Alexander Skarsgard must have a dark side. He's drawn to characters who emanate a silky menace: not only his most famous role, the 1,000-year-old vampire Eric Northman on the HBO series True Blood; but also a violent hayseed in this year's remake of Straw Dogs; and a steely U.S. Marine sergeant in the 2008 miniseries Generation Kill. His gorgeous new film, Melancholia, written and directed by Lars von Trier, digs deep into two of the toughest subjects around, severe depression and the end of the world. (It opened in select cities yesterday.)
But during an interview in September, no demons were displayed, not even a hint of a shadow. Alexander Johan Hjalmar Skarsgard (he goes by Alex) was born and raised in Stockholm, but unless he's pronouncing Scandinavian words, his accent is husky American, and his conversation is a steady burble of positivity, all about luck and gratitude and the "great energy" he's feeling around him. He's a striking fellow, as tall (6 foot 4), slender and golden as a shaft of wheat in the sun. In repose, his face is a study of angularity, cheek and jawbones jutting away, highlighting his sensual lips and the textbook movie-star cleft in his chin. But when he grins – and he grins almost non-stop – he immediately loses 15 of his 35 years, plus any hint of danger. It's like flipping on the lights to reveal that the monster in the corner is actually your favourite teddy bear.
Viewers of True Blood last season saw a version of this phenomenon, when a witch cast a spell on Eric that made him forget he was an evil bastard, and had him wooing Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Pacquin) like a shy seventh-grader. Until they got their clothes off in a woodland glade, that is, and he suddenly seemed pretty confident again. (Whoops – best not to think about that while doing an interview. Blushing at the memory of certain images is becoming an on-the-job hazard for me, as more and more actors get more and more naked in franker and franker films and TV shows. Though I don't expect any sympathy for it.)
What's funny is, fan chatter indicated a clear preference for the diabolical Eric. The ladies, especially, seem to like their fangs sharp. "The naïve innocent was sweet for a while," Skarsgard says. "But people started to miss the old guy. The alpha male." He grinned. "His power."
Michael, the bridegroom Skarsgard plays in Melancholia, is another detour from Alpha Maleville. Much of the film takes place during his wedding reception, as he struggles to soothe his troubled new wife (Kirsten Dunst). "He knows she's depressed," he says. "He knows it's escalating. But he's so sweet and sensitive and vulnerable, he thinks, 'It's worth it, I can take care of her.' This is supposed to be the best day of his life, and it's so not. But he's trying so hard to stay positive: 'I can make her happy, I can save her. Just give me a chance.' It's heartbreaking."
Making the film, however, was pure joy. Skarsgard has been a lifelong fan of von Trier's – his father, the actor Stellan Skarsgard ( Good Will Hunting), appears regularly in von Trier's work, and has a small role in Melancholia, too. And Alex remembers watching von Trier's 1994 television series The Kingdom and thinking, "Come on! This is amazing!" So when von Trier's producer phoned him to say that the director wanted to work with him, "I immediately called my agent and manager and said, 'Take these three months off. I don't care what it is, if Lars von Trier is asking me to come make his coffee in the mornings, I'll do it,' " Skarsgard remembers. "It's the only time I've said yes to something without reading the script."
The cast, which also includes Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt, and two gorgeous, mysterious Charlottes, Gainsbourg and Rampling, lived together in a yellow wooden house in the countryside in southern Sweden for two months. "It was like a summer camp," Skarsgard says. "It was amazing. To work with my old man, and that cast – I was pinching myself. I kept waiting for them to say, 'Dude, you can go home now. We were kidding.' "
He, Dunst and Von Trier "hung out, had dinners, talked about the characters and the relationships," Skarsgard said. "It was a wonderful time." Von Trier struggles with depression, and has admitted that some of the story is autobiographical; he also conducted a disastrous press conference during the Cannes Film Festival, where he compared himself to a Nazi. But Skarsgard declines to dish. "What happens in Trollhattan stays in Trollhattan," he says. Grinning.
Skarsgard didn't set out to join the family business (three of his six siblings, all younger, are also actors). At 7, he did a small role in a film Stellan was directing, and that led to other projects. "It was fun, I enjoyed it, but I never thought of it as, 'This is what I'm doing the rest of my life,' " he says. Then, when he was 13, he starred in a hit television show. "Suddenly, people recognized me, and I didn't like that," he says. "It's a weird age anyway, and it made me feel paranoid and insecure. My dad was very supportive. He just said, 'If you're not feeling it, go do something else.' "
Skarsgard listened – he served 18 months in the Swedish military and studied English at Leeds University in England. But at 21, he thought, "Maybe I should try acting again before I dismiss it for good." He took a theatre course in New York, realized, "Oh yeah, I've missed this," and began racking up air miles, working in Sweden and auditioning in Los Angeles. A small part in Zoolander got the ball rolling, and now he spends his five-month hiatuses from True Blood on film sets. His upcoming movies include What Maisie Knew, based on a Henry James novel, starring Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan; and Battleship, based on the plastic game, opposite Liam Neeson and Taylor Kitsch.
Now when Skarsgard is recognized, "I try to see it as a compliment," he says. "Actors are so invested in our characters, when people actually care about them it means a lot."
He even found a positive spin for the end of the world. Melancholia is arguably von Trier's most mature work, and his vision of the apocalypse is stunning – humane, heartrending and terrifying all at once. But it didn't spook Skarsgard. "Without giving away the story, something happens at the very end between two characters that made me feel it was almost a happy ending," he says. "They connected. It's beautiful."