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Alexander Skarsgård lost his voice — and found catharsis — as a Viking berserker

Stockholm-born actor Alexander Skarsgård says he had to work against his natural tendencies for his latest movie, The Northman, a violent epic set about 1,000 years ago.

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Other segments from the episode on May 4, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 4, 2022: Interview with Alexander Skarsgard; Review of TV show 'The Staircase.'

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Alexander Skarsgard, stars as a Viking in the new movie "The Northman." Set toward the end of the 10th century, the story is based on Norse mythology. In the HBO series "True Blood," Skarsgard played Eric Northman, who became a vampire a thousand years ago when he was a Viking. More recently, Skarsgard played an abusive husband in "Big Little Lies," for which he won an Emmy, Golden Globe, a Critics Choice Television Award and an award from SAG, the Screen Actors Guild. In the latest season of HBO's "Succession," he played a tech billionaire. Alexander Skarsgard grew up in Stockholm, Sweden, where he's joining us from now.

He's the son of the prominent actor Stellan Skarsgard, who's appeared in movies, stage and TV since the '60s, and he's the brother of Bill Skarsgard, who's famous for his role as Pennywise, the dancing clown in the supernatural horror film "It" based on a Stephen King story. Alexander Skarsgard had his first film role at the age of 7, and a film he made at the age of 13 made him famous in Sweden. After that, he took a seven-year break from acting. When Skarsgard was growing up in Sweden, he watched Viking movies and learned about some of the mythology from his grandfather.

The new movie "The Northman" begins with his character as a young prince who witnesses his father, the king, be murdered by the prince's uncle, who then makes off with the prince's mother, the queen. The boy dedicates his life to avenging his father, saving his mother and killing his uncle. The film skips ahead to 20 years later when Skarsgard's character Amleth is part of a group of marauding Vikings who plunder and burn villages and slaughter the people living there. As one character describes him, he's a beast cloaked in man flesh. He acts like a beast, and he howls like a beast, as you'll hear in this scene in which the Vikings, on a night before a raid, are doing a warrior dance, chanting around a bonfire at night. The chant turns into roars. And at the end, you hear Skarsgard howl.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NORTHMAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, shouting, howling).

ALEXANDER SKARSGARD: (As Amleth, howling).

GROSS: (Laughter) Alexander Skarsgard, welcome to FRESH AIR. Do you have a voice left after that?

SKARSGARD: Thank you very much, Terry. I'm honored to be speaking to you.

GROSS: That is quite a howl.

SKARSGARD: I basically didn't have a voice for seven months 'cause we did - that was one moment, but there's probably 15, 20 other things in the movie in which my character kind of has to crank it up to 11, and I guess I didn't use my diaphragm correctly 'cause I was - yeah, (laughter) my voice was completely gone.

GROSS: Where did you find that rage in yourself?

SKARSGARD: Ooh. That's a good question. In the clip we just heard, my character - it's a transformation. My character is a Viking berserker, and his spirit animal is a hybrid of a wolf and a bear. And it's this ritual that they go through before a raid of a village, and it was about shedding your humanity in a way, letting go of your humanity and turning into a beast - so tapping into a more atavistic, more animalistic state. And (laughter) it was quite cathartic. I'm quite a mellow guy. I don't scream a lot. I don't like arguments. I don't like fights. I'm very Swedish, I guess (laughter). But so in a way, it was quite thrilling and exciting to shoot those scenes 'cause I definitely got to tap into something I don't tap into very often to kind of find that inner animal and let it out.

GROSS: So you grew up in Sweden. Your grandfather taught you a lot about the Vikings and Norse mythology. Did your grandfather feel any personal connections to those ancient stories?

SKARSGARD: Yeah, he did. He actually - to the point where - my grandfather and his two brothers actually changed their last name from Nelson (ph) to Skarsgard in the '40s. And it's - the etymology behind the word is Skares (ph) gard (ph), which means the farm of Skare. And that is a farm, a Viking farm on Oland, which is an island in the Baltic Sea, on which his father, my great-grandfather, built a wooden cabin over a hundred years ago. And it's a cabin that we still have in the family, and we go there every summer. He claimed that we were direct ancestors of Skare, but again, who knows. It was a thousand years ago. We definitely know that we have ancestors many, many generations back from Oland island.

