How Juergen Teller and Alexander Skarsgård Found Love in a Frozen Place
Ahead of Juergen Teller, i need to live, this winter’s gargantuan, 800-piece exhibition at the Grand Palais Éphémère in Paris, the famed German photographer and his collaborator, wife, and baby mama Dovile Drizyte call up their dear friend, the actor Alexander Skarsgård, to talk babies, fathers, and Men, the scat-centered short Teller and Skårsgard created during a life-altering quest to the Arctic Circle.
“Late photography legends like Irving Penn and Lee Miller would’ve laughed their pants off if someone told them that towards the end of the century, a working class kid from a small town in Germany without any connections in the industry would burst onto the scene with photographs that shatter the boundaries between commercial photography and contemporary art and establish himself as the greatest photographer of our time.”
ALEXANDER SKARSGÅRD: Hey guys.
DOVILE DRIZYTE: Can you hear us?
SKARSGÅRD: Yeah. Can you hear me?
JUERGEN TELLER: Hi.
DRIZYTE: Wow. Looking so professional, in black, combed hair.
SKARSGÅRD: This is my professional black shirt that I wear only for hard-hitting interviews.
DRIZYTE: That’s great. Thanks for agreeing to do this, Alex.
SKARSGÅRD: My pleasure. How are you guys?
TELLER: We’re good. Back in Germany. It was a long journey last night. You know how it is with kids.
SKARSGÅRD: It’s like traveling with a circus.
TELLER: Yes. [Laughs]
SKARSGÅRD: We had an interesting 36-hour journey back from France yesterday. There was a bad thunderstorm in Scandinavia, so they canceled a lot of flights. Traveling with an infant or a 1-year-old is a fucking nightmare. [Laughs] I aged 10 years over those 36 hours, but we made it home, finally.
TELLER: I always said, after a holiday with the kids, you need a holiday afterwards.
SKARSGÅRD: [Laughs] Well, let’s jump in. I have a little preface and it goes a little something like this. At 9:42 a.m. on March 13, 2023, I found myself staring into the abyss on a windswept frozen lake north of the Arctic Circle. That abyss was Juergen Teller’s asshole. A year earlier, we had never met, and now I was granted access to parts of his body I’m not even sure his wife had. My version of how we ended up here I shall save for my highly anticipated autobiography, Alexander Skarsgård on Alexander Skarsgård and Other Fascinating Topics He Knows a Lot About. But Juergen, would you please share your version?
TELLER: [Laughs] That’s all very well put. I can’t remember the date when we met, but we met through Interview when the magazine asked me to photograph you [for the March 2022 cover story]. You were in London and I invited you to come to the studio, and of course I admired your work a lot: the things you did with Lars von Trier and the TV series, Big Little Lies or Little Big Lies or whatever it’s called.
SKARSGÅRD: Yeah, Big Little Lies.
TELLER: I thought you were excellent. And much, much later, when we were on a holiday with my two other kids, we watched Zoolander, and my admiration for you jumped even higher.
TELLER: But coming back to that Interview shoot, I remember we had very good conversations and enjoyed each other’s company, together with Dovile. And then one thing led to another, and a year later we found each other in New York.
TELLER: I had spent some time with Dovile in Lithuania at her parents’ house, and my father-in-law told me a story about when he was living and working in Siberia. It was an absolutely mesmerizing story, which years later, I wanted to reenact, and I needed a partner in crime, and it was you.
SKARSGÅRD: Did it have anything to do with me taking a shit on the South Pole years ago?
TELLER: Well, it could be because you showed me those pictures. No, first of all, I couldn’t have acted out this whole film we did together with just a friend or a neighbor. I needed some Hollywood oomph, otherwise nobody would’ve taken this thing seriously.
TELLER: And with your help, it elevated it into an artwork.
SKARSGÅRD: Your shit deserved it. [Laughs]
TELLER: On top of it, when Dovile was nine months pregnant, wading through a meter of snow in minus 15 degrees, filming the whole thing, we both looked at each other and thought, “Fuck, he is such a good actor.”
SKARSGÅRD: Well, to your credit, Juergen, so were you. Playing yourself might sound easy, but it’s actually quite difficult to be comfortable being yourself in front of the camera. But you took that shit like the camera wasn’t around. You really owned that moment, and I admire you for it.
