A Day With the Man Who Brings Museum Works to City Walls
In 1877, William-Adolphe Bouguereau painted “Le Jeunesse at l’Amour,” a sensuous nude shouldering a playful angel, a work now hanging on the main level of the Musée d’Orsay. In early June, Julien de Casabianca pasted an oversize simulacrum of the figures on the wall of nondescript building in the 18th Arrondissement.
Alexander Skarsgård, born in ’76, is the oldest of eight children. Two of his brothers are working actors, with Bill appearing in the Netflix seriesHemlock Grove and Gustaf playing the role of Floki in the History Channel’s Vikings. Skarsgård’s mother, My Skarsgård, is a physician in Stockholm who specializes in working with addicts. His father, Stellan Skarsgård, is a veteran of the Stockholm stage and such Scandinavian films as Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves.
In recent years, Stellan has made a place for himself in Hollywood as a key cast member in two separate blockbuster series, The Avengersand Pirates of the Caribbean. At the same time, after 35 years of marriage, he and his wife split up. Stellan now has two sons with his second wife, Megan Everett Skarsgård.
Stellan and Alexander faced off against each other, to good effect, in von Trier’s apocalyptic nightmare, Melancholia, a 2011 film that includes a line that pushes the bleakness of Scandinavian drama to its limit: “All I know is, life on earth is evil.”
In the movie, the Skarsgård père plays a gamey rogue, while Alexander, smiling sweetly, is a submissive groom who understands little about his bride-to-be, a spirited depressive played by Kirsten Dunst.
As actors in that one, both Skarsgårds did what they usually do to win over audiences: Stellan went out and grabbed them, Jack Nicholson–style, with his sharp tongue and glinting eyes, while Alexander drew them in by keeping himself quiet in his body and gentle in his speech. The father conquers. The son seduces.
Henry-Alex Rubin, the director of Disconnect, compares Alexander to a long-ago Swedish actor-director who got his start in the silent era: “He’s less like his father,” Rubin says, “and more like Victor Sjöström in Wild Strawberries—a great Swedish actor who did a lot with very little. As opposed to a lot of Americans, who come from the Stella Adler school, Alex comes from the Swedish school of doing a lot with very little. There are a lot of shots [in Disconnect] where he does absolutely nothing on screen. Just a tiny shift in the eyes. And that’s his choice.
“True Blood capitalizes on his brooding, mysterious quality, but in real life Alex is very sweet and thoughtful and even kind of boyish. At festivals or when we’re out socially, I watch as he spends his time taking pictures with these middle-aged housewives and grannies. It’s little things like him bending at the knees, not to dwarf them in pictures. It reminds me of what I’ve read about James Dean, how respectful he was around women, which is a contradiction, because he was such a handsome boy. In a similar way, Alex doesn’t act like a handsome lady-killer. He’s very respectful, and that’s something you wouldn’t expect, because women find him to be a sex symbol, and he’s got these screaming True Blood fans. But he doesn’t exploit or even take advantage of his looks, and I think that’s telling.
“He has never said this to me, but I imagine he is tired of playing a vampire and wants to explore different sides of himself. I think, in the past, he has been underestimated, which is a great place to be, because then you can blow people away.”
Rubin has been out on the town with Skarsgård as well and reports, “He’s a really loving drunk. I probably shouldn’t say that, but you know how people’s personalities come out when they’re drunk.”
The director also talked about the filming of a key scene in Disconnect, when Skarsgård’s character finally loses it: “When he broke down and cried like a baby, even the crew was shocked. He really cracked—and when he cried, it was real. It wasn’t fake crying. He reached inside. He went in deep and he found it and he cracked. It was very emotional to experience, watching him do that on set. I imagine that it is difficult for anyone in Swedish culture, because they are incredibly restrained people who don’t often wear their emotions on their sleeves.”
