[Editor’s note: The following article contains mild spoilers for the end of “The Northman.”]
For “The Northman” actor and producer Alexander Skarsgård, making what our critic called “a primal, sinewy, gnarly-as-fuck 10th-century action epic” has been a long-held dream. The Swedish star always had a soft spot for Viking and Norse mythology, and armed with director Robert Eggers and an estimated $90 million budget, he’s finally got his big, bold Viking movie.
In the process, he gained 20 pounds of muscle, endured COVID shutdowns, and spent many days in mud, muck, and period-appropriate outfits. The misery didn’t stop there: Eggers called post-production one of the most painful experiences of his life. The film goes hard, and perhaps even harder than the actor dared imagine so many years ago.
Over the last two decades, Skarsgård has been Tarzan, a Stephen King villain, a TV vampire (named, amusingly, “Eric Northman”), and a prime minister, and those are just his most well-known roles. His turn as the abusive husband in “Big Little Lies” earned him an Emmy, a Golden Globe, a Critics’ Choice Television Award, and a Screen Actors Guild award, but it’s the go-for-broke “The Northman” that seems poised to set him on a new path.
In the Hamlet-esque plot, Skarsgård stars as Prince Amleth who, after seeing his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) murder his beloved father King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) to take over his queen (“Big Little Lies” co-star Nicole Kidman as Queen Gudrún) and kingdom, pledges to exact revenge. Decades later, after having spent extensive time with a Viking berserker clan, Amleth finally gets that chance when fate brings him back into Fjölnir’s orbit.
As the actor told IndieWire during a recent interview, it really is a big, bloody, wild dream come true.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
IndieWire: You had been wanting to make your own Viking film before you met Robert Eggers. What was your original vision for what you wanted to make?
Alexander Skarsgård: I’ve kind of nurtured this dream of making a Viking movie for many years. I didn’t want to be an actor, really, when I was a kid, but I have very strong memories of our [family’s] country home on Ölanda, an island in the Baltic. There’s almost 200 massive rune stones on the island, and it was a very profound experience as a kid, seeing these rune stones with the inscriptions, erected by a Viking 1,000 years ago, where it just set your imagination running, who are these Vikings, where did they go, and what happened?
About 10 years ago, I started thinking about making a Viking film. I realized I’d never seen a historically accurate, truthful depiction of the Viking Age on a big screen, where you can combine the scope, the canvas of a big epic adventure film, but stay true to the old Icelandic sagas and the tone and the language, the starkness of it. This harsh world, the harsh people, to try to have that and base it on the Icelandic sagas, which often revolve around a family feud, a revenge story, it’s very intimate. I was trying to figure out what that story would be, to have that intimate story at the center, but a big, big scope, so it’d be like an event to go see it.
Aidan Monaghan / Focus Features
And then you met Rob.
For a couple years, it was kind of percolating and I was going through the old sagas and trying to figure out which one to base it on. And then five years ago, I met Rob. He had just come back from Iceland to New York and he shared my love for the country. I go to Iceland every year. One of my best friends is from Iceland, and we hike different parts of the island every year, so I have a very strong connection to the island and to the people of Iceland.
Rob and I started talking about Vikings and Norse mythology. I had just seen “The Witch,” and I was impressed by how I really felt transported back to a different time when I watched it. It felt so authentic, and knowing Lars Knudsen, who also produced “The Northman” and produced “The Witch,” I knew that it was a very, very small budget. The richness of that world, how it immersive that felt, for very little money was incredibly impressive.
So after I met with Rob, I called Lars and said, “I think if we can get Rob as a director, that would be an absolute dream because he’s got a deep knowledge of Norse mythology and of Viking culture. He’s incredibly smart and clearly, a very talented filmmaker.” So Lars agreed, and we asked, and here we are.
When you have a director like Rob, who is so meticulous and who also has a crafts team around him that is also so knowledgeable and driven by getting the details right, how does that impact your performance?
I’m very grateful to Regency and Focus that they would not only let this little auteur arthouse filmmaker make a massive original movie that’s not a franchise, not based on a comic book, but that he got to bring his team, his head of departments from his smaller movies to “The Northman.” He really got to make his version of this. It wasn’t like, “Let’s pick an arthouse filmmaker to do our movie, and then get our team and tell them how to make this movie.” It is very rare in this day and age to find that.
In terms of authenticity, it’s tremendously helpful. You don’t really, as an actor, have to suspend disbelief much because it’s all real. When you step onto Fjölnir’s farm in the movie, it’s a Viking farm. It was built by scholars, historians, Viking experts. They used the right type of wood. They planted the right type of grass a year before we shot the movie.
Rob, together with Linda Muir, the costume designer, would do deep, deep research on the clothes, the fabric of it, the stitching, what would it look like? “Oh, that was probably a bit more Northern Sweden around that time than Iceland, so we can’t do that.” Or maybe they will wear something that’s not Icelandic, which makes sense because the Vikings were raiders, but explorers who traveled the world, and it makes sense that they would collect stuff and trade stuff.
