'Hemlock Grove' Stars Famke Janssen and Bill Skarsgard Talk About Working With Eli Roth and Acting in English

Hemlock Grove Landon Liboiron Bill Skarsgard - H 2012
Sophie Giraud for Netflix

The 13-episode horror series premieres on Netflix on Friday.

Hemlock Grove is a long way from Forks. Netflix’s sophomore scripted series, which premieres Friday, is a dark, gothic thriller that aims to make viewers forget about the virginal vampires and werewolves of Twilight.

Executive produced by horror heavyweight Eli Roth (Hostel) and based on the book by Brian McGreevy, it’s a dark murder mystery full of secrets, sex and biotech-gone-bad, topped off with plenty of Roth’s signature guts and gore. That might be a lot to tackle in a season, but everyone involved set out to make something that would not only shock, but be more than just another supernatural weekly show.

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“This is not even television,” says star Famke Janssen (Taken). Though shot so each episode could be viewed as a standalone, Roth used the structure and length to adjust the overall pacing to give it a cinematic feel. “The whole notion of Netflix putting the entire season online and idea of people being able to watch it in a continuous way -- it’s really where everybody is going if they’re not there already," she adds. "And it’s nice to be part of the future for once."

“We are coming from the movie business, so we are always more obsessed by the quality of what we are doing than by the business we can do out of it,” says Gaumont vice CEO Christophe Riandee, whose new LA-based TV studio produced the show. “From our perspective, it was the way to go and to make a very high-end TV drama with some of the best talent in the world.”

In addition to Janssen, the show stars Dougray Scott (My Week With Marilyn), Lili Taylor (Public Enemies) and newcomer Bill Skarsgard (brother of True Blood’s Alexander and son of The AvengersStellan). Janssen and Skarsgard sat down with The Hollywood Reporter during MIPTV in Cannes to discuss working on the first season of the show.

“Even I thought, ‘Really?  Are we doing this again?’” says Skarsgard of what he expected to be yet another rehash of the overdone genre. “It’s vampires and werewolves. It’s been so explored already even I’m fed up with it. But when I started reading it, it kind of blew my mind.”

TV REVIEW: Hemlock Grove

As the center of the mysteries, Skarsgard was in nearly every scene and on set every day during the six-month shoot. “I was never scared of the challenge, I was scared not to do it because I really wanted it,” he says. His character Roman, the spoiled son of the Godfrey family that runs the hamlet of Hemlock Grove, became an almost unrelenting companion. “He goes to a very dark place, and it takes its toll on you after a while. I don’t think I was prepared for that, and when we finally wrapped, I thought ‘Wow, I don’t have to deal with this guy for a little while.”

Though Skarsgard has some great coaches available with Stellan and Alexander on speed dial, he’s chosen to make the learning process his own. “I don’t ask for too much advice. I want to do it myself, especially coming from an acting family, I don’t want to involve them in my work in any way. Of course if there’s something I really need or in terms of support they’re always there.”

Despite a part in last year’s Anna Karenina, it’s the Swedish Skarsgard’s first big English language role. “It was really overwhelming at first, and I didn’t know how to cope with it. For me, one of the most important things is to feel comfortable in front of the camera in order to take the liberties I need to take to perform as well as I should.” It was working with a patient Roth, himself an actor in Inglorious Basterds and Rock of Ages, on the first episode that gave him the courage to really sink his teeth into the role. “He gave me the time I needed. Then the more we shot, the more confident I became and I got into the flow.”

“It always helps to be directed by someone who understands acting,” adds Janssen. "Sometimes the clock is ticking and you need to finish your scene, but if the actor is not ready there’s no point in even attempting to shoot because it’s just going to take longer in the end. Working with someone who understands that goes a long way, and Eli certainly does. You have a shorthand you don’t have with other directors."

Patient as he might be as a director, he’s always anxious to break new ground -- and then cover it in blood.  While fans of the genre know what to expect from Roth, the red band trailer released yesterday is generating pre-premiere buzz for its sheer shock factor. Roth cites Twin Peaks as an inspiration, but when one murder is solved in Hemlock Grove, there are plenty more. Still, such a pace should help the show avoid any post-Laura Palmer pitfalls.

“What I’ve always found difficult about television, is that you blindly sign on and you put yourself in the hands of other people not knowing where the journey is going to go,” says Janssen. “Having the novel, we have an idea of where, tonally, this is going to go.”

McGreevy’s book is a bestseller, and Roth is one of Netflix’s top-watched directors (there’s an algorithm for that), but it remains to be seen if Hemlock Grove can find an audience outside of the horror niche. 

Nevertheless, Roth and Gaumont are already prepping for season two, which would be a welcome release for Skarsgard. “It’s been good to take a break from Roman,” he says. “But where the first season ends is just kind of the beginning of where he is going. He’s still in my mind, and I’m not done with him, and I don’t want to be done with him.”