Stellan Skarsgard's career has been defined by wildly different roles.
Whether it's as an ice-cold assassin in Ronin, the two-faced serial killer in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo or in the television series River, Skarsgard's tried to bring something new to each and every role.
We spoke to Skarsgard about his role in Our Kind Of Traitor, how he approaches such violent characters and whether or not his role in the film is one of a stereotype.
When you signed on for the role, what was your initial take of the film and the script?
I read the book as well and I'm a big lover of Carre and have been since I was 13. The first adult book I read was The Spy Who Came In From The Cold; I got it from my father. I loved his depiction of society and what's going in the mechanics of power and what it does to people that interests me. I always wanted to do a Carre film and especially after seeing Alec Guinness' dramas. I got to work with Ewan McGregor on a Ron Howard film a couple of years ago, so I'd be looking for something to do with him for a while. I also asked my son, Alexander, who worked with Susanna White (the director) on Generation Kill.
You're playing a role that's, y'know, quite morally reprehensible. How do you approach it without making a judgement?
It has to do with how you view people. You can't separate the world into good and bad people. We're all capable of almost everything. He comes from the Soviet Union, he grew up in the Vor Y Zakone. That's his life, so killing someone means something to him and means something completely different to me. But that doesn't mean you approve of his actions, which you shouldn't - but that doesn't mean he isn't a human being. He and Perry (Ewan McGregor's character) are from two different universes. I've done people that have done immoral things, but that doesn't turn into bad guys. It means that they've done something bad.
This might be the second or third Russian you've played, I think. The Hunt For Red October being one that sticks out in my mind, but with Russians are played so forcefully. How do you approach that culture and not fall into the pitfalls of stereotyping?
In Hunt For Red October, I completely underplayed him. I usually underplay my characters. This guy, I wanted to make him loud, vulgar and as noveau riche as you could. I wanted him to be attractive and charming in his loud way because I wanted the audience to like him and enjoy being with him as the same time they should criticise him when he kills someone! You could say that I go for the cliche in the beginning because I use his Russian accent to be more bear-like, but it has more to do with his personality. We have real Russians in the film that don't act like that. It's more to do with his personality than him being Russian. It is a balance, but what was important to me was finding contradictions. I didn't want the audience to feel safe with him.
Another role that I loved you in Ronin, with John Frankenheimer.
Yeah, he was a really cold fish.
How do you access that kind of violence in characters?
Violence isn't that hard to find. We all have it in us, even I'm not a fighting person. I can be violent, it's a primitive reaction. But yeah, I'm Swedish and extremey civilised! (laughs) But when it comes to a man like Dima, he follows his impulse. He lives it out. In, say, Ronin, he's a calculating man. He's an ice-cold psychopath. He's absolutely able to control his violence. He uses his violence, he never wastes it. Dima would waste his violence.
With Dima, there's a lot of religious iconography attached to his tattoos with the Vor Y and so on, but you're an Atheist. Did that play into it at all?
He's probably religious in the way a lot of those people are. The culture he comes from defines him so much. As religion goes hand-in-hand with diminishing democracy with Russia and Israel and Turkey, it's a very sad thing. But, no, I didn't use Dima to comment on that.
Was there much room for improvisation with Hossein Amini's script?
The script is very good and we didn't have to change many lines and there was no urge to do it. But a lot of the acting is between the lines. The relationship between myself and McGregor's character, it grows throughout the film. Nothing of that is in dialogue. We create that journey of getting closer together without talking about it. My wife in the film doesn't even have any lines, but she has an enormous presence. The acting, she becomes important in how she looks at me and I look at her. That creates that an atmosphere that she, to a certain extent, is in control and that's there's harsh truth and solid love between them.
For such a male-driven film, it's directed by a woman. How did that work on set?
She was trying to make a character-driven film that was suspenseful and political. I don't know if she has a penis (laughs), but that's not important. She's used to tackling male material; one of the first things I saw that she did was with my son, Alexander, on Generation Kill. That was ultra, y'know? They were six months with Marines and young testosterone-loaded boys. So, she's pretty good at that. It's interesting with male and female directors, I've worked with material where I wanted a female director because I wanted to avoid something. I did the TV series, River, which Abi Morgan wrote. It was such great writing. I said to the producer that I would have loved to have female directors for it, not because they were women, but because they might be less interested in the masculine side of policework which didn't interest me. But, fortunately, we got really good directors that didn't stuck in that anyway. I don't know if there any big differences between male and female directors, I can't tell.
Off-set, did you and Ewan try and develop the relationship?
Oh sure, we're on location so we hung out. But when you shoot, you don't socialise. It's a very tight schedule and we were moving all the time, you're shooting twelve to fifteen hours a day.
What are you working on next?
The next film is an independent film, it's called Return To Montauk with a script by Colm Toibin. It's very much literature, I love it.
The career you've had, do you see yourself remaining in acting? Have you any interest in directing?
I have ideas about things, but I think the director should direct the film and not me. When it comes to directing, I don't have the urge and I don't have the patience for it. I wrote a script with a good writer many years ago and I got most of the financing together. A producer took over and nothing happened for two years, so I got bored with it. I'd rather make a couple of films a year as an actor rather than directing once every five years.