In theory, an actor who’s been keeping company with Lars Von Trier for nearly two decades might evince some of the Danish bomb-thrower’s abrasive ways, but in person, Stellan Skarsgård couldn’t be more gracious. Onscreen, he isn’t always such a nice guy: His eccentric scientist in the Thor movies is amiable enough, but less so the nefarious CEO of David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or the vaguely creepy man who serves as interlocutor to a battered Charlotte Gainsbourg in von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. Skarsgård talked to The Dissolve about that film and what it’s been like to work with its controversial director for so long.
Stellan Skarsgård: This is the four-hour version you’ve seen, right?
The Dissolve: I’ve seen the American cut of Volume I, and the international cut of Volume II, which is confusing.
Skarsgård: Yeah, then they have the director’s cut, which hasn’t been released yet. It’s five and a half hours.
The Dissolve: Have you seen all the different versions?
Skarsgård: No, I’ve only seen the five-and-a-half-hour version. It’s basically the same film, but there are some digressions, some story elements that are lifted out [in the shorter cut].
The Dissolve: It seems potentially infinite. There’s an idea moving through the film, but there isn’t a really strong plot to home in on.
Skarsgård: [Von Trier]’s usually quite close to the narrative, but here, he read A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu before he wrote it, and said, “Oh, I want to do digressions.” It’s his first digressionist film.
The Dissolve: How much does he have to say to you to get you involved in something new?
Skarsgård: Nothing. He called me before he wrote it and he said, “Stellan, my next film will be a porno film, and I want you to play the lead in it. But you will not get to fuck.” “That’s fine, Lars.” “But you will show your dick at the end, but it will be very floppy.” “That’s fine, Lars, I’ll be there.” And then he wrote it. He of course knows he’s not making a porno film, but that’s the way he talks.
The Dissolve: What’s your take on what happened at Cannes in 2011?
“Any film that has just one message should not be made. You should just send the message as an email or a Twitter.”
Skarsgård: Well, I was there, and I spent a week defending him. At the press conference, he couldn’t get to the punchline, he forgot the punchline, and he sort of muddled up what he was saying. But he was in a room with people that knew him. Everyone knows he’s not a Nazi. So to him, it was a shock when the next day, every paper in the world said he was a Nazi. His kids came back from school asking, “Dad, are you a Nazi?” The cowardice of the film festival was the most embarrassing thing. They asked him to apologize, and he apologized. Not for the words he used, but for fucking up the press conference, basically. And then two days later, they banned him from the festival. That was the Cannes festival that was called “The festival of free speech,” because they had some Iranian directors that year. So the festival of free speech kicks him out for speaking.
The Dissolve: He seems like the kind of person who, when he says something that doesn’t come off quite right, doubles down on it rather than backing away.
Skarsgård: If there’s something you’re not allowed to say, he’d rather say it. Of course. You can say that for his films as well.
The Dissolve: There’s a line in Volume II about how banning a word is like removing a stone from the foundation of democracy.
Skarsgård: That comes out of [the Cannes experience], of course. I totally agree that whether it’s by sort of a political decree from the KGB or by social consensus or religious decree, when you start to remove certain words and certain expressions from society, it’s really dangerous. When the correctness of your vocabulary becomes so important that nobody cares anymore about the substance in what you’re saying, that is really sad.
The Dissolve: Nymphomaniac deliberately says the things you’re not supposed to say. “Cunt” is one of the first words out of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s mouth.
Skarsgård: “At the age of 2, I discovered my cunt.” That’s a beautiful line that is not very politically correct. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: How do you see your function in the film? Your character isn’t part of the plot, but he shapes the way the story is told. He doesn’t understand sex, but he understands fly-fishing, so Joe [Gainsbourg’s character] frames the story in those terms.
