Alexander Skarsgård on Making ‘The Northman’ and Going From Beefcake to Bad Guy

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If Alexander Skarsgård were to write the book of his 40s so far, he says, he would give it the title Stale Mud and Dry Tears. The Stockholm-born actor, who is 46, has spent as many years as he cares to remember helping to realize an ambitious blockbuster about vikings called The Northman, which finally arrives in movie theaters this week. Over many trips to the gym in New York and in Stockholm (the two cities between which Skarsgård splits his time) he thickened his 6’ 3” physique to portray a hulking viking warrior. He had to maintain the extra weight and shape through months of pandemic delays, before a shoot that mostly took place on an open mountain-top in Ireland. The Northman‘s director Robert Eggers favors long, single-camera action shots — and Skarsgård, often near nude in the chill, caked in artificial blood and real filth, forever trying to remember which stuntman to pretend to murder next, was pushed to the limits of his endurance. 

In the mid-2010s he had played another topless hero in a revival of Tarzan for Warner Bros. That shoot took place on a soundstage equipped with temperature and humidity controls. Making The Northman, the weather gods had the dial. “And they cranked it up to eleven,” Skarsgård remembers, “every single fucking day.” No wonder, when he comes into a restaurant near Regent’s Park in London, the actor flops down almost horizontally on a cushioned sofa seat. Hardly rising to scan the menu, Skarsgård arranges himself Caesar-style: in full Roman recline. “We wrapped almost a year ago,” he says. “But the experience still reverberates inside of me.”

He’s dressed all in black today, from his Converse to a casual sweater to the shades he has hooked over his collar. The blonde hair is oiled and combed. His small, neat teeth are quick to flash in smiles of agreement or pleasure at a joke. In an American-accented English that’s flavored with a lot of f-bombs, Skarsgård’s conversation tends towards intelligent, slightly melancholy introspection. He says that while his 70-year-old father, the celebrated Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård, “is still an energetic motherfucker,” he feels increasingly stiff in his 40s. “Physically stiff. Psychologically too.” How so, psychologically? “I’m stubborn,” says Skarsgård. “A creature of habit. I like life in a specific way.” 

He doesn’t have kids. Though there have been a string of girlfriends, he isn’t married. Left to his own devices, without a movie or TV shoot to occupy him, Skarsgård says he likes to keep his days low on surprise. “I rarely venture outside my little neighborhoods in Stockholm or New York. Same spots. Same coffee shops. That Groundhog Day feeling is comforting to me, I guess. And not entirely unhealthy, I think, when you’re used to working on far-flung sets.” He says he doesn’t want to waste time deciding, this or that, right or left? “I like it frictionless. I like a streamlined day, to be like water going through. No decisions.”

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