Long before becoming one of the world’s most respected actors, Stellan Skarsgard dreamed of working as a diplomat. “I wanted to be a man who travelled the world to make peace,” he explains. “I didn’t realise that most diplomats are megaphones for their governments.”
His change of heart was most likely for the best. A refreshing presence on the tightly controlled promotional circuit, the 64-year-old is the sort to say what he thinks and damn the consequences. Such nonconformism is reflected in his CV, which veers from Oscar bait (Good Will Hunting) to high-camp frivolity (Mamma Mia!) and superhero franchises (Thor) to micro-budget indies (King of Devil’s Island). “I like to be all over the place,” he says. Even within the context of a long, peripatetic career, however, his decision to take the lead in a BBC1 crime series feels eccentric.
The role of John River, a detective mourning a murdered colleague while cracking cases on the mean streets of London, sounds like one Ray Winstone or James Nesbitt would play dependably and forgettably. But River isn’t any old procedural. It’s written by Abi Morgan – the Emmy and Bafta-winner whose own diverse CV includes Sex Traffic, The Hour, Shame and the forthcoming awards-season contender Suffragette – while its supporting cast is full of such high-calibre names as Nicola Walker, Lesley Manville and Eddie Marsan – all too savvy to commit to anything stodgily generic. Above all, though, what marks River out is a leading man who makes every scene count, exposing River’s mental disintegration without grandstanding.
Skarsgard is less wounded but equally charismatic when we meet in the basement of a London hotel. Dressed in black, he projects an appealing mix of serene self-confidence and ribald familiarity, frequently punctuated by rumbling laughter. As imposing intellectually as he is physically, he has little time for lazy questions, but will chew over a good one at length. “I constantly turn down police shows,” he says. “But this was something else: not linear storytelling, but impressionistic. Normally the story is the skeleton and you put meat on it. Here, there’s almost no skeleton, which means the meat has to be fucking firm to keep it together.”
It was Skarsgard’s old friend Lars von Trier who inadvertently compelled him to take the role. Skarsgard established himself internationally in the Danish director’s astounding 1996 film Breaking the Waves and is angling for a part in Von Trier’s mooted next project, a TV series about a serial killer called The House That Jack Built. This would be their sixth collaboration. “He doesn’t have to show me a script for me to say yes,” Skarsgard says with affection and exasperation, “but there’s one role in all his films and it’s a woman. She’s an open wound bleeding all over the screen, then there are some stupid men around. Actors are meant to be manly and hide everything, but River allowed me to be actor and actress.”
While not quite as tormented as a Von Trier heroine, River experiences plenty of emotional haemorrhaging – after all, he does talk to dead people. Not to ghosts, but “manifests” pulled from his psyche, notably 19th century serial killer Thomas Cream (Marsan, still and sinister), reflecting River’s darkest urges, and his late partner Stevie (an effervescent Walker), who he now realises he loved deeply. Skarsgard terms this jumble of grief, depression, guilt, loneliness, hyper-sensitivity and suicidal thoughts “River Syndrome”. “He’s an intelligent man,” he continues, “but that doesn’t mean he has full insight into what’s going on in his head. He’s not delusional, but he’s having a real conversation with these people and learning from them as we do from our inner dialogues.”
Does Skarsgard battle similar demons? “I reflect over my actions, I don’t dwell on them,” he says, firmly. “I haven’t spent much time on me. If you have eight kids [aged from three to 39], you don’t have time to wonder whether you wanted to fuck your mother. I can’t talk endlessly [to a therapist] about that because I’m too busy with the present. In some cases it’s vital, fantastic, the only way to save a person. But a lot of it is bullshit and hocus pocus. When you have kids, you see what’s important.”
His oldest child is Alexander, True Blood star cum Hollywood heart-throb; he was born when Skarsgard was 25. “You’re very preoccupied by your insecurities at that age,” he says. As a relatively new father myself, I seek counsel from this eminently qualified man. He bursts out laughing. “Just give ’em the tit!”
Advice, it transpires, is something he’s reluctant to dole out to journalists or his children, three of whom have followed Alexander into acting. “I’ve brought them up to be secure in themselves, be nice people and be on time,” he says. “They’re out of the house at 18 and into an apartment I bought in the city, paying rent. New ones push the old ones out. It works well! Acting is such a strange, vague profession, but my kids know it’s hard labour. They’ve chosen the job for the right reasons.”
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Skarsgard relished six months of 15-hour days for River, learning “a huge amount”. Not, however, how to sing – one pivotal scene in the opening episode sees him finding new depths of melancholy (if not melody) in Tina Charles’s disco classic, “I Love To Love”. He chuckles when I remind him of Mamma Mia! “None of the boys could sing. We were just the bimbos ….”
If Abba launched Scandinavia as a major pop industry player, then the region’s television is now just as influential. Nordic noir casts a long, dark shadow over today’s commissioners. “If you look at the stories, they’re pretty banal,” muses Skarsgard. “It’s the cultural difference that’s exciting. Lisbeth Salander is a fantastic character, with a child’s vulnerability but a hardness and coldness that makes her stronger than any man. Thanks to Scandinavia being the most emancipated part of the world, you have female characters that are very hard to invent in a more repressed, sexist society like Britain. I heard they lit Tower Bridge pink because they had an heir that didn’t have a penis.” He shakes his head in genuine amazement, and I can’t help feeling slightly ashamed.
It’s all in good humour – Skarsgard’s mood only darkens twice. First, when I wonder how a Swede by the name of John River might end up in the Met. “We watch less believable things on a TV screen every day,” he scoffs. “Somebody from the studio suggested changing the name of Professor Lambeau [Skarsgard’s character in Good Will Hunting]. I said, I’ll change it to Svensson if all the American actors take American names like Sitting Bull …. What is an English name, anyway?”
This unassailable logic is also applied to a conversation about filming River in east London that explodes into a frankly invigorating tirade. “We filmed in apartments smaller than my bathroom, where five people were living. I was brought up an Anglophile. But you [the English] seem to be extremely happy with the social differences in this country…[and] it’s going to get worse. What has made the development of society possible is not greed, but compassion and empathy – otherwise we’d still be running around killing each other in the f***ing jungle.”
He continues in this vein for a few minutes. Stellan Skarsgard might have been a terrible diplomat, but he’d be an inspiring political leader. As it is, we’ll have to make do with him doing what he’s best at: being a very fine actor playing a very troubled man. He grins broadly. “Some actors say, ‘my character wouldn’t do that’. How the f**k do you know? A human being is so complex and full of contradictions. It’s not something you can invent at a desk.”
‘River’ starts 13 Oct on BBC1 at 9pm
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