 45 minutes, when I read the script, he wasn’t even there. You have to carry the film, but at the same time, you’ve got nothing to say. Hans Petter and I talked about that when we started working on the script. It was important, the way we shot it, because everything that happened around him had to bounce on him and you had to shoot him reacting to absolutely everything, so he gets a presence. It’s a silent movie I’m doing, most of the time, but it’s fun. I don’t really enjoy saying words. It’s everything that’s under them and beneath them, and with your eyes and in your body, that is more fun to do.
Would you say that being so silent throughout the film was one of the biggest challenges in conveying this character, or were there other challenges as well?
SKARSGARD: That was a challenge, and so was finding the exact tone. The dialogue is not absolutely realistic and the characters are a little twisted, but at the same time, you have to make sure that they become real, multi-dimensional human beings. We rehearsed for a couple of weeks, before we started shooting, because the first time we read the script, all the actors thought they were in different films. It took some reining in to make sure that everybody ended up in the same movie.
SKARSGARD: I’ve done so many sex scenes in my life and it’s much easier to do a funny sex scene than a sex scene that is supposed to look like it feels. It feels so good with good sex, and it looks so ridiculous. The movements are hilarious. But, the most difficult sex scene was the one with the girl he really likes. I had problems with how to do that because it almost felt like it didn’t fit in the movie. The other sex scenes were about everything but sex, so that was easy. But, I must say that Jorunn Kjellsby, who plays the landlady, for an actress, gives one of the most courageous acting performances I’ve seen. She’s fantastic.
What do you enjoy about working with Hans Petter Moland? Is there something about your style of work that makes you want to continue to collaborate together?
SKARSGARD: He’s given me three of the best roles I’ve had in my career. But, not only that, we’re different. He’s slower and more reflective, and I’m more impulsive. I think I make him a little more daring, and I think he holds me back and makes sure that I think about what I’m doing. That is one side of it. He’s also the kind of director who makes sure to tell you what the scene needs from you, but he never tells you how to do it.
Do you find it easier to work with someone you’ve collaborated with before, since you have more of a comfort level with each other, or does it become more of a challenge because you get so comfortable together?
SKARSGARD: I think it’s easier because work is complicated enough anyway. If you understand each other’s way of thinking, you understand what kind of film someone is trying to make, and all the ideas that I come up with will fit into that film. When you work with someone you don’t quite know, you have to figure the director out and you can come up with ideas that are counter-productive. We still haven’t gotten to the position where you’re too comfortable to get lazy, but I’m not really that kind of actor. I’m not lazy on set. I’m lazy in the rest of my life.
Do you believe that, like Ulrik, everyone deserves another chance to create a decent future for themselves, or do you think there gets to be a point where people run out of chances?
SKARSGARD: It’s hard to say. Unfortunately, the way the world is constructed, a lot of people have no chance, from day one. I don’t think that people in the world, in general, have too many chances.
Are you ever surprised with the difference in the roles that you get offered in America, as opposed to Europe?
SKARSGARD: No. The thing is that those roles don’t exist in the big movies. They exist in the American independent films, but unfortunately, I don’t get them. I don’t know why. But sometimes you find, in a small corner of the world in Europe, a really juicy role for no money at all, and then you just have to go and do it. Sometimes you even pay to do it. But, I’ve got seven kids and two wives and three homes, so I’ve got to make money sometime.
SKARSGARD: To a certain extent, it’s been conscious because I didn’t want to end up doing the same role, over and over again. I think I would get bored doing that. (Director) Milos Forman cast me as Goya (in the 2006 film Goya’s Ghosts) and said, “You’ve made 80 or 90 films and everybody has seen you, but nobody knows you.” I took that as a compliment. But, actors are different. Some actors play themselves very successfully, but I come from the theater. Having done Shakespeare, we sometimes did three or four characters in the same play, which is a different school.
What was it that initially interested you in acting and made you decide to pursue it as a career?
SKARSGARD: It came early. I started acting long before I decided to pursue it. Actually, I still haven’t decided what to do when I grow up. I started acting as an amateur when I was a kid, but I wanted to become a diplomat. It was self-centered and weird, but I had this idea of going out in the world and solving conflicts and making the world a better place. But, I kept on acting and eventually I just dropped out of school and continued acting.
After all the work that you’ve done, do you find that you still have the same passion for the craft that you did when you started?
SKARSGARD: I really have the same enthusiasm for it. I feel very much alive when I’m on a film set. I feel it’s dangerous, it’s scary, it’s beautiful, it’s fantastic and the collaboration with the other actors and crew is a wonderful place to be, for me. Sometimes I make three or four films a year, and I really enjoy it. You also have to make sure that you find projects that are not too similar and roles that are not too similar, so the challenges are new and you still learn things. I still think I can become a much better actor.
A Somewhat Gentle Man opens in limited release this weekend.