Stellan Skarsgård interview
Ahead of his appearance in tennis biopic Borg/McEnroe (and filming for the Mamma Mia! sequel), Swedish star Stellan Skarsgård talks about life on set, Scandinavian culture and his talented sons
To call Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård's filmography eclectic might be an understatement. His work ranges from Academy Award winners (Good Will Hunting) and blockbuster franchises (Pirates of the Caribbean; Marvel's Thor) to arthouse flicks (Breaking The Waves – his breakthrough role opposite Emily Watson) and musical comedy (Mamma Mia! – he played Bill).
In addition to having over 100 films under his belt, the 66-year old (who seems much taller in person) also has eight children, including Big Little Lies star Alexander and Bill who was recently in It. Clearly, none of this has tired him out.
He's now ventured into sports drama with Borg/McEnroe, a film recreating the build-up to the famous head-to-head between tennis superstars Björn Borg and John McEnroe at the 1980 Wimbledon Men Singles final.
In the film (his first Scandinavian production for 10 years) Stellan Skarsgård plays Borg's coach, Lennart Bergelin, in his distinctive understated style.
Skarsgård can be just as reserved in person, dispensing with any small talk quickly. But once he's given the chance to sink his teeth into meatier issues, he becomes very talkative and pretty direct, regaling us at one point with a very good (though, sadly, unprintable) joke about Scandinavian social skills – or lack thereof.
In the end, we discover this distinguished actor's opinions – and language – are just as colourful as his cinematic CV.
Are you a tennis fan?
Not really, I’m not very much into sports. I don’t have time for that. But I saw that final in 1980 and that was one of the most dramatic things I’ve ever seen on television. It was fantastic.
Is Borg’s story still well-known in Sweden?
Everything about Borg is well known about in Sweden, yeah.
Did you have to do much research for the character you play, Borg’s coach Lennart Bergelin, or is he also a well-known figure?
He’s a well-known figure, and I knew a lot about him but, of course, I read as much about him as I could find anyway. But my ambition was not primarily to make a sort of imitation of what he was like. I let reality stand back to fiction because the most important thing was to do what the film needed from the character.
Do you think Bergelin was jealous of Borg, which is something he’s often accused of?
It was partly a Salieri-Mozart relationship, you know, where someone’s who’s almost really, really good sees someone who’s almost perfect and that combination of love and jealousy. But, eventually, he became like a father figure who partly made Borg as good as he was. Borg had, of course, all the talent to begin with but he taught him how to channel all his anger, his disappointments and everything and focus on the tennis.
It’s a bit of an uncomfortable moment in the film when you see Borg, as a child, being ordered to bottle up all his emotions, especially when you see his personal life as an adult strained because of this advice. Do you think that that was a responsible move?
Was it the right thing to do? Well if you wanted him to become the best tennis player in the world, yeah. If you wanted him to be a happy person then you should have told him to stop playing tennis. [Laughs] Those are the options.
When Borg finally quit at the age of 26, he’d spent his entire life with one single thing, and that is: winning the next game in tennis. He’d barely read a book, he hadn’t finished school, he had no friends, he had no life, he hadn’t bought a coffee himself ever. I mean he’s suddenly stood there with no tennis any more and lots of millions and no knowledge about life whatsoever and of course all the vultures came descending on him immediately and f**ked him over big time.
What did you think of Sverrir Gudnason’s Borg?
[Sverrir] has a very difficult role because he’s playing someone who doesn’t say much, is almost autistically unable to express himself and at the same time he has to show the cinema-goer an internal life that is rich enough to make them interested and he does that beautifully by just showing what’s happening behind the eyes. There’s an intensity to it that is…
Actors from that part of the world do manage to have this dark presence that is quite muted. Is that a cultural thing?
Yes, it is a cultural thing because it is a culture where you understate your feelings and don’t show them on the outside. It’s not as repressed as the English way, it’s just that you don’t talk much about it. But it’s not wrong to talk about it and when you talk about it you say everything but you say it with as few words as possible. The English way is not even going near it, so it’s very different.
You’ve been very varied films in the work that you’ve done. Are you naturally adventurous with what you choose to act in or do these scripts just come your way?
I always wanna do things I don’t think I can do. It seems like I’m sort of striving for failure. [Laughs] I don’t know, but I want to do things I haven’t done and eventually you’ve done a lot and you have to go further and further. But I like working and with the people that have dedication, the energy and the joy in their work because if it’s not fun on the set I’d rather be at home cooking. So I search for those parts and films I haven’t seen before, and I haven’t seen this film before.
