What type of person does it take to star in a Lars von Trier movie? For many filmgoers, the knee-jerk assumption is probably someone with nerves of steel, or, perhaps, someone willing to compromise morals. Of course, such sweeping generalizations are the sort that prompt public figures to tape their mouths and put bags on their heads, and for every Björk or Nicole Kidman who bemoans her time with von Trier, there’s a Charlotte Gainsbourg or Kirsten Dunst who recalls the experience fondly. Perhaps the issue is best taken up with one of von Trier’s longest collaborators. Including Nymphomaniac: Volume I (opening March 21) and Nymphomaniac: Volume II (opening April 4), Stellan Skarsgård has appeared in six von Trier films. And if the actor is to be the barometer of what’s required to work with the Danish filmmaker, the answer is clear: a wicked sense of humor.
The Nymphomaniac saga casts Skarsgård as Seligman, a mild-mannered hermit who finds battered Joe (Gainsbourg) in a rain-soaked alley, and takes her to his apartment to nurse her back to health. The libidinous, haunted soul of the title, Joe proceeds to share with Seligman her epic, sordid sexual history, and in between the graphic provocations expected of von Trier, Seligman offers data-head commentary that’s almost farcically deliberate. Such humor is often embedded much deeper in von Trier’s work (give or take Antichrist’s demonic talking fox), and, indeed, it burrows its way down as Volume II nears its bitter end. But Skarsgård says fun and laughs have long been part of the von Trier experience, at least for this Swedish actor who hit it off with the director from the start. A badass, yet sophisticated, treasure of world cinema, Skarsgård let it all hang out, discussing religion, his “limited experience” with S&M, a certain “floppy dick,” and how, with Nymphomaniac, the one who’s truly fucked is the viewer. (Spoilers herein.)
I was extremely struck by just how much humor appears in Nymphomaniac: Volume I, and much of it is delivered by Seligman, your character. Were you surprised by the amount of deadpan humor when you first read the script?
Well, I think [Lars is] always funny. Even when he’s dark, he’s funny. There’s something hilarious about even the most painful parts of his writing. But I could hear that he was enjoying himself. He kept calling me about ideas he had, and he called me once and said [affecting Danish accent], “Have you heard about this ‘silent duck,’ Stellan?” [laughs] And a couple of weeks later, this [method of female stimulation] ends up in the script. I think it’s one of the more funny—in a silly way—films that he’s made, so he’s relaxed in that sense. He’s just been pouring out all those things that [Seligman is] talking about, like fly-fishing, Fibonacci numbers, Bach—that’s stuff that Lars is talking about. I’m a part of his brain, and a part that he finds rather silly himself, which gave me the opportunity to be funny myself.
That’s one of the things I was wondering, because I think a lot of the comedy works because of the style of your delivery—you just plainly recite these absurdly literal references. In terms of your interaction with Lars, how much of that delivery is you and how much of it is inspired by him?
It’s me. He doesn’t say anything. He just says, “Start.” And then you do it. And then he likes it or doesn’t like it, or wants to try something else.
And did he like it?
Well, yea, obviously! [laughs]
I mean, did he like it right away? Were there multiple takes or approaches?
No there were not. We were very short of time, and we only had two weeks to do what was, basically, an entire feature film. There’s 90 pages of dialogue in that room [with Seligman and Joe]. So we had to deliver. But he doesn’t say much. Sometimes he wants to try different temperatures or colors in a scene, but he’s not micro-managing you as a director. Which is good. All the best directors that I’ve worked with, they cast very well, and then they don’t say much.
I read that Charlotte views Joe and Seligman as the two halves of Lars.
Yes, I saw it that way too.
What part of Seligman is you? Do you see much of yourself in that character?
Well, I have a passion for absolutely useless knowledge. [laughs] There’s a German word, “besserwiser,” [which translates as] “the man who knows all,” or “knowing better.” My family is very much like that. Any dinner in my family, with my kids or with my brothers and sisters, involves someone saying a word or something, and somebody else saying, “Where does that come from?” And then it’s off to the books, or to the Internet nowadays. So I have that in common with Seligman. I’m not a virgin. I have eight kids. My life is far more sensual than his life.
I did read that you’ve been vocal in the past with your promotion of secularity, and one of Seligman’s quotes that struck me most is in Volume II, when he says, “The concept of religion is interesting like the concept of sex, but you won’t find me on my knees in regard to either.” Did you relate to his views on religion?
Not very much. The side of Lars von Trier that’s in Seligman is a fairly typical Scandinavian, politically correct attitude. Scandinavia’s extremely secularized. So at the same time that Seligman doesn’t have any religion, he also says that you should not say “negro.” All his ideas are pretty conventional from a Scandinavian point of view. I don’t know much about Lars’s religion. I know he tried to be a Jew for many years, and then I think he had a flirt with Catholicism for a while, but I don’t know what he believes in now. I’ve talked about religion, but I’ve talked about religion as an oppressor. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be allowed to have religious beliefs though. My grandmother was extremely religious, and she was married to an atheist, and it was a beautiful marriage. So I’m for tolerance. As long as you don’t interfere with other people’s lives because of Bronze Age theology, it’s fine.
