Alexander Skarsgård on ‘The East,’ His Calvin Klein Billboard, & Why He Quit Acting


Alexander Skarsgård on ‘The East,’ His Calvin Klein Billboard, & Why He Quit Acting


With three new films in theaters and a Calvin Klein billboard the size of a dinosaur above Houston Street, Alexander Skarsgård seems to be everywhere. This is a good thing. For not only does the thirty-six year old actor choose challenging roles in films we actually want to see, he brings an intensity––alternately stubborn and vulnerable––to each character as if he were reincarnating himself anew, and on a tight shooting schedule. First, as a doting step-father in the Henry James adaptation What Maisie Knew, then as a grief-stricken Iraq veteran in Henry Alex Rubin’s networked-drama Disconnect, and most recently as a charismatic ringleader in Brit Marling’s and Zal Batmanglij’s eco-terrorist thriller, The East. It’s on the occasion of The East’s release that I sit down with Swedish actor to see how he’s responding to his omnipresence, his exhausting work schedule, and his experience playing a longhaired anarchist.   

Not too long ago, I was walking down Houston Street and I look up and there you are.
I know. It freaked me out. I saw that and I was like, “Whoa, I look like Godzilla!” That’s a huge billboard. It’s a little intimidating.

And you have three films one after the other, all getting released at about the same time.
Yeah I shot these films back to back and they all opened within a couple weeks of each other.  So it’s been intense, but it helps that I’m really genuinely excited about all three movies and I really love the people I worked with on Disconnect, What Maisie Knew, and definitely The East. They’re the best people ever. And now we’re friends for life. We’re super tight.

How did you first hear about The East?
It was the Fourth of July and I was wrapping up True Blood. I had Maisie and Disconnect lined up. But then I had October, November and December open, so I was basically reading scripts for that window. And I read a lot of scripts, some good, some mediocre, some terrible.  But when I read The East, I was blown away. I’d seen The Sound of My Voice, before. I just thought it was such a beautiful film, and also Brit [Marling] and Another Earth. I knew a little bit about the group, how they work together and help each other out. And Brit’s story, being a banker in New York and then moving to LA and just working on her own indie movies. I thought it was very inspiring. So on the Fourth of July, I was in San Diego with some friends, I called my agent and said, “This is amazing, can I meet the filmmakers?” They were up in LA, so I just jumped in my car and drove up to LA that day and met them. You’ve met them already right?

They’re great. Really exceptional.
They’re really amazing. Just brimming with ideas. It takes three seconds in a room and you’re so intrigued by what they’re saying.

What did you guys talk about during that first meeting?
We just sat and chatted for a couple of hours. It’s always a gut feeling isn’t it? That feeling was so strong after talking I was like, “Please let me work with you guys. I want to be down in the trenches with you guys!” So before I even got to my car, I called my agent and said, “I don’t care what else is out there for the fall, this is the movie.”

Did they point you in any directions to prepare for the role?
The thing is, I didn’t have time to go on the road or train hop or anything. So while I was shooting Maisie or Disconnect, in my trailer or my hotel room I was reading books, going online, watching documentaries. I was very inspired by this photographer Mike Brodie. Have you heard of him? He’s amazing.

Yeah I know his work. He was one of them, right? He wasn’t an outsider to that community.
Exactly. He was train hopping for many years and just took pictures of his friends. Some of them feel kind of like Ryan McGinley, but so gritty and basically just taking pictures of his girlfriend and his buddies. And he’s not part of the art scene at all. He lives in Oakland now as a mechanic, but those images were so inspiring, because it felt like they captured that world, the story we were trying to tell of those people in The East. So just visually, that was a great starting point for me.

His photographs feel really authentic.
He had an exhibition in LA a month ago and I bought one of his prints. I have it in my house to remind me of the experience of working on The East.

So if you went straight from Disconnect, I take it your hair in the film wasn’t real?
[Laughs] No, I wrapped Disconnect on a Friday and then two days later I flew down to Shreveport to start The East. There was no time to grow the beard and the hair.

Have you ever had long hair like that?
Yeah. I’ve had long hair. And I rocked a beard for a while.

When did you have long hair?
When I was a teenager, like 19, 20.

Were you into black metal?
No, it was rock, punk rock. That was really my music, but it was really long until I went to the military in Sweden and then I shaved it all off. But up until then, it was really long for a while.

Before you went to start military service, what kind of kid were you? Did you always know what you wanted to be?
Not really. I was a child actor until I was thirteen. But not like a child actor in Hollywood, with a resume and a headshot. I just did it because my father was an actor and his buddy was a director. But I quit when I was thirteen. I didn’t like the attention. It made me really uncomfortable. I just wanted to be a regular teenager, to hang out with my friends and not be singled out. I didn’t want people to recognize me or anything. So I quit and I didn’t act for 8 years. During those years, I grew up in south Stockholm and just spent time with my boys, played soccer, got drunk, hung out, had a good time.

Now that you are singled out, what’s your strategy for dealing with the attention?
I think it was different when I was younger. After the military, I was in Leeds. I went to university there, and like most people that age, I was trying to find out what I wanted to do with my life. I thought about a couple of different things, maybe architecture, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I felt like I missed being on stage, missed being in front of the camera. I missed the process. And I felt like I should give it a shot before I wake up one morning when I’m 55 and go like, oh fuck, I should have tried it. So I went here to New York, to Marymount Manhattan College just to see how I felt when I was back on stage.

Did your Dad ever give you advice?
He told me that acting was a really tough job. Only do it if you have to, he said, because most of my friends are brilliant, but they wait tables. And even if you’re fortunate enough to support yourself, it’s still a tough job. He was doing repertory theater in Stockholm, so he would rehearse one play during the day, perform at night.  You don’t see your family enough. Or if you do a movie, you travel a lot. So he said, it’s fucking tough. Only do it if you have to. When I was 20 I thought about that a lot. I wanted to see if I felt the need he was talking about. And I realized I did. I felt like there were no other alternatives, like that was the only option for me.

Photo by Tim Barber.

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