Alexander Skarsgard won the Emmy Award this past September as a cruel, wife-abusing husband on HBO’s “Big Little Lies.” He prevailed as Best Movie/Miniseries Supporting Actor starring opposite Emmy acting champs Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley and a big cast working with director Jean-Marc Vallee and writer David E. Kelley. And now he is topping off that victory with nominations at the upcoming Golden Globes and SAG Awards.
Gold Derby senior editor Rob Licuria spoke with Skarsgard in a webchat this past summer, just a few weeks before his Emmy-winning evening. Watch the exclusive video above or read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Alexander Skarsgard, you played Perry on “Big Little Lies,” and you garnered really strong reviews for that role as a desperate, complicated and damaged man trying to hold onto his life. What would you say, when you first took on the role, what was your main priority in bringing this character to life?
Alexander Skarsgard: What I was drawn to was the fact that it felt like a very conflicted character. That friction was very interesting to me. It didn’t feel like the stereotypical abusive husband, the wife-beater. It felt very layered and I was very intrigued by the relationship between Perry and Celeste, the volatility of that, the intensity of it. I thought David E. Kelley, who wrote the script, the way it was mapped out was very interesting and I love the idea that you first meet this family in this affluent neighborhood and with these cute kids and everything is perfect. It’s almost like you watch it and you think, “That’s the dream life. They’ve been together for 10 years and it’s still super passionate.” I thought it was just fascinating the way it was structured and the fact that it doesn’t get super violent early on, it’s just like, he grabs her at the end of the first episode and hopefully you’ll get this reaction from the audience like, “Whoa, I thought this was the dream couple, something’s wrong.” But the fact that it escalates is quite interesting, ‘cause in the beginning you don’t really know what goes on and, “What is that? Is that some weird game or is that something sexual going on?” And the fact that it takes a while ’til you realize that, it’s really, really dark and very bad between the two of them.
GD: Yeah, and he actually starts out quite likable and affable and charming and as we progress through the season, we realize that there are some serious problems in that marriage, obviously. When you’re playing a character that is dark, do you care about him being redeemable or likable or is that just not something that you’re not really that interested in doing?
AS: I don’t really care if he’s likable or redeemable, no. I want him to at least be conflicted and no matter how dark he is, you wanna feel that there’s some sort of inner struggle going on, ‘cause that’s what makes it three-dimensional to me and what makes it feel real and interesting. If you’re gonna play like the traditional bad guy, it’s rarely interesting to me.
GD: Did you read the source material at all to get prepared for the role or did you go in cold?
AS: Yeah, I read the book. I wasn’t familiar with the book. I was familiar with it but I hadn’t read it when I was sent the script. I read the script first and then about a month before we started principal photography I read the book.
GD: I know that this was a really long shoot. It was about six months working with the same director, Jean-Marc [Vallée]. What was that experience like doing a TV limited series for such a long period of time? It’s really unusual, isn’t it?
AS: Yeah, I’ve done it once before. I did a miniseries called “Generation Kill,” also a seven-part miniseries for HBO. We had two different directors. One director did the first three and the seventh episode, and then another came in and did four, five, six. I love the format. I think it’s amazing for an actor. It’s a dream if you get to work with a director like Jean-Marc on a script that is this deep and interesting and the fact that you get to do it over seven hours as opposed to an hour and 45 minutes, it’s obviously an opportunity to get to know these characters a bit better and you’re not limited to this three-act structure where you have to present all these characters and then you gotta get to the plot. You can have more of a slow burn. It’s obviously fun when you get to play a character for five, six months. It’s obviously an opportunity to go a lot deeper and get to know them a bit better.
GD: At Gold Derby, we did a poll every week about who was the MVP and we discuss it at length and a lot of fans and people who love this show were really impressed with what you were able to do in the finale, especially in the car alongside Nicole [Kidman]. What was that like doing that particular scene and did you do anything in particular to prepare for it?
AS: Not really. I didn’t do anything in particular. We shot that towards the end of the shoot so we’d already gone through the whole relationship in a way and all the ups and downs of that. I think his life is falling apart at this moment. He can’t come to terms with the fact that she’s actually about to leave him. She’s threatened to do this before but I think he never thought it would happen. So it’s a horrible situation. He’s desperate and he wants to have this opportunity to talk to her and convince her that he can change, that he’s aware of these demons inside him but he’s fighting them and he will beat them but he needs her help. It’s more urgent and more desperate than it’s ever been before. The fact that she gets out of the car and joins the party makes it even worse for him because suddenly he’s surrounded by all these parents from school and all he wants to do is get her out of there, and that just increases the level of desperation for him.
GD: Yeah, and then it ramps up, obviously, at the end of the episode. What was your reaction when you realized that that was Perry’s fate and he was going to be killed off?
AS: I thought it was great. It’s so physical, so intense, so primal, the way it goes down and I love that. I love that all the ladies gang up on him and together, smaller predators taking on a larger predator, their combined strength will take him down. I love that it’s so physical and so intense. I thought it was a great way to end the show. They didn’t have to kill me, though. That’s the only thing.
GD: It was kind of a good payoff for us as the audience to see like, “Okay, Perry, he needs to go (laughs).”
AS: (Laughs). Maybe I did deserve it.
GD: I reckon you did. That just shows how much we loved your performance so I’m trying to put a positive spin on it. What would you say is the one thing when people ask you constantly, “What’s it like working with Nicole Kidman?” What would you normally say about her?
