Stellan Skarsgård’s role as a vigilante snowplough driver is ‘farcical yet realistic’, he tells Alistair Harkness
‘I might as well get a house in Scotland,” laughs Stellan Skarsgård. The versatile Swedish star of Good Will Hunting, Mamma Mia! and Nymphomaniac is referring to the number of times he’s found himself filming over here. “I did The Railway Man,” he says, running through the list. “I also did a drama, a little thing for the BBC in Glasgow [God on Trial].” There was also, of course, Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, as well a little-seen road movie called Aberdeen, which featured the splendid sight of Skarsgård stumbling drunk through the streets of Glasgow, Lena Headey – cast as his estranged daughter – saving him from a beat-down. “Oh, she was great in that role.”
It’s actually Aberdeen that has prompted this little game of Caledonian connections. Its Norwegian director, Hans Petter Moland, happens to be Skarsgård’s most frequent collaborator after von Trier, and it’s their fourth film together – the violent pitch-black Scandinavian comedy In Order of Disappearance – that Skarsgård is on the phone from his office in Stockholm to promote.
Cast as a mild-mannered snow-plough operator who refuses to accept that his recently deceased son has died from a heroin overdose, Skarsgård gets to unleash his inner Charles Bronson when his character, Nils, sets out to track down the real culprits, dispatching them one-by-one in morbidly funny fashion.
“The appeal was not really beating people up and killing them,” chuckles Skarsgård when I make the Bronson comparison. “What interested me was how funny can you be without losing substance. My character is interesting because, yeah, he’s a vigilante, but he happens to be a vigilante in a farce. At the same time, he’s the realistic centre of it and has to be there to ground all the more over-the-top characters.”
The surprising mix of tones is certainly what makes In Order of Disappearance such a blast. The film went down a storm at the recent Edinburgh International Film Festival, the sold-out audience discovering to their clear delight that it had more in common with the Coen brothers than the more downbeat style currently in vogue thanks to the popularity of Nordic noir. “I didn’t feel like doing another Nordic noir,” states Skarsgård. “There are enough of them. I did one many years ago, Insomnia, that kind of set the tone.”
Since he’s brought up Insomnia, I’m curious as to what he made of Christopher Nolan’s remake, but he hasn’t seen it. Has he never been tempted to see how Al Pacino interpreted the character he originated?
“Yeah, of course I’m curious. I gotta see it; it just hasn’t happened. I’m not in protest of the remake or anything. I hear it’s good.” That film also starred Robin Williams, someone with whom Skarsgård had worked closely on Good Will Hunting. When we chat, it’s a week since Williams took his own life. The two didn’t keep in touch after making Good Will Hunting, but Skarsgård has fond memories of their time together on set. “When we met, we very smartly went through the script with Ben [Affleck] and Matt [Damon] and Gus Van Sant, but when we started shooting you never knew what was going to happen. You could enter a room and have a scene with Robin and the first line you get is totally off script and very funny and then you just had to go with it.”
We talk a bit more about Williams, before Skarsgård reminds me that Lauren Bacall, with whom he also worked, died the day after. “There’s been a lot of death,” he sighs.
Skarsgård worked with Bacall on von Trier’s Dogville and it’s the Danish director with whom the actor seems to have the closest affinity. To date, they’ve worked on six projects together, and Skarsgård likes the process so much that he no longer even needs a script to guarantee his commitment. “When he offered me Nymphomaniac he just said: ‘My next film will be a porno and I want you to be the lead.’ So of course I said yes.” It’s certainly been a mutually beneficial relationship over the years. Breaking the Waves brought them both huge international acclaim and did far more to put Skarsgård on Hollywood’s radar than his heavily cut appearance in The Hunt for Red October. “It definitely helped,” agrees Skarsgård. “But my career has had very few A Star is Born moments.”
Indeed, some of his biggest hits have downright baffled him. He knew Mamma Mia! would do well on account of the success of the Abba stage musical, but he still can’t understand why he was asked to do it. “I’m not a signing or dancing man,” he says. “And then I met Colin Firth and Mr Bond [Pierce Brosnan] and, of course, they couldn’t sing and dance either.”
His subsequent prominence in the Marvel Universe has also taken him by surprise. When he was first cast in Thor (he’s since starred in Avengers Assemble, Thor: The Dark World and has a small role in next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron), his ignorance of the medium led to an embarrassing first encounter with Marvel’s head of production, Kevin Fiege. “I said to him: ‘This comic book thing, isn’t it a little dated? Can you really make money out of it?’ And they all looked at me as if I was an idiot. Which of course I was.”
Idiot or not, he remains one of the busiest actors working and has just finished shooting the latest John le Carré adaptation, Our Kind of Traitor, in which he plays a defecting Russian mobster opposite Ewan McGregor. He’s also re-teamed with his Thor director Kenneth Branagh for Disney’s next live-action fairytale, Cinderella. Skarsgård plays the Arch Duke.
“I was so happy to do that because they weren’t trying to make it dark or about something else. It’s a film about a truly good and innocent girl.” He pauses, before adding with a sly laugh: “In a way, it’s like Breaking the Waves. That’s another film I made about a good and innocent girl. Only I don’t sleep with Cinderella.”
• In Order of Disappearance is in cinemas from Friday. Our Kind of Traitor and Cinderella will be released next year.