A pop phenomenon and a heartthrob, the Swedish actor can also be serious and low-key. Men’s FASHION editor-in-chief David Livingstone sits down with Alexander Skarsgard in New York
From the flow of his voice coming from behind the door, it’s evident that Alexander Skarsgard has taken to the role of spokesmodel with guileless good cheer.
As I sit outside a New York hotel suite, waiting in line to go face to face with the face of Encounter Calvin Klein ($87, thebay.com), this fall’s major new men’s fragrance, I can’t help hearing the interview before mine and thinking that the guy is not nearly as taciturn or inscrutable as he has been in the parts that have shaped his fame.
Born in Sweden in 1976, Skarsgard rose to North American stardom in 2008 with a one-two punch. On Generation Kill, an Emmy-winning HBO miniseries about the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he played a tight-lipped Marine nicknamed Iceman. After that came True Blood, the enthusiastically received HBO series (recently renewed for a sixth season) on which he plays an enigmatic vampire called Eric Northman.
When my turn comes, the man who meets me is not frosty but affable. Talk about friendly and warm! He even tells me, “I’ve had some good conversations, actually. It’s been journalists from all over the world, so that’s always fun.”
Skarsgard’s easygoing eagerness makes it impossible to begrudge his good looks. Tall, fine-featured and athletically built, he is spared from perfection only by a slight overbite, though even that has a page dedicated to it on Facebook.
As for the way he is dressed—white Calvin Klein shirt with Persol shades slung from its open neck, black Alexander Wang jeans, grey Converse high-tops—there is nothing to suggest it isn’t cool, except the way Skarsgard wears it, which is as if no thought of cool went into it.
However, Skarsgard did put thought into his decision to become a spokesmodel. “I’ve never done anything like this before. I’ve had some opportunities, but they haven’t felt right,” he says. “This one—just everything felt right about it. Calvin Klein is such a great house. I was flattered.”
Another reason for Skarsgard to participate in the Encounter campaign was the team working on it. He considers creative director Fabien Baron one of the best in the world. He had worked with photographer Steven Klein before, on a shoot for Interview magazine, and “had a blast.”
The film noir style of the campaign was another motivation. “The way they pitched Encounter, it almost sounded like something out of the German Expressionist movement, like an old Fritz Lang movie like M or Metropolis.”
Although True Blood has provided Skarsgard with a fan base in the Comic-Con culture, he is no stranger to high art. When asked about the current popularity of all things Scandinavian (from books to beer), he has no conclusive explanation, saying, “I just know that there’s a legacy in Sweden, with August Strindberg and Ingmar Bergman.”
Stellan Skarsgard, Alexander’s father and one of Sweden’s best-known actors, was directed by Bergman both in film and on stage, including one play that made use of a Skarsgard family photograph as part of a backdrop. Alexander jokes, “So I claim to have worked with Bergman too.”
There’s no fooling involved, however, when Skarsgard speaks of having acted in a 1999 Swedish film with Harriet Andersson, a Bergman alumna. He remembers it as an “amazing, amazing experience.”
Skarsgard’s taste in actors runs to the serious. He hasn’t worked with Isabelle Huppert, but that pale-faced French superstar is a favourite. He recalls seeing her in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher and “being blown away.”
It’s “something very minimal” that he admires about Huppert’s talent, and that is also characteristic of Skarsgard’s own approach to drama. As a dim-witted male model in Zoolander, he may have put his overbite into overdrive, flashing a silly grin that brought Jim Carrey to mind, but he generally sticks to understatement. He took inspiration for his True Blood character from a lion he saw in a TV documentary. It was the animal’s “stillness” that mesmerized him: “You didn’t know if he was going to yawn and fall asleep, or pounce.”
In figuring out the nature of Northman, a vampire since 1077, Skarsgard says, “I wanted to capture someone so confident that he doesn’t have to go big to scare people.”
Remarkably for a guy who is six-foot-four and gigantically handsome, Skarsgard on screen manages a modest scale of reaction and gesture that is capable of evoking pity as well as fear. In Melancholia, by Danish director Lars von Trier, Skarsgard brought an affectingly innocent haplessness to the role of a bridegroom on whose wedding day his wife cheats and worlds are poised to collide.
In life, the collisions Skarsgard tracks are of the sporting variety. He’s a fan of European football and follows the NHL, “the best league in the world,” closely enough that he can rhyme off a list of Swedes who’ve played on Canadian teams, mentioning Mats Sundin, formerly with Toronto, and the Sedins, twin brothers with the Vancouver Canucks.
Vancouver also figured in Skarsgard’s itinerary. At our meeting in June, he told me that after wrapping up season five of True Blood in Los Angeles, and a quick trip to Sweden to hang out in Stockholm, he would be heading to British Columbia to work on Hidden, the first feature from filmmaking brothers Matt and Ross Duffer. Co-starring Andrea Riseborough, “a dear friend and a phenomenal actress,” the movie is about a family forced to seek refuge from a mysterious outbreak. Excited about the project and about being in Vancouver, Skarsgard says, “The only downside is I’ll spend the whole summer in a bomb shelter.”