The True Blood vamp is back in cinemas as a charismatic eco-cult leader in The East, but we fell under his spell a long time ago.
Like a lot of very beautiful people, Alexander Skarsgard has a not-quite-there quality. It’s not exactly aloofness – he’s a lively and very likeable lunch companion – but more the sort of absent air that is the result of never, ever having had to charm anyone.
He enters the restaurant at a langorous prowl, all six feet four of him looming large in the diminutive and expensively shabby surroundings of Prune in the East Village. In jeans and a snug white t-shirt he slowly draws off his sunglasses and confirms himself a kind of joke of handsomeness.
There’s no sign of the hangover he claims to be suffering from, but as if to prove it, he orders a burger, “fatty and salty, just what I need”. Our waitress, or rather waitresses – we somehow appear to have acquired three – virtually melt as they pour water into his glass and ask how he’d like his burger. (“Medium rare”. I resist a vamp joke.)
Since he was cast in the camp sex-n-gore fest that is HBO’s wildly popular vampire series True Blood, Skarsgard has unwittingly spawned website after hormonally-charged website that pore over his every move and pronouncement. I tell him that in my research I found a website selling mugs that read “That’s Mrs Skarsgard to you”.
“Oh really?” he smiles, and allows himself a small chuckle. He then adds, jokingly, “I own that website.”
He plays Eric Northman – vampire, Viking and owner of “Fangtasia”, Louisiana’s first vampire-friendly bar, in which he does a lot of predatory lowering. But this year he’s about to prove he can do much more than just look buff and bloodthirsty: True Blood has not only made him an object of lust, but also looks set to propel him into the Hollywood stratosphere of “Serious Actor”. He has two major films out this year (Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia and Straw Dogs, a remake of Sam Peckinpah’s controversial 1971 thriller) and two already slated for next year. I ask him if he had any inkling that the series would get so big.
“No one knew, you know? I was excited about it but no one said, ‘just so you know, there’s going to be a massive hit.'”
The first word of it he heard from his agent, “was basically ‘viking vampire’. So at first I was like ‘whaaat? Fuckin’ vampire – what is this?’ Then the second sentence was “HBO and Alan Ball’ so I was kind of intrigued.”
It was at the launch of Season Two at Comic Con in San Diego, witnessing crowds of hysterical fans, that he realised what a big deal the show had become. So why are we all obsessed with vampires then?
That pretty much encapsulates his character’s appeal: Eric was introduced as something of a villain but as the plot continues to thicken he’s shown glimmers of tenderness. It’s all deliciously unsettling, and, somewhat bizarrely, we have David Attenborough to thank for some of that.
Skarsgard happened to be watching a nature film about lions and, “I d’know, I was just fascinated. It was just something about the male lion, the way he kinda carried himself. And there was this one moment when he clocks the camera man and it’s just this deadpan stare. He just looked so fuckin’ confident. He didn’t do anything. He almost looked bored. And it was fascinating because you didn’t know if he was going to pounce and fuckin’ kill the cameraman, or if he was about to yawn and fall asleep. I just thought that was really intriguing – the downplay. That, in a way confidence, isn’t it? – You don’t have to be big or loud if you know that you’re the shit. Right?”
“The only reason you get like that is because you’re insecure,” he continues. “And I thought it would be a good thing to have Eric lethal and know it, so he doesn’t have to show off or prove it.”
Does he get a lot of fake blood over his stuff when he’s on set?
“Oh god yeah,” he says, with a housewife-y eye roll. “Sometimes you have to shower with your clothes on after a long day. It’s very sticky that blood and when it dries your clothes stick to your skin and you can’t get it off. A couple of years ago we did a night shoot and when we wrapped I was so tired – we have showers in our trailers but I was just like, ‘I want to go home, take a nice hot shower at home and go to bed.’ So I just put my boxer briefs on and got in my car, covered in blood and dirt, and drove home. It was like five in the morning and I didn’t think about it when I got in the car but as I was driving I was like shit, I hope I don’t pass a cop or anything…”
Skarsgard insists that he avoids reading about himself online or elsewhere and as for weird letters and gifts from fans, “my manager and publicist kind of screen that. So I don’t get the crazy-crazy stuff.” He laughs “– they kind of try to protect my innocence.”
But when it comes to deranged fans, Skarsgard has been here before. His first professional acting job came at age seven, in his native Sweden.
“My dad’s friend was a director [his father is the actor Stellan Skarsgard] and he asked him if he could ask me if I wanted to be in the movie and I said ‘yeah’. I was excited because we got free cinnamon buns on set, that’s what I remember.”
Then, at thirteen, he starred in a Swedish TV movie called The Dog That Smiled and it made him a national celebrity. Girls used to hang around outside his parents house.