Skarsgård: Well, we are two sides of Lars’ personality, basically. I mean, he is sort of like the nerd that I am playing. It’s a very fictional character, he’s a man without a life, that has every kind of knowledge from books. Lars has that nerd in him as well, as he has the sort of wilder person that is struggling to be able to live his own life and at the same time to be accepted by society, which is represented by Charlotte’s character. My function is an idea, so you have to bring it to life. But working with Charlotte and Lars in a room like that, he’s pretty good at bringing thought-out ideas to life anyway. I’m also between the audience and the film, in a way. Together, with the audience, I listen to the story. My comments are sometimes hilarious, because the only thing he can come to think of is fly-fishing, because he knows nothing about sex.
The Dissolve: How long did it take to shoot your scenes? It’s a substantial portion of the films, but it’s basically just the two of you in a room.
“He sometimes, during a take, would shout at me, ‘Less acting, Stellan,’ and then I’d shout back, ‘Less directing, Lars.’”
Skarsgård: Two weeks. I took out just our scenes, and it was an entire feature film of just talking. It was a nightmare in terms of learning, of course. It was supposed to be one film, and he wrote it, and kept on writing. He didn’t stop, he couldn’t hold back. He kept on writing, and it turned out to be so long that he knew he had to cut it up into two films. But it isn’t constructed like two stories, or two separate films. It is one film. In the credits for the first half, you get a sort of teaser for the second half. But you could easily show it as one film. I went out and peed in between, but I saw five and a half hours straight on. And I could have seen another hour or two. As you said, it’s not based on the narrative, the story, it is like a brick novel from the 19th century. You don’t want it to end, because you want to continue to be in that universe. It’s not about following the story only, it’s not about what’s going to happen.
The Dissolve: Do you have to have a sense of what the core of this film, or any film you work on, is before you start?
Skarsgård: Not any core in terms of message. Any film that has just one message should not be made. You should just send the message as an email or a Twitter. Twitter your opinion instead of spending millions making a film, because the complexities are what make it worth seeing. I’ve known Lars for so many years, and when I read his scripts, I’m very aware of what kind of universe I’m entering, which is a fairy-tale universe. It’s not real people. It’s not the real world. It’s a fairy tale, but a fantastic fairy tale, that, at the same time, tells us something about people from his point of view. I’ve probably said it to you before, about my ideas: Any artistic expression has to be personal, subjective. Otherwise it’s not an artistic expression. Then it’s something else.
The Dissolve: Some people refer to Nymphomaniac as the third part of von Trier’s Depression Trilogy.
Skarsgård: I know he’s been doing those sort of trilogy things and all that, which is a game that’s not necessary, although it’s sometimes good for publicity. He never mentioned to me that this was the third part, but there is a continuation. The continuation is not only Charlotte Gainsbourg from Antichrist and Melancholia; he goes into his own darkness, in a way, in those three films, in a very personal way. Melancholia is one of the best depictions of depression I’ve ever seen, very much thanks to the wonderful Kirsten Dunst. What she does in that film—she should have had every award in the world for that, because she doesn’t have really one line describing what she’s going through. It’s all in her eyes.
The Dissolve: Like Antichrist and Melancholia, Nymphomaniac seems to be about trying to find room on the emotional spectrum between feeling too much and not enough, and that being a painful but necessary place to inhabit.
Skarsgård: Absolutely. As you notice, from having seen this film, it’s extremely explicit, but it’s not very sexual. Eventually, seeing a penis enter a vagina is as exciting as seeing a spoon with cereal entering a mouth. It becomes normal, which I like. It is normal. Most of us do it. He is, of course, talking about other things.
The Dissolve: There’s a scene in Volume II where Joe tries a 12-step program, but she rejects being labeled a “sex addict”: She’s determined to be seen as a nymphomaniac.
Skarsgård: Of course it’s making fun of the society’s idea of how you just sit down and talk about things, and everything’s going to be all right. You have therapy groups for everything. Even your, hemorrhoids you can talk yourself out of, you know. It’s commercially very lucrative, but a very meaningless disease of the society.
The Dissolve: The key to Antichrist for me was understanding that even though Willem Dafoe’s character is a victim, he’s also the villain, the outwardly calm therapist who completely fails to understand his wife’s grief. There isn’t a sense that von Trier holds psychiatry in high regard.