GROSS: I thought I read that there were pacifists in your family (laughter)...

SKARSGARD: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Which doesn't match with the image of Vikings in your new movie.

SKARSGARD: No, it's true. My dad was a hippie and very much a pacifist, and so I grew up in that environment. It was a very bohemian lifestyle with my dad, obviously, my mom and the - but also the whole extended family. It was a ragtag group of poets and artists and very, very left-leaning progressive people.

GROSS: There are supernatural elements in the movie, and I'm sure there are supernatural elements in the stories and mythology of the Vikings. Which - what are some of the stories or some of the images or supernatural elements that your grandfather told you about that really stuck with you?

SKARSGARD: He told me about - in the cabin, there's no bathroom. So we would - you would have to go outside to pee. And early in the morning, Grandpa and I went out into the grass to pee. We would feel the dew under our feet, the wet grass. And Grandpa explained that the dew is actually not condensation. It's not water. It's sweat from the flanks of the Valkyries' horses because at night, the Vikings believed that the slain warriors would get picked up during the night by the Valkyries, these female warriors that would ride down from Valhalla - or Valhalla - and pick up the warriors and then ride back, bring them to Odin in Valhalla. And they were very busy during the night 'cause a lot of the warriors had been slain, so the horses got sweaty, and the dew that we stood on and felt under our feet was actually the sweat of the Valkyries' steeds. (Laughter) He didn't believe in it, obviously, and he didn't - but he told me those stories, and he didn't try to convince me that it was actually true. But he had an amazing imagination, and he loved the, again, history and those old stories from the Norse mythology. And that's one that really stuck with me.

GROSS: Yeah, I guess it made wet grass a lot more exciting (laughter).

SKARSGARD: It did. It sure did (laughter). And that was also something that we, many, many years later, tried to capture and tried to - in "The Northman," that line between the natural world and the supernatural world, the spiritual world, we wanted to blur that line because, again, the components, the elements of the film that might seem supernatural to an audience in 2022 would not have been strange at all to a Viking a thousand years ago. And what we tried to accomplish was for the audience to see the world through Amleth's eyes, so when he gets picked up by a Valkyrie to be taken to Valhalla or when he has to fight a 7-foot skeleton giant, it's not surprising to him because, again, these are stories, part of the folklore, stories he's been told since he was a toddler. So we didn't - we, again, tried to kind of just blur the line between the natural and the supernatural.

GROSS: So one of the things you had to learn for the new movie is how to fight with weapons that are supposed to look like very ancient weapons and how to, like, stab people in the heart and behead them and (laughter) - so can you talk a little bit about learning how to look as authentic as possible in these really brutal scenes that also had to be very carefully choreographed?

SKARSGARD: Yeah, the sequences - the way Robert Eggers, the filmmaker - the director of the movie - his style of working is quite unique, especially when it comes to big action-adventure films. Rob and Jarin Blaschke, his cinematographer - first of all, they shoot on film, which is quite rare these days. And all the scenes - almost all the scenes - definitely all the big set pieces, the big action scenes - are shot in just one long, continuous take, which complicates things quite a bit. Most films, you'll have several cameras going simultaneously and you have coverage so you can cut into a big fight scene and just focus on one stunt. But Rob wanted the intimacy, the connection with the characters and didn't want to feel any cuts, that you're actually hopefully a bit more immersed in the story and with the characters if you stay close - and that the audience feels that they're with Amleth throughout the whole fight.

It complicated things in a way, because - for example, there's - the scene that follows the little clip of us howling that we just heard in the beginning is a three-minute long raid of a village and - with 20, 30 actors, 20, 30 stuntmen, hundreds of extras. There's horses. There's chickens flying through the frame and - again, a lot of moving components to making that work. And the camera's also moving with us throughout the scene. So it was technically quite challenging to accomplish that, but we knew that it would be and - so we started months - several months before we shot that scene - and meticulously planning it and the choreography of it and the dance, so to speak, between us and the camera operator because it's so - it had to be timed perfectly on - since we're moving - all of us are moving through this melee, this chaos. And, yeah, it was quite an intense day when we shot that.

So technically difficult, but I would say the flip side of that is it was so incredibly immersive for me as an actor because, again, Rob is all about historical accuracy and authenticity. So the village was built - you could move around it 360, and there weren't sets. It was built the way a village would have been built a thousand years ago. So my job was almost halfway done when I came to set because just stepping into those shoes and on to that set was such an immersive experience. And then the fact that you got to shoot it and move - once you're in that adrenaline-filled state of mind and you're charging through the scene, sometimes it's quite exhausting to stop and go, which you normally do in a movie. You shoot something for a couple of minutes or a couple of seconds and then you take a break and then you go at it again and again, again. So it's more of a roller coaster in terms of your level of adrenaline. This was - you kind of opened the tap and then you get to - you're in it. You're absorbed in it. And you get to do it till the very end. Then you obviously have to go do it over and over again because it was, again, technically very difficult to get all those components to work. But it was a really exhilarating and thrilling way of working that I was - I'd never worked that way before, so I learned a lot. It was challenging but an extraordinary experience.

GROSS: Since there were animals like chickens in the scene, if the chickens didn't get their part right, did you end up being angry at chickens because you had to do the scene over because the chicken messed up?

SKARSGARD: Yeah, the chickens were - they were complete divas and wouldn't come out of their trailers...

GROSS: Yeah.

SKARSGARD: ...And they were very difficult to work with (laughter). But it - no, but sometimes that would happen. Sometimes it would be - something would happen three seconds before the end of the shot, and it could be something - just a horse facing the wrong way in the background or a small detail that wasn't perfect, and then those takes were - yeah, they were tough when everything felt - you found that fluidity to it and all the stunts worked and the movement and everything and you were in it and it felt great. And then you can't use that take because, again, a small detail. But it was - we just had to be patient and focus and go back and do it again and again until the chickens did what we wanted them to do.

GROSS: Yeah.

SKARSGARD: And, by the way, they are brilliant in the film.

GROSS: Yes (laughter). Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Alexander Skarsgard, and he stars in the new Viking movie "The Northman." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBIN CAROLAN AND SEBASTIAN GAINSBOROUGH'S "AETTARTRE/END CREDITS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Alexander Skarsgard, who stars in the new movie "The Northman." He also was one of the stars of the HBO vampire series "True Blood." He was one of the stars of "Diary Of A Teenage Girl," "Big Little Lies," and in the last season of "Succession," he had a great part as a tech billionaire.

Let's talk about your role in the last season of "Succession," the one that ended, I guess, a few months ago. You play a tech billionaire in this who runs a streaming platform called GoJo. And, of course, the story centers around the Roy family, which owns a media empire. And they have, like, a lot of content, but they have a really bad streaming platform. So they want to buy you out so that they have a great streaming platform for their content. And, you know, Logan Roy, who is the patriarch, is very old. He's been sick. No one knows how much longer he's going to live. The children, of course - the adult children have been fighting to see who will succeed their father and head this company.

So this is a scene at a party. And you and Kieran Culkin's character, Roman Roy, are talking in this party, and he's trying to convince you that you should have a meeting with his father and talk about selling out. So I should mention that previous to this meeting between your character and Kieran Culkin at the party, Logan Roy, the patriarch, I think he had wanted to meet with you, but instead you sent a representative which really made Logan Roy, the patriarch, angry. And that's referred to when Kieran Culkin picks up the dialogue in this scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUCCESSION")

KIERAN CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Question. My old man got a little bit grumpy this morning, but you weren't trying to humiliate him, right? I mean, everyone says - I mean, everyone says the last big legacy content library, last super app streaming platform. We fit, obviously, right?

SKARSGARD: (As Lukas Matsson) People say we're sick.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Yeah.

SKARSGARD: (As Lukas Matsson) Well, I guess I do have one question, though.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Yeah, hit me up.

SKARSGARD: (As Lukas Matsson) When will your father die?

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) When will my father die?

SKARSGARD: (As Lukas Matsson) Yeah. Like, I don't want to be rude, but what kind of shape is he in? We're talking less than a year or he's more like five years? Because if it's five, that's - it's a long time. It would be better sooner.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) No, no, no. I know. We're laughing here, but, you know, that is my dad, so, you know?

SKARSGARD: (As Lukas Matsson) Right.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Easy there (inaudible).

SKARSGARD: (As Lukas Matsson) I can tell that it's a bit weird for you.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) That's OK.

SKARSGARD: (As Lukas Matsson) It's just I don't like the idea of a man hanging over me.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) No. I can understand.

SKARSGARD: (As Lukas Matsson) 'Cause it's not my world, media. So his death would clear space.

GROSS: That scene is really funny, especially like the way you ask, like, when do you think your father will die?

SKARSGARD: It just cuts straight to the chase.

GROSS: Yeah. My understanding is that you went right from doing "Succession" to doing "The Northman." So you go from playing this like, you know, wealthy, entitled tech billionaire to playing like this brutal Viking a thousand years ago. I mean, it's such a contrast. Even like your posture, like, you know, in a scene in "Succession," like, your home where the patriarch is there talking with you, like, you are, like, slouching in your couch with, like, you know, your leg up. And it's not like a very respectful posture for meeting somebody who is your equal or more powerful than you, you know.

SKARSGARD: No. And that's also - there were so many things that made that character so much fun to play. But one of them was that he didn't have to treat Brian Cox's character like a king. He's like, well, I don't care who Logan is. Like, this is - I don't need him in my life. And that is something unusual in the world that that the Roys operate in because he is the emperor to everyone else. And suddenly there's a guy who, again, is just, like, doesn't even bother putting on shoes before the meeting. He's walking around in his flip flops and slouching on the couch. And then suddenly, not suddenly, but decides, well, maybe I should buy you instead. And Brian Cox is obviously one of the greatest actors of our time, so to be able to work with him and Kieran is also phenomenal on on such a beautifully written, fantastic and fun scene was a real treat.

And we had shot the majority of "The Northman" before that in Northern Ireland. But then we were going to go to Iceland and shoot a week or two out there, right after - literally right after - shooting at that villa, the Lake Como house, which is, for anyone who's seen the episode, it's like the most beautiful house ever seen. It's absolutely stunning. And these Riva boats, these beautiful Italian wooden boats. And it's just like - it's - there's so much wealth and luxury around that. Like, it's mind boggling. And then I went straight from there to Iceland, where I was going to play a Viking slave. So I put on shackles. And then I was being dragged through the mud and through the Icelandic mud. So that was an interesting 48 hours, to say the least.

GROSS: Were you hooked on "Succession" before you had a role in it?

SKARSGARD: Yeah. So I've only said yes to something once before without reading the script. It was when when Lars von Trier called and asked if I wanted to be in "Melancholia," and I just said, I don't care what you want me to do, but I'll be there.

GROSS: That's a great film. I really like that film.

SKARSGARD: Thank you, Terry. I had an amazing time shooting that. So it was - I do not regret saying yes without having read the script. And this would have been the second time. I absolutely adore Jesse Armstrong and admire everything he's done even before "Succession," the "Peep Show" and the stuff he did in the U.K. The writing is so smart. And I was - I found Season 1 and 2 of "Succession" some of the greatest television I've ever seen. So when he reached out, I said, you don't even have to - like, eventually I'd love to know who you want me to play, but I'm in no matter what.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Alexander Skarsgard. And he stars in the new film "The Northman." We'll be right back after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Alexander Skarsgard. He stars in the new Viking movie "The Northman." He also starred in "True Blood," "Diary Of A Teenage Girl," "Big Little Lies," and in the most recent season of "Succession," he played a tech billionaire.

So you grew up in Stockholm. Your father is actor Stellan Skarsgard, and people probably know him from "Good Will Hunting," more recently from "Dune." He was in HBO's "Chernobyl," "Mamma Mia," "The Avengers," "Melancholia," "Thor." So there's a lot of diverse films people may know him from. What were you exposed to about acting when you were a child? Like, how did acting look at you before you were 7, before you had an acting role yourself?

SKARSGARD: My dad did repertory theater in Stockholm when I was a child, so he would do - rehearse during the day at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. So he would rehearse during the day and then perform at night. And he worked with Ingmar Bergman on stage when I was a child.

GROSS: He worked with Ingmar Bergman?

SKARSGARD: Yeah. Yeah, I did not - Ingmar Bergman was just some old dude, so I wasn't really impressed by that when I was 5, 6 six years old. It was more fun to hang out back in the hair and makeup department of the theater and play around with prosthetics and wigs and stuff. So - and then my father's dear friend, Allan Edwall, who's a - he was a fantastic Swedish director and actor, needed a 7-year-old kid for a movie. And he was over at our house having dinner and saw a 7-year-old kid running around. So he asked if I had any interest in being in the movie. And so that's kind of how I got started.

GROSS: So you became kind of famous in Sweden after you starred in a TV series when you were 13. You've said that being a child actor in Sweden is different from being a child actor in Hollywood. What's the difference?

SKARSGARD: Well, first of all, the scale. It's basically like being famous in Idaho. No shade on Idaho, but it's obviously smaller than being famous internationally or in all states. It's - well, there's only - yeah, it's a small country, Sweden, so it's a very small industry. And being famous wasn't - I never had a desire to become an actor or it was never something I pursued. When I worked on "Ake och hans varld," the movie when I was 7 with Allan Edwall, that led to a couple of other jobs. And so for a couple years, I did work - or I guess six years until I was 13 - on a couple of smaller Swedish productions. And then I did - it wasn't a series. It was a made-for-TV movie, basically, an hour-long movie called "Hunden Som Log," "The Smiling Dog." And this is back when there were only two channels in Sweden and obviously pre-internet. So whatever was on, people tended to watch.

So it got - the impact of that quite changed my life quite a bit. I was suddenly recognized, and it made me uncomfortable. I think 13 is an awkward, uncomfortable age for most kids. But to then be in the spotlight and to be recognized and be different when you go to school, the fact that other people are giggling or whispering and are watching you in a different way made me very uncomfortable. And I lost confidence and just was not comfortable with that. And so I decided to quit and not do any more projects. And again, it wasn't a monumental, difficult decision stepping away from it and to have a, I guess, normal childhood wasn't a difficult decision for me.

GROSS: I think it was during the period when you were not acting that you were in the Swedish military doing counterterrorism. Who were the suspected terrorists of the time?

SKARSGARD: It would have been - this was in the late '90s around the millennium, basically. So the job of our unit was to secure the archipelago, the islands outside of Stockholm. And I went into it not for any heroic or patriotic reasons. I went into it because I'm from a very bohemian family of pacifists. I grew up in Sodermalm, which is a very artistic neighborhood of South Stockholm, and surrounded by people that were not very physical, not very active, not very outdoorsy. We - it was mostly dinner parties with lots of wine flowing and conversations about art rather than out in nature or - so at the age of 19, I wanted to do it more as a personal challenge. And I was - it felt so kind of diametrically opposite my upbringing. So I wanted to, I guess, challenge myself and go do something that was - that I had never done before or experienced before.

GROSS: How was the experience? How did it work out?

SKARSGARD: It was horrible and wonderful. It was a year and a half, and it was very challenging physically and mentally. But I think I learned a lot about myself and about working with others because we worked in small units, myself and three other guys, out in these islands. So we're very - we operated very independently. So that formed some strong friendships, and I'm, in hindsight, glad I did it, but...

GROSS: Yeah, I want to hear about the horrible parts. What was horrible about it?

SKARSGARD: No, they test you, obviously, and it's - when you go through basic training and then when you're out, they want you to kind of find your limits, physically and mentally, and challenge you so that you can operate even under distress. So that was something that as quite a spoiled, comfortable kid from an urban area in Stockholm, where I never had to kind of deal with the elements - if it was raining, I just didn't go out or if it's cold, I put on an extra jacket. So that was all kind of a - I wouldn't say shock but definitely something I wasn't accustomed to.

GROSS: It sounds like you're training for "The Northman."

SKARSGARD: It was basically (laughter) - it was pretty much the same. "Northman," we'd crawl around in mud for seven months. And that's basically what I did for a year and a half in the military.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Alexander Skarsgard, and he stars in the new Viking movie "The Northman." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAOMI MOON SIEGEL'S "IT'S NOT SAFE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Alexander Skarsgard, who's starring in the new Viking epic "The Northman." He also starred in "True Blood." He was in "Diary Of A Teenage Girl," "Big Little Lies" and the most recent season of "Succession."