TELLER: Thank you. Once I say it, I do it. You can’t be pussy-fucking around with, “Oh no, that’s a bit too much,” or whatever. It’s actually really quite moving, what we did. It’s about male friendship and it’s a love letter to my father and my father-in-law. It’s hardcore, but it’s very profound and very humorous.
SKARSGÅRD: Was this a decision that grew slowly, or as your father-in-law was telling you this story, did it hit you like a lightning rod that, “Oh, I need to go out and take a shit in the snow and have someone hack my shit out of my asshole?”
TELLER: It took a little time, as you said, to process it and to know what to do with it. And sometimes my ideas sound so absurd that when you say them out loud, you’re like, “The fuck is this?” But when I execute them, they actually do make sense, like the work I did with Charlotte Rampling, for example, and now with you. And I have this partner in crime, which is my wife who works with me. I can say these things, what’s in my head, and she can articulate them, because I’m very often shy about these things. Dovile did ask you, right?
SKARSGÅRD: Yeah. You had told me the story of your father-in-law telling you the story. You were sharing a bottle of vodka, up at night, and he was telling you about how cold it was in Siberia and how his friend had to help him hack the shit out of his ass because it had frozen before it hit the ground. [Laughs]
SKARSGÅRD: So I’d heard the story, but it was Dovile who asked me if I would do the honor of hacking your shit out of your ass. And of course, I was honored to. The next challenge was finding the right location.
TELLER: We both said, “Let’s go to Siberia.” And then Dovile, of course, thinking more practically, was like, “Hey guys, there’s a war in Russia. We can’t go to Siberia.” And then you immediately came up with this excellent idea. You were like, “I have some friends near the Arctic Circle. Let’s go there.” Then we just had to find a date, and that was another challenging thing, because Dovile was getting more and more pregnant. I have to say, the weekend we had there was so wonderful. Your friends were so sweet.
SKARSGÅRD: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I just want to ask about the process of creating this video. I haven’t seen it edited with the narration that you’re doing, but you mentioned that it’s about your father-in-law, but also your father, and I was curious if that was a conscious decision from the beginning or if, as you were putting it together, you were like, “This has taken on a different meaning?”
TELLER: I had my father in mind because of the strong bond I have with my father-in-law, even though Dovile’s father doesn’t speak a word of English. It all comes from looking into each other’s eyes, drinking some vodka, and having a cigarette. Of course, Dovile translates certain things, but there’s this ease about being together which I never had with my father. He never spoke a word to me. We never had a conversation. So when I’m narrating our film, at the end I say that when I was 16 years old, I wanted to get away from my parents as quickly as I could, so I decided to hitchhike to Sicily. Out of the blue, my father, who was an enthusiastic hobby photographer, handed over his camera and said, “Take some pictures on your travels.” And I’m like, “Fuck you. I don’t want a fucking camera. I don’t want to have anything to do with you.” And it’s funny, I’m a photographer now.
SKARSGÅRD: Has your father-in-law seen the film?
TELLER: He has. He couldn’t believe it. He got really flustered and nervous and asked to have a drink. The next morning he said, “Are you really going to show this?” There was a lot of laughter.
SKARSGÅRD: Oh, good. And just to segue into when you photographed me for Interview last year, it was very obvious how intimately you and Dovile work behind the camera. Together you would find different locations around the house to shoot, or sometimes Dovile would pick up the camera and take some snaps. It felt very playful and fun. I’m sure we all have massive egos, but the atmosphere seemed very egoless. You haven’t known each other for that many years.
SKARSGÅRD: And you were 30-plus years into your career when you started collaborating. Has Dovile changed the way you work?
TELLER: It’s funny, when I was doing my work on my own, of course I had assistants and people who helped me, but on some occasions I felt very, very alone. I started working with Dovile when she moved from New York to London. At the beginning, I thought she would help me with the business side and the studio, because Dovile studied political science and she’s very practical. So I left my agents and she was doing all that, but very quickly, we both surprised each other with how creative she is and how much she understands me. It’s been the best thing that ever happened to me, meeting Dovile. We work together, we have a kid together, we’re married—we do everything together. Under normal circumstances you’d get on each other’s nerves and need your space. But for us, it’s not like that at all. Because of her, I’m actually even more me than before.
SKARSGÅRD: Like in terms of helping you go deeper into yourself, or finding your core?
TELLER: To achieve things. For example, it would’ve been a long-winded, complicated thing to ask you to do the shit video. Dovile understood my need to do that film, and that you were perfect for it.
SKARSGÅRD: If I may say so myself, I was born to play that part.