Skarsgård: Absolutely, and in this film as well. Lars has great experience from therapists and psychologists and psychiatrists and everything, because he’s been talking to them for decades. So he knows a lot about it. He feels that, with very clumsy tools, they try to interfere in your brain and make you normal in a way that is sort of oppressive.
The Dissolve: The advance publicity campaign for Nymphomaniac caused quite the intended stir. What was it like posing for the poster?
Skarsgård: We didn’t talk much about it. One day, when we were shooting, they said, “We have to take some promotional photos,” and then they said, “Do you mind being naked and pretending you’re having an orgasm?” And I said “No,” so we just took those photos. To me, it wasn’t more weird than pretending something else.
The Dissolve: It’s very effective.
Skarsgård: Yeah, and it’s also very aesthetically well done. It’s very smart, the way he puts one image up every second month for a year, you know. A year before opening, they had an IMDB rating worthy of a Marvel film. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: You’ve been making movies with von Trier for nearly 20 years. How has your relationship changed? How has he changed?
Skarsgård: Well, we’ve become very good friends. We know each other so well, and we know what we’re good at, what we’re not good at, and we have total openness. You can say anything to each other, which is very nice. He’s become much more open to people over the years, but also understanding actors much better. His first five films were so extremely controlled. Like all directors, he is a control freak, but he realized he was killing his film because he didn’t let the actors become alive enough. So he doesn’t say much anymore. He trusts you. Then he asks you to do something opposite of what you just did, to experiment with the material and stuff, but there’s nothing you’re not allowed to do. There are no mistakes that you will ever be criticized for, which is fantastic. When it comes to our relationship, he’s always thought I act too much, because he has, rightfully so, the idea that there should be a sort of absolute truth, something natural. On the other hand, if I didn’t act a little, the first part [of Nymphomaniac] wouldn’t be that funny.
The Dissolve: It clearly isn’t a natural situation.
Skarsgård: Yes, it is not natural, but the important thing is that you bring the characters to life. He sometimes, during a take, would shout at me, “Less acting, Stellan,” and then I’d shout back, “Less directing, Lars.” [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: Looking at the arc of his career, it seems like the Dogme 95 “Vow Of Chastity” was like him staging his own intervention.
Skarsgård: Yeah. It was taking away his tools. It forced him to get to the very essence of, “How do I bring a text to life in front of a camera?”
The Dissolve: It’s been interesting with the last three movies to see the technique of his early films return in a different context. These are much more visually elaborate movies than the ones he did in the previous decade.
Skarsgård: Yeah, because now he knows how to do that, so he can start using his tools again. This was the first film I actually saw a track on. [Laughs.] I think I even spotted a crane in one scene, which was very unusual. We didn’t have any handheld cameras in that room; it was all on a tripod or on a dolly. But he still doesn’t say what you should do, he just says, “Okay, start.” And you start and you do things, and if he wants something else, he can ask for that. He might get it or not.
The Dissolve: Part of what lets an actor try different things is not just being asked, but having confidence that the director will end up picking the best or the most interesting takes.
Skarsgård: What he needs. It has to be his film. It’s not my job to restrict his options. Once I’ve signed on, I’ve signed on for his vision, which means I should deliver as much material as possible to make it possible for him to do it, and hopefully enrich his vision by coming up with things he could not think of himself.
The Dissolve: What do you talk to him about beforehand?
Skarsgård: He says, “Stellan, have you heard about the silent duck?” And then he tells me about the silent duck, and then I laugh, and then he writes it. He interviewed a lot of people about their sexual lives before he did this film, so he’s an encyclopedia of sexual awareness now. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: So is Nymphomaniac the film you thought you were making, or did it turn out differently?
Skarsgård: It is very close to the script. It is the film I thought we were doing, but we didn’t talk about it. We don’t analyze the material. It’s very far from film school, working with him. It’s very hands-on practical, and we have fun on the set. It’s more playful than intellectual. He usually makes a film I’ve never seen before, and that’s very nice. That makes it always exciting. “I wonder what kind of film I will be in this time, and what universe it will be.” What is it we haven’t seen before?