Lars von Trier’s latest, most outrageous releases, Nymphomaniac: Part 1 and Nymphomaniac: Part 2 are tough sells. That more than likely accounts for why so many of the film’s big name stars, give or take a Lebeouf, were eager to lend support by speaking with the press.
Before seeing the film (and after reading some of the advance hype), I put in a request to speak with leading lady Charlotte Gainsbourg. Halfway through Part 1, I began wishing that I’d asked for Stellan Skarsgård. Not that Ms. Gainsbourg is a slouch by any means. It’s just that Skarsgård is so damn good in this role!
Skarsgård stars as a book-learned hermit who hits the jackpot upon discovering a battered and bloodied sex addict (Gainsbourg), eager to recount her multitudinous carnal encounters in vividly lurid detail, half-unconscious in the alley next to his house.
As fate, and my profound inability to distinguish between Eastern and Pacific time zones would have it, I blew my opportunity to speak with the actress. Thanks to Landmark’s Chris Principio for stepping and and scrambling to arrange this exclusive talk with Skarsgård.
While most interview subjects pause to think of an answer, Skarsgård replied faster than if he had a list of prepared questions before him. Nymphomaniac: Part 1, which opens Friday at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas, is his fifth pairing with the controversial director. From the sound of things, this was one of the happiest collaborations of his career.
Spoiler alert: We discuss the end of the movie, so I suggest you wait to read the interview until after seeing the picture.
Scott Marks: You have quite the impressive filmography. I had no idea that you’ve been making movies since 1968. Congratulations on a remarkable career.
Stellan Skarsgård: How nice. Thank you very much.
SM: Let’s start on a note of sentimental effusion before moving on to the hard stuff. Do you remember the first film your parents took you to see in a cinema?
SS: I think it was Alice in Wonderland, the animated Disney version.
SM: No surprise. For people our age it’s generally a Disney cartoon. Are you familiar with the Howard Hawks/ John Wayne trilogy of Westerns, Rio Bravo, El Dorado, and Rio Lobo?
SS: Yeah. I’ve seen them all.
SM: Good man! There’s a great story about Wayne asking Hawks, “When do I get to play the drunk?”
SS (Laughing): Sure.
SM: In Breaking the Waves, you’re paralyzed in a bed and living your sex life vicariously through your wife. In Nymphomaniac you’re a pent up virgin advising a bedridden sex addict. When are you going to ask Von Trier to play the whore?
SS (Laughing): Yeah! Good point! For this movie he said (lapsing into a dead-on impersonation of Lars Von Trier), “It will be the best male role I’ve ever written,” to which I replied, “That doesn’t say much.” (Laughing.) It was a great role to do. We shot it all in two weeks...it was something like 90 pages. It was like an entire feature film in just dialog. We shot it in a small room with me and Lars and Charlotte (Gainsbourg) and a small crew. It was really nice. It was one of the better acting experiences I’ve had.
SM: How did you get the nickname Scarzie?
SS: Nobody calls me Scarzie! That’s IMDB. You shouldn’t trust that site. There’s one person that called me Scarzie and this is Jackie McKenzie who is an Australian actress. You know the Australians: Scaaazie. (Laughing.)
SM: This next story may or not be true given the fact I found it on the same fountain of misinformation, IMDB. You are allegedly good friends with Peter Stormare, another favorite mad man actor of mine.
SS: I haven’t seen him in probably five or six years, if you consider that close, but he is actually godfather to my second son, Gustav.
SM: Would you favor my readers with your best Peter Stormare story?
SS (Laughing): It’s been so many years. He was working as a stagehand in the Royal Dramatic Theatre when I was an actor there. He wanted to become an actor and later worked at the Academy of Stockholm. I was his mentor during that time. And uh...let’s just say I don’t have any Peter Stormare stories that are suitable for print.
SM: You don’t know my audience. Okay, we’ll move on. Much of Nymphomaniac deals with sexual humiliation and degradation. Which scenes were more difficult to film, those involving sex or those involving brutality?
SS: I wasn’t near that. I was sitting in a room for two weeks with Charlotte. I didn’t deal at all with any of the sexual scenes. To me, I’m a Scandinavian and I saw my parents naked all the time when I was a kid. Nudity was very natural. I mean, I was born naked.
SM (Laughing): I was surprised to learn that Nymphomaniac was not your first adult film. There were a handful X-rated films back in the early ’70s that one assumes were not explicit.
SM: Do Anita: Swedish Nymphet or Swedish Sex Games ring any bells?
SS: I wouldn’t call them X-rated.
