LOS ANGELES — Playing an aloof, sexy Viking vampire sheriff on HBO’s “True Blood” requires many things of Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgard, not least among them a willingness to endure long stretches of night shoots and a commitment to spend at least a certain amount of time in the gym. Anyone who’s watched the show, which returns for its fourth season Sunday, knows that virtually every major character is afforded plenty of screen time wearing not much at all.
But every now and again, the hit series, masterminded by Alan Ball and adapted from mystery writer Charlaine Harris’ bestselling novels, really takes a turn for the surreal — like in Season 3 when Skarsgard, who plays Eric Northman, and actor Allan Hyde, as Eric’s vampire “maker” Godric, were hunting werewolves dressed like SS officers in a World War II era flashback scene.
“We shot that early in the morning after the Golden Globes two years ago,” a casual, sunny Skarsgard recalled during an interview this week. “At 7 in the morning, I’m hanging from the ceiling in a Nazi uniform with fangs in (my mouth). I look over and I see (Allan) there in his Nazi uniform hanging like a puppet. We’re about to descend down to kill this wolf, you know? And that was the moment where we just looked at each other like, ‘This is what we’re doing for a living?’”
This, it would seem, is life at the center of a pop culture juggernaut.
“True Blood” had its premiere in 2008, and by the beginning of its second season, the show about the supernatural travails of telepathic cocktail waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) in fictional Bon Temps, La., had grown into a steamy, savvy and very adult answer to the teenage vampire fantasy of “Twilight” with a similarly devoted fan base. An average of 13 million people watched each episode last season (that figure includes multiple airings and on demand views), making it the most popular of HBO’s current original series.
Fans, Skarsgard suggested, are seduced by Ball’s signature brand of metaphor wrapped in lurid eye-candy.
“It’s sexy, it’s wild, it’s violent, but at the same time, it’s grounded and it’s about our society,” he said.
Like Stephenie Meyer’s high-school based romance, “True Blood” developed its own love triangle with the old-fashioned Southern gentleman vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) and the moodier Eric vying for Sookie’s affections.
In real life, Moyer got the girl — he and Paquin married last year — but Skarsgard, son of actor Stellan Skarsgard, has won a following for his chiseled good looks and the swagger and deadpan sense of humor he brings to Eric.
The sheriff’s brooding authoritarianism is nowhere to be seen, though, when Skarsgard, clad in a white dress shirt and gray pants, recounts what led him to this turning point in a career that inadvertently began at age 7, when he appeared in his first film opposite his father, 1984’s “Åke och hans varld.”
Instead, he’s cordial and polite, recounting his decision to quit acting at age 13 when the spotlight become too intense and how he returned to the profession roughly seven or eight years later, after serving in the Swedish military. (Any time he mentions Sweden or his family — he has five brothers and one sister — he brightens noticeably.)
He eventually landed a small part in the Ben Stiller comedy “Zoolander” before going on to star in HBO’s 2008 acclaimed Iraq war mini-series “Generation Kill,” and then “True Blood.”
He’s now poised to make the leap to a career on the big screen with two films due out before the end of the year: Rod Lurie’s remake of Sam Peckinpah’s controversial “Straw Dogs” and Lars von Trier’s elegiac sci-fi meditation “Melancholia,” which shot in Sweden and allowed him to work again briefly with Stellan.
In May, he’ll star as a naval officer in “Battleship,” Universal’s big-budget action movie directed by Peter Berg and, yes, based on the board game.
“I was first made aware of Alex Skarsgard by the 15 women who work in my office who came in collectively as one with a picture of Alex and said, ‘He is going to be in “Battleship.” It’s nonnegotiable,’” Berg said with a laugh. “When they left, I pulled up some ‘True Bloods’ and really liked the show and thought that he was completely right for this character. I had a great meeting with him — he and I spent a day on an aircraft carrier in San Diego. After that I was convinced he was the right guy for the film. He had a real sense of what the purpose of that role was. He had really strong opinions and ideas.”
Skarsgard remains conflicted about the celebrity that accompanies Hollywood success, however. “Being followed is weird,” he said. “That people want to discuss where I ate lunch or what I wear when I go to lunch ... the private life is just gone. That’s a little tough. It’s quite different in Sweden. We don’t have paparazzi following you in Sweden. You’re allowed to have a private life in Sweden in a different way.”
With the continued ascendency of “True Blood” — the show even got its own “Sesame Street” parody last year — Skarsgard’s public profile is only likely to grow. This season, Eric is at the center of the key storyline that sees witches rob the vampire of his memory, and he must rely on Sookie’s kindness as he struggles to rediscover his true identity.
“It’s a completely different side of Eric,” Skarsgard said. “He doesn’t know who he is so all that baggage is gone — 1,000 years of resentment and bitterness, the whole loathing humanity kind of stuff is gone. But there has to be an element of danger there still. I didn’t want him to become too much of a little puppy…. I don’t think it would be fun to watch him for very long if he was completely emasculated.”
As for the romance brewing between Eric and Sookie, Skarsgard has the support of at least one cast member.
“I think it’s great for the show,” Moyer said, pointing out that there’s no rivalry between the actors. “I went up to him at the beginning of the season, and I just went, ‘Look, I want you to do your job to the absolute best of your ability and I will not be around when you have to do that stuff. I don’t want you to feel like you’re looking over your shoulder and there’s me at the monitor going, “Get your hands off her!”’ It’s absolutely not how we roll. Me and him are mates.”
Although Skarsgard says he has no specific criteria in choosing parts, he prefers characters, like Eric, who are neither overtly heroic or villainous, he said. “When I watch a movie, I always find it more interesting when that line is blurred. That makes people real, three-dimensional.”
He even endeavored to bring that nuance to the role of Charlie in the new “Straw Dogs,” still remembered for a controversial rape scene involving his character. Skarsgard cautions that the remake is “quite different” but he said the real appeal of the project was the chance to better understand his own darker impulses.
“Look around,” he said, “people are always, big shiny white teeth, big smiles, everything’s fantastic. How sincere is that? Are people really genuinely that happy all the time or is there something in there that they’re trying to fight? I know I am. I think it’s really good to acknowledge that there is that inner battle. Of course that’s interesting exploring. It’s scary and it’s dangerous, but it opens up your soul.”
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