Stellan Skarsgård: Scandilous

July 14, 2019
The revered Swedish actor reunites with director Hans Petter Moland for the Per Petterson adaptation, Out Stealing Horses.

Is there some nostalgic element for you in the story of Out Stealing Horses?

Not nostalgia, I’m not very nostalgic, but when I was a small child, I remember the horses pulling the logs in the forest, but as it said in the film, that’s what you do in the winter, not in the summer.

But no countryside specific connections?

No. I’ve lived in the countryside, and then in the city, and then in the countryside, but I belong in the city. But of course, I have the smell of the forest, the sounds of the forest – all that, I have, but I’m not as connected to nature as Hans Petter fortunately is, because he’s an outdoor man and he has the relationship to the Norwegian nature.

So, you need the city?

I need the city. I like people, I like good food, I like that I can walk to see new people, to get to a restaurant, to see a film, to go to the theater, and I like the pace of the city. If you look at me and Hans Petter, we’re totally different in terms of pace. He’s really slow, and I’m pretty fast.

Your character is really a man of few words. Is it hard to adjust to that?

No, because since the Italian Neorealists and the Nouvelle Vague in France, we abandoned the word as the main communicator in cinema to the image, which is fantastic, I think. It took us away from the theater and the literary heritage. Hans Petter and I did a film called A Somewhat Gentle Man, I was playing the lead, and when I read the script – 40 pages, I didn’t say anything! It was wonderful. And I know other people that read the script and said, ‘Well, he’s not in there, this character’s not in the script!’ I knew he was in there.

Had you read the novel by Per Petterson that the film is based on, and was it something that you think could be adapted into a film?

I had read a couple of attempts at transferring it into film, before Hans Petter was involved in it, they were not very good, because if you just do actually what’s happening in the book, then it’s nothing. It has to have the poetry and the presence of nature that Per Petterson has in the novel, and Hans Petter had that in the script. It was obvious that he was aiming for that, and knowing his relationship to nature, and knowing his skills, I was not that worried. But it was a risk; it could be your best film, it could be your worst.

Can you speak about your relationship with Hans Petter?

We didn’t know each other before we did Zero Kelvin [1995]; it was pretty special conditions we worked under there because it was in the Arctic. It was closer to the North Pole than to a decent restaurant or a hospital, and it was hard, but we had a lot of fun doing it, and we found a way to work together that was very pleasant and that led us into Aberdeen [2000], and then so on.

Is Hans Petter the director you’re the closest to, of all the ones you’ve worked with more than once?

I see the most of him. We’re close friends. I’m friends with Lars [Von Trier] as well, but we don’t see each other as much, and they’re of course different relationships.

Do they ever ask you about each other?

No. Directors don’t ask about other directors, they pretend they don’t exist. They’re very possessive and jealous. When you work with another director, a director that you have a relationship with, they get a little jealous. For fuck’s sake! I’m an actor, not a whore!

You speak a lot about food. What is your favourite dish?

I don’t have one favourite dish, I eat everything… except, I’m not fond of the Swedish dish called Surströmming, which is rotten herring. They have something similar in Iceland which is rotten shark that you pee on first and then bury underground for a while. It comes out of poverty, but… I didn’t like tripe, for instance, for years, but it was such a complex taste, so I thought that if I only find the key I’ll enjoy it, and it took me 10 years, and then I found the key, and now I like it. But with that rotten fish, nah. I’ve given up on that.

Stellan Skarsgard and co-star Jon Ranes at Out Stealing Horses premiere during the 69th Berlinale International Film Festival at Berlinale Palace on February 9, 2019 in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Franziska Krug/Getty Images for Audi AG

In Out Stealing Horses, you’re playing a retired guy, but in your real life, is it possible to retire for an actor, or is there a possibility for you?

There are actors that do retire, Daniel Day-Lewis just retired. But you never know, they might come back. I don’t know, I still enjoy it, but I have a great variation in roles and projects, so it’s still interesting and I’m still learning.

Was there a time when you didn’t enjoy it?

There was a moment, when I started working in the States, when I said, ‘Oh, fuck, this is too hard, too painful and I’ll start growing rutabaga’, or something… but that went, it didn’t last more than a day. It was a situation where I felt that I was too stressed, and difficulty with the language and the situation was too stressful. I didn’t think I had oxygen and time enough to do a proper job. That was a short moment.

In your real life, do you like to confront your problems?

I like to confront them, the way I grew up, there were no taboos about what you could talk about. I could ask my parents how their sex was when I was three, if I wanted to. I didn’t, because I didn’t know they had sex until I was three and a half. So, there were no taboos, which meant that everything could be talked about, and it’s still like that for me.

But were there any borders in your childhood?

I couldn’t be late for dinner. Punctuality was one rule we had, there was no words that were not allowed, but the only thing you couldn’t do was call people names. Or you couldn’t say, ‘Asshole’, you couldn’t say, ‘Fascist’, any branding of people was considered not only stupid but it was also considered bad form because it reduced any possibility for communication.

Was that the same thing that you did with your children? [Skarsgård has eight, including actors Alexander, Gustaf, Bill and Valter.]

Yeah, they can say anything. Since my wife is American, the two youngest kids, when we go and visit the family in the States, we have to say, ‘So, you know what words you can’t use when we go to America?’ ‘Yeah, cunt, fuck, motherfucker, bitch.’ ‘That’s right. Don’t use them.’

I think they use those quite a lot in America!

Yeah, they do, but not in proper families… Cunt, you can’t use. Cunt, which is an endearing word in English. ‘Oh, you cunt!’ One of my sons was thrown out of an LA party, I’m not going to tell you which son, but he was thrown out of a party because he said, ‘Cunt’, and they said, ‘You can’t say that word, get out of here’, and he said, ‘But I said it in a nice way!’ I understand it, because you can say it in a very nice way.

Do you personally have problems with this?


How do you manage?

I don’t know, it’s very exotic to me that you can’t use certain words. I think that is stupid. I always think of the scene in Life of Brian, when they’re stoning people that say ‘Jehovah’, and then John Cleese’s character just says, ‘You’re not allowed to say Jehovah!’ And they stone him.

Do you need time between movies?

I’m really good at not working. I shoot four months a year and then I cook for kids eight months a year, and change diapers and do normal stuff.

Aren’t your kids grown up now?

I’ve still got… the youngest is six. Well, there’s no more diapers… Next diapers I have to change will be my own.

Well, at least you can do it by yourself!

Yeah, yeah, and I’ve had a vasectomy so there’s no more coming.

What is important to you now?

Every moment of real life, and kids, cooking a good meal, having a good glass of wine, just looking at my kids, looking at them together, and I don’t have to worry about who I am, or what I will become, or any of that shit.

Do you watch every single movie that your kids do?

I try to. They do fucking TV series and they go on forever! I can’t watch every episode of every TV show, but I try to watch their movies and at least some of the episodes they’re in.

Do you see any competition with your children?

No, they’re happy if a sibling has any success. They are truly happy, but, of course, as all actors, if someone is without work for a week, then they feel frustrated.

Do you still see your kids regularly?

Oh yeah, and now I have all my kids living within walking distance in Stockholm, and three of my siblings, too.

Out Stealing Horses is playing at the Scandinavian Film Festival

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