I was nervous when I first started True Blood. 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.Alexander Skarsgård
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.
Out of the Swedish mist came Alexander Skarsgard, the evil, increasingly nuanced vampire leader Eric Northman of True Blood. He sucks blood; he stars in Lady Gaga’s video for “Paparazzi” as an abusive, ill-fated boyfriend; he gets recognized by fans on the street over the course of our interview.
MIGUEL ENAMORADO: Hi Alex, how are you?
ALEXANDER SKARSGÅRD: Hey Miguel, I’m good, how are you doing?
REBECCA SINN: Where are you?
SKARSGÅRD: I’m in Veras, California. Are you guys in New York?
ENAMORADO: We’re in the office while you’re probably outside on a beautiful day.
SKARSGÅRD: It’s a beautiful day. I’m standing underneath a palm tree.
ENAMORADO: Have you been to Sweden lately?
SKARSGÅRD: I hadn’t been there in eight months, but I recently went for two weeks to visit my family, and I just got back to California a week ago.
ENAMORADO: So are you originally from Stockholm?
SKARSGÅRD: I grew up in downtown Stockholm.
ENAMORADO: I love Sweden. I’ve been there a couple times and it’s one of my favorite cities in the world. I have a lot of Swedish friends, and it’s one of those places where you meet one and you meet everyone, you know? You only need one Swedish friend.
SKARSGÅRD: I like it a lot.
ENAMORADO: What is your favorite thing to do in Sweden?
With Sookie, played by Anna Paquin
SKARSGÅRD: The last couple years I have been on the road, and I only get two weeks a year where I have a chance to go back home. So it’s intense when I go back: I go out to a country house and hang out with my family and…
SINN: Pack it all in.
SKARSGÅRD: Exactly, and I try to spend a couple days in Stockholm to hang out with my friends from my childhood.
SINN: Does your family ever come to LA?
SKARSGÅRD: My father is an actor as well, so when he worked in LA, he would miss his family a lot, and he would get a house instead of a hotel room, so he could bring the whole family.
ENAMORADO: On the new season of True Blood, your character has come out of the shadows. You blossomed this season into the one to watch, so…
SKARSGÅRD: Well that’s very flattering to hear, thank you very much. After season one a lot of the reactions were, “Oh, you’re the bad guy,” and I would always have to defend Eric, because I’ve always thought there was so much more to the character than just being like, the badass vampire leader.
[INDISTINCT, SOMEONE YELLING TO SKARSGÅRD]
SKARSGÅRD: Hi, brother! [LAUGHS]
ENAMORADO: There you go! You see, you’re becoming a star.
SKARSGÅRD: Yeah, that was interesting. But I knew when we shot that this character would grow.
ENAMORADO: I think one definitive moment was when you got blood in your hair, and then you cut it off. I think you freshened up the character visually, and now it seems like there’s a triangle with Bill and Sookie.
SKARSGÅRD: In season one there’s definitely an interest on Eric’s part, in Sookie. Eric knows there’s something different about Sookie and he’s intrigued but he doesn’t do anything about it.
SINN: Well I think there’s more fear in season one.
SKARSGÅRD: You’re right and I think that’s why he came across as evil and not much more than that. He’s an animal, and a killer. And I always try to keep that in mind.
ENAMORADO: And there’s such a strong bond between your character and Godric.
SKARSGÅRD: Look, I’m 32 years old, and I’ve got a couple friends back home I’ve known for 25 years. Can you imagine a guy like Godric—they spent a thousand years together, and they were kind of a tag-team up until just a hundred years ago. Just imagine what kind of bond you achieve in not 25 years but 800, 900 years. They have so much in common that they’re almost the same person.
ENAMORADO: On the list of best vampire’s, you’re number five, before Edward Cullen and Bela Lugosi in Dracula and Christopher Lee’s Dracula.
SKARSGÅRD: [LAUGHS] I could never be Bela Lugosi.
ENAMORADO: There are so many projects that involve vampires. What is the relevance for you?
SKARSGÅRD: I think they represent consistency and something permanent in a world where everything’s changing. You have someone like Eric who has been around for a thousand years, who he hasn’t changed one day in that time—but then he’s also an animal and a killer, and could just turn on you and kill you in a second.
SINN: There’s a mischievous thing about it, too, that’s attractive.
SKARSGÅRD: The vampires on True Blood, and on the other shows right now, they’re more accessible. Eric and Bill go to the mall to shop, and they fit right in.
ENAMORADO: Are you closer to Eric in terms of what you normally wear?
SKARSGÅRD: Eric can be quite extravagant in the way he dresses. I like Swedish designers a lot. I don’t know if it’s because I grew up. I like Whyred, and Fifth Avenue Shoe Repair is a great brand; Hope. It’s very classic and fitted. A lot of people here in California, there’s a lot going on in the way they dress.
ENAMORADO: Very dramatic?
SKARSGÅRD: Yes very dramatic, and, uh..
SINN: And they like the jewelry.
SKARSGÅRD: A lot of that, and the skull with diamonds, or the T-shirt with writing all over the back and the eagle.
ENAMORADO: Do you meet with your costume designer and shape the look of your character?
SKARSGÅRD: Audrey Fisher is absolutely amazing. We get together before every episode and we talk about the scene and we bullshit and we come up with ideas. For instance, in the beginning of episode two, there’s the scene where I kill the guy. I thought it’d be fun to come down wearing sweatpants and flip-flops. I thought that’d be fun [LAUGHS]
ENAMORADO: And highlight foil. Why wouldn’t a vampire wear highlights, you know?
SINN: Is the show popular in Sweden? Is it over there right now?
SKARSGÅRD: Season one already aired and season two starts in two months, I believe.
But I was surprised when I came back to the States ‘cause in Sweden I was with my family at a country house… I was detached from all the hysteria.
SINN: And from the paparazzi? [LAUGHS]
SKARSGÅRD: Oh yeah. In Sweden we don’t have paparazzi.
ENAMORADO: Speaking of which, you were in the Lady Gaga video.
SKARSGÅRD: I’ve known the director, Jonas [Akerlund], for years and he’s a good friend of mine, although we’ve never worked together. I didn’t know Lady Gaga at all before. She was really cool and interesting.
ENAMORADO: Did you coach her on the Swedish lines?
SKARSGÅRD: We were supposed to do that whole thing in English, but then because I’m Swedish and Jonas is Swedish and the DP was Swedish, she heard us talking in Swedish and- and she’s like, “Whoa, why don’t we do it in Swedish?” It was a joke but we all had fun with it.