I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Summer 1991, I am an LA based screenwriter, vacationing on the east coast. I get a call from Tom Luddy about a Carroll Ballard movie called Wind, which he has been producing for American Zoetrope and some Japanese investor. Luddy says they’re shooting for five weeks in Providence, Rhode Island and Wendover, Nevada, and am I available to write some stuff for/with Ballard? He tells me the movie stars Matthew Modine and Jennifer Grey, and there is this other guy Stellan Skarsgård. Wind became a half-decent picture with typically spectacular Carroll Ballard visuals, and a few light dramatic scenes, the best of which always seemed to involve this new guy, Stellan Skarsgård. Jennifer, Matthew and the other co-star Rebecca Miller (currently a movie director herself) always seemed to do better in the scenes they played with Stellan. He was riveting, intelligent, funny, and despite the fairly obvious Swedish accent, you felt that he and the English language got along pretty good together. Later back in L.A., I met a young director named Michael Fields who proudly showed me his first major film, an adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter’s Noon Wine. It turned out to have a key supporting performance by none other than Stellan Skarsgård. For years we figured he was our secret, that one day we’d get Stellan into an American movie and make ourselves rich and famous in the process.
Danish director Lars von Trier beat us to it! Complementing Emily Watson’s tour de force in Breaking the Waves, Stellan was sane, sexy, earthy-but-poetic, in a way that grounded the whole film.
So now the whole world is in on the secret. The actor renowned in his native Sweden for a myriad of films has recently appeared here in Amistad, and Good Will Hunting, and will soon be seen in the upcoming Norwegian film Insomnia, (a stylish noir thriller that received rave reviews at last year’s Cannes) and the soon-to-be-completed Ronin. Better connected, and dare I confess it, more talented people than myself have worn down the path to Stellan’s door. Still one lives in hope that something you’ve written will be transformed by a talent like Stellan Skarsgård. We talked trans-Atlantic by phone.
Larry Gross It must be nice to be home …
Stellan Skarsgård It is. I try to get home very often. If I have two days off I fly home over the weekend.
LG But this year you’ve been traveling all over the place.
SS Yeah, I have been mostly in the States and Canada. When I was shooting on location in Toronto, I brought the family over, brothers and mothers … the whole extended family. I had a nice Swedish colony going. It’s important for me to keep contact with real life.
LG What were you shooting in Toronto?
SS Good Will Hunting.
LG Right. Then, before that, there was Amistad, and what else have you done this year?
SS Right now I’m shooting Ronin, with Robert DeNiro, Jean Reno, and Jonathan Pryce. It’s about a bunch of ex-spies who are out of work after the Cold War, and they’re hired to steal a case from some crooks.
LG Sort of another Mission Impossible?
SS Yeah, but there’s more.
LG How has it been working with Frankenheimer?
SS I like him a lot. He’s good with actors, and he really takes every opportunity to create a dynamic between the characters. Even if you have just a few one-liners in a scene, something always happens between the other characters as you’re saying them.
LG So how did you get started? I became aware of you after the first project you did in the United States which our buddy Michael Fields directed. It was a project for American Playhouse as I remember.
SS Yeah, it was called Noon Wine. It must have been ’84 or something.
LG So, we’re talking 15 years. Michael must have been an infant when he directed you in that.
SS He was. So was I.
LG You played an immigrant hired hand, is that right? As I remember it, you sort of ruined the life of this farmer, played by Fred Ward.
SS No, it was absolutely the opposite. I helped him. I was a very strange farmhand from North Dakota, and I worked hard and built his farm and made it work again. But I was being chased by a bounty hunter because I was somehow mentally disturbed and they wanted to take me to an institution.
LG Fred’s character is destroyed when you’re taken away.
LG Tell me a little bit about when and where you started acting in Sweden.
SS I started as a kid really. I got small parts in amateur theaters. Then when I was 16 I got this big role on television called Bombi-Bitt as the Swedish Huckleberry Finn. We only had one channel at that time in Sweden, so it was like becoming a rock star; screaming girls, and all that stuff.
