From filmmaker Lars von Trier, Nymphomaniac: Volume I tells the story of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a woman that considers herself to be a nymphomaniac, discovered badly beaten in an alley by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), an older bachelor who takes her into his home and listens to her recount various sexual encounters of her adolescence and young adulthood. In Volume II, the story picks up with Joe’s adulthood and a journey that leads to darker complications. Both films contain graphic depictions of sexuality, to a degree that’s uncommon for a mainstream feature.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Stellan Skarsgard talked about how Lars Von Trier presented this film to him by calling it a porno, that there’s nothing that would get him to turn down a Von Trier film, how the experience of working with the director has changed over the years, that it felt like he was making an entirely separate film with Charlotte Gainsbourg, having to shoot 90 pages of dialogue, why he enjoyed playing such a straightforward character, and how he feels about the 4-hour, two-part version of the film compared to the five-and-a-half-hour version. He also talked about reuniting with director Kenneth Branagh for Cinderella, and what attracted him to the six-part BBC drama series River, which he’ll shoot later this year. Check out our Stellan Skarsgard after the jump.
You’ve worked with Lars Von Trier multiple times now, and you’ve said that you consider him to be a good friend. So, when he has a film ready, does he just call you and tell you that he has a role that he wants you to play?
STELLAN SKARSGARD: Yeah, he asks me if I want to come and play with him, and I go and play with him, for whatever he’s got.
Does he typically pitch you what the film is and what the role is going to be, or does he send you a script without telling you anything about it?
SKARSGARD: It varies. On this, he called me a year before we started because he wanted to make sure that I didn’t take anything else, which has happened before. So, he said, “My next film will be a porno film, Stellan, and I want you to play the male lead in it.” I said, “Yeah, of course, Lars.” “But, you will not get to fuck,” he said. I said, “That’s fine. I’ll be there anyway.” “And you will show your dick in the end, and it will be very floppy,” he said. “No problem,” I said. That’s how he introduced the project to me, and then he wrote it. He called me a couple of times, when he was writing, whenever he had a funny idea to talk about.
Were you surprised when he told you that he was making a film about sex and that you would be the male lead, but that you wouldn’t have any sex scenes in it?
SKARSGARD: Yeah, but when he said “porno film,” I knew it was not going to be a porno film.
Is there anything that would ever get you to turn down a role for Lars Von Trier, or is it just a matter of scheduling?
SKARSGARD: No, I wouldn’t turn down a role. First of all, he’s a friend and I just like to hang with him. Making a film is a good excuse to be together. But then, I’m also really happy on his set. I have fun working with him. It’s a treat, whatever the material. The end product is not my problem. That’s his problem.
Has the experience of working with him changed over the years, or does it stay the same with each project?
SKARSGARD: Every project is different. His film are different not only from previous Lars von Trier films, but from any films. That makes it exciting, even though you don’t know where he will be going next time. Most of all, his way of working with actors has changed. When we did Breaking the Waves, it was the first film where he did not try to control the actors. He let them be free in front of the camera. He was still a bit awkward with actors and a bit awkward with people back then, but he got better and better. He reduced everything down to where he only had a text and an actor, and his job was to try to help that actor bring the text to life. Now, he’s bringing back his tools again. He’s much more comfortable with people and with actors now, then when we started.
Your scenes in the first part are almost entirely in one room with one actor. Did it almost feel like you were making a different film from everybody else?
SKARSGARD: Yeah, I didn’t even meet everybody else. The part of the script that is me and Charlotte Gainsbourg is 90 pages of dialogue, which is absolutely crazy. I have more words in this film than I’ve had in my entire career. We spent two weeks in a room, talking. That was all we did. And then, I flew back home again. In that sense, I was not a part of the rest of the film. Except for having to learn that much text, it was quite fun to be there, in such an intimate setting, and trying to electrify the air in that little room.
In the first part of this, this man seems like a nice, well-read intellectual who might typically keep to himself, and he reassures her that she’s not the bad person that she thinks she is. Are we going to learn some horrible thing about him in the second part?
SKARSGARD: You will not learn any horrible things about him in the second part, so don’t worry about that.
What was it like to play someone like this, who does seem so straightforward, in that way?
SKARSGARD: Well, he is. He’s an idea. He is the idea of a man who has no experience of life, whatsoever, and has all his knowledge from books. That is a construction that is not a very common type of character, but it’s great fun to play because he is compassionate and he really listens. I spent two weeks listening to Charlotte Gainsbourg like a child. Everything she said was news to me. Everything she said was a revelation. He doesn’t even quite have the tools to understand what she’s saying. She talked about fucking on the train bed, and the only thing he had to relate to it is fly fishing, which is extremely comical.
It seems as though American audiences might spend this film looking for reasons to justify or explain her sexual behavior, but the film doesn’t really provide one. Do you like the fact that it doesn’t provide any answers for her behavior, in that way?
SKARSGARD: It’s a disease we have that we think that everything is explainable. It’s a merchandising idea because you can sell explanations and cures for everything, but it doesn’t work like that. It’s very hard to understand everything.
How do you feel about this film being released in two parts that are edited down from the five-and-a-half-hour version? Do you feel like it takes away from the art and the creator’s vision to do that, or do you think it plays well and that the intention comes across, either way?
SKARSGARD: It’s the same film. The five-and-a-half-hour version of course has more of it. The sex is more explicit, and there are a couple of side stories and digressions that will be added to that version, but essentially, it’s the same film. I understand the necessity to do it. There’s no theater that will allow five and a half hours of Lars von Trier. It’s very hard to sell tickets for that. So, the four-hour version is definitely a Lars von Trier film. It’s not a Reader’s Digest version.
SKARSGARD: To me, all of Lars von Trier’s films are fairy tales, so I’m pretty used to it. Lars von Trier is a very good storyteller. He’s like an H.C. Andersen for adults. None of his films are especially realistic, like this film. I think he started writing as if it was in England, but it doesn’t play as England. People have different accents and everything. It’s a fantasy world. People, like my character, are an idea. Both my character and the character of Joe are two different sides of Lars von Trier. It’s all in his head. But, Cinderella was fun. I like working with Kenneth Branagh. That film will turn out very, very well, I think. They’re not trying to make a dark version or a modern version. They’re actually telling the story of a really nice girl, which is a story that has worked for humanity for 2,500 years.
What drew you to the BBC drama series River and made you want to play the title character?
SKARSGARD: Abi Morgan has written that, and she’s a really good writer. She wrote The Iron Lady and Shame and The Hour. They sent me the script and it’s very well written. She’s really good. It’s only six parts, which is a very civilized way of doing television. So, I’m doing that, and I look forward to it.
Nymphomaniac: Volume I is now in theaters and on VOD. Volume II is available on VOD and in theaters on April 4th.