"I don't know if this is a pivotal moment in my career," says Alexander Skarsgard, the dashing 40-year-old Swedish actor who has garnered new measures of respect this spring for his haunting work as an abusive husband in the provocative HBO limited series Big Little Lies, as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. "It's always the same, isn't it? You're always looking for the next one and just trying to find something you're excited about. That could be a $200 million [2016's The Legend of] Tarzan movie or it could be a $1 million [2015's The] Diary of a Teenage Girl movie."
Skarsgard was born in Stockholm, the son of one of Sweden's most venerated actors, Stellan Skarsgard. Though he says he never was pressured to follow in his father's footsteps — "He just wanted us to be happy and find our own path in life" — he wound up in his first film at the age of 7, and worked sporadically thereafter until the age of 13, at which point one of his films hit it big and he became famous throughout Scandinavia. "It made me very — I don't want to say paranoid, but a bit uncomfortable," he reflects. "It was a shift overnight. Suddenly I got attention from girls that wouldn't look at me the day before. Suddenly they found me interesting, and it just felt disingenuous." So, just as his career was taking off, he quit the business.
Seven years later, following a stint in the Swedish Marines and some studies at Leeds University in England, he reconsidered his decision. "I felt like, 'I don't want to wake up when I'm 65 and then regret not having tried it as an adult,'" Skarsgard explains, so he applied to Marymount Manhattan College theater school in New York, was accepted and spent a semester there before electing to return to Sweden to try to find work. "It took a while" to rekindle his career, he says, and it was only a freak circumstance that led to him breaking into the movies: During a visit to Los Angeles to see his father, he was offered the chance to audition for the part of one of the moron model friends of Ben Stiller's title character in 2001's Zoolander, and he bagged it.
But rather than blowing open the door to many other films, that project sparked years more of auditions and rejections in L.A. "Reality hit me really hard in the face," he says. "I hit a kind of low point in the beginning of '07, where I was like, 'Why am I out here? Is this any better? At least in Sweden I get to work.'" He continues, "I'd already sold my car in L.A. I was kind of ready to go back to Sweden. I had a ticket to Sweden. I was gonna fly back two days later." Then he got a call for the first of what became a series of auditions for The Wire creators David Simon and Ed Burns for the leading role in their next project, a seven-part HBO limited series about an extraordinary U.S. Marine during the early days of the war in Iraq, Generation Kill.
Between Generation Kill, which Skarsgard calls "a transformative experience in many ways," and another HBO project that he landed shortly thereafter, Alan Ball's drama series True Blood, on which he played thousand-year-old vampire Eric Northman opposite Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer, Skarsgard became one of the breakout stars of 2008. Generation Kill won extensive acclaim and received 11 Emmy nominations (although he personally was snubbed), while True Blood became HBO’s biggest hit since The Sopranos, running for seven seasons, until 2014. "I owe it all to True Blood," he says. "Generation Kill was very critically acclaimed, but it didn't hit the zeitgeist the way True Blood did. It definitely changed my life." (And it ushered in a new wave of Swedish actors becoming stars in Hollywood — hot on his heels were Joel Kinnaman, Noomi Rapace, Alicia Vikander and Rebecca Ferguson, among others.)
Over the intervening years, Skarsgard has popped up in a wide array of projects, from Lady Gaga’s 2009 music video for the song “Paparazzi” to acclaimed indies like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia in 2011 and Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl to big studio action films like 2012’s Battleship and David Yates' The Legend of Tarzan. All the while, far more attention has been paid to his looks than his talents — but that changed with Big Little Lies, which is based on the best-selling novel of the same title by Liane Moriarty, which in turn was adapted for the screen by David E. Kelley and directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, and in which Skarsgard plays Perry, the successful husband of Nicole Kidman’s Celeste and father of their two children in present-day Monterey. He is a man who, on the flick of a dime, can alternate between loving family man and explosively abusive spouse.
For Skarsgard, the appeal of Big Little Lies was that Perry is far more multidimensional than most other characters of his ilk. "That's what makes it interesting to me," he says. "The fact that it's not a stereotypical abusive husband, wife-beater. He's troubled. It's obviously not about condoning what he does, but you want to feel his pain and his struggle and that friction. I thought it was a fascinating character." The actor has previously played characters who are immoral (Diary of a Teenage Girl) and violent (Rod Lurie's 2011 Straw Dogs remake), and Skarsgard has existed in a character's dark mindset for a long stretch of time (during a six-month run in a Swedish theatrical production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). But he says that nothing quite prepared him for the intense scenes of sex and violence that he shared with Kidman on Big Little Lies.
"It was horrible," Skarsgard says. "Those days were very tough." He elaborates, "We didn't rehearse at all. We didn't want to. Especially with the physical stuff, we wanted to kind of find out and explore that on the day. It was more about getting to know each other better and understanding the relationship and their past a little bit. And it was also very important to spend time with the boys, our twins, and it was important that they are attached to Perry, that he's a great dad and they love him and that when Celeste is watching her husband with the kids you want her to feel like, 'Well, look at him, he's great. How could I leave him?'"