LG Sounds nice.
SS You get used to it. You get bored with it. Then for a while I tried to combine the theater with going to school, but suddenly I got a role in a theater that was not in the town I was living in. So at 18 I quit school and started working there.
LG Am I correct in thinking that in Europe a professional career for an actor involves the theater more than it does in America?
SS Indeed it does. To be an actor in Europe you have to do theater. It’s uncommon that you just become a star. Almost every actor in Sweden is doing theater.
LG Do you have any chance to do it anymore?
SS I had a chance, but I stopped—or took a pause—eight years ago because I wanted to be able to spend some time with my kids. I can do a film and then I can take four months off and be with my family. But working in the theater, I have to work 80 hours a week and I still can’t support my family. Still, it’s better for actors in the theater in Sweden than it is for actors in the States.
LG Was there one particular theater experience that was of primary importance or significance for you?
SS In the Royal Dramatic Theater there were two directors who meant the most to me: Alf Sjöberg and Per Verner Carlsson. Alfred Bey was a great director and I worked a lot with him, he also did some films. He won an award in Cannes in 1951 for his film version of Miss Julie, by Strindberg. Per Verner Carlsson was more of a modernistic stage poet. I worked a lot with him. Those were my happiest days in the theater.
LG Were there any specific roles that you were particularly fond of?
SS I did a lot of Strindberg and more experimental stuff. I’ve done some Shakespeare, some Chekhov, and some Vallejo. He had a piece called La Fondaccíon, which was a big break for me in the theater, that led to bigger things.
LG Just out of curiosity—this is the cliché question—but did you ever do theater with Bergman?
SS Yeah, I did Strindberg’s Dream Play with him.
LG How was that?
SS It was great. The project didn’t turn out that well, but it was great working with him. He’s very enthusiastic and supportive, and brilliant of course, so I had fun.
LG Any advice that he gave you on movies?
SS No. The best advice I got on movies was from Bo Widerberg. He taught me more about movie acting than any other director.
LG When did you work with him?
SS In the ’80s. First I did a film called The Serpent’s Way, and then I did a version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.
LG Bo Widerberg is famous in America for Elvira Madigan, correct?
SS Yeah, he is. And that’s not his best film. He was a brilliant director. He had this amazing ear for what was truth. He taught you not to concentrate on being brilliant yourself, but to concentrate on the other actors. More to react than act, and I still try to do that.
LG It sounds like what the great American Hollywood directors have always instructed. You’re one of the few contemporary actors who resemble that particular quality that stars like Spencer Tracy and Henry Fonda had. You have a very, very strong personality, but you also have a tremendous quietness and responsiveness. And all of those actors, when they talked about working with John Ford and Billy Wilder, always said the same thing about what they taught them, that acting happens between the lines. Not everybody can make it work the way you do, obviously, but it’s a quality of being almost confident enough or strong enough to do less.
SS But that’s important. I don’t have the ambition to shine myself, because a scene is never better than its weakest link. So if someone else is not good in the scene because I’m taking the oxygen from them, it’s worthless. I don’t like seeing actors who are working in a way where I can spot their vanity, where they put their own personality or their own needs in front of the character they’re playing. To me, the film is number one; the character is second.
LG I first became aware of your popularity in Sweden with a film you did on the life and heroic career of Raoul Wallenberg, who was a Swedish diplomat involved in trying to save victims of the Holocaust. That was an important film for you internationally.
SS It became a very important film for me because it was a tough experience. We worked in Budapest in the actual ghetto, which was the only ghetto that survived the war. There were a lot of the old Jews living there who had experienced all this, and being there and those old ladies coming out and touching me—they knew I wasn’t Wallenberg, but it brought everything back to them again. They came crying to me and touching me and stroking me, and bringing coffee to me. At that moment, doing a successful movie or even a beautiful piece of art became absolutely uninteresting. The only thing that became important to us was to be true to those people and to their lives.
