Alexander Skarsgård Talks to Kirsten Dunst About the Pleasure and the Pain
Alexander Skarsgård has excelled at playing a manipulative vampire, an abusive husband, and the literal harbinger of disease and destruction in a pandemic-ravaged world. And yet, he’s still good for a laugh. You don’t grow up the model-handsome scion of a legendary Swedish acting family without having a sense of humor about yourself. Think about his crack-up cameos as a vacant male model in Zoolander, an overgrown college grad in Eastbound & Down, and a mulletted schlub in On Becoming a God in Central Florida. But despite his reputation for just going for it, at 45 years old, he continues to surprise. Last year, he stole scenes on Succession as Lukas Mattson, a tech bro so unlikable you couldn’t help but love him. And now, six years after he tamed the jungle in The Legend of Tarzan, Skarsgård is returning to the shirtless-action-hero genre in the Robert Eggers-directed viking saga The Northman, a grueling production that, as he tells his Melancholia costar Kirsten Dunst, was no laughing matter. —JEREMY GORDON
KIRSTEN DUNST: Where are you in life right now?
ALEXANDER SKARSGÅRD: I’m in Copenhagen.
DUNST: With your family?
SKARSGÅRD: Yeah. Well, I’m heading back to Stockholm next week. I was actually working with our dear friend Lars [von Trier] again
DUNST: Really? On what?
SKARSGÅRD: He’s doing another season of The Kingdom. Do you remember that? The old TV show he did for Danish television like 15 or 20 years ago?
DUNST: I never watched it, but I’ve heard it’s incredible.
SKARSGÅRD: It’s a lot of fun. It takes place at the main hospital here in Copenhagen. Dad [Stellan Skarsgård] played an attorney on The Kingdom whenever they shot it, but he couldn’t do this. They kind of rewrote the part, so it’s now the Swedish attorney’s son. I actually replaced my father. Step aside, old man.
DUNST: I was talking about him recently, and I said that making Melancholia felt like I was on a European vacation. I had so much fun.
SKARSGÅRD: It’s pretty much the same team from Melancholia. It was a lovely reunion.
DUNST: I’m jealous.
SKARSGÅRD: You were missed. We talked about you a lot.
DUNST: You know what? Lars and I have the same birthday. So funny. And so does Jane Campion, which is really weird. It’s like I only want to work with Tauruses or something. I love that actor-family lifestyle you guys have. How many of the Skarsgårds are actors?
SKARSGÅRD: Twenty-five, basically.
SKARSGÅRD: Not quite. There’s four. If you need a Skarsgård for a movie and one of us isn’t available, it’s like, “How about this one?”
DUNST: My one son is so dramatic. I can see him becoming an actor. There’s something romantic about having it be a family business.
SKARSGÅRD: Well, you started out super early, right?
DUNST: Yeah. How old were you when you started?
SKARSGÅRD: I was seven, but it wasn’t intentional. My dad’s friend was a director and needed a 7-year-old kid, and he was over at our house, drinking wine with dad and talking. And then he saw this 7-year-old kid run through the room, and was like, “What about that kid?”
DUNST: I feel like I’d do that with my kid, too, if it was a director I knew and it felt like a family event. “Sure, put him in a movie.” I like that stuff.
SKARSGÅRD: It might sound odd, but it wasn’t even something I wanted to do. I did it, but my memories have more to do with free Cinnabons at the craft service table than the actual craft.
DUNST: Not the craft, the craft service! I think the first thing I ever saw you in was Zoolander. I thought to myself, “How is this very good-looking person so hilarious?” I want you to be in more comedies. I want a weird Skarsgård family comedy.
SKARSGÅRD: We should plan something together because my dad would love to do the family thing.
DUNST: Let’s talk about The Northman. You play a prince? A Swedish god? What are you?
