Stellan Skarsgard is one of the most versatile actors of his generation as he moves from blockbusters to smaller indie movies with ease.
He will be back on the big screen this week with his new movie King of Devil’s Island and I caught up with him to talk about the movie and the projects that lie ahead.
- King of Devil's Island is released into UK cinemas next week so can you tell me a little bit about the movie?
Well it talks place in a prison camp for young boys which is outside of Oslo in Norway in 1950 - that is the setting.
In some ways it is a normal prison break movie but it is about those boys trying to revolt against the oppression of the system there. I am playing the governor of the island.
But it is also pretty special because all of the young boys are not played by aspiring actors but by boys with a troubled background, some with a criminal background, which give an enormous intensity and truthfulness to the story I think.
- Well how did you find working with them?
For me it was fantastic and it was one of the reasons that I did the film. I already knew the director and when he told me that he was scanning Norway and filling up workshops and camps where he worked with young boys who were in trouble I got really interested.
It is very hard to find trained, young, well fed, wannabe famous boys who can portray those characters because what you want is the hardness of a child who has been constantly abused and at the same time you want a crack in the character so you can see the vulnerable child behind.
Those boys actually had that and it was fantastic working with them. It was also such an experience because for the first time in their lives they weren’t punished for showing feelings they were rewarded for it and it was a kind of liberation for many of them I think.
- You take on the role of Hakon in the movie so what was it about this character and the script that really drew you to the project?
As I said the idea of working with those boys and the level of authenticity that I expected was one of the things. Then I wanted to work with the director (Marius Holst) who I have known for many years.
And I think that is a traditional film in structure and it works like a prison break film and yet at the same time it was richer and more nuanced, so in my eyes it was more powerful than most of them.
- He is an interesting character because on the surface he is very much a man with strict and high morals and yet when challenged the mask of civility slips and he reveals a bit of a monster so how interesting was it to play a man with two very distinct yet contrasting sides to him?
It was very interesting and to me it was very important to make him human. I decided that I wanted him to be a do-gooder and I wanted him to be progressive for the time and really trying his best to make it good for the boys.
But then the system as it was and the society that it was when there is a case of sexual abuse on this island he cannot let it become public as it would be the end of his career and his social life and so he becomes a coward and abandons the children in a way.
But this is something that he doesn’t do easily or wilfully it is something that eats away from him as well.
But it is important that it is a human being who is the oppressor in the film because if it was a bad guy then you could just change the governor and everything would be beautiful on the island but that is not the way that it works.
- It is based on a true story so how familiar were you with it and what sort of research for the role?
I wasn’t familiar at all with it - this island is very well known in Norway but I am Swedish so I knew nothing about it before I started working on it.
The characters are invented but the place and the riot is real and so I studied the circumstances on the island at that time.
It was not unique in any way as prison camps for children in Scandinavia at the time were pretty horrible; in most places of the world it is still horrible for children when they are gathered in camps; even if it is refugee camps.
It was recently there were scandals about how children were treated in catholic orphanages in Ireland so, unfortunately, it is not unique.
- You have mentioned already Marius Holst is in the director's chair so how did you find working with him and what kind of director is he?
I have known him for many years but I have never worked with him. One of his big achievements here is the fantastic job that he did with the boys, for the year he scouted the Norwegian countryside and set up camps with young boys in trouble and tried to sift out boys he could use but also make them trust him enough so he could work with them.
But he was taking a chance because those kids just take off one day and disappear from the set if they weren’t treated in a good way.
They were given so much responsibility for the first time in their lives and they were trusted for the first time in their lives so it was an amazingly pain free shoot in that sense.
I like working with him as he is very good with the image, he is very good with the music and he was very easy with me to work with - any discussions that we had about what was important in the film we agreed very much on which made it very pleasant.
- The movie has been doing very well on the festival circuit but have you personally found the response to the film?
In its native Norway it one of the biggest successes ever, it did fantastically well there because it is a Norwegian story.
It has been very well received at festivals all over the place and hopefully it will be well received here in England as well and hopefully despite the subtitles it will find its audience.
- We have to quickly talk about Avengers - $1.4 billion at the box office and third biggest movie of all time so how prepared were you for this monster success?
(Laughs) I knew that they were firing off all the canons to get something great going and Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed it, is a very very clever man - Kevin Feige who is head of Marvel is also a very clever man.
I didn’t think that they were going to lose any money on it but I couldn’t imagine that it was going to be such a success. But after I saw it for the first time I understood that we had something good there.
- Thor 2 is now just around the corner so what do you hope the future holds for Erik? And much are you looking forward to returning to the Thor franchise?
I don’t know, since I get paid more for each movie that I do they will probably kill me off soon (laughs); but I don’t know.
It’s fun to going there and hanging out with everyone and there are some really good actors on the film so I am still enjoying it.
- The last twelve months has been a very busy period for you with roles in Thor, Melancholia, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Avengers, all of which have been a critical or a commercial success, so how has the way that you choose your roles changed over the years? And what do you look for in a part?
First of all I look for something that I haven’t recently done and I try to find projects that are different from what I have just come out of. But I also look for great and good directors as well as great actors.
When it comes to the indie movies that I do I look for edgy material and dangerous material and sometime provocative material because I don’t like dullness.
- We are also going to be seeing you in a new adaptation of Romeo and Juliet early next year so can you tell me a little bit about that?
Well I can’t tell you much as I only had a couple of days in it but the reason that I took it was I wanted to see I, as Swede, could master Shakespeare - I don’t think I managed (laughs).
It’s not Shakespeare as it is some fakespeare as well since it is partly re-written by Julian Fellows. I think you will see an extremely beautiful film with fantastic setting and clothes and you will see Hailee Steinfeld shine.
- Finally what's coming up for you?
I am starting a film which is based on the book The Physician, we start shooting in German and Tom Payne plays the young lead.
I am playing a barber/physician/surgeon/seller of potions and a big drinker of alcohol and a screwer of whores and it is a funny role and I am looking forward to it.
After that I will do Thor 2 and try to combine that with shooting Lars von Trier’s new movie The Nymphomaniac.
King of Devil’s Island is released in UK cinemas 29th June
FemaleFirst Helen Earnshaw