LG Had Steven Spielberg, who you later worked with on Amistad, seen that film?
SS I don’t know.
LG I wondered if that’s where you had come to his attention, because I’m sure he made a point to see the more serious films about the Holocaust before he did Schindler’s List. I don’t know the whole Wallenberg story, could you briefly explain what Wallenberg accomplished during the War?
SS He came from the most powerful financial family in Sweden. He had studied in the United States, but he hadn’t really found his place. But then he managed to get this job where he was funded by the United States to try and save Jews in Hungary. First he worked with the Germans [he had a lot to do with Eichmann to try to stop people from being deported]. He gave out thousands and thousands of Swedish schutz-passes, which were protective passes and which, in a way, made them Swedes. And he cheated, and he bribed—he did everything.
LG In other words, he did something similar to what Schindler did but only on a much bigger, grander scale.
SS The difference being that he went there to do it. Schindler went there to make money.
LG Yeah, Schindler kind of fell into it, whereas Wallenberg really had a plan all along.
SS When I read the Schindler script, what really touched me was that it was about a man who didn’t want to do good, but couldn’t help it.
LG Obviously Liam Neeson was wonderful in that role, but I think that would have been a role that you also would have been great for.
SS I was up for it, but …
LG Let’s now jump to more recent things. In 1991 you made a film for Carroll Ballard called Wind. That was the first time you had been in an American film since working with Michael Fields on Noon Wine, is that right?
SS Wasn’t Hunt for Red October before that?
LG You’re right! There was Hunt for Red October, and you had also worked with Phil Kaufmann on The Unbearable Lightness of Being where you had the painful task of seducing Juliette Binoche, yes?
SS Yeah, I came down from Sweden, shook hands with her and went to bed with her.
LG Oh God, that’s really too bad. A dirty job but somebody’s got to do it. (laughter) So—and you’ll tell me in private sometime about Juliette Binoche—then came Wind, which was a slightly bigger part, yes? What was it like to work with Carroll Ballard, who was a pretty important American filmmaker and who had given you a big role?
SS It was fun. He’s a lovely person and I like him a lot. I don’t know if he’s afraid of actors and doesn’t know how to handle them, but he takes one step back when it comes to the actors. He’s very much into the images. He’s a very cinematic director.
LG I came on that set and was astonished to discover that one of the key characters in this story about the American boat racing industry was Swedish.
SS He had no choice, I was Swedish. If the actor is good enough then it really doesn’t matter if they have a little accent.
LG No, that’s true. So then the next big thing you did, I suppose, was Breaking the Waves.
SS The next big thing in the United States was definitely Breaking the Waves.
LG It is certainly a film that has had an enormous impact internationally. Can you tell me how you got involved in the project?
SS The producer called me and wanted to work with me and they sent me three scripts. One of them was Breaking the Waves.
LG Had you seen von Trier’s other films?
SS All of them. I knew his work. I saw Element of Crime in a film festival and when I saw it I said to myself, “I’d like to work with this director when he gets interested in people.”
LG Yes, because it had a very murky, obscure story, but extraordinary imagery at the same time.
SS It was the same with Europa, which in the States was called Zentropa. It’s a magnificent film, but you don’t get close to the characters. That had to do with the way von Trier worked. He was afraid of actors. He really made his film at home at his desk, and then he just executed what he had already decided, which meant that there was no room for the actors to expand in their roles. There was no room for the irrationalities that come from unplanned things.
LG But obviously he had changed his approach very drastically by the time it came to Breaking the Waves.
SS Yeah, he did it with The Kingdom. I saw that and I said, “Okay, he’s ready now. So am I.” He had said that he wanted to work more freely. He said he found Zentropa as being like a block of ice, even if it was a beautiful, elegant block of ice. I think he had come to the point where he knew how to handle his tools very well; he thought he could control chaos, so he let everybody do what they wanted.
