Alexander Skarsgård on Intense ‘Northman’ Shoot: Four-Minute Takes, ‘100-Percent Perfect’ Period Detail

"When you finally get it, it feels like winning gold at the Olympics."
The Northman
"The Northman"

When it comes to a period drama, director Robert Eggers is all about perfection — at least according to “The Northman” star Alexander Skarsgård.

Eggers’ upcoming Viking epic is reportedly of such a large scale that the co-writer and director had to change his prep process multiple times during production. Now, Skarsgård has told Interview Magazine in a discussion with Kirsten Dunst that “The Northman” even tested his own limits while working with Eggers.

“He absolutely is [a perfectionist]. But he’s also a genius,” Skarsgård said. “‘The Northman’ was the first time I worked on something that was so meticulously stylized, and you almost had to see it as a dance between the camera and the actors, because the camera was constantly moving, and so were we. If the timing was slightly off, then we’d have to go again. I’ve never been more tired than after those six months.”

“The Northman” opens in theaters April 22, and co-stars Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Willem Dafoe, Ralph Ineson, and Björk.

Per Skarsgård, the film includes “long, intense fight scenes with 40 stuntmen and horses and 200 extras,” captured by the “Lighthouse” and “Witch” director’s usually meticulous precision.

“To shoot it all in one shot means you do this four-minute take, and then a horse deep in the background looks the wrong way and you have to do it all again,” Skarsgård said. “You’re so exhausted that you want to cry. You feel like you finally got all the choreography of the fight worked out, but then you have to go again and again and again. There’s always something in the background that wasn’t quite right. The flip side of that is when you finally get it, it feels like winning gold at the Olympics.”

Skarsgård explained that “The Northman” fulfills his dream of telling a Viking story, and that Eggers’ vision made sure that “every single detail has to be 100-percent perfect,” including historical accuracy on “every single stitch on a tunic.”

The “Big Little Lies” alum read the “Northman” script once a day before shooting to fully embody the “headspace” of his character.

“I discover new things with each read. I come up with a thousand different ideas and then I eliminate them,” Skarsgård said. “Once we get into production, it’s about finding that sweet spot between being prepared but also open to whatever happens when you meet the other actors. It’s being alive and playful and open to discovering things in front of the camera. If I’m not prepared at all, it makes me nervous.

He added, “The most rewarding days were when I came prepared with a vague idea of how I wanted to play the scene, but I was still open enough to be surprised. And together with the director and the other actors, we discovered something that wasn’t planned and was surprising and exciting for all of us…Everything is meticulously planned. It’s mostly one single camera, one shot.”

Co-star Ineson previously applauded Skarsgård’s transformation into “an absolute beast” for the film.

“[There’s] a scene where he beats this guy in a battle; bends down and rips his throat out with his teeth, screams to the gods and he’s got his shirt off – and you think: ‘My god that’s not a bodybuilder doing a scene, that’s like a proper serious actor!’” Ineson said. “He’s made himself look like some kind of monster for the part, the dedication’s incredible. I think it will be a bit of a masterpiece, to be honest.”

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