SKARSGÅRD: I was born to crouch as you were squatting, taking a shit in the freezing cold Artic winter. That’s where I belong, in the shadow of your ass.
TELLER: [Laughs] And when you put your hands in the back of my shorts, I thought, “Whoa, we are going a bit off script here.”
SKARSGÅRD: It was a survival instinct. It was so fucking cold and I couldn’t feel my hands, and I realized the only warm part of your body was going to be your ass.
TELLER: [Laughs] But do you understand what I mean when I say Dovile makes me more me?
SKARSGÅRD: Absolutely. There might be barriers or you might be more restrained when you’re on your own and she can unlock that and push you forward.
TELLER: Exactly. And she also protects me, because when you’re completely on your own, you can get manipulated. And so together as a unit, we’re in a good place.
SKARSGÅRD: If you look at photographs before and after you met Dovile, is there any change?
TELLER: Not really. I’m still me. Everything is just more fluid and faster.
SKARSGÅRD: Are you more prolific?
TELLER: I think so. I knew two years ago I was having this big show at the Grand Palais and I wanted to produce quite a lot of new work. Of course, some older works are in it, but there’s a whole lot of organization to do. I can’t do it. She did all of the organizing and I took the glory.
SKARSGÅRD: Yeah. Congratulations by the way, on the upcoming solo exhibition at the Grand Palais.
TELLER: Thank you.
SKARSGÅRD: I’m curious how you approached the design of the exhibition and the display of the artwork, because that venue is such a behemoth.
TELLER: Well, it’s where art fairs like Art Basel Paris have 100 or 200 booths filled with artworks. There are 10,000 square meters to fill. And it has really high ceilings. Pretty early on it became clear that we needed an architect. I wanted to ask Tom Emerson from 6a architects—who actually built my studio, who’s a close friend of ours, and who understands me well and knows my photographs—to do it. And I have this curator called Thomas Weski who worked on the exhibition with us. I wanted it to have really long walls. So basically it ends up like a T-shape and it’s 400 meters of walls. I wanted to do it like a piece of music or a film or a book, so there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end.
SKARSGÅRD: All those photographs will be on this T-shaped 400-meter long cross?
TELLER: Yes. And some of them are large and some of them are framed and some of them are very small. Some of them are a group of works, and some of them are single works. There’s a big variety.
SKARSGÅRD: Because there’s 800-plus pieces, and some are big crowd-pleasers that will inevitably get a lot of attention. If you were to single out a piece that you think might need a little extra love so people won’t miss it, what would it be?
TELLER: I did a school project with the children in the village I grew up in. They wanted to interview my mother about me. The schoolteacher called her up—it’s a village of four-and-a-half thousand people—and I thought, “Hang on a minute. I don’t really want my mom to talk about me. Why don’t I go to the school and they can ask me some questions?” I had an exhibition in a museum in the town next door, and I think the schoolteacher took them to my show. They got really excited about it, and started restaging some of my photographs, and I was completely mesmerized by it. Then I did a two-week project with them. We went into the forest and then I asked them to photograph this and asked them to photograph that, and it was really, really moving. Then the schoolteacher asked the kids questions about what they think about my work, and the questions they asked were really profound, without any irony. I thought that was really important to show.
SKARSGÅRD: Beautiful. And I think after the exhibition, there will be a lot of 7-year-olds around the world that will be excited to reenact our video as well.
TELLER: [Laughs] Totally.
SKARSGÅRD: Well, that’s all I have. What’s our next adventure?
TELLER: Something bizarre would be, we exchange our kids for a weekend.
SKARSGÅRD: Or for 18 years.
TELLER: [Laughs] That’s too weird.
SKARSGÅRD: And then when they turn 18, we’ll tell them it was a bizarre joke. “We’re not your parents, honey.”
TELLER: [Laughs] It’s the other ones over there.
SKARSGÅRD: We’ll find something to do soon. And in the meantime, we’re all very excited to see you in Paris. You’ve got a couple of busy weeks ahead of you.
TELLER: Yeah, it’s like a fast train, and then when the train stops, I’ll be like, “Oh my god, I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do next.” You know that weird feeling?
SKARSGÅRD: Yeah. Well, as you know, having a baby will keep you preoccupied. You don’t really have time to sit around and contemplate life. There’s always a diaper to change.
TELLER: [Laughs] Absolutely.
Men, Alexander Skarsgård and Juergen Teller, video stills, Luelå, 2023.