The TV and movie industry is littered with actors who were tipped to be ‘the next big thing’ only to end up with non-speaking parts in the latest Jean-Claude Van Damme film. Predicting stardom is a precarious business but Alexander Skarsgard has as good a chance as any of making it big. Movie-star good looks? Check. Sensible career choices so far? Check. An engaging and intelligent personality? Check. Family pedigree in the business? Well, his dad is Hollywood star Stellan Skarsgard, so: Check. He’s also recently starred in two of the most critically acclaimed and successful TV series to come out of the US last year, True Blood and Generation Kill.
It was almost all so different, though. As a child actor, Skarsgard turned his back on the industry aged 13. It was only after a seven-year hiatus that he decided to give acting another go. It was, it would seem, a good decision. Just how good, the next few years will reveal.
You’re from an acting background, and obviously your dad [Stellan Skarsgard] is hugely successful. Did you grow up proud of his level of success, or did you just take what he did for granted?
He wasn’t that big a star when I grew up. The thing that brought him to Hollywood was Breaking the Waves, the Lars von Trier movie, which was in 1996. I was already 20 years old by that point. Growing up, my father was working at a theatre in Stockholm, so he was mostly a stage actor. He did movies as well, but smaller Swedish movies. I’ve got younger siblings, and it was different for them. They did more of the travelling around the world, being on sets and all of that exotic stuff. For me, it was running around backstage at the theatre, and I didn’t really think much about it.
On the subject of your siblings, a few of them have gone into acting as well, haven’t they?
Yeah. I’ve got a brother who’s two months old, and it’s kind of difficult to say what he’ll do! But I’m the oldest, I’ve got a brother who’s four years younger than I am, and he’s an actor back home in Sweden. And I have another brother who’s 18, who’s working doing movies in Sweden right now as well.
How old were you when you started acting?
Seven. I did my first movie when I was seven, and then I worked for about six years, doing movies and television in Sweden. But then I quit when I was 13, and didn’t work at all for seven years.
Why did you quit?
This was in 1989, and back then in good old Sweden, we only had two TV channels. I did a movie for television there, and whatever was on, people would watch, so the impact that had back then was huge. Suddenly people recognised me wherever I went, and it just made me very uncomfortable. It was a weird age to become famous. I didn’t know how to handle it, and I was very self-conscious and stressed out about the whole situation. I just wanted to be one of the guys, so I quit, basically. I didn’t have the urge to act for seven years.
What drew you back into acting?
I was 20, and like most guys of that age I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. I was thinking about different options, and naturally acting came up again, and I thought about it, and I felt that it might be different now I’m 20 instead of 13. Hopefully I’m a bit more sure of who I am and what I want in life, and maybe I can handle it better than I did when I was 13. Leaving acting had never had anything to do with the craft, the work, at all. It was only because I wasn’t comfortable being recognised, and I thought that might be better. So I decided to give it a go again, and went to New York to study theatre for a while, and got hooked pretty instantly.
You’ve got two new series coming up on Channel 4 this autumn. True Blood is a drama about vampires, which will automatically make people think of Buffy – but it’s really not like that, is it?
I wouldn’t know. I’ve never seen Buffy!
Well, this isn’t exactly aimed at kids, is it?
No! Definitely not! It’s pretty dark.
Summarise the concept of True Blood.
The series is based on The Southern Vampire Mysteries. Charlaine [Harris, the books’ author] created this world where vampires live in coexistence with humans. They came out of the coffin two years ago, and went out publicly and said ‘Yes, we do exist, but don’t worry, we’re not going to harm you because we can drink synthetic blood now. We just want to live in peace.’ And it takes place in Bon Temps, a small town in Louisiana, and it’s basically about prejudice, and how these vampires try to fit into society and find a role.
Your character is a vampire called Eric Northman. What’s he like?
He’s the sheriff of Area Five, which basically means he’s the sheriff of the vampires in Louisiana. He’s one of the oldest vampires around, and one of the strongest and most powerful. He’s a true entrepreneur – he’s got a nightclub in Shreveport, and he sees this as an opportunity to make money. Curious humans will come into the club and buy souvenirs and see real vampires, and he uses that and makes money from it.
He’s been around for 1,000 years. How do you play someone who has a thousand-year back story?
Well, I think he’s got huge confidence, and also he doesn’t waste time. He’s been around for that long, so he cuts to the chase and gets down to business. And it’s hard to impress a guy like that, because he’s seen it all. That’s why he’s intrigued by Sookie [the show’s heroine, Sookie Stackhouse, played by Anna Paquin] because there’s something new here, something interesting and different about her that he can’t really put his finger on. In general he’s not very interested in humans, they don’t impress him, he thinks they’re naïve and stupid in general. But there’s something different about Sookie, and that intrigues him. That’s what gets his attention, basically.
Did you read the books when you got the part?
Yeah. I read the first five books before we started season one, but when we started shooting, it was just too confusing to keep reading the books [there are nine] because I didn’t want to end up wondering if I’d read something in the book or in the script. But we’re on hiatus now, so I’m going to go back and read a few more.
The series is adapted by Alan Ball, who wrote and produced Six Feet Under and American Beauty. Did that add to your excitement about the project?
Oh yeah, yeah. I reacted like most people would do when I heard it was a vampire show, I thought ‘Whoa – I have no idea what this is going to be like.’ But then, when they told me that he was behind it, that made me very interested in working on it.
In literature and cinema and on TV we seem to return time and again to vampire stories. What do you think is behind our fascination with the genre?
I think it has to do with immortality and eternal youth. What creates a platform for good drama is that that is so alluring and intriguing to people. Immortality and eternal youth are so attractive, yet the fact that vampires are also lethal predators who could kill you in an instant creates great platforms for drama, I think. You have that duality. An encounter with a vampire could let you live forever, or you could become vampire food.
The series is quite risqué. Did it cause controversy when it first came out in the US?
Yeah, a bit. It’s pretty full-on, and very graphic and gory. Season two is even more graphic, so we’ll see what the response is.
The other series you’ve got coming up on Channel 4 is Generation Kill. That’s also based on a book, isn’t it?
Yeah, it’s based on a book written by Evan Wright, who was a journalist who was embedded with First Reconnaissance Battalion of the US Marines for the first five weeks of the Iraq invasion in 2003. It’s basically about his experience of that journey.
Are the events portrayed pretty accurate to what happened?
Yeah, everything that is on the show happened in real life. One of the actors is a real Marine, and plays himself on the show. We had two other guys from First Reconnaissance with us for the duration of the shoot, which was seven months in Africa. They were behind the camera for every single take every single day, making sure that everything was legit and was real, and what we say and what we do on the show happened for real. It was very important to us to show exactly what happened, and not make it into a Hollywood series or movie where everything is dramatised, and things are added or removed. We just wanted to tell it exactly as it was, and I hope we succeeded in doing that.
You play Sergeant Brad Colbert. What’s he like?
He’s a team leader, a sergeant, and one of the senior guys in First Reconnaissance, but he’s not as macho as the other guys. He’s a bit of a loner, he’s doing his own thing. He loves the first stage of the invasion, where he actually gets to sit down alone and plan the mission that he gets. He’s a perfectionist when it comes to that, and he really believes in the cause. He believes that they’re out there to help people, to liberate people, but throughout the series things will change. It’s hard for him to do his job, because he needs to be there and motivate the guys, and make sure they’re sharp and aggressive, because otherwise they’re more likely to get killed. But at the same time, he’s beginning to think “What the hell are we doing out here?”
Did you meet the real Sergeant Colbert while you were filming?
Was that a conscious decision?
No. If I’d had a chance to meet him before we started filming, and hang out with him for a month or two, then great. But he was in the UK, embedded with the special forces.
UK? That’s a really tough posting, being sent over here!
