By Helen Adkins | June 2012
The acclaimed Actor talks to Junsui Films about his role in prison drama, KING OF DEVIL’S ISLAND, the unexpected joys of working with non-actors and filming in his Nordic homeland …
Junsui Films: How did you become involved in King of Devil’s Island and what was it that attracted you to the project?
Stellan Skarsgård: I knew the director (Marius Holst) who had been working on the project for ten years. He approached me with the script a few years back but it wasn’t ready then. It was just a skeleton and I wasn’t that interested, even if I was interested in working with him as a director.
Marius came back to me about a year before he started shooting and the script was much better. What most interested me was that he had started scouting Norway for boys with a troubled or criminal background for the roles of the inmates… instead of well-fed and stable aspiring actors.
That was very interesting to me because the structure of the film is essentially that of a normal ‘escape from prison’ drama. I felt that skeleton needed some real ‘meat’ and believed that could come from those boys. They would bring a sense of reality, a sense of urgency, a genuine nerve that could be added to the film.
Those boys became the strength of the film and it was a thrill working with them because they themselves used to play those roles. They couldn’t play people they were not because they weren’t trained to do that. The result is that they were constantly alive and very intense in front of the camera.
Unlike theatre, amateurs can be better than professionals in film because the hard thing is to produce real life in front of a camera. Sometimes it’s more frustrating to work with an actor who is extremely well prepared and knows exactly what they want to do, and therefore doesn’t listen to the director. That’s worse than working with an amateur who might be all over the place but at least they’re in the present.
JF: Your character, as the governor of the prison, is both tyrannical and yet also comes across as very paternal. Was it this complexity that attracted you to the role?
Not really. In the beginning the role was written purely as a bad guy because his function is the oppressor. I thought it was important that he was not just a bad guy because then he’s easily replaceable. I felt it should be the society at the time, the way people looked at children and the system that was the true bad guy.
So I decided to try and make him progressive for the time and a modern governor of the island. I wanted him to attempt to make good, even though he will eventually fail and betray the boys by covering up the sexual abuse affair because of his fear of society.
At the beginning we started adding scenes but then we realised we were losing that pounding oppressor function that he had to have. So, we reduced the character again but managed to play him with conflict and all those things that were underlying, even if he doesn’t express them in words.
JF: You’ve recently starred in big budget mainstream films such as Thor and Avengers Assemble. How do you balance the transition to smaller films, and particularly when you are speaking in your native language?
If you look at my CV you’ll see I’ve been doing this for my whole career, going back and forth between big and smaller films. It’s very important to me to be able to find roles and projects that aren’t similar to what I’ve just done.
I can tell you that it was much more uncomfortable making a film in Estonia in the snow than being in a big budget movie with a big trailer and all that stuff. But on the other hand, when the budget is low, the director has more power and he can make the film he wants to make and express himself more freely. They are usually the better films.
As for speaking in my own language, I’ve made so many English films over the past thirty years that it’s nothing new. I suppose when I work in English I have to work harder on the text and I have to invent how I want to sound in English, as I don’t have a natural voice in English. I was brought up speaking Swedish and it is closer to me. It is actually pretty nice to get back to it.
JF: On the Hollywood remake of David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, you were shooting in Sweden with a Swedish and American crew but speaking in English. Was that a disorientating experience?
Firstly, I would say Fincher isn’t really Hollywood. He’s a maverick, an independent filmmaker who manages to somehow to get a hundred million dollars to do Indie films. I don’t know how he does it but it’s pretty remarkable. As for the language, I’ve done a couple of Lars Von Trier films in Sweden where we spoke in English so that wasn’t so strange.
What was interesting was the collision between two corporate cultures. When an American crew comes to Sweden and mixes up with the Swedish crew you realise immediately that Sweden is a non-hierarchical society while America is not. If suddenly the Swedish crew is told the location is changing the next day, the Swedish crew want to know why and will get upset because they weren’t involved in the decision making process. The American crew will just say ok.
On a Swedish crew everyone talks about the problems together, making suggestions to change things, it’s an ongoing process for each decision, which has the quality of everyone feeling involved as opposed to just obeying orders. That clashed a little but it was also interesting. It was fascinating to be able to stand with one foot in each culture and watch it unfold.
King of Devil’s Island is out now and reviewed here.