AS: I think she’s okay (laughs). She’s extraordinary. She was already attached when I was sent the script. I mean, I’ve been a fan for 20 years, and my father worked with her on a Lars von Trier film, “Dogville,” about 10, 12 years ago and he had an amazing time and loved her. I worked with Lars on a movie and he spoke very highly of Nicole as well so I was very excited. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner. It was a very, very tough shoot. It’s obviously very emotionally and physically tough to portray these characters and go through this story, but Nicole is such a sweet and generous human being and just obviously an extraordinary actress. I think it was very important that we got along, ‘cause again, it’s very difficult to shoot those scenes and I’m incredibly happy that I had her at the end of the day because again, to shoot those fight scenes for 10, 12 hours was emotionally draining and it’s very, very tough. Those were some of the toughest days on set I’ve ever experienced.
GD: Really. I was thinking, you guys would have been shooting those abuse scenes for quite some time. For this particular project, were you able to switch off when the cameras stopped rolling or was this something that you felt was just so meaningful or difficult to do that you carried it through for the days that you were shooting it?
AS: It was difficult. I’m usually quite good at it. I’ve learned to switch off because in order to just function when it’s a long shoot like that, you kind of need to have some balance in your life and you need to switch off and go out and be with friends and just get away from it a little bit. But it is tough, of course, ‘cause those scenes, it will linger and you’ll think a lot about it and Nicole and i, we would check in at the end of the day after those scenes and really make sure that everything was fine, ‘cause it’s really weird to shoot stuff like that for an entire day and then jump in your car and drive home. I was lucky, ‘cause the most violent stuff was here in L.A. in a studio and I’m staying with close friends out here and they have amazing kids. So it was nice to have that family life and to come home to a home filled with love. It would have been tough to go to a hotel room and come home after a day of that and stare into the wall. So that was a lifesaver for me to come home to people I love.
GD: Yeah, I can imagine. You’ve done a lot of quite difficult things over your career so far. Many of us will obviously know you best for your role on “True Blood.” What would you pinpoint as one thing that you learned and took away from your experience on that series?
AS: It was such a profound experience. It was seven years of my life and it kind of changed my career and changed my life. I miss it, ‘cause it became like a family. When you freelance as an actor you form these bonds and these intense relationships but it’s usually for a few months and then you move on. That was the only time I’ve had a family I would return to. We would shoot seven months a year and then we’d go off and do a movie or two and take some time off, see our families, and then you’d come back and that’s kind of a back to school feeling of being reunited. Not only the cast but we had the same crew for seven years. And that’s something I miss as an actor. You don’t have colleagues that you grow up with in that sense. It’s usually for just a few months. So it meant so much to me on many levels, obviously career-wise but personally as well.
GD: And what about the hype and fandom, especially when it hit its peak? It was pretty huge, especially for that particular type of audience and that genre. What do you remember most fondly about the hype and the popularity and the fandom?
AS: I remember the surprise… ‘cause I was only in seven episodes the first season. I had a long blonde wig so no one ever recognized me and I wasn’t invited to Comic-Con the first year. But then the summer of when the second season aired, I was in Sweden when the show aired and about four or five episodes into the show we went down to Comic-Con and I didn’t realize how popular the show was and the impact it had. I was completely unprepared for that. I just remember flying to San Diego and walking out on the stage and there was like 5,000 people in this room and fans that were dressed up as the characters from the show, and people that had flown in from Australia and Japan. I’d never experienced anything like that. I knew that people kind of liked the show but I didn’t know that it was going to be that big.
GD: It was pretty crazy, actually (laughs). I can remember it very well. It was crazy. It was a good crazy. Speaking of family, obviously you come from a family of artists and actors. What would you say you’ve learned primarily from coming from that artistic background?
AS: My father never really… he’s always been very hands-off when it comes to all the kids. He obviously loves being an actor, but he never tried to push us into it or convince us, “You should really do this, this is a great job,” ‘cause I was a child actor and then I quit when I was 13 ‘cause I didn’t think… “This isn’t for me.” It was a three-second conversation, I just said that and Dad was like, “If that doesn’t make you happy then do something else.” And that’s been the core of it. He just wants all his kids to be happy. If that’s being a barista in Stockholm or working as an actor in Hollywood he’s equally happy, and it’s always been great to feel that, to feel like there’s zero pressure coming from Dad or Mom. They don’t care if we’re financially successful, as long as we’re happy and that we’re doing things that we’re excited about, they’re happy. And I think that was important to me when I left acting and I didn’t act for eight years ‘cause that gave me an opportunity to do other things and then find my own way back into it. It wasn’t like Dad steered me in that direction. It was my own choice and that was very important for me to feel.
GD: Yeah, absolutely. And now it looks like, you’ve been in another HBO production and this one could maybe even land you some award nominations. We always talk about the Emmys given that we’re Gold Derby. So the question about that is, you’re on a David E. Kelley production. He’s been responsible for creating, developing so many memorable roles for actors who’ve won numerous awards. Why do you think that is? What is it about his writing that you think resonates with so many actors?
AS: Well he’s very good at writing characters that you are drawn to, that you’re fascinated by. And also the narrative of “Big Little Lies” is very smart, the way it’s constructed, cutting back and forth between the week leading up to the trivia night and then post-trivia night with the interrogation room, it’s a very smart way of heightening everything because then a very trivial argument between a husband and wife will now potentially have more significance ‘cause the viewers will know, ‘cause they’ve just a scene in an interrogation room where a character talks about, “She was crazy that night,” or “This happened,” or, “They’ve been fighting. They were never happy together,” whatever. And then you see the couple and it always keeps you on your toes ‘cause you don’t know, “Is this what’s gonna lead to a murder or is it just not? Is it just another kitchen sink argument?” It’s a very smart way of telling a story.
GD: Absolutely. Well mate, we hope to see you at the Emmys in a few months time. Good luck and thanks for your time today.
AS: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.