SKARSGÅRD: It’s based on an old saga called “Prince Amleth of Jutland,” which inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet. It’s about a man avenging the death of his father. It starts on an island in the north Atlantic. My character is the young prince of that kingdom. When his father gets murdered by his uncle, he manages to escape the island. And the uncle believes that the young prince is dead.
DUNST: It’s like The Lion King. That’s where my brain goes right now.
SKARSGÅRD: The Lion King is basically Hamlet. But the saga is as old as Viking culture.
SKARSGÅRD: It was the most fun. I’ve been wanting to tell a Viking story in a way that felt entertaining and big. Working with Robert Eggers, every single detail has to be 100 percent perfect. Every single stitch on a tunic. That’s obviously difficult when you tell a story that takes place a thousand years ago. You have to take some creative liberties.
DUNST: This will make my mom very happy because she loves everything about Vikings.
SKARSGÅRD: She’s Swedish, right?
DUNST: Our family’s from Minnesota. So it’s Minnesota Swedes. I’m going to ask you fun questions now. What are you reading?
SKARSGÅRD: A book called In the Distance by Hernan Diaz. It’s set in the 19th century and a man crosses the United States from the West Coast to the East Coast in search of his brother. I highly recommend it.
DUNST: I know you love music. Anything you’re listening to?
SKARSGÅRD: I have a tendency to go down a rabbit hole for a period of time, and then I move on. I recently came out of a Roxy Music phase.
DUNST: I love Roxy Music. Sometimes I listen to a lot of a certain thing because it gets me in the zone for a part or on set. I’ll make myself a playlist for the character.
SKARSGÅRD: I often use music to get out of character. To get away from it.
DUNST: On set, you’re really present. You’re fun to work with because you’re alive in the scenes. You’re willing to play around. How do you go about creating a role?
SKARSGÅRD: It’s quite square and structured. I read the script once a day for however many weeks or months I have before the shoot.
DUNST: Really? Once a day? Interesting. I totally don’t do that.
SKARSGÅRD: It helps me get into the headspace of a character. I discover new things with each read. I come up with a thousand different ideas and then I eliminate them. Once we get into production, it’s about finding that sweet spot between being prepared but also open to whatever happens when you meet the other actors. It’s being alive and playful and open to discovering things in front of the camera. If I’m not prepared at all, it makes me nervous. The most rewarding days were when I came prepared with a vague idea of how I wanted to play the scene, but I was still open enough to be surprised. And together with the director and the other actors, we discovered something that wasn’t planned and was surprising and exciting for all of us. Rob works in the diametrically opposite way of Lars. Everything is meticulously planned. It’s mostly one single camera, one shot.
DUNST: He likes long shots? There’s an energy within that. If you want everything in one shot, you’re living that life. You feel more taken into something when things are in one shot.
SKARSGÅRD: In The Northman, there are long, intense fight scenes with 40 stuntmen and horses and 200 extras. To shoot it all in one shot means you do this four-minute take, and then a horse deep in the background looks the wrong way and you have to do it all again.
DUNST: That sounds like my worst nightmare.
SKARSGÅRD: You’re so exhausted that you want to cry. You feel like you finally got all the choreography of the fight worked out, but then you have to go again and again and again. There’s always something in the background that wasn’t quite right. The flip side of that is when you finally get it, it feels like winning gold at the Olympics.
DUNST: He sounds like a perfectionist.
SKARSGÅRD: He absolutely is. But he’s also a genius. The Northman was the first time I worked on something that was so meticulously stylized, and you almost had to see it as a dance between the camera and the actors, because the camera was constantly moving, and so were we. If the timing was slightly off, then we’d have to go again. I’ve never been more tired than after those six months.
DUNST: Where’d you shoot it?
SKARSGÅRD: Most of it takes place in Iceland. We locked down and stayed in Belfast and shot almost all of it up in the mountains and on the seaside. Then we went with a skeleton crew to Iceland to get some of the epic Icelandic landscapes.
DUNST: I’ve always wanted to go to Reykjavík.