LG It’s marvelous that you bring that up, because I remember one of the most eloquent things a director has ever said in an interview. Kubrick was talking about how he was someone for whom photographing things in an interesting way had always come relatively easily, and that for him—despite what other people thought—what was important was the content of the film and then the performances of the actors. Because he felt that he had learned how to master the visual side of cinema at a relatively early stage. And he wasn’t bragging exactly, it was obviously true. He said it was much harder to find something worth photographing than it was deciding how to photograph it well. And clearly von Trier came to a point where he exhausted his own interest in simply making things look beautiful, and felt that he had to stake out other territory.
SS He actually did a film after Breaking the Waves that he shot all himself with a High 8 camera.
LG So this idea of a more and more simple technique is clearly appealing to him.
SS Yeah, it is. He will go back and do bigger stuff with more conventional methods as well, but he’s working himself down to the cinematic core.
LG A very fundamentally curious thing for me about Breaking the Waves is that the film is written in an extraordinarily effective Scottish idiom. The characters are meant to be Scottish—you’re not sure what their nationality is exactly—but they speak in a regional dialect, and the dialogue, just on a colloquial level, is extremely expressive and well done. Did von Trier put this into the script, or what was the relationship between the script you read and the actual dialogue you spoke?
SS It was very close. He’s a very good writer and the script was so well constructed, so well written and so dense. Before we started shooting we met and read through the scenes and tried to find out how they worked and how we should make them work, and if there was anything we wanted to change, we were allowed to change it. But most of the lines were so well written that they stayed. Then some things are inventions, like Katrin Cartlidge’s marvelous speech at the wedding in the beginning. She wrote that herself the night before and then she came up to Lars and said, “I wrote a new speech, you want to see it?” “No, do it.” She did it.
LG So in other words, this film which seems so seamless really weaves together things that are exactly scripted, things that are slightly altered, and things that are totally improvised.
SS Yeah. We were allowed to improvise but we didn’t very much. It was not a film that could take small talk that doesn’t have any meaning.
LG You had some really cool love scenes with Emily Watson — whom I’ve subsequently seen do very, very different work from the role that she did in Breaking the Waves — what was it like to work with her?
SS It was great. It was her first role, we didn’t know what would come really. We had casting meetings with a lot of girls, but I immediately spotted that she had a very special and magic translucence that you see even off screen.
LG Did you have some say in casting her?
SS We talked about it, but mainly I was working with all the girls who were trying for the role, which meant sitting in a room and shaking hands, and pretending to be shagging girls and doing love scenes one after the other.
LG But you didn’t step forward to Lars and say, “This is the one?”
SS No. We looked at each other and he said, “I think I know who I want!” And I said, “I think so too!” He was sure of it, I didn’t have to advise him in that. But this was an English girl, and this was a film that was being made by a director she had never heard of and involved a lot of sensitive sexual stuff—which is peanuts for a Scandinavian, but isn’t peanuts for an English girl—so you didn’t know how she would react when it came to shooting. Because if she got scared she would get blocked and it wouldn’t work. But she was very brave and very smart. She didn’t try to be professional, she just went for it. Professional is a word I hate.
LG What’s so interesting is that I’ve seen her give very good performances in a completely different style. I’ve seen her since in more conventional roles, and she can do those as well too, almost in a whole different technique. She has a real range of technique, as well as just emotional range, which is impressive.
SS She’s done a lot of theater.
LG Breaking the Waves was a huge international success and from that came a flurry of offers to work in the States, the most immediately important one being Amistad. How was that to do?
SS I was flattered that I got it. And scared because the language was an early 19th-century English with a dialect that was mixed between mid-Atlantic, Boston, and spiced up with a little Texas because Matthew McConaughey was in it—and I had about two days to try and sort it out. It was tough, but also it was the way the film was shot. Spielberg was doing 40 set-ups a day, which means that the tempo was astonishing. It’s twice as many set-ups as you usually do in a movie. And with a lot of actors and a lot of extras so there wasn’t much time to try the scenes out and try to develop them, it was more or less just get there, action, and the camera was rolling immediately.
