As told to Catherine Shoard
The Guardian-Stellan Skarsgård: ‘The public side of being an actor has no pleasure for me.’ Photograph: IBL/Rex/Shutterstock
The Swedish actor best known for his collaborations with Lars von Trier – as well as Marvel movies, Pirates of the Caribbean and Mamma Mia! – answers your questions about Lars von Trier, porn and pickled herrings
Are you ever frustrated with having to wear clothes when you’re working? Do you feel you’re better at your job if you’re able to be naked? KayBee123
I usually take off my clothes when I get home but I have no special ambition to be naked on screen. And I’m getting fewer and fewer offers. I don’t know what that means.
Was it intentional to channel your inner Col Kurtz in Dune? Calymac
I didn’t have any intention to start with but when I saw the silky pyjamas and Denis (director, Villeneuve) asked me to bend my head down and put my hand on it I understood. I think it was his idea. It’s just the bald head, the dress, the gesture – that’s it. But it’s fun.
Have you ever considered publishing a cookery book? Bakinglass
No. I’m a good amateur and I love cooking. But there are so many fantastic books out there by professionals. I don’t like celebrity cookbooks and coffee-table stuff. So I try to stay away. It’s like when people ask me if I want to write my memoirs. There’s no joy in it. The public side of being an actor has no pleasure for me. I mean it’s fun talking to a journalist, but then it’s in the paper. So that’s not fun.
I only do it because I want some project to be seen, like in this case with Hope: a very good film made by a wonderful Norwegian film-maker, Maria Sødahl. Her husband, Hans Petter Moland, is one of my best friends; I’ve done six films with him. So when Maria got cancer in a very, very bad way and was told she would die, I followed that terrible situation because they were friends.
Then she asked me if I wanted to do a film based on it. And I said: oh no, no, no, no, not another fucking cancer film. But it’s not a cancer film. It’s actually a love story. And I could have said: oh no, no, no, not another fucking love story, but it’s a good love story. And it’s got cancer in it.
Do you get tired of being cast as a smart person? PtolemySoter
Yeah. One of my favourite roles was in The Simple-Minded Murderer that I won the actor’s prize for in Berlin sometime in the last century . He was a man who was very lovable, not very smart, treated really badly and was also the hero of the story. It was a lovely role to play. I would really love to play more stupid people. There’s so many of them; you just have to open the paper.
Was your career affected by having eight children? Lrbnvntr
I’ve learned so much with my children that it has probably been very positive. And also since I finished at The Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm in 1989, I haven’t done any theatre and I’ve only worked for four months a year, so I’ve changed diapers for 40 years. I cooked a lot for the children and I’ve seen them grow up and I usually brought them all when we travel. So I’ve had a real normal life and the only way it’s affected me is that I’ve been able to steal from my children because in them you see humanity in its raw form, unhidden. You can look at a three-year-old and then you can play the president of the United States no problem, because you understand him.
Don’t lie. Even if they ask you very difficult questions at a very young age, be truthful. Otherwise sooner or later they will realise: oh my God, my parents have been lying to me. Even about Santa Claus. He does not exist. At least there’s no proof of existence.
And don’t interfere. You have to give them so much love and security when they are young that from the age of about 16, all the decisions are theirs.
What does being Swedish mean to you? Brassmonky
It does affect you to have grown up in a country that was like a bubble in the world in terms of having better social security and healthcare than anywhere else. It’s a very secularised society and fantastic in that sense. When I was a kid we still had obligatory Christian lessons in school, but that stopped when I was 10. My parents were atheists and my father was vehemently against any social rules. That wasn’t always good. But it gave me an idea of freedom. You did not accept any authority other than authority from competence. I don’t respect anybody because he’s rich or powerful or owns half the world. That doesn’t mean anything. But if I see a cobbler who is really, really good at fixing my shoes then I respect him.
The pandemic hit Sweden very hard in the beginning because it came when all of the schools had their winter break and all the Swedes went to the Alps and skied and brought back Covid. The high death rate in the beginning also came from the fact they had privatised a lot of the care homes, but they were also municipally governed, which means that every little shithole in Sweden was supposed to oversee them. The conditions weren’t good enough. And they had lot of staff that didn’t understand Swedish because they were cheaper.
So there were a lot of the big mistakes, but we have been able to live a reasonably normal life in Sweden and we haven’t had more deaths per capita in England. Last year I spent 10 months in London shooting in lockdown. Staying in a Soho hotel and being able to sleep with a open window was an extremely pleasant experience. But I was constantly thinking of other people in east London who were living eight grownups and five children in two rooms with no safety net.
Which art form is gives you creative inspiration other than films? sevenpenguins
Literature. I read a lot. I just read Colm Tóibín’s The Magician, about Thomas Mann. That was fantastic. Now I’m reading a quite entertaining book that is a little lighter: Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead. It’s fun. Not as dark as his previous books.
What’s your craziest Lars von Trier anecdote that you’ve never previously shared? Lightsinthedusk
There’s this impression he’s a demonic Nazi who hates women. It’s so utterly wrong. He’s the most pleasant person to be with and he has the most open, free set. He’s very low-key and everybody feels safe. There’s no hierarchy. Anybody can say anything to him, and the tone is playful and ironic. You insult each other all the time and it’s so sweet.
I don’t think he’s crazy. He’s usually happy when he’s shooting but riddled by demons otherwise. For a while he couldn’t go to the bathroom and wash his hands if the lights were on, because he was afraid that he would see blood in the sink. Stuff like that. He’s not a happy man. But he’s also a funny man, very gentle and compassionate and nice. And most of the women who have worked with him agree. Except Björk: all directors are control freaks and Björk has always controlled everything she’s done. So that didn’t work.
The Beatles or the Rolling Stones? Or Abba? mikkoketola
At the time it was the Beatles for me, totally. I ordered Sgt Pepper from England before it was out in Sweden. The Rolling Stones I love now. Back then, you had to take sides; now I can love them equally. When Abba broke through in the 70s, I was in my 20s and doing my best to be an artist with a very dark mind. And it was far too light for me. Now I can listen to them and enjoy it.
I loved Mamma Mia!, such a fun, sunny movie! If you were Bill in real life, would you prefer to know if you were or weren’t the father, or would you be happy to remain a theoretical third-share? PookieFugglestein
The end solution was really good: they shared. I wouldn’t prefer to know because there was a 66% chance I wouldn’t be the father and that would have been sad.
Could you please detail a few acting performances from others that deeply impressed you. TedHume
When I can’t see their tools. When it’s as if I was watching an amateur. That’s why Björk was fantastic in Dancer in the Dark: there were no skills whatsoever involved in her acting. What Kirsten Dunst did in Melancholia was fantastic: how just her face described the different stages of a depression. It’s silly of me to pick two Von Trier films, but it reflects what I look for.
What is your take on the criticism of superhero movies by directors such as Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott? HoggyBear
I’ve got nothing against superhero movies. I’ve been in a couple and they definitely have a place. The problem is that the system that allows eight people to own half of the wealth in the world enhances the power of the market forces, so small and independent cinemas rarely exist any more outside a few big cities. There’s no distribution channels for all the mid-budget films that have the best actors, the best writing, because they can’t throw up $3m for a marketing campaign. When cinemas let them in, they do so for one week and if it doesn’t pay off in a week, they’re gone.
Remember that The Godfather first opened in 100 cinemas in the United States – big films now open in 4,000. They had small ads in the New York Times, but it grew and grew because it was such a good film. The people’s opinion has no chance any more. And that is sad.
I think that we should have Marvel films and more rollercoaster films. We should have other films, too. And that’s the sad thing: when raw market forces come in, studios start being run by companies that don’t care if they’re dealing in films or toothpaste so long as they get their 10% [return]. When AT&T took over Time Warner, it immediately told HBO to become lighter and more commercial. They were always making money. But not enough for an investor.
Have you ever smoked cannabis? LegaliseCannabisNow
Do you prefer building sandcastles or snowman? TheShiftyShadow
Sandcastles, definitely. I don’t go out much in the winter.
Which current franchise word you like to join? Gavmyster
Bond would be fun. You don’t know where that’s going now. I have so many friends from Pirates of the Caribbean and Marvel films and Mamma Mia! But I don’t have a big desire to be in a franchise.
Regarding the Swedish delicacy surströmming – to eat or not to eat? GammalTant
Not. It’s basically a rotten Baltic herring. When food was scarce in the north you’d have to preserve whatever you caught one way or another. And one way was salting it, but they didn’t have enough salt, so it’s sort of half-rotted and fermented. They had the same thing in Iceland with a shark. They buried the shark and then it’s sort of is preserved by souring. I like normal anchovies, and Asian fish sauce is fantastic. But surströmming: no.
Nymphomaniac has one of the most haunting and unexpected (yet expected in hindsight) climax scenes ever. Did the knowledge of what happens in the end in anyway inform your performance and interpretation of the character? Bharathan778
Before the film was written, Lars called and offered me the part. He said: “Stellan, my next film will be a porno and you will get to show your penis, but not until the end and it has to be floppy.”
Lars hates when it gets too nice in a film. So he has to throw in something to fuck it up. With Melancholia, which is a wonderful film, I think, he’d say: it’s too nice, the music is too good, it’s too beautiful. He gets annoyed by that even in his own project. But a floppy penis I can provide anytime.
Hope is released in the UK on 10 December