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How ‘Big Little Lies’ (and Improvised Sex Scenes) Turned Alexander Skarsgård Into an Awards Contender — Career Watch

In lauded HBO drama series "Big Little Lies" Skarsgard holds his own with an ensemble of powerful women and could earn his first Emmy nomination.

"Big Little Lies" Episode 1 Alexander Skarsgard Nicole Kidman

“Big Little Lies”

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/courtesy of HBO

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Welcome to Career Watch, a vocational checkup of top actors and directors. In this edition we tackle Alexander Skarsgård, who’s advancing his career with a canny combo of studio movies, indie films, and premium television.

Bottom Line: You never know where you stand with Skarsgård, who has the complexity of a character actor beneath the leading-man looks that launched a thousand memes. (Reads one: “Research shows that if you’re afraid of spiders, you are more likely to find one in your bedroom… I’m really afraid of Alexander Skarsgård.”)

His muscular swagger and danger is on display in “The Legend of Tarzan,” but his tender attentions to wife Jane (Margot Robbie) were that film’s throbbing heart. And in the hugely popular and topical HBO drama series “Big Little Lies,” he holds his own with an ensemble of powerful women including executive producer Nicole Kidman, who performs an astonishing pas de deux with Skarsgård as an elegant Monterey couple trapped in a sadomasochistic power struggle of spousal abuse. Critics’ raves and audience reaction will likely push both actors to Emmy nominations. It would be Skarsgård’s first.

“Zoolander”

Career Peaks: The Stockholm-born scion of cinema icon Stellan Skarsgård started out in Sweden’s hospital soap opera “White Lies” and Swedish indie films until he broke out in an English-language role as male model Meekus in Ben Stiller’s “Zoolander.” HBO cast him as Sergeant Brad ‘Iceman’ Colbert in David Simon and Ed Burns’ 2008 Iraq mini-series “Generation Kill” as well as the ancient Viking vampire sheriff and bar owner Eric Northman in “True Blood,” which wound up its 7th season in 2014.

The Legend of Tarzan Margot Robbie

“The Legend of Tarzan”

Assets: Yeah, yeah, blond hunk, but behind those deep blue eyes lies a wily intelligence, a goofy boyishness, an open vulnerability, a live-wire reactivity, and mystery — a promise of something yet unseen. As “Big Little Lies” reveals, the actor is eager to explore his dark side. And he will only become more dangerous with age and gravitas. Clearly, Skarsgård is following his own taste for such roles as the hapless groom in Lars von Trier’s 2011 Cannes entry “Melancholia,” which will serve him in the long run as he skips formula studio fare. (What went wrong with “The Legend of Tarzan” had more to do with budget and expectations than Skarsgård, who won raves for bringing more than sculpted abs to the title role.)

“I’m always going with my visceral reaction when I read a script,” he said on the phone from Sweden. “I am more drawn to characters who are conflicted, and in developing a character exploration. If it’s a baddie I’m rarely intrigued, and if it’s a goody two-shoes, too much of a good guy, I’m not either. I’m always interested in finding that darkness, even of a classic superhero like Tarzan. I want to find that struggle and that darkness within.”

Biggest Problems:  Many are unaware of his under-the-radar performances in low-budget indies like “What Maisie Knew,” as the nurturing boyfriend of a rock star (Julianne Moore) who enjoys spending more quality time with her neglected little girl than she does, or in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” as an amoral hippie who introduces exuberant sex to his girlfriend’s precocious daughter (Bel Powley). While casting directors know that he’s more than a sexy heartthrob or his trademark eyebrow lift “scarsbrow,” his Nordic good looks can get in the way of earning wider respect for his acting chops.

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“What Maisie Knew”

JoJo Whilden

Awards Attention: This Emmys buzz is a first; judgement-clouding good looks may account for why Skarsgård hasn’t been in the running for more awards recognition. This will change.

Latest Contender: Nicole Kidman, who nailed down the rights to the novel with executive producer Reese Witherspoon, wanted Skarsgård to play her husband Perry Wright in showrunner David Kelley’s “Big Little Lies.” When Skarsgård read the script, “I was excited to work with her and [mini-series director] Jean-Marc [Vallée],” he said. “On the page, it was very rich. It didn’t feel like a stereotypical clichéd version of a couple dealing with domestic abuse. It was a very detailed, layered relationship.”

Big Little Lies Finale Nicole Kidman Alexander Skarsgard

“Big Little Lies”

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/ HBO

Rather than rehearsing, Skarsgård and Kidman spent some time in Los Angeles the month before shooting, not only with each other but with the boys who play their twin kids. While the two actors had met a few times — Kidman had starred opposite his father on Lars von Trier’s “Dogville,” — “We didn’t know each other,” Skarsgård said. “We hung out and played with the kids, talked a bit about our relationship.” But they held back until they were on set. “We wanted to dive in and find it.”