It was quite multicultural. You can bring in elements from other cultures, but it had to be cultures that they would’ve gone to. You can backtrack and it would all make sense. All this, to say that as an actor, when you’re on that set and you’re wearing those clothes, it’s real. It’s all real. And that is tremendously helpful.
Everyone has been talking about how tough the shoot could be, how grueling the process, and you went through a major physical transformation on top of that, but let’s go to the other side: what was the easiest scene for you to shoot?
[Laughs] That’s a great question! The easiest scene was probably the confrontation with Queen Gudrún, Nicole’s character, because I was just so excited to be there and be doing that with her. We shot that after two months of doing action sequences. We shot big set pieces, basically back to back, like the raid of the village at the beginning, the Knattleikr, the game they’re playing, the fight with the mound dweller, the giant. So it was months of amazing sequences to shoot, but very technically difficult and quite physical.
To then go from that, to be reunited with Nicole after “Big Little Lies” and the experience we had on that, and to shoot it in a room, just the two of us and with not a big, difficult choreography, not a lot of technical stuff, just a five-page, beautifully written, intimate scene, I was even thinking about it when we shot it, I was thinking, “What an absolute treat this is.”
You so rarely get to do both [kinds of scenes] in the same movie. Often, it’s either one or the other. It’s a big tentpole action, popcorn, and then you go and do something [else that is] super-intimate, with a long dialogue scene, really dark, interesting, twisted, with an amazing actress like Nicole. You rarely get to do both in the same project. And to do that, back to back and within a week, was such a privilege.
Michael Buckner for Variety
You and Nicole really did seem to bond on “Big Little Lies,” and it’s interesting to watch that scene in “The Northman” with this existing knowledge of your work together. You can see that there’s a real comfort level and chemistry there, especially for darker stuff.
Shooting “Big Little Lies” was absolutely extraordinary. To go through that with Nicole was one of the highlights of my career. To explore the depth of that relationship and the darkness of it really bonded us, because it demanded so much trust between the two of us in order to go into those dark places and to be with each other through that emotionally and physically. I just can’t imagine doing that with anyone but Nicole.
We said, “It’d be wonderful if we could be reunited on something in the future,” and then when the first draft of this script was done, we all agreed that Nicole would be the dream Queen Gudrún. We were obviously over the moon when she said yes.
When during shooting did that scene take place?
Nicole wasn’t there the first couple of months of the shoot, because that’s when we did the big action scenes that she’s not in. That was the first scene we had, the two of us, in her chambers. It was tremendously helpful that we could hit the ground running. We knew each other so well. That’s why I said that was the easiest scene to shoot because I was just buzzing. I was so thrilled. It’s such a rich, juicy, beautiful scene, and it takes so many different weird turns. We rehearsed it once, and then we started shooting. It was just like immediately, we found each other again, and it was so rewarding.
©Focus Features / Courtesy Everett Collection
In the big final sequence between you and Claes, the two of you are battling on top of an active volcano in, what the press notes tell me, were flesh-colored thongs, though it’s clear we’re meant to think you’re both naked. What was the thinking behind the choice to add “minimal clothing” to what’s clearly already a demanding scene?
Well, it was essential to be naked. There are a lot of stories about the Vikings taking their clothes off before a fight for many different reasons. One being to intimidate the opponent. When you’re completely naked, you’re completely vulnerable. It is a way of showing fearlessness, and also to potentially to shock your opponent. So that was always the plan.
In our puritanical society, it’s easier to portray violence on screen than nudity, which I find quite strange. So you can kill and chop heads left and right, but you can’t show any nudity. We had to figure out a way to do this long fight scene [nude], and at one point, there were conversations about, “Should we just do it shirtless?” But I felt strongly, and Rob did as well, that it was imperative that they would take their clothes off. They’re completely naked on this mountaintop.
In the storyboards, there was this image of these two naked Vikings fighting on top of an erupting volcano, and they just have to be. Once I saw it, I was like, “What’s what we’ve got to aim for. We can’t fuck around with this. We can’t censor it because we’re too prudish or we’re worried. We’ve just got to figure out a way to creatively get there.”
We had to be smart about the way we choreographed that sequence and the relationship between us and the camera. We worked on it for many, many weeks before we’re shooting it. All those big scenes, you just have to meticulously plan and rehearse and go over it again and again, so you find that fluidity, the flow of the scene. There were many components that were difficult, technically difficult, to that last scene. On top of it, it’s the emotional climax of the movie, so you also have to find that intensity to the sequence.
I was in pain and tired, but the thought of that image on the storyboard, I was just like, “If we can get even close to that, then it’ll be worth it.” They had to be naked.
Focus Features will release “The Northman” in theaters on Friday, April 22.