Stellan Skarsgård: interview

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We spoke to Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård about accents, ambitions to direct and his role in new cop thriller 'WAZ'

In your new film ‘WAZ’ you play a grizzled New York cop with ‘a past’. Is that a role you enjoy playing?
It’s fun to play characters with a past, but it’s also fun to play any role that is what I would call a ‘pressure cooker’ kind of character, where the lid is on and it’s left to simmer throughout the movie. This was similar to a guy I played in the film ‘Insomnia’ where where I had to make sure you know there’s something there, beneath the skin, but you never see it.

Would you ever consider extending this cop persona to TV as these type of shows are very popular at the moment? Have you ever been offered a part in something like that?
I don’t think I’ve been offered any TV shows. Maybe I have but my agent hasn’t told me. The most interesting thing in this film, though, is not that he’s a cop, but there’s a different, shady side to his character, there is a past and there are secrets.

You’ve worked with some big name directors in the past such as Steven Spielberg and Gus Van Sant. How did Tom Shankland, the director of 'WAZ' work with you?
The main thing is he never gave up on me. We shot the film in High Definition video on handheld cameras and we had all the rooms lit up so we could shoot 360° and 12 hours a day. We had time to try the scenes over and over again. In the end he had an enormous amount of material, which can be scary if you don’t trust the director, but he handled it well. The difference between an experienced director and a new director is not as big as the difference between individual directors, the temperament they have and the things they're interested in. Some directors are interested in acting and others are only interested in cranes and moving the camera. You always have to figure out what the director is good at before you work with them, then you can fill in if need be.

As an actor, do you get the script and stick to it, or do you work with the crew to try to develop your character?
I feel that making films is a collaboration and I say everything I think, even if it’s ‘Where the hell should I park my car?’. It’s not like I end up fighting for an idea, because I’m sympathetic to the fact that, in the end, it’s the director’s choice. But every idea I have I put on the table and let the crew pick through them. To me, shooting a film is not an execution of ideas that someone has had at home, it’s a very creative and collaborative process. When I prepare my role, I don’t do it at home, I do it on set. I like interaction. I don’t like solo acting or monologues.

You put on a spot-on New York accent in 'WAZ’. It may seem trivial, but do you think within a film climate that is now based on financial collaboration between countries, that being able to do a good accent has become an imperative part of being an actor?
It is a very international scene at the moment where certain countries demand certain things if they are to fund a film. In some films, though, if you want to achieve a certain realism, the accent has to be perfect. Others are more theatrical and based on concepts and idea. In these, accents aren’t so important. I worked with Javier Bardem and Natalie Portman on ‘Goya’s Ghosts’ and we all did Spanish accents that sounded totally different. I work a lot on my accents. English is my second language, so I do have to work harder in that respect. I also have to make a decision each time as I don’t have an accent of my own.

Does thinking about these accents ever get in the way of your acting?
Well, what I do is work very hard before I shoot so I don’t have to think about it on set. I always do my homework in that department. I think, accent-wise, there is a line you can’t cross. I would never do Shakespeare in English, for example. Texts like that require you to be so familiar with them that putting on an accent would end up doing them a disservice.

You’ve just finished shooting ‘Mamma-Mia!’ (a film version of the popular Abba musical) and a concentration camp drama for the BBC. Is it easy for you to make those jumps?
I come from repertoire theatre where I was for about the first 18 years of my career, so I was often doing three plays at a time. To jump from ‘Mamma-Mia!’ to the prison camps is not such a big thing for me.

Is it true that you were planning a move into directing?
Well, it is true that I wrote a script with a friend that I was planning to direct, but after two years it still wasn’t financed so I got bored with it. I might direct some day, but I don’t really have the ambition in that department. If I suddenly find a story that I was the only person who could tell it well, I might go for it.

Are you still in contact with Lars von Trier? Could he not give you any tips?
I actually talked to him just a week ago. He has been depressed for a while but is feeling a little better and it looks like he’s going to make a film this summer. He said it was a love story and that I was far too old to play the lead, so I said that he was too petit bourgeois and conventional in his casting. He didn’t like that.

Author: David Jenkins



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