I could be wrong, but I think you’ve worked with Lars more than any other actor, correct?
Yeah. Well…I’m sure that Udo Kier has been in just as many projects, but he’s had less to do.
Udo! Of course. How do you feel Lars has changed since, say, Breaking the Waves, and how have you changed, at least in terms of your working relationship with him?
Well, we’ve grown to be friends, and we did that pretty quickly, actually, because I liked him so much as a person. He was much more tense and insecure in his relationships with actors in the beginning. He had just started investigating the possibilities of what an actor could come up with, because his first five films were extremely controlled from his side, ending in Europa, which is called Zentropa [in the U.S.]. It was all very skillfully done, because he’s one of the most technically skillful directors in the world, but everything the actors did was decided by him, which meant it was ice-cold and dead. And he realized that, so he threw away his tools. The Dogme [movement], for instance, was a way for him to get back to the very essence of having a text, and an actor, and a camera, and finding out how to bring the text to life. And that involves letting the actors go to a certain extent. Now he has developed great skill with actors. He’s very good with them, and it’s basically about trusting them and making sure they don’t act too much.
Do you feel very differently walking on the set of something like Thor than you do walking onto the set of a Lars production? Because I could sit through a dozen blockbusters, but I typically need to brace myself for a Lars movie.
There are some similarities, but, of course, working on a Lars set is unique because it’s not even like working; it’s like kids playing in a sandbox. The atmosphere is totally non-hierarchical, it’s very friendly, and everybody’s having fun. But then, working on Marvel films, I’ve worked with Kenneth Branagh, I’ve worked with Joss Whedon, and those are great directors. And it’s a big machine, and there’s a lot of money involved, but Marvel itself is a very small company. It’s a handful of producers, and they’re very much involved, and if you have any problems with a scene, you can just pick up the phone and talk to them directly. It’s not like working for a big studio, where you can’t even reach the assistant of the head of the studio. So I don’t feel that I’m walking into a machine that’s chewing me up, but, of course, it’s different material, and there are limits to how much you can experiment with a scene. With Lars, there’s nothing that’s taboo and you can do whatever you want. You can start talking to him during a take and even argue with him while the camera’s running.
Nymphomaniac: Volume II is surely the darker chapter, but I was really taken with its stripped-down, objective views on the basics of sexuality, and was surprised that it even elicits sympathy for a pedophile. Were there ways in which the film changed or affected your views on sexuality?
I don’t know. I’ve grown up with a very liberal view, always with the idea that sexuality is something between two or more people, and as long as they all enjoy it, it’s fine. So in that sense, my mind was always open. Of course, Lars studied the subject a lot before this film, and interviewed many, many women. He knows more than I do about sex, at least from a silly point of view—a theoretical point of view. It didn’t change me that much. I mean, my personal experience of S&M is very limited, and I learned a lot about that, which was interesting. And as you say, what strikes you in the film is that sexuality could even be something else, in a way. It’s not about the sexuality, per se; it’s about how difficult it is with a force like sexuality in you if you live a non-conventional life in society. It’s very hard to survive, and get accepted. That struck me more. When Lars asked me to do the film, he said [affecting Danish accent again], “Stellan, my next film will be a porno film. I want you to be the male lead.” I said, “Yes, of course, Lars.” And he said, “Yeah, but you will not get to fuck in it.” I said, “It’s fine, Lars. I’ll come anyway.” [Lars continued], “But you will show your dick in the end and it will be very floppy.” I said, “It’s all right Lars, I’ll come.”
Wait, you didn’t have a body double?
I’ve claimed, and will continue to claim to the press, that that dick in the end is Lars’s. Everybody else had doubles, and I will not take responsibility for that floppy little thing.
I can’t breathe.
[laughs] No, but really, the sexuality in the film is not sexy. It’s not erotic. I watched the five-and-a-half-hour version and, I mean, you can’t wank at it. It’s impossible. It’s really nice that sexuality just becomes a very normal part of human life, like eating. I like that about the film.
And what do you think about the ending? The very end? I certainly didn’t think that things were going to just end calmly, but I didn’t anticipate what ultimately ended up taking place either.
No, neither did I. And when I read the script, I thought, “Wow, what a disappointment.” It’s really sad, because, first of all, it says that Seligman hasn’t quite understood. You think that, during this process, he’s learned something, but obviously he hasn’t learned enough. So it’s sad, but there’s also the sense of, “Oh, Lars. You just don’t want to make people feel good.” Of course you can’t have a happy ending, and everything is solved, because that would be against his nature. As soon as you think you know what it’s all about, then he’s got to fuck you. And he does.