We look closer at the Scandinavian actor with the powerful global magnetism
Stellan Skarsgård was born in Gothenburg, Sweden on 13th June 1951. His well-established career in cinema began with his earliest break-out performance in the adaptation of Milan Kundera’s best-selling novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), under the direction of Philip Kaufman. Skarsgård is known for his acute and aloof roles, delivering a resounding reverence and intensity. What can be considered as the personality synonymous with Nordic culture, audiences are drawn to his cerebral characters that often possess a villainous streak or moral ambiguity.
The Swede has successfully balanced an art-house filmography with a range of Hollywood blockbusters, as well as appearing in the music video for Lykke Li’s Sadness is a Blessing. The big-budget US movies have included Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997), Deep Blue Sea (1999), King Arthur (2004), alongside favourite Danish talent Mads Mikkelsen, the alternative versions of Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005), the action franchise sequels Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007), and the musical comedy Mamma Mia! (2008) opposite Meryl Streep. At the distinguished age of 60, Skarsgård joined the “Marvel Cinematic Universe”, primarily in Thor (2011) followed by the sequel Thor: The Dark World (2013), as well as appearances in The Avengers (2012) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).
However, Skarsgård is no stranger to the small screen. The refined actor started out in the programme Bombi Bitt och jag (1968) and has since appeared in the second season (‘Riget II’) of Lars von Trier’s surreal supernatural mini-series Kingdom Hospital (1997). It is Skarsgård’s flourishing relationship in film with the controversial filmmaker Lars von Trier that he is commonly associated with.
Now, the Scandinavian actor takes the lead in BBC’s London-based crime drama River. The series places him in a brand new English-language series whilst maintaining his Swedish roots in the character of detective John River. With this in mind, we put together a short list of Skarsgård’s top international roles.
Lars von Trier saga: Nymphomaniac: Vol. I & Vol. II (2013), Melancholia (2011), Dogville (2003), Dancer in the Dark (2000) & Breaking the Waves (1996)
Stellan Skarsgård has played the atheist husband of Emily Watson on the brink of her nervous breakdown in the Scottish Highlands. The doctor treating Björk amidst her musically bittersweet descent into blindness. A farmer in rural America whose reprehensible actions manifest when a stranger seeks refuge in his town. A ruthless father-in-law to the newly manic-depressive wife of his real-life son Alexander Skarsgård. His latest collaboration with Trier saw his Good Samaritan to Charlotte Gainsbourg slowly turn into a sinister exploit. Each role has presented the actor with a superfluity of motivations across the spectrum of human nature.
In Order of Disappearance (2014)
Nils Dickman (Skarsgård) is a Swedish man living in a snow-covered Norway. His quiet life ploughing the mountainsides has led to an uneventful twilight chapter of his life. When his son, Ingvar, is found dead following a suspicious heroin overdose, Nils discovers his son’s death was no accident. A local mob, headed by Greven (Pål Sverre Hagen), is responsible and Nils quickly adapts to a mission of wreaking vengeance upon the lawless killers; one by one. However, the unassuming Nils manages to thwart the gang as he strives to fulfil his rampage when a rival Serbian group are embroiled in the siege. The darkly woven humour and violence is comparable to The Coen Brother’s Fargo (1996), blended with the style of Quentin Tarantino.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
David Fincher’s English-language reimagining of the first in Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy adaptations casts Skarsgård as Martin Vanger. The acting CEO of the crumbling industrial Vanger Corporation brings a native Scandinavian presence to the remake. When Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is tasked to solve the 40 year-old disappearance of Harriet Vanger by her grandfather Henrik (Christopher Plummer), Martin’s homicidal secret is slowly revealed by Blomkvist and the brilliance of cyber expert Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). Skarsgård exudes Martin’s duplicitous charisma and the scene with Enya’s Orinoco Flow will perhaps never allow the song to sound the same again.
Angels & Demons (2009)
In the filmic version of Dan Brown’s best-selling novel, the prequel to Ron Howard’s The Da Vinci Code (2006) positions Skarsgård in the chief of the Swiss Guard, as Commander Maximilian Richter. The spate of attacks on the cardinals around the Vatican City have lured renowned professor of iconography and symbology Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) to the “Path of Illumination”. Langdon’s assistance in a race-against-time operation to re-claim stolen capsules of anti-matter from the nuclear research laboratories of CERN creates conflict with the Roman Catholic Church. During the important papal conclave to elect the next Pope, Richter endeavours to uphold the sacred laws that he sees Langdon challenging in order to save the lives of the kidnapped cardinals. Richter’s unflappable duty only serves to make him a prime suspect in the thriller which pits science against religion.
