When you see the longships coming, you know you’re in trouble. At the start of Robert Eggers’ extraordinary new film The Northman, they sweep into a Viking port carrying a warrior king, Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), wounded and surrounded by enemies. His nervous brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) has his sights set on his kingdom and its willowy queen, Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Fjölnir will kill the king, take his wife from him – and Aurvandil’s son will have to avenge him.
sounds like hamlet, To the right? Such is it, or rather, the Norse legend that Shakespeare borrowed to create his most famous play. The Northman brings the misty world of the Vikings to terrifying life and stars Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth, son of Aurvandil who grows up bile-ridden with a single goal – to kill Fjölnir and save his mother. In an extremely physical role, a hulking Skarsgård wreaks havoc on everything around him.
It’s a powerful performance, seething and hateful. When I speak to him, Skarsgård tells me that he felt “very emotional and slightly overwhelmed” when he saw the film for the first time. Did he know the legend of Amleth? “Not really. As a person who grew up in Sweden, you’re familiar with the Icelandic sagas, but it wasn’t like everyone had heard of Prince Amleth of Jutland,” he says.
“I moved to the States about 20 years ago and found that people outside of Sweden are much more fascinated by Vikings than Swedes. In Sweden, you are literally surrounded by rune stones, so maybe it’s too close, it’s literally in your DNA and the ground you’re standing on. So for most of my childhood, it wasn’t a big part of our culture or how we saw ourselves.”
In The Northman, Amleth is brutalized as a young boy when he sees his father murdered before his eyes and grows into a seething tower of rage. Was he a difficult character to get into?
“It took a lot of research to understand Amleth and what drives him, what motivates him,” says Skarsgård. “The source of the story is the 12th century Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus, but is probably based on an even older Icelandic saga from the 10th century. A big part of the preparation was educating myself about his relationship to the spirit world, the gods and destiny, which is a big theme in this film.
“And with the story’s supernatural elements, it was imperative that they feel real: Amleth never questions them – it may seem like a fevered dream to today’s audience, but for him it’s 100 percent real.” So in terms of research it was a combination of learning more about Viking history, Norse mythology and life on a Viking farm.”
One of the most original directors working today, Eggers wraps his epic story in an atmosphere of deep fear. It’s an extraordinary film, but also a violent one that involves all sorts of blade-related inconveniences.
“We didn’t want to shy away from that,” says Skarsgård. “The old Icelandic sagas are incredibly brutal stories. They’re often about family feuds, a revenge story, they have a real brutality to them, so it was important to have that in the film and not shy away from it. We wanted these big fight sequences and fight sequences to feel visceral and almost awkward to look at.
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“Sometimes Viking culture is glorified and portrayed in an incredibly heroic way, and also co-opted in a very dangerous way by the extreme right. It’s gotten to this national pride thing, like these Vikings were sailing off to protect or expand the borders of Sweden or Norway or Denmark, which was absolutely not true. We wanted to show what their expeditions would have really been like.”
If the coasts and headlands where Amleth fights look familiar to you, it’s no coincidence. “We shot most of it in Northern Ireland and some in the Republic, in Donegal. And then we went to Iceland for about two weeks to shoot some of the thermal areas,” he says. “But the rolling hills of Ireland look a lot like Iceland, and also with the rough rocky shores – a lot of it reminded me of Iceland.”
The Northman ain’t all blood and thunder A budding romance between Amleth and a slave named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) is an important subplot.
“It’s such a privilege to work on a massive action film,” says Skarsgård. “But with a filmmaker like Robert Eggers piloting the longship and when you can shoot big fight scenes for weeks or months, you’re sitting in a small room with Nicole Kidman, one of the best actresses in the world, and you’re doing a four or five page , beautifully written dialogue scene, that’s something special.”
Alexander is the eldest son of Stellan Skarsgård, the great Swedish character actor. Three of his brothers (Bill, Valter and Gustav) are actors, but Alexander has the most notoriety as he made his mark on the television series True Bloodstarred in big-budget Hollywood films such as Tarzan and Godzilla vs Kongand more recently, he showed his impressive range by playing complex and even awkward characters in Rebecca Hall’s film passand the hit TV show Big little lies.
I tell Alexander that I interviewed his father a few years ago and found him to be one of the most refreshingly open and genuine people I’ve met. He even told me about his vasectomy. (Alexander is one of eight Skarsgårds.)
“Yes,” he says, laughing. “There’s not much of a filter!” Did his father encourage or push him and his brothers into acting?
“My dad is pretty amazing,” he says. “I think I’m an actor today because of him, but not because he pushed me into it. I was a child actor but stopped when I was 13. I was in this little Swedish film that got a bit of attention: 13 is an awkward age to start with, and then being in the spotlight and being recognized and having journalists write about you or talk about you was just really awkward.
“And my dad has always been incredibly easygoing about his approach to our careers, he’s always said well if you don’t love it, if you don’t want to do it, do something else. Or if you don’t know what to do, take some time out and find out. And I actively stayed away from the film industry for eight years. I went to school and moved to Leeds for a while and did my military service in Sweden and then when I was 21 I got to a point where I realized I kind of missed it.
“And again he was very supportive. I wanted to go to theater school in New York, and he supported that. But dad’s approach to all of us, all the kids, he’s always been, he’s in the kitchen, drinking red wine, cooking food and he’s always there if you need advice or guidance or help or just having a glass of wine and yourself talk about everything, but he also leaves us alone and lets us explore on our own paths.”
Skarsgård isn’t afraid to play villains either, like the racist in pass or the abusive husband in Big little lies. “It’s a challenge, isn’t it,” he says. “I find it interesting to play characters that are very dark but then kind of try to find a touch of humanity in them. For example, when I continued working with Nicole Big little liesthis character was written so beautifully because when abusive husbands are portrayed on TV or film, it’s usually the guy on the couch drinking beer, watching football, yelling at the wife: that’s a cliché and there’s rarely a nuance.
“What was so interesting about this character was that he could be charming, he was a great father. Celeste and Perry had a real connection, you could see why she fell in love with him. It made it more real and I think it gave her character more respect because you weren’t like, ‘What is she thinking, why is she with this horrible person?'”
The Northman is in cinemas now
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/movies/alexander-skarsgard-viking-culture-has-been-glorified-in-a-dangerous-way-41554300.html Alexander Skarsgård: “Viking culture was glorified in a dangerous way”