The Swedish actor was a real-life marine before True Blood and Generation Kill made him a star and heart-throb
If there’s such a thing as mojo, Alexander Skarsgard has got it going on. He’s pretty much a walking, talking Lynx ad. Women I know — women who work in fashion, or with puppy dogs and ice cream, and who would have to be physically strapped to a sofa to watch anything with so much as a handgun and an explosion in it — are devoted to Generation Kill, a gritty, documentary-style drama in which special-forces marines during the invasion of Iraq scream battle tech at each other. Because Skarsgard is in it.
Beyond the Pole, the lo-fi, Helen Baxendale-produced Brit comedy about oafs in the Arctic, is set to open in America purely because his lady fans there have been lobbying their local cinemas so hard to get to see it. In True Blood, he plays a sensual, commanding, brooding and often barely clad vampire with exceptional wit and intelligence. In season two, about to begin on FX, Eric’s series-one cool boils over into a steamy love triangle with Anna Paquin and a quest to find his friend and mentor. So he’s soulful and tormented. You can imagine the reaction.
In person, however, Skarsgard is quiet, respectful, polite and self-deprecating. Having walked into the room expecting to be flung back against the door by a crashing wave of testosterone, all the while averting mine eyes from the glory of his masculine resplendence, I find a friendly Swedish face, with his elegant hands busily stirring a cup of tea. You’re not as I expected, I say. He shrugs.
“I play a guy who’s been around for a thousand years, is funny and confident, but also lethal, and has had more experience and wisdom than you or I will get in our entire lives,” he smiles. “He’s a bloodsucker with an entrepreneurial bent, but the fact is that he’s also an animal who can flip and kill you in a second. He’s a predator — you think that would be a role for typecasting?”
Well, no, but in an important sense, yes. Skarsgard’s route to stardom was complicated, and along the way, he learnt how to kill a man with his bare hands. Seriously.
He is the son of Stellan Skarsgard, Sweden’s most famous actor, who was recently seen in Mamma Mia! as the Other Possible Father Who Isn’t Firth or Brosnan. Alex grew up in a showbiz family, working as a child actor from the age of seven until he was 13, when the success of a Swedish film called The Dog That Smiled brought him national fame on a level that would be hard for even Daniel Radcliffe to understand. Surprisingly, he fled.
“Fame was scary to me,” he says. “When people stare at you in the street — at 13, it just got confusing. I thought, ‘If this is what it’s like to be famous, I don’t like it one bit.’ So I quit acting when I was 13 because I was uncomfortable with all of that. I thought, ‘This is not for me.’”
So he went to school, hung out with his mates, then, when he was 19, joined a crack unit of anti-terrorist marines based on the archipelago outside Stockholm, practising hand-to-hand combat, small-squad battle tactics, beach landings and anti-sabotage assaults. As you do.
“It was national service,” he is keen to point out. “Although, when I did it, it was quite easy to get out of. Most of my friends didn’t do military service. They spent those 15 months hanging out, drinking and smoking pot. The reason I did it — I was 19 and grew up in downtown Stockholm. It’s like any other European city, and I was a city kid. If it rains, you don’t go outside. I wanted the challenge. I was curious. I wanted to see what it would do to me to go through all of this.
“That’s why I joined the unit that I joined — the anti-sabotage and anti-terrorist unit, working in small units on islands. I did a lot of stuff that, as a 19-year-old kid, well, you want to see if you can pull it off. I hated it most of the time, because a lot of the guys I served with wanted to be James Bond, whereas I was a hippie. But it was good for me.”
Not least in preparing him for his role as Iceman in Generation Kill? “Well, I knew how to strip a gun and that sort of thing,” he nods. “My training was similar to what those guys went through — the details, the level of respect and how you handle your weapons and gear. It was helpful for me to have gone through that in the Swedish marines.
“But, you know,” and he leans forward, “that being said, it’s still the Swedish marines. We don’t go to Iraq. People don’t shoot us, so you can’t really… I never left Sweden. All our training was there.” He smiles. “Our last war was 200 years ago.”
After all that elite-unit stress, he decided he needed time to hang out and work on his future — and where better to do that than Leeds Metropolitan University? He laughs. “I just needed a break. I was going to school, then military service, and had had this full curriculum for 12 years. I just needed a break, to be able to chill. So did my friend. We went there and studied, but it was basically just hanging out and having fun.
“We lived in this basement in Headingley with no heating, sleeping in sleeping bags, and shared a bathroom with a drug-dealer, who was obsessed with the queen of Sweden for some reason. He saw us and he was like, ‘Are you guys from Sweden?’ So he’d invite you to his room. He was really nasty and filthy and dirty, but he had posters of Queen Silvia of Sweden all over his walls. He was like, ‘I’ve been taking drugs back and forth to Sweden for 20 years. I love your queen. Have you met her?’ It was kind of scary.”
Having seen what the real world was like, Alex decided that maybe acting wasn’t quite as insane as he’d once thought. He studied theatre in New York, moved to LA, struggled for a while, but secured the part in Generation Kill. Now he’s batting off offers with his highly trained hands — a remake of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs is next, then season three of True Blood.
How is he handling this new-found fame? Any danger of bunking off and returning to the Swedish TA? “I don’t know,” he smiles. “I try to stay away from all the blogs and fan sites. If I indulge in that, it’s going to mess me up. If I read something bad, I’ll think, they’re right, and if I read something good, my ego will explode. So it’s better to try to stay away.”
In fact, the biggest challenge, he believes, would be to work with his father. When I bring the possibility up, he pauses for a long time, says quietly, “It would be difficult”, then cheers up and becomes smiling Swedish optimist Alex again. “But, you know, something interesting would come out of it.”