The King of Devil's Island is the latest brooding Scandinavian thriller to hit these shores, and I sat down with star and acting giant Stellan Skarsgård to ask just why all the best drama is coming from Scandinavia right now? It got a little raunchy...
I arrive at the production office on a baking hot day in central London awaiting what I think is a video chat with an actor whom I admire greatly, and whose latest film, The King Of Devil’s Island, I’d been blown away by the night before. I’m slightly annoyed that it is only a video chat, as it would have been nice to meet Stellan Skarsgård, star of Pirates Of The Carribbean, Mamma Mia, Avengers Assemble, as well as smaller, generally much better films like Dogville, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Good Will Hunting. However, my annoyance is balanced out by the fact that I don’t have to dress up for the occasion, so I’m wearing shorts, trainers and a t-shirt, not a particularly flashy one at that.
Then Stellan appears. Fuck.
It seems that “video chat” means a chat that is going to be videoed. A small semantic issue, but one that means that I’m now meeting a man with a filmography well past 100 movies in my capacity as a “serious journalist of film” looking like I’ve just come from the gym, and come from the gym having done no exercise at that. He probably thought I’d just gone to stare at women. He hates me. I’ve got 7 minutes with Stellan Skarsgård and he already hates me.
I’m ushered into the interview room and sat directly opposite Stellan underneath lamps so hot they make me long for the comparatively balmy climbs of Oxford Circus. It seems Stellan is masking his disdain with a warm conviviality, a gentle smile, a casually unbuttoned shirt, a friendly handshake…I knew he was good at this acting lark, but to see it live is formidable.
He turns in an equally impressive performance in The King Of Devil’s Island, a true story about Bastøy Prison off the coast of Norway. Stellan described the institution as “the place you were sent to if you were a really bad boy, and at that time a bad boy could just mean that you behaved in a way that wasn’t acceptable to society, that you didn’t conform”. In the film we see two new inmates take a stand against the inhumane conditions and psychological torture by trying to stage an uprising and escape from the island, culminating in one of the most powerful cinematic endings of recent times and joining the ever-increasing canon of excellent Scandinavian cinema, including Troll Hunter, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Headhunters and Flame & Citron to name a few. I asked Stellan what makes Scandinavia such a breeding ground for this kind of movie:
It seems Stellan is masking his disdain with a warm conviviality, a gentle smile, a casually unbuttoned shirt, a friendly handshake…I knew he was good at this acting lark, but to see it live is formidable.
“Well we’ve been very successful in the crime novel business for a while, probably because we have a great tradition of grounding our crime novels very much in a modern reality, just think of the success of the Millennium books, the Wallander books, and Henning Mankel’s books. The thing about these novels’ successes is to do with Swedish society, which is the most emancipated society in the world, so for example it’s easy to create a heroine that’s as tough as Lisbeth Salander. Also the Scandinavian climate is good because we get heavy subsidies for making films, and also I think that Lars Von Trier with his Dogme 95 and Zentropa in Denmark have shown that you don’t have to do things by the book, you can be freer and you can be bolder. That also gives Scandinavian work an edge.”
Ah Lars Von Trier, the self-styled “bad boy” of art cinema…well, he called himself a Nazi and had Charlotte Gainsbourg cut her clitoris off on screen. Stellan has appeared in a number of his films, many of his best ones in fact: Breaking The Waves, Dancer In The Dark, the simply stunning Dogville and most recently Melancholia, alongside his son Alexander Skarsgård. In fact, it’s difficult to think of another actor who enjoys such a comfortable relationship flitting between arthouse and blockbuster movies, I asked Stellan where he feels most comfortable.
“I’m at home everywhere. If I’ve been doing a small, shoestring budget art-house film that’s very dark and that nobody will see, but that’s very good, it’s nice to go and do something fluffier. I’m extremely privileged in that I manage to enjoy myself all the time with very different materials”.
My microphone falls out of my pocket. It makes a bang. He’s going to cut me, oh God. Get it back Harry, get it back. What about his character in Devil’s Island, a complicated authority figure who, despite being terrifyingly manipulative and menacing, also has a strict moral compass and seems to genuinely feel like he’s doing right by the troubled children in his care.
“I decided to make him, for his time, a progressive and modern pedagogue. It was important that he didn’t become the bad guy, even when his role is that of the oppressor. In other words, he’s not an evil man, it’s the society which he is a part of that is wrong, and despite having the best intentions, he is a conformist.”
“I’m at home everywhere. If I’ve been doing a small, shoestring budget art-house film that’s very dark and that nobody will see, but that’s very good, it’s nice to go and do something fluffier.”
There is a definite religious element to the prison too, casting Stellan’s character as almost a priest like figure in what is most certainly an indictment on institutions that purport to offer help, support and guidance, but are in truth dangerous, manipulative and damaging. Thankfully, he seemed to agree with me on this.
“Norway is still a pretty religious country compared to Sweden, but at the time, all over Scandinavia, the state and the church were one. When I grew up you still had to do prayers in school, though they’ve now banned that I think, but that’s something we had for 1000 years, ever since we lost Odin and Thor and all those other Gods. We’re growing away from that now, hopefully the rest of the world will do that too”.
My time is quickly running out in the cauldron that is the interview room, the camera operator signals for my final minute and talk returns to acting, specifically what it was like to star alongside a huge cast of young, untrained, unknowns, in King Of Devil’s Island.
“They were more than unknowns, they were all handpicked and trained over a period of a year because they’d come from socially difficult backgrounds, some criminal backgrounds. There were no neat little posh kids wanting to become famous aspiring actors, most of them had never been near the idea of acting. That was fantastic, because what you got on screen was incredibly raw, incredibly intense, absolute reality. Trond Nilsson, who plays Olav in the film, came up to the director at the end of shooting and told him it was the first thing he’d ever finished in his life, and he’s now gone on to become a professional actor. If it weren’t for the film, he’d probably be in jail now…although, acting, jail…they’re not that far away”
Stellan smiles a kindly, fearsome smile, displaying the emotional complexity and depth that has kept him at the top of his profession for over twenty years and shows no sign of abating. I cheekily ask him one more question, returning talk to his fruitful relationship with Lars Von Trier and their upcoming film The Nymphomaniac. “Ah yes, that’s the porno we’re doing”.
“Yes. I pick up Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character on the street and take her back to my apartment, and over two movies we talk about her time as a nymphomaniac”
Oh, I see, “Porno”, like, “Art Porno”, gotcha.
“Yes…but there’s a lot of fucking in it. A lot of fucking in it”.
The King Of Devil’s Island is out now across the UK.
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