SKARSGÅRD: I’m there every summer. It’s the most extraordinary place. The people are beautiful and open. You’re hanging out with a carpenter who’s also a poet, and then you meet a cab driver who is Iceland’s biggest rap singer.
DUNST: I haven’t watched you in Succession yet because I have two small children. These days, all I watch are cartoons.
SKARSGÅRD: How old are they now?
DUNST: One is nine months. The other one’s three-and-a-half. Two boys. They’re a handful. When they can really play together, I will have my life back, but right now I can’t wait to go back to work.
SKARSGÅRD: When did you shoot The Power of the Dog?
DUNST: Like two years ago. It was during Covid, and then I got pregnant.
SKARSGÅRD: Are you back home?
DUNST: We’re in Austin, Texas, right now because Jesse [Plemons, Dunst’s partner] is making a miniseries here for HBO, with David Kelley and Nicole [Kidman] producing. I haven’t even been to the set. I’ll tell Jesse to say hi to the gang from you.
SKARSGÅRD: Do you guys try to travel together as much as possible? If you work, Jesse tries to take some time off, and then when he works, you take some time off ? How do you guys navigate that?
DUNST: Honestly, he got the opportunity to work with Scorsese, and I just had a baby and he tore his ACL. No one can not work with Scorsese. Right now, our schedule just overlaps. So far, we’ve really lucked out. We might do another project with some friends where we work together again. It’s nice that as a couple, we’ve been embraced as people who can act together.
SKARSGÅRD: You were so wonderful together in The Power of the Dog.
DUNST: It’s nice to have that together.
SKARSGÅRD: It’s very obvious how much you guys enjoyed that.
DUNST: You guys would like working together.
SKARSGÅRD: We almost did, didn’t we? Many, many years ago.
DUNST: Wait, wait. Time out. Weren’t you in Battleship?
DUNST: So was he.
SKARSGÅRD: Yeah, I know, but we didn’t really have any scenes together. I think we had some crowd scenes. He should join us on our Skarsgård family adventure.
DUNST: That would make me so happy. The people deserve you all in one film. Okay, I’m going to ask you some quick-fire questions. What’s your guilty pleasure?
SKARSGÅRD: Czech beers.
DUNST: What do Swedes shoot all the time? Fernet something, right?
DUNST: Why do Swedes like to shoot that?
SKARSGÅRD: I don’t know!
DUNST: It’s very medicinal.
SKARSGÅRD: It feels medicinal and it feels like lubrication for your cardiovascular system.
DUNST: While you’re getting wasted! What makes you angry?
SKARSGÅRD: I’m so even-tempered, it’s pathetic. I get angry with myself because I’m too OCD. Sometimes I need to stop being so square and let loose a bit.
DUNST: What makes you happy? Czech beer?
SKARSGÅRD: Czech beer, again.
DUNST: [To her son] Want to ask Alex what’s his favorite candy? I’ll ask him. What’s your favorite candy?
SKARSGÅRD: That’s a great question. I like salt licorice.
DUNST: Most people reading this probably think that is so disgusting, but I love it, too.
SKARSGÅRD: It’s an acquired, sophisticated taste for people like us, Kirst.
DUNST: Who scares you, Alex?
SKARSGÅRD: I have a tendency to scare myself sometimes.
DUNST: What scares me sometimes is the vastness of the universe. We’re just floating in space and just dying and being born. If I get too caught up in that, it starts to freak me out a bit.
SKARSGÅRD: I’m scared of the vastness of my own ego.
DUNST: [Laughs] What relaxes you?
SKARSGÅRD: Going out to the archipelago outside of Stockholm. My mom lives on an island in the Baltic. We’ve been winter bathing out there.
DUNST: You jump into freezing cold water? I understand the concept of that, but I’m also like, no thank you. Let me be in the warm hot tub watching you all, drinking my Fernet.