LG Most of your scenes were with Morgan Freeman.
SS Yeah, he’s wonderful.
LG Your character is a guy who was a dedicated abolitionist, though there was a scene at the end where it’s revealed that you still have some feelings about the racial inferiority of blacks. Am I reading that right?
SS Yeah, that is reading it right.
LG That final scene didn’t exactly make sense. I wasn’t sure what Morgan Freeman’s character was saying to you.
SS I haven’t seen the film myself yet, so I don’t know if we got it the way we should have, but the idea was that even some do-gooders at that time didn’t want their daughter to marry a black guy.
LG They were harboring racist beliefs, even if in the abstract they believed in the Christian brotherhood of man.
SS Their idealistic world would be a world without any racial antagonism, but yet they were a product of a society and a world that incubated them with a way of seeing the world, with white supremacy.
LG And then, from shooting Amistad you went right on to Good Will Hunting?
SS Yeah, that was lovely. Working with Gus Van Sant was more like working with a guy like von Trier. He gives the actors an enormous amount of freedom and is really interested in finding out what can be in the scene. Not only what has to be said to bring the story forward, but: What can be in here? What can we find out and discover about the characters and their relations, and how complicated can it be really?
LG Was it tricky? Here you are acting opposite Matt Damon, the young man who also wrote the screenplay, and the director was directing him too. Did you find yourself in the crossfire?
SS Never. Because Matt Damon and Ben Affleck: brilliant young men. They’re open to everything.
LG I worked with Matt on one of his first big movies, Geronimo, and I know exactly what you mean. He just has this tremendous passion for the content of the scene. He has that same thing that you have, which is that he wants to put what the scene is about first.
SS Yeah, not self-obsessed, not pretentious, a really great guy.
LG That always makes the working not only better, but easier.
SS I want to have fun when I work, or it’s not worth it to me. I’ve made too many films to spend time working with assholes.
LG I hear you. So does it look like you’re going to be spending more time in the States?
SS I don’t know. So far I’ve worked pretty well from a base in Sweden. I like it here in Sweden and I’ve got all my friends here. If I should move I probably would have to move 60 people, and I don’t make that kind of money.
LG I understand. But is the idea to try and do more American films if possible?
SS I don’t really think about where the film is made or where the money comes from. If the director, if the cast, if the material interests me, then I’ll do it.
LG Ever since we worked together, actually ever since Michael talked about you a long time ago I’ve been clocking you and I knew that there was this moment that was going to come, like Breaking the Waves did, when you were going to explode and everybody was going to find out how great you are. It’s a strange thing, when I look at your work, one of the other American actors you always remind me of is Robert Duvall. There’s something Scandinavian about him to me. Or there’s something Midwestern about you. You and he cross somewhere—like an everyman, do you know what I mean? Has anyone suggested that to you, or is this just completely out of the blue?
SS It doesn’t have to be out of the blue just because nobody has suggested it, but I don’t mind being compared to him.
LG Do you see the comparison? Something about it to me is very clean I mean, you’re younger than he is, and you’re cuter than he is at this particular moment in your respective lives, but there’s just this thing you both have, it’s simplicity, but to put a completely pretentious spin on it, a complex simplicity. It’s what all filmmakers pray for when they cast someone. They don’t want a lot of wild, theatrical mannerisms, and yet they want something that’s more than just straightforward or surface.
SS Yeah, but I think you would be worthless as an actor if you didn’t add something to what’s in the script. That’s your job, to give new answers and sometimes even contradict the script.
LG Well, as someone who has had the pleasure of having had you contradict my script a couple of times in Wind, I know that I was so grateful and was so curious about what the next contradiction would be, or what the next level would be that you offered. I know that it would be such a great pleasure for me to do that again. I hope, desperately, that I’ll get a chance to have you wreck one of my scripts again. Take it apart piece by piece, and do whatever it is you feel like doing to it.
Larry Gross is a screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles and New York.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee