Stellan Skarsgård may be best known as a European actor bringing elegance and menace to big-budget American films — he’s part of The Avengers world, important to Thor and its recent sequel, he was in David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and he’s been a reliable villain-type-with-layers ever since he was in Good Will Hunting. But Skarsgård’s American career is just the tip of the iceberg. The biggest actor in Sweden, Skarsgård is such an important cultural export that there’s a picture of him at the Stockholm airport next to Sweden’s other touchstones (Abba, Bjorn Borg, Ingmar Bergman, Stieg Larsson, Pippi Longstocking). Perhaps Skarsgård’s most interesting long term-collaboration has come from his work with Danish auteur Lars von Trier: from Breaking the Waves to Melancholia, Skarsgård has been there as an often-bruised and impotent male character, bouncing off the dramatic femmes that populate Von Trier’s world.
In Von Trier’s epic sex-as-pain comedy and tragedy Nymphomaniac — released in two parts in America — Skarsgård is sweater-clad and nerdy as an innocent, Seligman, who rescues Charlotte Gainsbourg’s titular character and then listens to her story, riffing on rugelach and fly-fishing. The actor had nothing but really funny anecdotes to share about working with Von Trier: apparently there is “a lot of laughter on set.” Von Trier is misunderstood, the actor insists. The director’s bad reputation, developed over years of outrageous faux pas at Cannes press conferences (in which he called himself a Nazi, for one), isn’t true to who he is. Rather, on set the mood is light, and everyone’s willing to experiment and play around with the words.
Skarsgard feels that Kirsten Dunst’s performance in Melancholia was “one of the best performances I have ever seen in my life, because it’s all in the eyes.” A noted raconteur, he also had recommendations about where to go to in Stockholm: drink at Kvarnen, one of the oldest pubs in the city. Coincidentally, it’s a stop on The Millennium Tour (for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series), and it features classic Swedish food. In Stockholm, the Skarsgård family is well known. Beyond his most famous son, True Blood‘s Alexander Skarsgård, the father of eight has three other sons who are actors. That means, however, that when the Swedes see Skarsgård’s outlier son (he’s a doctor, of course), on the street, they say, “There goes the Skarsgård who’s gainfully employed!”