You were very self-conscious as a young actor, at the age of 13. And you didn't want to act because you didn't like being different. You didn't like all the attention. When you got the role of Eric the vampire in the HBO series "True Blood" a few years ago, you became a star from that. And not only that, you became a kind of heartthrob. So I'm wondering what that was like for you as somebody who had previously rejected the idea of being noticed as an actor, you know, off set.

SKARSGARD: Oh, suddenly, I loved fame.

(LAUGHTER)

SKARSGARD: Yeah. I think I was old enough and a bit more confident and secure to be able to handle all the chaos around being an actor and being on a show that gets a lot of - that kind of hits the zeitgeist and gets a lot of attention. I was able to still have a private life and - I wouldn't say a public persona, but knowing when you're out in the world, meeting people. And instead of being - when someone recognized me or came up to me when I was younger, it made me uncomfortable. And instead, I tried to kind of not lean into it, but at least embrace it and generally being - when someone recognizes you and they like your character or a movie or a show you're on, that is - why shouldn't that be a great feeling?

Why shouldn't you feel grateful for that and be excited that what you've done, your work, has actually reached someone and meant something to someone? So I try to approach it from that angle to feel - take joy out of that. And the fact that, again, I'd been unemployed and struggling to find work for many years, not only had I gotten a job, but I gotten a job that people actually cared about. And that is a wonderful feeling. It's not - that's definitely not always the case. And I think that mindset helped me when it got crazy around "True Blood."

GROSS: In in "Big Little Lies," you played Nicole Kidman's husband. And you were somebody who had to travel a lot. You felt like you were being shut out of the family and this would, like - this and other things would lead to fights with Nicole Kidman's character. And you'd get, like, really angry and end up, like, hitting her or shoving her against the wall or kind of strangling her, but not to death. And these scenes would typically end with you both having sex. And when I interviewed her recently, she said that in between these takes of, like, anger and physical force that would end up in sex that she would lie on the floor in her underwear with a towel over her. And she couldn't get up. It wasn't like she physically couldn't get up. She emotionally couldn't get up. And the people around her, the crew, would ask, are you all right? And she'd be crying and saying, yes, I'm fine, because she was trying to be professional. I'm wondering what impact those scenes had on you?

SKARSGARD: Yeah, they were some of the most difficult days I've experienced on the set. And Nicole and I became very close on - that experience really brought us together. And it demanded complete trust between us in order to go into that darkness physically and mentally. Those scenes were so horrific. And - but we spent many days, weeks leading up to the shoot talking about the relationship. And we were both creatively excited because it felt like a nuanced, accurate depiction of an abusive relationship. Perry was not a cliche or a stereotype of an abusive husband. And you could understand Celeste, why she might have been drawn to him and why she might be conflicted in the beginning when he's oscillating between the light and the darkness. And that was something that we spent a lot of time talking about.

And then, going into those very, very intense scenes, they were horrific to shoot. And we had to check in with each other nonstop before takes, after takes to make sure that - because we both had to commit so completely. But it was draining. It was draining. But walking away from it was - when we wrapped it up, we - I love Nicole so much. And it was absolutely wonderful to be reunited with her on "The Northman," this time as my mother, but again, also a very dark, weird, twisted relationship. But, I think, because we had that - we established that trust on "Big Little Lies," that was really valuable when we started shooting "The Northman," having that strong connection. But, no, those days like the one you mentioned, they were horrible. They were horrible.

GROSS: It's so odd that Nicole Kidman played your wife in "Big Little Lies" and your mother in the new film "The Northman."

SKARSGARD: Yeah. It was because after "Big Little Lies," we basically said, let's find something to do again, but maybe something lighter. And then two years later, when I - when we had the first draft of "The Northman," I, with Robert Eggers and all the producers, everyone agreed that Nicole would be the perfect Queen Gudrun. So I - yeah, (laughter) I called her. And I said, well, I got something here. I don't know how much lighter it is. It's also quite dark. But we were just thrilled when she joined us. And after this, I promise, the next project we do together will be a musical or a rom-com or something.

GROSS: I think the closest you've been in a musical is maybe the Lady Gaga video of her song "Paparazzi."