Clearly, Perry Wright is more than a stock villain. “On the surface, they look to have the perfect life,” he said. “I wanted him to have an unimpeachable closet with everything very OCD, everything the perfect cut— that, combined with the amazing house, beautiful wife, sweet lovely kids. We invited the audience into the dream scenario — ‘I wish this was my life!’ — until you scratch the surface and go deeper. On top of this perfect life, they have an amazing sex life, until you realize there’s something else underneath that comes out because of the chaos on the inside in his soul.”

The trick for Skarsgård was to make this intense guy relatable: “He’s having an inner struggle, he’s conflicted, he has demons. He’s fighting it. He feels deep down that he doesn’t deserve her. To me, that was a key way into the relationship, to understand Perry, to feel inferior. He needs her. When they met, she was a talented, beautiful, smart, interesting woman. On the surface, he’s an alpha — but deep down, he’s insecure and spends his life waiting for the moment when she leaves him. In a weird, twisted way his way to control her is lashing out. In the moment of violence, he’s in control.”

Working with Vallée’s 360-degree, hand-held cameras gave Kidman and Skarsgård extraordinary freedom to map out their intensely sexual and increasingly violent encounters, which were filmed chronologically, so that they shot the cathartic Season 7 finale at the end. “From the first time I grab her in the first episode, it escalates to being very graphic and intense at the end,” he said. “It helped tremendously to find that arc.”

Both actors had worked with von Trier, so they knew how to improvise in the moment. “The physicality was improvised,” he said. “We didn’t release it. We showed up. We talk about it and then we jump in and see where it goes. Those days were intense and tough to shoot and emotionally very difficult. It was of great importance to check in with each other. It was exhausting and very tough.

“You show up and the whole room is yours to explore,” said Skarsgård. “It feels alive in a way you don’t get with traditional two-shot camera filming. It was exciting and fun working on this set: if Nicole and I discovered something in a take, when he’d yell cut, we’d jump back in five seconds later. I felt very free. Jean-Marc encouraged us try things and encouraged us to have fun, to take it where we wanted to go.”

The crazy sex tango between Celeste and Perry was fascinating for the actors to parse. “It’s so muddled,” he said. “What makes it difficult for Celeste to leave Perry, or come to a realization that’s he’s abusive, is that she feels partly responsible for it because their sex life is so wild and animalistic and intense. She feels, ‘Am I egging him on, pushing him to this place, taking him too far?’ He goes over the fine line between passion and lovemaking and becomes abusive. We wanted it to be confusing for the characters and the audience in the beginning. When it feels amazing and passionate super-intense, it can be physical in a great way. This is an addiction, so they enjoyed getting to that place in order to have a great sex life.”

[SPOILER ALERT]

Skarsgård knew from the start how the final party episode ends. They filmed over two weeks of night shoots with the women dressed as Audrey Hepburn and the men in Elvis garb. Of course, he was a panther in sleek black leather. “All of us in costume became so absurd and crazy,” he said. “If you’re going to go down, it’s a pretty cool way to go down. It got so primal and so animalistic and so violent. This guy is a predator who abuses one woman at a time. When they gang up on him, that’s his demise: They take down the wounded predator. In that moment of sheer panic, it’s all about getting out of there, grabbing his wife, and trying to escape. I loved to choreograph the violence of that. It looks like something out of a nature show, when a pack of smaller predators take down the larger predator.”

Latest Misfire: Skarsgård likes to take chances on risky material, which yields the occasional low-budget indie that doesn’t get a big theatrical push, like John Michael McDonagh’s crooked cop comedy War on Everyone opposite Michael Pena, which played well on the festival circuit before hitting OnDemand in January.

Current Gossip: He follows Yorkshire’s Leeds United football club, from when he studied English at Leeds Metropolitan University. Based in New York, Skarsgård has been dating British model Alexa Chung since 2015, and has declared that he wants to have a big family.

Next Step: Duncan Jones’ dramatic thriller “Mute” (Netflix) is set 35 years in the future; it was shot in Berlin with Justin Theroux and Paul Rudd. He plays a German architect in James Kent’s World War II romantic triangle “The Aftermath” (Fox Searchlight), costarring Keira Knightley and Jason Clarke. Just filmed in Calgary, Alberta, Jeremy Saulnier’s “Hold the Dark” (Netflix, 2018), starring Jeffrey Wright and Riley Keogh, is “a dark, disturbing movie,” Skarsgard said. “I had an amazing time.”

Career Advice: Keep mixing it up. A well-reviewed, popular series like “True Blood” or “Big Little Lies” can make a huge impact on a star’s profile, more than a movie. And even if some edgier films aren’t widely seen, they still allow casting directors, producers, and filmmakers to see what you can do. That will only lead to more ambitious and demanding roles and inevitable awards to come.

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