We meet Alexander Skarsgård at the sweet spot in his career, when he is morphing into a movie star. To commemorate the change, M set him up at Fortune Gym, on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, to re-create the sweaty Hollywood glamour of Somebody Up There Likes Me(starring Paul Newman, 1956), or Champion(Kirk Douglas, 1949), or maybe Kid Galahad(Edward G. Robinson, 1937). At left is former heavyweight professional and current gym proprietor Justin Fortune, who fought Lennox Lewis back in ’95. “I was six-two when I went in the ring,” Fortune says, just before working with Skarsgård. “Now I’m five-foot-nine.”
His film career got its start in 2001, while he was visiting his papa (actor Stellan Skarsgård) in LosAngeles. “My dad’s agent said, ‘Oh, I’ll send you out on a meeting,’” Skarsgård says. “I auditioned for Zoolander and got it.” It was the small (but crucial!) role of Meekus, a dim-bulb fashion model who perishes in a gasoline fight. It did not hint much at what was to come for the star of HBO’s True Blood, who is now making his name in three movies playing at the same time: The East, What Maisie Knew, and Disconnect.
“He’s a good mover,” says film director Henry-Alex Rubin, who made the Oscar-nominated 2005 documentary Murderball and cast Skarsgård in the recent Disconnect. “The way an actor moves through space is essential to believing them. Alex moves like a soldier. More important, there’s a mystery to him. You don’t meet Alex and immediately think, ‘I understand him.’ It takes a long time. If I were to compare him to someone that he is going to grow into, he reminds me of Clint Eastwood.”
When gym proprietor Justin Fortune saw Skarsgård lying on the canvas, he said, “Don’t get used to that fuckin’ position, all right?” The actor lifted his head and laughed. He has been down before. Roughly 10 years ago, he found himself auditioning for stupid parts. Then he saw something he wanted—the role of U.S. Marine Sgt. Brad “Iceman” Colbert in the HBO miniseries Generation Kill, which was co-produced by The Wire’s David Simon and Ed Burns. “I got lucky,” Skarsgård says. “I got the part.”
Skarsgård is six-foot-four. His arms are like ropes. Those attributes (and his linguistic skill) made him right for the role of a Mississippi golden boy turned rapist in Rod Lurie’s brutal and effective 2011 remake of Sam Peckinpah’sStraw Dogs. In real life, though, as if to compensate for his physical gifts, Skarsgård has a gentle manner, which he shows off to good effect in What Maisie Knew. In that one he plays a slouchy bartender who impulsively marries a self-involved musician (Julianne Moore). Little by little he becomes a doting father figure to her neglected daughter, Maisie (Onata Aprile), in the sweetest cinematic pairing of an adult male and a young girl since Ryan and Tatum O’Neal starred in Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973).
Skarsgård was famous as a kid, after appearing on a popular Swedish TV show, but he hated being recognized—so he quit acting for his teenage years. Now, at age 36, he doesn’t mind being approached by even the most smitten True Blood fan. “I’ve learned to be genuinely happy if someone likes what I do,” he says. It helps that he’s a fan himself. “I love Spencer Tracy. And Marlon Brando was phenomenal—I’m a huge fan of his. Paul Newman, as well, with Hud. There was a darkness and also something very naturalistic about the way they acted that you didn’t see so much of before that. They weren’t theatrical. James Cagney had it, too. That intensity. For a leading man, to have that darkness, and to be able to explore that, back when a lot of them were just flashy leading men… Cagney was awesome. Awesome.”
Skarsgård began making his own way at age 19, when he joined the Swedish army. “My dad is an actor,” he says as he sits on the bike behind Fortune Gym, “and all his friends are artists, painters, musicians, actors—so it was great, growing up with these super-creative, interesting people. There were big dinner parties, and my dad loves to cook. Tons of wine—it was a crazy household, but so much love, as well. So I come from a family of these super-left-wing pacifist bohemians and wanted to challenge myself and do something completely different from what I was used to.” As a member of a special operations unit called SakJakt, he picked up a lot of what he has used as an actor—skills that may come in handy once more if Warner Bros. decides to go ahead with Tarzan as its new tentpole franchise, with Skarsgård in the loincloth.