SKARSGARD: That's true. And it's also quite dark. We try to kill each other in that one.

GROSS: Yeah. You push her off a balcony. I mean...

SKARSGARD: I do, I do.

GROSS: (Laughter) You carry her onto the balcony, place her on the rail of it, give her a very passionate kiss and then just kind of push her off.

SKARSGARD: (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: And by the end of the song, by the end of the video, she's poisoned you.

SKARSGARD: (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: So - but, you know, it's a music video. It's, like, a seven-minute music video. But it's packaged like it's a movie, you know, like "Paparazzi" starring Lady Gaga...

SKARSGARD: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And Alexander Skarsgard. And it's kind of written in letters like an old-fashioned movie. Was that her attempt to, like, make a movie or, you know, fulfill her fantasy of starring in a film?

SKARSGARD: I - this is - correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure it was her first album. I did not know who she was at the time. A friend of mine - LA-based Swedish director named Jonas Akerlund - directed that video. So - and I was shooting - "True Blood" wasn't even out yet. So this was - I was shooting Season 1 of "True Blood." Yeah. I'm pretty sure Season 1 wasn't even out yet. And he called and asked if I - he was going to do this music video with an artist named Lady Gaga. And he explained the premise of it. And it sounded super fun. It was going to be shot over a weekend in Malibu. And I said, yeah, Jonas, I'll come do this Lady Googoo (ph) video any day. I don't know who she is, but it sounds great.

GROSS: Did it lead to anything that surprised you?

SKARSGARD: No, not - I mean, not more than - we had a fantastic week, and it was super fun. She was great to play with. And Jonas and I had to teach her some Swedish 'cause we speak Swedish in the beginning of it. And she was wonderful, absolutely fantastic. And - but it was, again, two fun, great days. And I was like, well, this song is catchy. Best of luck to you...

GROSS: (Laughter).

SKARSGARD: ...Lady Googoo (laughter) - and had no idea that - what would - how big she would get.

GROSS: When you were growing up and your father, Stellan Skarsgard, was acting and had all these, like, bohemian friends and, you know, artists and actors and so on - you've said that you wished he was more ordinary. What kind of father did you wish you had when you were going through that stage of wishing that, like, your father was like the other fathers?

SKARSGARD: Well, I - my friend - a friend in my class, his dad wore a gray suit and drove a Saab and had a briefcase and worked in an office. And that was my dream dad. I was like, oh, my God. What if I had a dad like that? That would have been the dream. What a - my buddy is so lucky - 'cause my dad would wear, like, some flowy dress if - or nothing and just walk around with a glass of red wine and the hair standing up and, like, just (laughter) - I just wanted to be normal and not different and not stand out. And so everything about my family was quite atypical. So everything about it that I've subsequently came to embrace and love about my family, or - I was at an age where - to the point of, like, leaving the film industry 'cause I just wanted - I didn't want attention. I just wanted to blend in and be like everyone else. And having a dad like Stellan definitely didn't help.

GROSS: You said he was wearing flowy dresses.

SKARSGARD: Yeah. He would wear, like - or some, like, Arabian garb, like, some long something he'd found on a trip somewhere or a sarong, which definitely wasn't a thing in Stockholm in the '80s.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SKARSGARD: And yeah, just definitely not a grey suit like my friend's father.

GROSS: Have you worked with your - well, I know you worked with your father in "Melancholia." Have you worked with him in other films? What's that like for you?

SKARSGARD: No, we haven't. We worked together - so "Melancholia," we had - he played - Dad plays my best man at my wedding, and we had one or two scenes together. And it was - I loved every second of it, but that was it. So it wasn't really a meaty, rich, interesting relationship. It was, again, the couple of days, but I would love to do something. It's just about finding the right project. But, yeah, no, that'd be a dream.

GROSS: So thank you so much for doing this.

SKARSGARD: Thank you, Terry. This has been such a pleasure. And to end the whole two-month-long press tour with a conversation with Terry Gross on FRESH AIR is - it is an honor.

GROSS: Alexander Skarsgard stars in the new film "The Northman." After we take a short break, John Powers will review the new series "The Staircase," a dramatization of a true crime documentary series. It stars Colin Firth. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL BISIO QUARTET'S "A.M.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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