Yeah. That’s the real deal! So he was in the UK, and I couldn’t get hold of him. I was able to get his email address, but at that point we were already two weeks into shooting it, and I’d already created my version of Brad Colbert after talking to the guys who knew him, and also talking to Evan Wright, who spent five weeks in a Humvee with him. So I’d already created my Brad Colbert, and at that point I decided not to get in touch with him, because I’d made my choices and found my path, and had to continue down that road with conviction. But I did get a chance to see him as soon as I got back to the States. Evan Wright was kind enough to throw a barbecue at his place, and he invited me and Brad, because he wanted us to meet somewhere other than the red carpet before the Premiere, and get a chance to sit down and talk. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life to finally meet him.
It must have been strange, finally meeting someone whose character you’ve spent so long immersing yourself in.
Yeah. I was with that character for a year. It’s his life. All the quotes and things I say on the show are his life. When I talk about my ex-girlfriend, and hookers in Australia, these are things that he actually said. And he never asked for this to become a huge HBO series, so I didn’t know how he would react when I met him. But I have a tremendous amount of respect and love for the man, so it was very important for me that he would be proud of what we did and how I portrayed him. And he didn’t kill me, so I guess I did okay.
Aside from the guys working on the show, did you spend any time immersed with the US Marines as part of your research?
No, but I’m a sergeant in the Swedish Marines.
Yeah, you did your national service with them. Did that experience prove useful in filming this series?
Absolutely, it was very useful, just to help understand how you deal with your officers and peers, understand the group dynamic between the guys, and also how you handle your weapons systems and all that kind of stuff. It was very helpful to have gone through that.
Were you a good soldier, and was it something you enjoyed?
Not really. It’s mandatory to do it in Sweden. I wanted to join the Marines, that’s not mandatory, but you have to do some sort of service to the state, doing something else. But I wanted to do this because I grew up in downtown Stockholm, and I wanted to challenge myself. I figured if I was going to do this, I wanted to do it for real and full-on, and actually physically and mentally challenge myself. At least then it might be interesting, and something I can use later on, instead of spending ten months in a booth stamping passports. But most of the guys I was with in my platoon were kind of like Rambos, you know? I wasn’t like that at all. I knew this definitely wasn’t a profession for me. I did this solely for my own reasons, to experience these things and challenge myself. It was kind of weird, and at times I hated it, but I’m glad I finished it.
Generation Kill shows a lot of bravery and gusto from the Marines, but it doesn’t necessarily tie in with the homespun, patriotic, apple-pie image of troops that exists in the US. Did the depiction of the troops upset people?
No, I think the Marine community really embraced the show, because it felt legit and it felt real and it made the audience realise that it’s more complicated than they might have thought. It made the audience realise that these are all individuals, and they’re very young, and they’re all there for different reasons. Some really believe in it, some are there because they’re bored, some are there because they’re trying to avoid jail. So it was definitely embraced by the Marine community, and by the army and the air force and the navy as well. I know that some of the officers weren’t happy about it, because they wanted it to be a pro-Marine Corps series where everything is amazing and they’re all patriots and all fighting for the right cause, so some of them weren’t happy with either Evan Wright’s book, or with the series either. But we can live with that.
I imagine that filming it was a pretty odd experience on set. It must have been an almost exclusively male environment.
Yeah. It was funny talking to the real Marines who were out there with us. They said it was very similar to being in the Marines – not, obviously, what you do for your work, but with the group, and how bonds are formed and how tight you get when you spend that long all together. And on a set it’s 80 per cent wait and 20 per cent action, and I think it’s pretty much the same thing in the Marine Corps. You do something, then you sit around and bullshit for hours and hours, and wait for the next order. So that definitely created a similarity, and I think it was great that we did this 3,000 miles away from our families and our homes, because all we had was each other, and I think that was good for the show.
Looking at the two series, which you did back to back, the roles are very different. Was that a conscious decision – do you always like to have that element of variety to your roles?
Yeah, because it keeps me on my toes and it keeps me motivated and creative. If I do something for seven months, and then I jump into a character that’s very similar to that, I think I’m going to get bored, and I’m not going to do a good job. I need to be challenged, I need to feel almost nervous about a new project and a new character. That gets me excited, and it definitely helps me in my creative process.
True Blood is on Channel 4 on Wednesdays from 7th October at 10pm. Generation Kill goes out immediately afterwards, at 11:20pm.