INTERVIEW: The Post-Credit Podcast Sits Down With Alexander Skarsgård

INTERVIEW: Alexander Skarsgård Went Primal To Make 'The Northman'

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  • Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth in Robert Eggers’ Viking epic The Northman.
  • The Post-Credit Podcast sat down for an exclusive interview with Skarsgård about the making of the film.
  • The Northman hits theaters on Friday, April 22.

For those who complain that Hollywood has become nothing but an endless stream of superhero movies, franchise blockbusters, and subpar spinoffs, I present to you the antidote for that ill: Robert Eggers’ The Northman.

Made for a reported $90 million, The Northman is an epic historical action drama film based on the tale of Amleth, a medieval Scandinavian legend that served as the direct inspiration for Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet.

While The Northman may be star-studded, the film itself is far from a glitzy Tinseltown production as the gloriously brutal project was made on location amidst the unrelenting elements of Northern Ireland. Without the help of backlots and soundstages, and in the throws of the uniquely specific filmmaking style of director Robert Eggers, shooting The Northman took an unwavering commitment from its cast, particularly its star, 45-year-old actor Alexander Skarsgård.

If you’ve seen any trailers or stills from the film, then you’ve likely seen the incredible physique that Skarsgård crafted in order to bring Amleth to life. But, similar to the movie itself, Skarsgård’s performance went far beyond the superficial, as the former True Blood star had to push himself to “primal” places he’s never been before as a performer.

During an exclusive interview with BroBible’s Post-Credit Podcast, we chatted with Skarsgård about the grind of making the grueling revenge epic, going “primal” to create his Viking character, the unique talents of director Robert Eggers, an update on Succession season 4, and more.

 

Introductions

Eric Italiano: Folks, today, I am joined by Alexander Skarsgård, an actor you know from projects such as Zoolander, True Blood, Godzilla vs. Kong, Succession, and his latest film, The Northman, which hit theaters on April 22nd. How are you today, sir? Thank you for joining me.

Alexander Skarsgård: I’m very good, thank you for having me.

EI: Dude, let me just say that I was actually intimidated to talk to you today because of how threatening you were in that film. And just speaking with you for two minutes before we started rolling, I could see how friendly of a guy that you are, so that’s really just a credit to the performance that you put in. Because I don’t really get nerves — I’ve been doing this for a bit — but I was legitimately nervous to talk to you today.

Alexander Skarsgård: Oh, wow, thank you. And I’m sorry, I guess…

The intense challenges of filming a Viking movie

EI: Let’s start with this role. I imagine that this pushed to some seriously intense places. Talk to me about the most challenging scene that you had to film and how you were able to push yourself through it?

AS: It’s difficult to pick, ’cause there are quite a few mentally, emotionally, and physically challenging scenes. There’s one: a transformation in which my character, who is a Viking berzerker, basically sheds his humanity and becomes his spirit animal, which is a hybrid of a bear and a wolf.

EI: That’s a hell of a combo –  bear wolf!

AS: That’s a hell of a combo, yeah. So he transforms from a human to a hybrid of a bear and a wolf before an attack on a village, and that was quite a cathartic scene to shoot. He’s almost in a trance when he sheds his humanity, and that was quite trippy.

Tapping into “primal” animalistic energy

EI: Trippy is an unbelievable word that you used because I was gonna ask you about this. The word that I wrote down a lot was “primal.” You tapped into something primal and I was stunned by it, really. What is it like as a performer going to those places? What did you channel? Or is it a matter of cutting loose and not really channeling anything at all?

AS: I would say more of the latter. We’re all beasts, aren’t we? I think we all have that. There’s an interesting dichotomy between being civilized human beings in modern-day society, but deep down we’re primal and we’re animals, and we have that thing within us… dormant in most cases. And I’m naturally quite a mellow, not super emotional guy, so it was cathartic and exhilarating to just pull the plug on that and let it out and just explore my connection to that beast.

EI: Some of those more beast-like moments where you like, “Robert, man, I can only do this once or twice, I’m drained.” How much did it take out of you going to those places?

AS: Well, with that scene that I just mentioned, that transformation was quite an interesting night because, as I’m sure you notice, pretty much all the scenes are shot with just one camera and one-shot in one long continuous take, so it’s technically quite difficult to get it right, to get all the components to work.

AS: And again, if something is slightly off, you can’t really cheat it, you can’t do a pick-up on and there’s no coverage, so you have to go back and do it over again, which means you have to do all the scees many, many times. And you have to prepare them for many months, the choreography of it, the dance between the actors and the camera has to be meticulously planned before you get to set .

AS: That specific scene, it was a very long, intense night because the adrenaline is flowing. It was 12 berzerkers in that scene, and we all go through this transformation, and doing it once is very exhausting, but we had to do it many, many times. And at 4:30, I think almost 5 o’clock in the morning, we finally got it, and everything worked and everyone was happy.

AS: You’re running on adrenaline all night, so when they call cut in, and Rob and Jared [the cinematographer] are happy, you basically just collapse ’cause you’re so tired. And it’s raining in the scene, so we were all soaking wet — we took everything off, the sun was about to rise, I got back to the car. And then the first A.D. [assistant director] runs up — and I’m so ready to just crash and sleep for 12 hours —  and knocks on the window just as we’re about to pull off, and says that there’s a rain deflector on the camera and it wasn’t quite working on the last take — a drop of a rain landed on the lens and distorted it, so…

EI: I’m sorry for laughing, but that’s brutal.