SKARSGÅRD: You jump in the water and it’s freezing cold, but then you go inside and sit by the fireplace. I’m in for basically 1.58 seconds.
DUNST: I’ve jumped in a freezing cold lake and jumped immediately out. It awakens you in a way that nothing else does. No one can predict the future, but what would you like for your future?
SKARSGÅRD: I just hung up on you, that’s my future.
DUNST: You’re like, “Fuck that question.” Do you want to have kids one day? Would you want to direct? Where do you live, by the way?
SKARSGÅRD: I divide my time between New York and Stockholm because my family is in Stockholm. I just hope that I continue to be curious as I get older. I have some colleagues and friends where, as they get older, it feels like the curiosity fades away.
DUNST: As we get older, hopefully we’ll just get more eccentric and awesome. I think surrounding yourself with young people is important as you get older.
SKARSGÅRD: My grandma was like that, my favorite human being. She didn’t give a fuck about what people thought about her. She would say anything. Until her dying day, she had this incredible curiosity. She wanted to learn, try new things, meet new people, and not just wither away.
DUNST: I haven’t left the house much at all, and I do everything over Zoom. I feel a little bit stifled in that way, a little Groundhog Day. It’s great that The Power of the Dog has come out and everyone loves it, but you don’t get any feedback on it.
SKARSGÅRD: Does it feel surreal in a way? Almost as if it didn’t happen?
DUNST: A little. I’m doing hair and makeup for Zooms, and doing interviews and things like that, and then I’m with my children in sweatpants all day. I’m either making a snack or getting hair and makeup done. It doesn’t go together. Let me get back to these questions. Who do you feel closest to? Who’s your crazy Swedish friend again? What’s his name?
DUNST: Dada, yeah. Are you still in touch with Dada?
SKARSGÅRD: He lives in my apartment in Stockholm.
DUNST: Of course he does. I love that dude. When I think back on making Melancholia, that was one of the most fun times I’ve ever had on a movie, and it’s literally about the most depressing thing.
SKARSGÅRD: When I watch that movie, all I think about is how much fun we had. Maybe the only way to get through such a depressing movie was by having fun.
DUNST: It felt like acting camp. We were in Sweden during the summer and there were music festivals. I haven’t gone dancing in forever. I think you’ve done a lot more than me, because I’ve had to obviously be safe for my children, too. I didn’t want to work right after having another kid, because I’m not going to have another child. I wanted to enjoy the beginning stages of that again and not go straight back to work. There wasn’t anything I was dying to do anyway. Now I’m very ready. Okay, Alex, what is the best thing about being a Swede?
SKARSGÅRD: When people are screaming at each other and it’s polarized, you can always be like, “Hey, I’m Swedish, I don’t know. I’m in the middle, I’m right here.” You don’t have to take a stand. It’s perfect.
DUNST: Who was your first movie crush?
SKARSGÅRD: My first love was Jessica Lange when I was a kid and I watched Tootsie. I felt butterflies.
DUNST: Listen, that’s some good taste.
SKARSGÅRD: I had no idea what it was. I just knew that I wanted that girl to come back on screen.
DUNST: My son really likes Daisy Duck. It’s the eyelashes.
SKARSGÅRD: She’s got amazing eyelashes. Also, the fact that she doesn’t wear any pants.
DUNST: Oh my gosh. She has bloomers on in whatever we’re watching. She’s more modest now. Do you want to say anything else? It’s awesome you’re on the cover. I love Interview magazine.
SKARSGÅRD: I’m going to get to work on our next project with the whole Skarsgård clan, and you and Jesse.
DUNST: That would be my dream.
Hair: Kei Terada Using Balmain Hair Couture at Julian Watson Agency
Creative Partner: Dovile Drizyte
Digital Operator: Tom Ortiz
Photography Assistant: Tarek Cassim
Fashion Assistants: Naomi Phillips and Ryan Wohlgemut
Post- Production: Catalin Plesa at Quickfix Retouch