Stellan Skarsgård joins an ensemble cast including Salma Hayek, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Kyle MacLachlan, Saffron Burrows and Holly Hunter in Mike Figgis’ innovatively formatted film about the production of a movie in Los Angeles. Timecode offers a unique, almost CCTV voyeuristic perspective in that the screen is split into four quadrants to focus on different parts of the narrative, with each of the four sequences existing simultaneously. The experimental aspect to the film is further supported by each sequences being a ninety-three minute long continuous take, shot by four separate cameras. The dialogue is mostly improvised speech and manages to maintain a narrative flow within a seemingly chaotic structure.
Oscar and Tony nominated, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and screenwriter David Mamet penned the script for this heist thriller that stars Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Sean Bean and Jonathan Pryce as a band of mercenaries. The plan that brings the group together is to steal a briefcase from an armoured convoy en route to Nice. The plot spirals as the unknown contents of the case are sought after by the Russian mob. With violent competition raising the stakes of the mission, the team of mercenaries rapidly yield to greed and suspicion. Skarsgård plays Gregor who succumbs to his own gluttony and betrays the bandits by seizing his chance to conspire with the Russian antagonists. Ronin is praised for its realistically shot car chases and filmed on location to boast a multitude of backdrops around Paris and the South of France.
The overwhelming expanse of the Norwegian landscape that In Order of Disappearance offers is presented in an extreme context in Erik Skjoldbjærg’s Insomnia. The effect of the ‘Midnight Sun’ in Tromsø, located at the height of the Norwegian Arctic, launches Skarsgård into his iconic antihero status as detective Jonas Engström. The relentless daylight gives birth to an uncontrollable darkness of desperation within Engström, during the investigation of a murdered teenager. With a tarnished record for mishandling a previous case from the Swedish Police, Engström’s finds himself out of his depth and relating to the very killer he has been sent to apprehend. Skjoldbjærg’s elliptical style creates an unsettling, atmospheric thriller which was later remade by Christopher Nolan in 2002.
My Son the Fanatic (1997)
This drama follows the conflict that ignites when Farid (Akbar Kurtha), son of Parvez (Om Puri) decides to follow a radicalised version of Islam. Parvez is a humble and amenable taxi driver whose affiliations and commitments in life are not governed by a religious ideology. Instead, he spends his nights getting to know his fares and forming friendships with those around him. Skarsgård is one such significant fare: a businessman visiting from Germany by the name of Schitz. He openly welcomes Parvez to partake in his lewd lifestyle, including getting to know prostitute “Bettina”, played by Rachel Griffiths. My Son the Fanatic is a volatile look at the clash of culture and family from playwright and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi, CBE (My Beautiful Launderette, 1985).
Good Will Hunting (1997)
The beautiful mind of genius janitor Will Hunting (Matt Damon) of South Boston is finally unleashed due to the allegedly impossible problem scrawled onto the Massachusetts Institute of Technology chalk board by none other than Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård). Lambeau goes one step further after planting the seed of an inciting incident by advertising another equation to find out who solved the original mathematical riddle. He is fascinated with the infinite intelligence of Hunting and helps him evade jail time, after Hunting assaults a university student, by seeking counsel from distant friend Dr. Sean Maguire (Robin Williams). Therefore, Skarsgård is the fundamental character of the entire film that catapulted Matt Damon and Ben Affleck into Academy Award-winning territory.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)
In this adaptation of Milan Kundera novel, which addresses the themes of existentialism and liberation of the Stalin regime in Czechoslovakia, The Unbearable Lightness of Being foregrounds an intellectual revolution and political reformations that the Republic campaigned for, in order to gain a democratic change. The film depicts the events before and after the infamous Prague Spring in 1968, as well as the resulting invasion from the Soviet Union. With the socio-historical setting as the film’s foundation, the story focuses on the erotic journey of an anti-bourgeoisie collection of characters: Tomáš (Daniel Day-Lewis), his wife Tereza (Juliette Binoche) and lover Sabina (Lena Olin), with Skarsgård as ‘The Engineer’ in his first acclaimed international role.
With so many films to choose from, Stellan Skarsgård is one of the greatest Swedish talents and is still accruing more and more projects to his name. The actor will next be seen in John le Carré’s spy drama Our Kind of Traitor, opposite Angels & Demons co-star Ewan McGregor, Damian Lewis and Naomie Harris.
Watch Skarsgård as he currently stars as the troubled detective in Abi Morgan’s River airing on Tuesdays at 9pm on BBC One.