There are few actors as in demand these days as Stellan Skarsgård, who will be appearing in no less than three of the year’s most anticipated films — and strangely all with Scandinavian ties — in “Thor,” Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” and David Fincher’s adaptation of the “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” Yet the film industry’s desire to cast him is no comparison to the odd pull he has on middle-aged women in “A Somewhat Gentle Man,” an idiosyncratic and distinctly Norwegian comedy about a recently paroled criminal who attempts to rebuild his life as a mechanic while reaching out to the family that he deserted and trying to ignore the entreaties of the gang he once served. Although he’s only moderately successful at both, Skarsgård’s Ulrik is unique amongst former thugs onscreen since he emerges from prison as a people pleaser, whether it’s looking out for the pregnant secretary at his garage or dutifully schtupping his landlady who never fails to heat him up a plate for dinner.
Incidentally, one shouldn’t underestimate the importance of a warm meal to Skarsgård, since as he’ll explain later he nearly gave up filming in his native Scandinavia because of the rigid lunch habits. For everyone’s sake, it’s good he didn’t since “A Somewhat Gentle Man” is the kind of low-key charmer he might not get offered anywhere else, given his reputation as a heavy, but one that seems true to who he is when he’s not on camera. A consummate gentleman when he called from his home overseas, the actor’s actor talked about his third collaboration with Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland, why he might make a solid obstetrician, working with David Fincher and how he became the unwitting patriarch of an acting dynasty.
You’ve done a couple of lighter films in recent years, but it’s not necessarily what you’re known for, so is it a nice thing for you to use different kinds of muscles?
No, it’s…I don’t know. I never get cast as it. Everybody thinks I’m so serious and the dark side is very accessible to me, so of course it’s a challenge to do something funny. Hans Petter Moland and I have done two films before that have been really realistic and dark, so nobody thought we could do a comedy, so we had to try. And of course, it’s a different kind of comedy. It’s more personal in that sense, but it has a lightness. It’s about humans, even if they’re caricatures in some ways.
I’ve read it took a little bit of time to develop the script and for you and the director to settle on this in particular. Was it a matter of striking the right tone?
Yes, that was the big problem. We’re always looking for things that we can do together because we work so well together and we have so much fun when we do it. So he sent me this script before Christmas two years ago and asked me if I was interested and I thought it was very, very funny. The people that had read it before saw it as a tragedy. [laughs] So I said, yeah, if we can do it within two months because I’m having a baby. So he raised the money in six weeks and then we shot it for six weeks.
The baby came a little early and fucked up our schedule, but in principle, it worked. But when we started working, we had rehearsals. I always rehearse with this director, which is very nice, not to decide everything, but to figure out the tone of the scenes and of course, all the actors started playing in their own films, very different films. So we had to find the tone for all the actors — they’re very good actors. It was easy to rein them in and get them to be in the same movie I was.
That’s interesting you were expecting a child when one of the story threads is about a father reconnecting with his son. Was there any special resonance for you?
No, not really. [laughs] The baby came during the shoot, so we closed down for three days. You can do that on small independent films. You can never do it on a big film. And it was very civilized. The only way our personal lives interfered with the film was that when the girl delivers her baby in my car. When we shot that scene, I was there and Hans Petter Moland, the director, he had six kids and I also had at the time also six kids, so we were trying to teach this girl everything about what it looks like and feels like to give birth. And that was a hilarious situation – two middle-aged men teaching a woman about how to give birth!
What was it like reuniting with Hans on this film? It’s been more than a decade since you last worked with him.
I didn’t know it was so long because it doesn’t feel like it and we talk frequently, so it feels like it was just a couple of years ago. But it feels fantastic because we know each other so well. We pull each other further than we usually go, both of us. We become a little braver together. That’s probably because we’re not alone. [slight laugh]
Is it true that you have a contract stipulation on your Scandinavian films to require a hot lunch?
Yeah. When you work in Norway, you actually have to have a contract about lunches because Norwegians don’t eat lunch normally, so they just throw out a loaf of bread and some coldcuts. And when I did “Insomnia,” I lost eight kilos, which is like 20 pounds during the shoot and that was not being method. That was just starving. And then I promised the Norwegian crews that I’ll never work in this country again unless we get good catering of the highest European standards. So I always have that in the contract that everybody should have good food and I reduce my salary to make it possible. But they don’t have it. It’s not in the tradition, not even the schoolkids have hot lunches in Norway. They bring a couple of sandwiches from home. But I can tell you the crews like it.