‘The Northman’: Alexander Skarsgård On Being With A Project At Its Inception & Entering The Mind Of A Viking [Interview]

Alexander Skarsgård does not simply play the eponymous man of the North in Robert Eggers’ Viking epic “The Northman” — the Swedish actor essentially knocked the first domino down in the process of turning the project into a reality, convincing Eggers to delve into a history the director previously had no interest in. The result, in ways not completely dissimilar to Eggers’ 2019, somehow pre-lockdown cabin fever freakout “The Lighthouse” is a rousing and maniacal portrait of raging masculinity and hot-blooded violence: in his most physically demanding and biggest film role since 2016’s “The Legend of Tarzan,” Skarsgård tears through villages as a berserker and pursues vengeful retribution on the uncle who tore his family apart. But as Amleth, the actor also gets to display the puppy-eyed sensitivity that makes him unique — and uniquely affecting — among the muscular leading men of our time.

READ MORE: ‘The Northman’ Review: A Staggering Feat Of Visceral Filmmaking

I talked to Skarsgård about his involvement in the film from its inception, entering the mind of a Viking, the role played by physical preparation in embodying such a physical being, the value in being in direct contact with the elements, creating a powerful connection with Anya Taylor-Joy in just a few scenes, and the roles he’d like to play next.

You were already trying to make a viking movie for years before even meeting Robert Eggers. What fascinates you so much about vikings?
I’ve been surrounded by Viking culture since I was born. We had a house on Öland, one of the Swedish islands in the Baltic Sea. There are almost 200 big rune stones on the island, and I spent every summer there as a kid. Some of my earliest memories are from these amazing rune stones and looking at the Viking inscriptions on them, and my grandfather telling me stories about these Vikings and what these runes meant. That was the most amazing experience — to stand there, and the thought that a thousand years ago, a Viking stood here and erected this rune stone to commemorate his son or grandson down in Constantinople or somewhere else on a crazy expedition. So already at that point, I think, the dream of maybe one day telling one of those stories was born. It’s such a rich mythology. The Norse mythology, the Vikings, their relationship to nature and to the spiritual world — it was something that I felt was so rich. There was an opportunity to maybe tell that story. I’d never seen a film about the Viking Age that was a truthful depiction of the Vikings and also of their belief system. So that’s kind of how the journey started.

You were with this project, essentially, since its inception, you were the person who made it happen, in a way. This is quite unusual for an actor; how did it affect your relationship to the film?
I learned so much. It is very rare, as an actor, to be part of a project from the very beginning. Normally, you’re sent a script when it’s already financed and set up, there’s a director attached, they know when to shoot, where to shoot. You still have to do the work, but you’re not part of that first part of filmmaking, nor the last part, which begins when you wrap the movie — the whole post-production, the editing of it. You’re also not privy to that. So to have been part of this from the very beginning, to have been involved when Robert and his co-writer Sjón wrote the screenplay, to have conversations with them throughout — it was wonderful. It’s fantastic to be able to bounce ideas back and forth, and also in post production, after wrap, to go in and watch stuff and have conversations… It’s something I learned a lot from.

Would you ever want to direct a film yourself? Did it sort of give you a taste for making your own movie someday?
Maybe, at some point. If it’s the right project at the right time, and I feel like this is a story I see in my head and I think I should try to tell this story, then maybe. But it’s also quite nice to work with amazing filmmakers like Robert Eggers!

Historical consultant Neil Price talked a lot about how his work on the film wasn’t just about recreating the historical details, like the dress, the traditions and the rituals, but also about trying to get into the mind of a Viking, their belief system and the way they thought about things. How did you, as an actor, try to do this and understand how they felt about things, how they saw the world?
That was crucial for the movie to work, because the supernatural elements of the movie are so intrinsic, so important to the narrative. The key to that was actually a lot to do with Neil Price: I read his books. The Children of Ash and Elm is an amazing read that I highly recommend for anyone who’s interested in Viking culture and Norse mythology. That was my source during pre-production in trying to understand Amleth, how he related to the spiritual world, what fate meant to him, the gods, the different gods, the different relationships he had with different gods, and how he saw the world and nature around him. It was important to try to embody that so that when I stepped out on to set, I would be able to see the world through his eyes.

What part did physical preparation play into that? You’ve obviously done roles before where you had to get in shape and exercise a lot. But because this character is a Viking, and Vikings were such physical beings, did physical preparation also play a part in getting into the mindset of a Viking?
His name is Bjǫrnúlfr, which means bear-wolf. In the trance scene, the shamanic kind of transformation, Amleth goes from being human to a spirit animal, a hybrid of a bear and a wolf, then he stays in that mindset throughout the raid of the village at the beginning of the film. It was important for me to feel and try to look a bit more like a bear! I’m naturally quite lean, so that meant that I had to try to put on some weight.

We get the sense from watching the film that the shoot must have been difficult simply because of the weather. Did you find that this made it harder for you to do your work, or in this case, because the film is about Vikings, that it was actually helpful to be directly in touch with the elements?
I think it was tremendously helpful. The fact that we shot it out on location, out on a mountaintop, or on the beach, or in the woods; on practical sets, many of them built a year before we shot the movie so that they would age and grow — because again, Robert is all about authenticity. Being out there makes my job easier because then you’re really dealing with the cold, and the wind, and the rain, and you’re in the elements like the character would have been. So you don’t have to pretend you’re physically exhausted and miserable! Sometimes it’s really nice to shoot on a warm soundstage, and you can have your little green room and a little coffee break. But for this type of movie, it felt important to be completely immersed in that world for many months.

You and Anya Taylor-Joy don’t actually have that many scenes together, so you were both tasked with giving the feeling of there being a very important connection between your two characters in just a few scenes. How did you work on that? A lot of the movie is just you on your own, but then you’ve got these scenes with a few, very key people. How did you work on getting that sort of dynamic in place?
That’s exactly what we talked about in the beginning. We discussed the fact, Anya, Robert and I, that in the beginning of the movie, the characters don’t have that much screentime together, but she is an incredibly important component to him fulfilling his destiny. It was important to really lift those moments in the beginning of the film, to feel that chemistry, that connection between the two like it’s a real, incredible force. So we spent a lot of time discussing those, and really trying to hone in and figure out how we could make those scenes really strong and impactful so that the audience, even though you don’t see the two together much at the beginning of the film, they feel like, “Oh, this is something special, and he’s going to need her on this journey.” That was very important. And it helps that Anya and I hit it off immediately. She’s lovely, so sweet and smart and interesting. That helped, it wasn’t that we had to work on it. We found each other very early on, and then we were just in it together, and hopefully you can see that in those scenes.

You wanted to play a Viking for a long time. Are there any other characters that you dream of playing, or film genres you’d like to explore?
I think I’m done now [laughs]. This was my swan song! No, I think I’d love to do just a comedy next. Something maybe that takes place on a beach in the south of France, or something. Where I’m wearing lots of comfortable clothes, and tonally, something different. I think that would be the perfect next adventure.