If there’s such a thing as a mainstream cult, then the furorsurrounding True Blood, the HBO series nominally about a group of very good looking but nonetheless marginalized vampires living—or maybe not quite, since they are undead—in the swampy backwoods of Louisiana, certainly has all the earmarks. Based on The Southern Vampire Mysteries books by CharlaineHarris, True Blood was developed for television by Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball, and since debuting in 2008, has amassed an audience as ritualistic and rabid as the blood-sucking inhabitants of Bon Temps, the fictional town where much of the show’s supernatural happenings occur. The attraction? True Blood is gothy, frothy, sexy, and soap-operatic. It’s filled with thriller-like twists and turns and plenty of camp-horror violence and elaborately photographed nudity. But it’s also smart, self-aware, and novelistic in its storytelling, and watching the action unfold, one gets the sense that the fangoria might in fact be more than it seems, which it very well might be—vampiric even, as it bites from and nips at a variety of B-movie tropes and American historical themes. But the great strength of True Blood as a piece of work is while it encourages such second-level analysis, it is never overwhelmed by it; there’s always enough adrenaline, drama, skin, and blood to keep even the most demonic of beings who’ve been roaming various astral plains for centuries grounded in the graphic glory of the moment.
As Eric Northman, a millennium-old Viking vampire who favors silk robes and keeps busy with his work as both area sheriff and as a budding nightlife impresario, 34-year-old Swedish-born actor Alexander Skarsgård has been thrust to the center of the True Blood maelstrom. Skarsgård’s Northman is by turns complex and mercurial, a pansexual opportunist—humans, vampires, men, women, one Estonian cardiologist-turned-pole dancer, and a fairy have each whet his appetite in turn—whose club, Fangtasia (complete with its underground restraint chamber), is a popular local pickup spot for interspecies trysts, and has become a metaphorical safe space for the fanged-and-forever-not-so-young.
Though Skarsgård appeared briefly as a male model undone by an errant cigarette in Zoolander (2001), his big break in America came in 2008, when he co-starred in the critically acclaimed HBO miniseries Generation Kill as a U.S. Marine sergeant heading up a battalion during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. (In a more zeitgeisty moment, he also appeared in Lady Gaga’s video for “Paparazzi,” a meditation on the destructive nature of fame, in which he played a hulking blonde lover who hurls her over a balcony.)
In addition to the fourth season of True Blood, which premieres on June 26, Skarsgård joins Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Kiefer Sutherland in Lars von Trier’s latest film, Melancholia, which just debuted at Cannes. He has two other high-profile films coming within the next year. In the first, Rod Lurie’s remake of Sam Peckinpah’s seminal 1971 psychodrama Straw Dogs, he stars alongside his real-life girlfriend, Kate Bosworth. The second, Peter Berg’s Battleship, is a big-budget summer action flick based on the Hasbro board game (“You sunk my battleship!”). He is also set to begin work on Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s new adaptation of the Henry James novel What Maisie Knew, in which he will star alongside Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan. (Straw Dogs is due out in September; Battleship, next summer.)
Win Butler, lead singer for the band Arcade Fire, is no stranger to the peculiar and rarified realm of the mainstream cult. He is also a big True Blood fan, and graciously agreed to speak to Skarsgård, who was in Los Angeles, from a tour stop in Austin, Texas.
WIN BUTLER: This will be like a phone date.
ALEXANDER SKARSGÅRD: It feels like a blind date. Speed dating.
BUTLER: What’s your sign?
SKARSGÅRD: I’m a Virgo. What are you?
BUTLER: I’m an Aries.
SKARSGÅRD: Oh, are you? But I don’t really believe in signs.
BUTLER: Me neither, but our bass player can predict people’s signs just by meeting them for the first time. It’s pretty impressive.
SKARSGÅRD: Really? My mother can predict your birth date just from an e-mail.
BUTLER: Wow. I want to do the interview with her. Are you in L.A. right now?
SKARSGÅRD: I’m outside of L.A. We’re shooting True Blood. We’re in the middle of season four.
BUTLER: Have you actually been down to Louisiana, where the show takes place, or is it all shot on a set?
SKARSGÅRD: We shoot it in Hollywood, about 60 percent on stage and about 40 percent out on location, but the locations are all around L.A. We shoot up in Malibu or down in Long Beach sometimes. I’ve shot movies out in Louisiana, but, ironically, I’ve never been there with the show.
BUTLER: Did you ever have to go to Louisiana to research vampires and how they live and stuff like that?
SKARSGÅRD: Obviously, because they all live in Louisiana. [both laugh] But no, I didn’t. I got the job on True Blood when I was working in Africa on a miniseries for HBO called Generation Kill, so I really didn’t have time to do a lot of background. I basically went straight from the Kalahari Desert to L.A. to start the show four years ago.