SM: That’s how they were classified when they played in America, but back then an X-rating on a softcore porn had different connotations. This sounds like what we Americans used to call “titty-teasers.”
SS: Nothing was shown in that film that isn’t shown in any normal R-rated Hollywood films these days. It was sexploitation. The director (of Anita) was very ambitious and wanted to do a psychological film about a nymphomaniac while all the producer wanted to do was show some tits and ass.
SM: Speaking of sex scenes, my favorite performance of yours is in Hans Petter Moland’s A Somewhat Gentle Man.
SS: Ha! Ha! Yes! That’s the best sex scene I’ve done!
SM: Talk about laying pipe! That has got to be the most hilariously antierotic on-screen dalliance ever filmed. How does one prepare for a scene like that?
SS: It was a comedy and we really had fun doing that. The woman playing the old hag (Jorunn Kjellsby) was fantastic and extremely brave. There are not many actresses that would do that.
SM: Where did you and Lars von Trier first meet?
SS: We met right before we started shooting Breaking the Waves. I flew down to meet him and another actress who was supposed to play Beth but later dropped out. After two casting sessions, Emily Watson showed up and was brought on board.
SM: You’ve appeared in many of his films. How do you account for the chemistry?
SS: We’re very close without being gay, I must say.
SM (Laughing): Pun intended, when did the topic of showing your penis come up and what was your initial reaction to the request?
SS: Well, I’ve shown my penis before several times, so by now it’s widely-spread information. I don’t have any problems with it. Since everybody else had porn actors as doubles for their genitals, I claim my penis is damn better!
SM (Laughing): Why two two-hour films as opposed to one four-hour feature?
SS: I think it’s because it’s harder to...I would prefer to see them one after the other. It has screened that way in some countries. I think it’s a distribution thing and the fear is they don’t want to block the entire evening and they’re afraid that people will not come and see it. Von Trier’s own cut it five-and-a-half hours, which is commercially even worse.
SM: We’ll have to wait for the DVD director’s cut. How do you respond to the acquisitions that von Trier is a misogynist?
SS: He definitely isn’t. I don’t know where that comes from. I think everything bad about came from the conflict he had with Bjork on Dancer in the Dark, which was a very unhappy shoot. The other actresses who have worked with him love him and can’t wait to work with him again. There is no director currently at work who has created so many good roles for actresses as he has.
SM: In just the past few months we’ve seen Blue Is the Warmest Color, Stranger by the Lake, and now Nymphomaniac, three films that all depict hardcore sexual acts. First, do you think Nymphomaniac is pornographic, and if so, can pornography and narrative filmmaking peacefully coexist?
SS: It’s definitely not pornography. I wouldn’t watch a four hour pornographic film. And it’s not good for wanking, so I wouldn’t call it pornography. First off, you’d wear out your dick trying to get a hard-on for four hours.
SM: Seligman describes himself as a Zionist Jew who is not pro-Palestinian, correct?
SS: Something like that. I think he’s a non-believing Jew who is not a Zionist.
SM: How does he come to know so much about fly fishing? I’m Jewish, and the closest any of my relatives ever came to fishing was when ordering a pound of smoked sable at Abe’s Delicatessen.
SS (Laughing): That’s very good! Lars considered himself a Jew until the age of 30 and he loves fly-fishing. Still does! Everything that Seligman says, all the hilarious things are Lars’ own passions. Whether it’s Fibonacci numbers or fly-fishing or diamonds — all that is the kind of absolutely useless information that Lars’ head is full of.
SM: I’m leaning in the direction of thinking that the only way for the ending — which plays like a punch line — to work is if you view the film strictly in dark comedic terms. Would you agree?
Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 TRAILER 1 (2014)
SS: I think it’s very funny, but I think all of his films are very funny. Even the darkest films are funny to me. He’s got a great sense of humor and there’s a dark, certain absurdity that makes him very comical. The ending of this film depends on how you take it. Some people say, “How could he?” Personally, I think he just misunderstood her. Either that or he wasn’t listening to her for the last four hours. The sadness of the ending is not that he dies, but she shoots him. That shows that she is really fucked up. I don’t think there should be capital punishment for anything, let alone pulling out your dick.
SM: Well, I guess that’s as good a place as any to end this.
SS (Laughing): Yeah. Okay. Thanks for the talk!
SM: What a great closer, huh? (Laughing.) Seriously, it was an honor talking to you. And as talented as you are onscreen, that’s how funny you are in person. Thanks!
SS: It was great talking to you, too. Thanks, my friend!