Alexander Skarsgård is exhausted. The night before our meeting at New York’s Crosby Street Hotel, he attended a screening for his latest film, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, which led into a late-night after-party at the Jane. “I’m so hungover,” he says, slouching so deep into a plush armchair that’s almost lying on his back. It’s been a while since the 35-year-old Swedish actor has been allowed to let loose. Since wrapping production on the fourth season of True Blood this summer, he’s filmed two back-to-back movies: What Maisie Knew, a relationship drama costarring Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan, and Disconnect, an ensemble tech-thriller in which he plays Paula Patton’s roving husband.
In the next two days, he’ll fly to Stockholm for a week of rest, and then to Louisiana to start production on The East with Brit Marling, Ellen Page, and Patricia Clarkson. When that wraps, he’ll head straight back into the sexy, sordid world of exsanguination as Eric Northman, television’s most magnetic vampire.
So, yes, the man has earned a drink or two—especially when one considers his unexpectedly vulnerable performance in Melancholia as Michael, an over-the-moon groom whose world comes crashing down (figuratively, and then literally) when he feels his wife (Kirsten Dunst) slipping away from him on their wedding night.
BULLETT: It sounds like you had fun while you were here in New York for the past couple of months.
ALEXANDER SKARSGÅRD: I did, but it was just so busy. It’s tough being in New York when you can’t do stuff—I didn’t go to a single play, a single show, a single exhibit. Nothing. I wish I had a week or two now where I could just enjoy being in New York.
We talked before about What Maisie Knew, one of the two films you just shot here. Tell me about the other one.
I had a really good time on Disconnect. It’s an ensemble film, sort of like Short Cuts. I really connected—ugh, no pun intended—with the director [Henry Alex Rubin]. It’s all about how people connect in the Digital Age—Internet dating, Internet bullying. In my storyline, I’m married to Paula Patton, and we’re both online chatting with people. It’s a very dysfunctional marriage. Suddenly, someone takes our identity, and we think we know who did it, so we go after the guy. The journey that we take—tracking down this identity thief—kind of sparks something, and brings us back together. Michael Nyqvist, who plays the Daniel Craig character in the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is the guy we go after. Michael and I used to live two blocks from each other in Stockholm, which is funny, but we’d never worked together before.
In what ways has your experience on True Blood been different from those of the films you’ve been shooting?
I was worried it would get redundant—that was my fear when I started the show—but the writing is so good. If I do a play or a movie, I have the script, and I can see where it’s going, how the story will evolve and how my character will grow. True Blood was completely different, obviously. I was like, How the fuck will I sustain this? What will happen in two, three, four years? Will I be like, Ugh, I’m so over this guy?
It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. You want the show to have continued success, and you owe much of your mainstream popularity to it, but it’s also a huge commitment.
Absolutely. And, of course, I’ve missed out on some amazing opportunities because we shoot for seven months of the year. I’ve been offered some fantastic projects, but if they don’t fit into the window of our five-month hiatus, then I have to decline. That’s just the nature of the beast. I was disappointed, of course, but I’m so fortunate to be working on True Blood. Plus, I have two more years on the contract and then I can freelance if I want.
How does that work?
I signed a six-year contract, so they have the option to keep me for those six years if they want.
If you decided to leave at the end of your contract, they’d have to find a way to kill off your character—but he’s already dead.
[Laughs.] It’s true! By the same token, they’re not obligated to use you for the full six years. I could be written out of the show at any time, although I hope I’m not! I love my character. I loved his storyline this year, the stuff I got to do on the show, and the phenomenal people I work with. Plus, I do get time off every year so I can go home and see my family in Sweden. Last year I shot Melancholia, which was one of the most amazing experiences. I did [Peter Berg’s] Battleship right after that, which was also a great experience but completely different obviously. Each season, I come back to True Blood refreshed and excited to be there.
It’s pretty uncommon that costars on a show get along so well.
It feels so cheesy, but it’s true. You always hear actors who are like, “We love each other.” But the vibe on True Blood really is that fucking awesome. There are no egos and we really care about each other.
Tell me about your time on the set of Melancholia.
It was an actor’s dream. I felt so free and encouraged to just go with it, to have fun, and to explore. Lars doesn’t even block his scenes. I’d show up and he’d be like, “Alright, let’s see what happens.” It’s so playful and organic. He doesn’t care much about continuity. He’s never like, “After that line you have to turn to her and do that.” He doesn’t care. At the same time, it’s not a free-for-all. He’s not like, “Do whatever you want and we’ll see what happens.”
He’ll start out that way—and 99% of it will be disaster, but there will also be these brief, unique moments that you can’t recreate—and then he’ll come in and be like, “Alright, that didn’t work. Let’s try this.”
You’d worked with him before.
Just for one day, 10 years ago, with my dad [actor Stellan Skarsgård]. It was something he did for Danish television called D-Day.
Did you know Lars socially?
A little, yeah. Dad’s worked with him so many times, so I’ve come to know him through my father. When he called to offer me the part, I was like, I don’t even know what I’m going to do in this film. I might be just making his coffee but I’m happy doing that.
Do you think he gets off on this reputation he has of being a tyrant?
He loves that! He likes to observe people, and to say things just to see what kind of reaction he’ll get. But he’s such a lovely man. He’s so sweet and that whole thing about him being a tyrant just makes me laugh.
I think his sense of humor is lost on a lot of people.
In Scandinavia, everyone’s just like, “Oh, Lars!” We know that he’s just going off. Most of the stuff he says in interviews is just bullshit—he’s trying to be funny.
In Melancholia, you play the upbeat foil to Kirsten’s character, who is despondent and destructive. It’s a far cry from Eric on True Blood.
They’re polar opposites, which is awesome. Michael is so shy. When he gives his wedding speech, he’s stuttering and doesn’t know how to express himself. He’s the sweetest guy, and very vulnerable. When the show’s on hiatus, I’m always looking for projects that are different from True Blood. Because of the success of the show, people want me to play men with Eric’s energy, which isn’t really what I’m looking for. If I’ve done that for seven months, I want to do something different. It’s about exploration. Every time I embark on a journey I want to be like, This is going to be amazing.
Why does Michael eventually give up on his bride and leave her on their wedding night?
The last conversation they have reveals a lot. He says to her, “It could have been so different.” And she says, “Well, Michael, what did you expect?” Deep down, he kind of knew it was never going to work. When they go into the bedroom, he’s already broken. But then they start kissing and he desperately thinks, “Maybe this is going to work.” Then she takes off again. He’s sitting there, at the foot of his bed, alone, on his wedding night—he knows it’s over. To him, she’s like a wounded, fragile bird. He just wants to make it all better, but he can’t.
It’s genius that, in the second part of the film, Lars chose not to have your character appear at all. There’s no need for him to consider the end of the world with everyone else, because, as far as he’s concerned, the world ended with the dissolution of his relationship on his wedding night.
You sound so disappointed! Were you expecting me to show up like Bruce Willis, all guns blazing, and shoot the planet and get the girl?
Would that have been too much to ask?