by D.W. Lundberg

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


A(nother) new feature here at FTWW, in which we celebrate the unsung heroes of the cinema: those hard-working, multi-faceted professionals who've dipped their toes into just about every motion picture ever made - though you'd be hard-pressed to remember who they are or where you'd seen them before. In their own way, their talents are every bit as recognizable as Robert De Niro's or Meryl Streep's - even if their faces are not. With this series, hopefully, we aim to change all that.

Born June 13, 1951, in Gothenburg, Sweden, Stellan Skarsgård didn't initially plan on becoming an actor (he says he wanted to be a diplomat), yet he lucked into it anyway, when he was cast as the title character in the TV series Bomvbi Bitt och jag (Bombi Bitt & I, 1968) at 16 years old. The role catapulted him to the status of a rock star in his native country, and in 1972, Skarsgård joined The Royal Dramatic Theatre Company in Stockholm, where he worked regularly on stage and in film for directors such as Alf Sjberg and Ingmar Bergman. It wasn't until 1985, however, that he gained international acclaim, playing a mentally-disturbed immigrant farmhand in the American Playhouse episode Noon Wine. He won the Guldbagge and Silver Berlin Bear awards for his efforts. Naturally, it wasn't long before Hollywood came calling.

Curiously, though, Skarsgård has yet to achieve the same level of superstardom here in the U.S. that he's had in foreign markets. Though he appeared in his share of high-profile films during the 80s and 90s, including Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness Of Being (1988), John McTiernan's The Hunt For Red October (1990), and Amistad (1997) for Steven Spielberg, he's mostly been relegated to supporting roles - not the sort of leading man material that might have made him a household name. Is it his gravelly voice, his accent, his age? Or is it his generosity with actors, his willingness to share the spotlight rather than steal it away for himself? "I don't have the ambition to shine," Skarsgård told screenwriter Larry Gross in 1998, "because a scene is never better than its weakest link. So if someone else is not good in the scene because I'm taking the oxygen from them, it's worthless." And that's true of his work; watch every part that he's played, from mentor to Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting (1997) to a scientist in Thor (2011), and you'll find he never upstages his co-stars in any given scene.

Which isn't to say that Skarsgård is incapable of giving great performances. I first remember him in Lars Von Trier's Breaking The Waves (1996), as an oil rig worker whose debilitating accident on the job forces his waif-ish wife (Emily Watson) to desecrate her body in the name of God. The movie, of course, is all Watson's - with a performance so raw and so fearless, it has to be seen to be believed. Skarsgård has the less likable part - in his drug-induced state, it's hard to tell if his requests are the result of his medication or someplace deeper - but he's the engine that drives the plot, and you only have to see the look of joy on his face during the film's final moments to know where his loyalties lie. In Erik Skjoldbjærg's Insomnia (1997), he played a disgraced police detective slowly driven to the brink under the endless Arctic sun. It's a fairly standard police procedural for the most part, yet Skarsgård's acting rhythms are still so alien to us you can never be sure how far he'll go. Good Will Hunting came next, of course, followed by John Frankenheimer's Ronin (1998), in which he played a cold-blooded assassin not above killing innocent children just to stick it his employers. He continued to star in films for Von Trier and close friend Hans Petter Moland throughout the 90s and Noughties, alternating smaller independent fare with big-budget blockbusters, most notably Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006), Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End (2007), and Marvel's The Avengers (2012, currently the third highest-grossing motion picture of all time).

He is audacious, authoritative, and, during interviews, often charmingly frank. I've always thought of him as a godfatherly type, ready to dish out his actorly wisdom at the drop of a hat. (Of his eight children, four are actors; his oldest, Alexander, currently stars on HBO's True Blood.) Producers, directors and (especially) actors seem to love him. Still, would you be able to pick him out of a lineup simply by the mere mention of his name? Ty Burr says in his review of Moland's A Somewhat Gentle Man (2011) that "Skarsgård has a face that's almost instantly forgettable. I mean that as praise. His blandness - he's not quite handsome, not quite homely - lets him slip unnoticed into the various skins of his characters, and under our skins as well."

Actually, I take it back: it is precisely because of his lack of ego, his ability to "slip unnoticed" into characters at will, that keeps Skarsgård on the fringes of American film - and, conversely, why it continues to get him work. And that's just the way he likes it.


Selected filmography:

American Playhouse: Noon Wine (1985, Michael

The Unbearable Lightness Of Being (1988, Philip

The Hunt For Red October (1990, John McTiernan)

The Ox (1991, Sven Nykvist)

Wind (1992, Carroll Ballard)

Breaking The Waves (1996, Lars Von Trier)

Insomnia (1997, Erik Skjoldbjærg)

Good Will Hunting (1997, Gus Van Sant)

Amistad (1997, Steven Spielberg)

Ronin (1998, John Frankenheimer)

Deep Blue Sea (1999, Renny Harlin)

Dogville (2002, Lars Von Trier)

King Arthur (2004, Antoine Fuqua)

Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist (2005, Paul

Goya's Ghosts (2006, Milo Forman)

Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006,
   Gore Verbinski)

Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End (2007,
   Gore Verbinski)

Mamma Mia! (2008, Phyllida Lloyd)

Angels & Demons (2009, Ron Howard)

A Somewhat Gentle Man (2010, Hans Petter Moland)

Thor (2011, Kenneth Branagh)

Melancholia (2011, Lars Von Trier)

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011, David

Marvel's The Avengers (2012, Joss Whedon)

Nymphomaniac (2013, Lars Von Trier)

Thor: The Dark World (2013, Alan Taylor)

Cinderella (2015, Kenneth Branagh)

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