In fact, he makes his upbringing sound like something out of a catalogue for a Scandinavian clothing company. He’s the eldest of seven and he says, “there were always big dinner parties, every night, and we all lived in the same apartment building. So it was always like, people smoking, drinking, talking – a lot of artists and music. It was fun, it was wild. A very artistic, urban environment, surrounded by hippies y’know…cigarettes and red wine.”
At nineteen, he decided it was time for something a little more challenging. “At that point I still didn’t want to be an actor. I’d spent twelve years in school and I didn’t want to study, I needed a break from that. I didn’t really feel like backpacking in Asia like most people do, or moving to London to sell shoes like a lot of Swedes do.”
Instead, he signed up for Swedish military service.
“I mean, I’m a pacifist, I don’t wanna go to war, so I did it for myself. I didn’t do it because I loved guns, you know? It was tough and I hated it sometimes. It taught me a lot. You learn how much more you can do than you think. And I was a sergeant so it taught me a lot about leadership and how to motivate your men.”
That all came in pretty handy when he was cast as Sergeant Brad “Iceman” Colbert on HBO’s Generation Kill, a series based on the true story of a Marine battalion in the first days of the Iraq war.
“We had a huge responsibility because we set out to show people back in the States what their sons and daughters were going through out there. We wanted to show the boredom, how chaotic it can be, how little they know about what they’re doing, what the mission is. It was definitely the most important job I’ve ever been part of, for sure. And it was very special because we premiered it at a Marine base in front of four hundred marines.”
And what was their reaction?
“Well…” he says with a smile and a shrug, “I’m still alive, so…”
After his year of military service, Skarsgard spent a year at Leeds University where he decided to give acting one last shot. He and his “buddy” went to the university library, “found some monologues and he filmed me on an old VHS camera and sent it to New York.”
It worked, and, aged 21, he was accepted at Marymount College. His time there seems a particularly intense period of his life.
“New York can be the greatest city on the planet but it can also be a horrible place when you’re heartbroken and you walk down the street and see all these parties and people laughing.”
He’d fallen for a girl back in Sweden, three weeks before he left for New York and, “the long distance relationship didn’t work, she went back to her ex-boyfriend, I was fffuuucking devastated. Plus I was a student, I had no money, nothing, I couldn’t even afford to eat. So to walk down the street and see all these parties, people laughing and in love, it was just like…” he inhales, making a winded, death-rattle sound – “it killed me. School was fantastic and I immediately felt how much I’d missed being on stage, so creatively I was supercharged, but I just couldn’t breathe because I missed her so much.”
Back in 2009, before he’d graced magazine covers and been fawned over on national television, he starred in the video to ‘Paparazzi’ as Lady Gaga’s aristocratic bit of man-candy who gets papped, then finally poisoned. Now, of course, he gets followed by real paparazzi, who were particularly ravenous when it came to pictures of him and Kate Bosworth. Last month the pair broke up, having been together for two years since working on Straw Dogs together. When I broach his new-found singledom he looks awkward.
“I d’know,” he squirms. “I don’t wanna talk about dating and all that. I’ve always watched my dad and how he’s dealt with attention from the media. I get it, I understand that people are curious and intrigued but my job is to try to push that focus as much as possible, to tell people I’m actually an actor, that’s why I’m here. You’re so watched and in the spotlight constantly, it’s important to have things in your life that you don’t share with other people, other than your loved ones. So I don’t think you’ll ever see one of those, “Alex and his girlfriend invite someone to their house…” and it’s us, like, by the pool.”
Does he have a career plan? “Plan?” he says, sounding incredulous. “No.” Instead, he just goes with “gut feeling”.
“Because of all the attention True Blood’s getting, a lot of the offers I get are basically Eric but with a different name and without the vampire make up. But that’s not what I’m looking for: I want to do something different. Again, that’s why Melancholia was so amazing, because it was so far from an alpha male as you can possibly get.”
In that he played Kirsten Dunst’s slightly ineffectual husband but his next character calls for more backbone. He’s just about to start filming What Maisie Knew, an adaptation of a Henry James novel in which he plays a father battling for custody of his six year old daughter.
“I met Renate, the little kid, for the first time yesterday, she’s just adorable,” he says, going gooey. “We just played for an hour and a half and she immediately just opened up and connected and it was lovely, really lovely.”
His hamburger and fries demolished, our waitress (one of the phalanx) arrives to take his empty plate.
“Thanks,” he says a little absently, “that was great.”
And she twinkles so hard at him that she looks in danger of combusting.
Words: Hermione Hoby
Images: Bjarne Jonasson
Styling: Way Perry