Stellan Skarsgard plays a lonely bookworm who doesn't have any bonking in Lars Von Trier's sex movie "Nymphomaniac." Credit: Getty Images
If you believe the largely baseless rumors that Lars Von Trier is a difficult director, then behold Stellan Skarsgard: He’s been in no less than six of his films. The Swedish actor first appeared in “Breaking the Waves,” as a paralyzed oil rig worker who commands his new bride (Emily Watson) to have sex with random men. He’s also largely passive in Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac,” in which he spends the film listening to a sexaholic (Charlotte Gainsbourg) telling her boudoir stories. Like many European imports, he switches between heavy dramas and Hollywood fare, including the “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels and in the “Thor” wing of the “Avengers” franchise.
At this point does Von Trier even have to ask you to do his films?
He asks, but I always say yes, if I’m not busy. He wanted to make sure I was free so he called a year before, when he was just starting writing it. He said, [adopts killer Lars Von Trier impersonation] “Stellan, my next film is a porno film and I want you to play the male lead in it. But you will not get to f—. But you will show your d— at the end and it will be very floppy.” “It’s alright, Lars, I’ll come.”
You and Christian Slater are two of the only actors here who don’t have sex. Instead you sit in a room with Charlotte Gainsbourg and talk.
It’s more dialogue combined in all the films I’ve done in all his films. It was like 90 pages of dialogue. There’s a full feature film of just talking. It didn’t feel like theater. It felt a little like rehearsing theater. Film is not a literary form. It’s not based on the word. Sometimes you read a really bad script and the dialogue is explaining the film. Then you want to shoot yourself. Sometimes I wish I had been born 80 years ago, so I could do silent film. I like to throw out as much dialogue as possible. If you can express something in any way but talking, I’m about it.
The running gag is that your character has no sexual experience, and he keeps making digressions about other, bookish subjects.
I’m playing one part of Lars Von Trier. That is him too. He knows everything from Fibonacci numbers to fly fishing. He is that nerd. But he’s also her character, which is more destructive, violent, struggling with society. My character is a man who has no experience of life whatsoever. All his knowledge comes from books. When she’s talking about f—ing on a train, he thinks, “How can I relate that? It’s like fly fishing!” It’s insane.
That at least makes him more interesting than just a guy who listens.
If he knew everything she was talking about, it would not be fun. It’s like, “Wow, everything is new to him.” It’s the first time he hears about any of this. If he was like, “Oh yeah, I f—ed on a train too,” it wouldn’t be fun.
Von Trier has a notorious reputation, which he has himself partly cultivated. But most actors you talk to say they loved working with him.
That [bad] reputation comes from one film, which was full of conflict, and that was “Dancer in the Dark.” On that was he was working with Bjork, who is a lovely woman and fantastic. But she’s also a control freak. And you can’t have two control freaks on a movie set. That’s a collision. It has to be Lars’ film, and I don’t think she understood that. But she was also an amateur. She had no experience. He’s not a demon on the set, he’s not manipulating you. He’s extremely gentle. If people are not happy on the set, it hurts him. It’s a very free set. You have gaffers and runners saying, “Oh, f— off, Lars, that’s a silly idea.” The set is very non-hierarchical, very pleasant.
So he has people telling him his ideas are stupid?
Yeah. You can do that. Even if you’re a runner or a make-up artist. Nobody’s afraid.
This is the third in his “Depression” trilogy. He was very shaky on “Antichrist.” How is he now?
He’s better. I think he was really bad during “Antichrist.” He was working himself up to “Melancholia.” I think he was rather happy on this one. He still has anxieties.
Despite the subject, this is his lightest film — up to a point. [SPOILER] It's even warm, in your character's relationship with Charlotte's character, though the final scene contradicts that.
It doesn’t contradict it. It’s just very human that he didn’t f—ing get it. [Laughs]
It is the funniest film he's ever made, even including "The Boss of It All." It really shows off his sense of humor.
He has such a great sense of humor. I always think his films are funny even when they’re dark. I laugh at them. It’s like, “And now how about this horrible thing?” [Laughs] We laugh when we do them.
How is it like going from a Lars Von Trier film, or even a European film, and doing a blockbuster, like the Marvel films or “Pirates of the Caribbean?”
I don’t spend much time in my trailer. I like to be on the set because I like film crews and I like hanging out there. I don’t feel like waiting much. And between takes you can actually work. You can work socially with the crew, or you can work on the scene. I can’t read books or watch films when I’m on a film set. I’m on. My engine is at full speed all day. I don’t feel like any wasted time should be wasted.
The Marvel films have a personality.
Even if they have $200 million, it still feels like a small film. The executives from Marvel, which is a handful of people, they’re all accessible. You can call them in the middle of the night and say, “I don’t f—ing understand this film.” Normally when you work on a big studio film you can’t even get to the assistant.
Gore Verbinski, who helmed the “Pirates” films, seems very eccentric, too.
He was like an independent director. As you know, they tried to fire him several times on the first film, and they wanted to fire Johnny Depp too, because they thought, “That’s not a pirate. Isn’t he a bit gay?” So they didn’t understand it. When it was such a big success they realized, “Oh, we don’t understand this, so let him do whatever he wants.” And he used the opportunity to do this one sequence, in the second or third film [Ed. it was the third], which is this long sequence which must have cost millions to do, which is the ship out in this slat desert with multiple Johnny Depps and crabs. It does not bring the story forward. It’s nothing but a surrealist f—ing Salvador Dali episode that he just wanted to do. And they didn’t understand why, so they let him do it. Working with him is like being on an independent film — very small, intimate, hanging around the camera. I don’t feel like I’ve ever been bulldozered by the Hollywood machines.