We’ve had literally months of teasers, trailers, posters and then critics copying the posters with the by now infamous O-faces. So much has been written about everything surrounding “Nymphomaniac,” the two-part opus of Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, that you’d almost forget we haven’t really heard from the people involved in the film itself. Indiewire spoke with Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard about the film. U.S. audiences are now able to discover part one on VOD, before its theatrical release March 21.
After the 2011 Nazi comment debacle during the “Melancholia” press conference in Cannes, after which von Trier was declared persona non grata by the festival, the most famous of the contemporary Danish auteurs decided not to talk to the press at all this time around, though Skarsgard, who also co-stars in Marvel’s “Avengers”/”Thor” franchises, is practically the next best thing, since he’s not only “Nympho’s” male lead but he’s worked with von Trier on numerous films including “Melancholia,” “Dogville,” “Dancer in the Dark” and “Breaking the Waves.”
Skarsgard plays Seligman in “Nymphomaniac,” a gentle and bookish soul who takes in Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Joe when he finds her lying in the street, bleeding. To explain how she ended up there, she recounts her entire sexual history to Seligman, a Jewish intellectual who’s never touched a woman. “Before writing the screenplay,” Skarsgard explains during the film’s press junket in Copenhagen, “Lars said to me: ‘Stellan, my next film will be a porn film and you will be the lead. You will not get to fuck but you’ll get to show your dick at the end and it will be very floppy.'” The actor, who is about as sang-froid about sex as the director, could only reply in one way: “I said: ‘Yes, okay Lars, I’m coming.”
“While he was writing,” Skarsgard continues, “Lars would send me material or call me and say things like: ‘Have you heard about the silent duck?’ So I was well prepared for what was coming.” (Google “silent duck” at your own risk). The fact they spoke during the screenwriting phase doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that the actor gave a lot of input: “Lars is one of the best writers in the world so I feel like I shouldn’t interfere too much with his writing. He’s like a fairytale teller, it’s ‘Uncle Lars tells his stories,’ like an X-rated Hans Christian Andersen. His dialogs can be quite childish, naïve and innocent, even if they deal with horrible or very important subjects. It has a nursery-rhyme quality to it.”
On the relationship between Joe and Seligman, who at times seems like a therapist or a confessor for the nymphomaniac of the title: “Seligman becomes that to an extent but that was not really my approach. I think he’s a man of great innocence who thinks he knows a lot about the world because he’s read everything in books but he knows nothing about life, really. Of course he’s shocked when he’s confronted with real life and a real person. He’s probably never had a woman in there before and it changes him.”
Skarsgard also suggests that Lars is very much the creator of both Seligman and Joe: “The characters represent two different parts of Lars. All the digressions I have about fly-fishing and Fibonacci numbers, this is stuff that goes on in his head, he just writes it down. Then you have the other, more vulnerable female side of him in Joe. My character probably can’t understand everything in Joe’s story and can’t believe his ears, though he’s compassionate. (SPOILER ALERT) But he’s too innocent to understand that you can’t put your penis into her just because she’s had hundreds of penises in there before. He’s socially… very clumsy (he sniggers, END SPOILER). But he’s totally non-judgmental and he thinks good of people, which is the sweet side of him.”
The actor, who’s also known for his work in blockbusters, is happy to play in the big tentpoles but does insist there are certain limits: “I’ve made six films for Disney and they have a clause in their contracts called the morality clause that I’ve always refused to sign. It basically says that if you upset a certain amount of society, they can sue you, so you can’t pull down your pants in a bar. But which society are they talking about, Kabul or Salt Lake City? It’s also an infringement on my constitutional right to free expression. Of course, with a film like ‘Nymphomaniac,’ you know that there’ll be people that’ll get upset, including some who won’t have seen it. To me that just makes it more necessary to do it. Any society that starts forbidding certain words or expressions is a society you should be wary about, whether it’s the KGB or social consensus that enforces it.”
Indeed, the 62-year-old actor, whose eight children include actors Alexander, Gustaf and Bill Skarsgard, has never had problems with sex or nudity, making his role as an asexual intellectual almost an ironic riff on his real-life persona: ” I’ve been so naked so much I’ve lost count, I mean, my dick was huge in the Grand Palais in Cannes (where his international break-out, “Breaking the Waves,” premiered). I was born naked and walk around naked at home. My parents walked around naked and when my friends in school still thought babies were brought by the storks I could tell them how they were really made. I have a very relaxed relationship with my genitals.”
Was there anything he learnt about sex during the film? “Well, it’s not only about that but if you get a chance to learn about something that’s good, isn’t it? I’d never heard about the ‘silent duck’ before. A have a lot of female friends who consider me one of their girlfriends because they talk very openly in front of me, so I’ve heard quite a lot. But there are some things that I hadn’t heard of before and I appreciated the train-ride of the girls, for instance, doing all that for a bag of M&Ms. I also learned a lot about S&M; I have very little experience with that because I’m afraid of pain and I don’t like to deliver it either,” says Skarsgard, indeed as relaxed as if he’s talking about tomorrow’s trip to the supermarket.
Since he’s become one of the few actors to regularly work with von Trier — Udo Kier is another, though his roles are often more like cameos –, Skarsgard has seen their working relationship evolve: “Of course it has, we have both changed as well. We’ve matured a little, hopefully, though hopefully not too much. It’s extremely relaxed now because we know each other and we don’t have to say to that we like each other all the time and instead can insult each other and feel loved.”
“The main pleasure of working with Lars is that you feel absolutely free and safe and you can’t fail because if you fuck up it’s considered good,” continues the actor. “Any kind of anxiety of performance is gone. You can just be totally relaxed and nothing is wrong, which inspires enormous courage. I don’t even consider it work when I’m working with him, it feels like we’re two kids playing. The difficulty on this shoot was that we had 90 pages of text. It was an entire feature film of text that we did in 10 days. I was mainly worried about forgetting something!”
That the Scandinavian actor and director are close also becomes clear when he’s asked about von Trier’s Nazi comment at Cannes that made him a persona non grata, as suddenly the otherwise very mild and approachable Skarsgard almost gets up from his seat and thunders: “That was so fucking disgraceful. He’s talking to people that know him and everyone in the room knows he’s not a Nazi. The joke was basically that he was a Jew until he was 30 and then he learned he had a German father so he wasn’t a Jew but he was a Nazi. It’s not very funny but that was the joke. Those people that he trusts, they write, well, I don’t blame everybody that writes but their editors make sure that all over the world the next day it says: ‘Lars von Trier: I’m a Nazi’. His kids come to school the next day here in Copenhagen and the others start saying: ‘Your father’s a Nazi’. And he trusted everybody in that room. The Seligman in him was too innocent to understand that you can’t say something like that because someone will turn it into a lie to sell a paper. Even more disgraceful was the Cannes Film Festival, which that year had a ‘freedom of speech’ slogan because the work of some Iranian directors was selected. And that’s the year they say ‘Lars says this,’ even though they know he’s not a Nazi, and then they kick him out. Disgraceful.”
Seligman’s inexperienced and innocent, while Joe’s practically his opposite, having lived in the real world but also having suffered from doing so. Says Skarsgard: ” I must say that Seligman probably doesn’t feel that his life is fucked up and painful and her life is painful. That is probably the better option; pain is a part of life and if you protect yourself too much you miss out on the only opportunity you have to experience life, which is a short span, though nowadays it’s getting longer…”