BUTLER: That’s crazy.
SKARSGÅRD: Yeah, it was. There wasn’t really any time to go down and explore life in Louisiana. But two years ago, I shot a movie in Shreveport, so I spent three months there, and then last year, I shot another one in Baton Rouge.
BUTLER: My wife’s family is from Haiti, but she grew up in Québec, and we were watching a documentary about Zydeco music, and kind of the black Creole population of Louisiana. She was really freaking out because the French in Louisiana is pretty much an exact mix of Haitian Creole and Québécois French. It’s like this bizarre combination that kind of matches her exact background. It’s like black people in cowboy hats speaking with this weird accent.
SKARSGÅRD: I know. When we were shooting in Shreveport, me and a couple of friends went down to Lafayette, because they had a big Zydeco music festival down there. We spent two days dancing to Zydeco music, eating fried alligator . . . It was one of the craziest festivals I’ve ever been to in my life, but I loved it.
BUTLER: When was the first time you came to the States?
SKARSGÅRD: In ’84. My father is an actor [Stellan Skarsgård], and he would work on movies. You’re from Texas as well as Montréal, right?
BUTLER: Yeah, I grew up mainly in Houston.
SKARSGÅRD: Well, I spent two months in Fredericksburg, Texas, when I was 8, while my father shot a movie, and I loved it. I just embraced the whole cowboy culture. I got myself a pair of awesome boots and a cowboy hat. Then I got back to Sweden in September to go back to school, and I was so proud of my cowboy boots. I told my mom and my dad, “I’m going to wear these bad boys to school today, and all the kids are going to love me. I’m going to be the coolest kid in school.” Then I showed up and everyone was like, “Dude, why are you wearing ladies’ boots?” They didn’t really work in Sweden. I wore them that one day, and then I ran home and cried and never wore those boots again.
BUTLER: I kind of had the opposite culture shock, because I moved from Texas back to Montréal in the winter, so it was a pretty extreme transition, going to a French-speaking culture and a completely different season.
SKARSGÅRD: I’ve only been to Montréal once, but I thought it was just a magical city. I went to this one park, I can’t remember the name of it, but they have that big drum session every Sunday.
BUTLER: Oh, yeah—on the mountain. Well, we call it a mountain, but it’s really a hill. It’s called the Mount Royal Park. Every Sunday, they have kids who do sword-fighting reenactments. They dress up in medieval clothes and do battle with each other. It’s like the most quintessentially Montréal thing I’ve ever seen—super-sweet and kind of embarrassing. If you ever come, I’ll take you. You can put on your full vampire regalia, and then we can do a vampire attack on the medieval fighters.
SKARSGÅRD: Awesome, because I do bring that stuff with me everywhere. I always have a carry-on bag with my rubber fangs and my black cape.
BUTLER: [laughs] How burned out are you being a vampire? Or do you still love it?
SKARSGÅRD: No, I still love it. I think the writing on the show is so good that it keeps me interested. I was nervous when I first started True Blood because if you do a play or a movie, you know the complete arc of the character. You can see the end. But with a show like True Blood, you don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re shooting season four, and I don’t even know how it’s going to end because they write it as we’re shooting it. So I was nervous. I didn’t know how it would be to live with a character for years, because I’ve never experienced that before. What happens if you wake up after two years, and you’re like, “Oh, God. I’m over this guy”? But the writing is so good, and they keep surprising me. Plus, we only shoot for six or seven months out of the year, so there is time to try other things as well. That gives me a chance to not only go home and see my family, but also work on movies or do a play where I can dive into a different world and then come back to True Blood kind of rejuvenated.
BUTLER: How much longer are you shooting on this season?
SKARSGÅRD: We’ll be done at the end of June, early July. Then we’ll go on hiatus for probably the rest of the year.
BUTLER: Don’t spoil anything, because I still have about five episodes left to watch from the last season, but it’s incredible how the characters have evolved. Just when you think you kind of have a handle on them, the relationships among the characters get so fascinating.
SKARSGÅRD: What intrigues me is that people kind of naturally want to label or pigeonhole the characters. They want to make it easy for themselves to go, “All right. There’s the good guy, there’s the bad guy, there’s the girl. Okay, I get it now.” But what I like about our show is that when you first meet Eric, for example, you think, All right, this is going to be the villain, the bad guy. Then, slowly, when you get to know him, you realize there is more to the character than that. He’s not one-dimensional. Life isn’t one-dimensional. The world isn’t simply divided into good versus evil. I think we’re all capable of both. So any time the hero does something I’m not crazy about, or the bad guy does something I can relate to, I’ll find it more interesting.
This is an excerpt of the cover story. To read the full Alexander Skarsgård interview pick up a copy of the June/July issue of Interview
Win Butler is the lead singer of the band Arcade Fire.