So many of the scripts you get are written in a way that you suspect the writer has written a film he’s seen before, again, and that’s really sad. So you want to be rocked a bit. You want your perception – not only of life and things – but also of what cinema is should be rocked a little. I’m fortunate enough to work with Lars von Trier where every film is a film that’s never been made before and so I'm a little spoilt there.
Is there any particular genre or mode that you like to work in?
I love working with Lars von Trier because it’s a totally egalitarian, un-hierarchical set where everybody can say whatever they want and do whatever they want and you’re free to fail and you’re free to try things. There’s a lot of humour on the set – the darker the story, the more humour on set – so it’s great, great fun and no pressure.
So you do put in your ideas to the director?
I always do – I’m not supposed to shut up! It has to be the director’s film but I can always put all of my ideas on the table in front of him if he wants them, he can pick them. I don’t approve of actors who take over the set and neutralise the director and run the set because they’re not going to edit the film, they’re not going to take responsibility for the final product.
And any good film that is not a generic industrial production has to have a subjective idea – the more subjective, the better usually. It’s like, if you have a beautiful sunset and you take a photograph, it’s not that beautiful any more. But if Turner paints it then it’s really f**king interesting because it’s his vision of that sunset.
Would you ever direct?
No. I tried to make a film many years ago and I got it written and mostly financed but it took such a long time, I lost interest. I don’t have the patience for it. I still like acting and I’d rather make a couple of films a year as an actor than a film every ten years as a director.
Has it always been acting for you? Have you wanted to do anything else?
I wanted to become a diplomat when I was a kid and I never decided to become an actor. I just sort of slipped into it and kept on doing it and enjoyed it. But I haven’t made up my mind what I should do when I grow up. [Laughs]
The Skarsagård family is becoming a bit of a…
Exactly. Did your sons just slip into acting as well, like you?
It has been varied. Four of them are actors now. Alexander for years didn’t want to deal with it at all because he did something in television when he was quite young and he got a lot of attention and he did not want that attention. But then he came back to it later. And Gustav wanted to be an actor from when he was two and a half I think.
Bill was not sure. At that time he had two brothers who were actors already and he wasn’t sure so he finished school properly with high grades and stuff and was thinking of taking a trip on the trans-Siberian railroad when he got a couple of really great roles in Swedish films and then he was f**ked. And the fourth son, he just quit school, he’s got a couple of jobs, and he likes it, so he might be…
…one to watch.
Have you given them any advice?
No, and they haven’t asked for any either! [Laughs] I haven’t opened any doors, I haven’t helped them with anything because they have to do it on their own. I haven’t encouraged them to become actors or discouraged them. It’s their lives, they have to fix it!
You’ve worked with Alexander though, in Melancholia...
I’ve worked with Alexander. I've worked with all of them I think, at least once.
What has that experience been like?
It’s great because if you have a scene, you talk the same language which means that, very quickly, you get the same idea of how the scene should be done or how you want to do it. But it’s also a bit funny. There was one film I did with Gustav, we came to the set and it was a period film and we’d come to the set with long beards and long hair and we were just looking at each other and started laughing. It was such a ridiculous situation when someone you know very, very well is pretending to be someone else.
How did you get started in film in this country?
Well, I started in America. I won Best Actor in 1982 at the Berlin Film Festival in a film called The Simpleminded Murderer and that was picked up in the States and got me a job in the States, which got me an agent in the States and she started working for me there, and I got more and more.
Was that your goal?
It wasn’t my goal. I was very reluctant. [My agent] tried to get me over to shake hands and send pictures and I thought, what’s the point in sending pictures – I look different in every film I do! And I was very angry, very snotty and pretentious but eventually I went over there. But it’s not the goal and it shouldn’t be the goal. The goal should be to do interesting, fun stuff. Sometimes it can be a Mamma Mia! film and sometimes it’s very dark and it’s a really bad ‘popcorn’ seller that you’re paid no money for at all.
Are you enjoying being back over here?
Oh, of course, I love it – I’ve spent a lot of time here. Last time, I was living in Islington for a while when I did River for the BBC and now I will back for Mamma Mia!, and I will be living in Notting Hill for a while.
Looking forward to doing something lighter?
Borg/McEnroe is released on 22nd September.