AS: He basically said, “So, sorry, but we’re gonna have to go again.” So, you get out of the car, walk up the hill, put on that wet bear-wolf combo pelt that I’m wearing, and then do it all again. And that took some, uh… you’re standing up there with all these berzerkers and people were basically ready to cry ’cause we were so exhausted. But in a weird way, I think it definitely helped us get to a primal state, ’cause you’re so exhausted and then you just have to go again. That rage and frustration you see at the end of the scene is basically real and is me being like “I could have been home in my warm bed now, but I’m here on this mountain top.”

Building a bond with his fellow Vikings on set

EI: I’m reading a book about the making of Mad Max: Fury Road, and there’s a part in it where they talk about how the War Boys built a camaraderie through very ritualistic chants and songs and stuff like that. Did you and your fellow berzerkers have any sort of bonding activities or hobbies or chants or songs you guys did to get yourself in the zone?

AS: What you see in the movie, that transformation starts out with a ritualistic dance, and we spent quite a few days and nights working on that and getting the choreography of that correct. To start to move as one. In the scene, we move as one, and then as we go into the transformation, when the beasts come out, it becomes more of an individual journey that we’re on. The different animals come out. But initially, it was really nice to have those long rehearsals where we would just do the chants together and the movements together and to create that sense of camaraderie and brotherhood.

Playing a character with a blinding singular focus

EI: What’s it like playing a character who saw whose goal is so clearly formed? Does it make it easier for you to wrap your head around the performance and what you want to do? Or harder because there’s not that much depth to them and they’re so one-track minded?

AS: Once I understood more about the mindset of a Viking like Amleth — how he perceived not only the natural world around him, but the spiritual world, the Gods, the importance of fate, the fate that he believed in, that would weave the fate of each and every human. He’s got agency, he’s got free will, but it’s also inevitable in a way, in a contradictory way. He’s got free will, but also he believes so strongly in fate. It’s basically like the tapestry of his life has already been spun by these female entities that hang out by the Tree of Life.

AS: It is his destiny and he believes so strongly in it. In the beginning, when you see him as a berzerker, he’s kind of off-track of it, and then he gets a metaphorical slap by Bjork’s character and she reminds him of who he is and what his destiny is, and what he has to do to be reunited with his father. To have that agency of determination was… I really enjoyed it. Again, without revealing what happens towards the end of the movie, to him, it’s very clear what his mission is, and who the good guy is, and who the bad guy is, but it gets slightly subverted later on.

The unique talent of The Northman director Robert Eggers

EI: Tell me something about Robert Eggers’ filmmaking talent that was unique or different from anyone that you’ve worked with before? And how did that help you grow as a performer?

AS: Robert… When we first met five years ago, I’d just seen ‘The Witch’. I was incredibly impressed by what he could… It’s a low-budget movie. But he created such a rich world and I felt transported to a different time. It felt like it was so obvious that his attention to detail and historical accuracy was exceptional, and that got me really excited. And then when we started working together on this… That’s his way of working.

AS: He spent years basically becoming a Viking scholar himself, and it’s tremendously helpful as an actor when you step onto a set, knowing everything around you is 100% authentic. The farm was built — with five archeologists, historians, Viking experts — the way a Viking farm would have been built. With the right wood, the right type of grass, the clothes we were wearing were 100% [authentic]. There was nothing even slightly anachronistic about it, which is tremendously helpful ’cause you don’t have to suspend disbelief. You’re in it and you feel like you’re shooting in that world. And you’re shooting on location, and not on a backlot or in a sound stage.

AS: In terms of Rob’s style of filmmaking, it’s quite unique, especially today, to shoot on film, to shoot with no coverage. It’s extremely unique to work that way on a big action-adventure movie. It’s just not done that way. You have plenty of coverage. But Rob wanted to shoot it the way he works, the way he did ‘The Witch’ and ‘The Lighthouse’. And it was challenging for everyone, in front of and behind the camera,  because shooting a big action set piece with hundreds of extras and 30 stunt guys and all the actors and horses and stuntmen falling off horses and actors climbing and jumping and chickens flying through the frame. There are a lot of components, and if something is slightly off, a slight bump on the camera or something is not perfect, you have to go back and do it from the beginning because there are no shortcuts or you can’t really cheat it.

AS: That was exciting. I was trying to embrace that challenge. And, of course, it was frustrating because sometimes everything felt great, and you went through it and all the fight stuff was great, but then there’s a detail in the deep background that’s not perfect, and you have to go again. You just had to remind yourself that hopefully by working this way — it’s arduous and it’s time-consuming — but hopefully, to the audience, even if people watching it aren’t familiar with the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, they will perceive it differently because we’re so accustomed to a fight sequence in a movie having 400 cuts and 35 different cameras going simultaneously.

AS: I’ve shot many moves that way, and it’s great and I’m not criticizing that, but maybe it’ll be interesting for the audience, even if they aren’t familiar with filmmaking, to subconsciously feel that it’s a bit more immersive when you’re with the character through a crazy big fight scene like that. And consciously or subconsciously, to feel that there are no cuts — we’re with him the whole time. That got me excited and got me through those tough long days where it’s like, “We’re going for something quite unique here, and let’s see if we can accomplish it.”

Update on his role in Succession season 4

EI: I think all of your guys’ hard work paid off. It’s a beautifully crafted film, and as I said, your performance, man, is just gripping. I was enthralled. I’ve gotta wrap here, so let me just ask quick, do you know when you’re gonna start work on a season four of Succession?

AS: I have no idea. And again, I came in and just did a little thing last season, so I could very likely be it for me, so I don’t know.

EI: Thank you so much for your time today. As I said, congrats on the film, your performance is absolutely incredible. I truly mean that, sir.

AS: Oh wow. Thanks so much, Eric, I really appreciate that. It was nice talking to you. Ciao.

‘The Northman’ hits theaters in the United States on Friday, April 22.

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