BERLIN – A recognisable figure in every corner of the world, Stellan Skarsgård returns back to his native country of Sweden to voice the leading role in Linda Hamback’s affable children’s animation Gordon & Paddy, based on the books by Ulf Nilsson. Showing at the Berlinale, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Skarsgård himself as he discusses just how important it is to take children to the cinema, the positive messages in the movie, and why he never looks back across his illustrious career. We also talk about why he never wanted to move to America, starring in Marvel movies, and changing diapers, for forty years of his life.
I’ll start by saying – Gordon & Paddy is a very charming film.
I definitely think so. A film like this stands out in a current film climate for children. I have small children and most of the material they get is shouting at them to get their attention. Delivering messages in a very fast-pace and they don’t get any time to think or any time to be drawn into a universe, so it’s important to make films like this. It’s also the kind of film that I love, it’s so warm-hearted, contemplative in a way, it’s a universe that is wonderful to be in. It’s unbelievably innocent without being stupid. And it’s fantastic to see a crime story where the police are so happy when they can say, “no crime, no punishment.”
It must be nice as well that you can make films that your young children can watch? Because I’m assuming you haven’t sat down with them to watch Nymphomaniac yet?
No, I haven’t. I suggested to my wife but she said not yet (laughs, nda).
For children, seeing a film in the cinema for the first time is a very special moment – can you remember the first film you saw?
The first film I saw was Alice in Wonderland, the Disney version. Must’ve been in the 50s. All I remember is the rabbit running saying: “I’m late, I’m late.”
How important is it that children still go the cinema, at a time when they can watch films at home on Netflix, for example?
I think it is, because it’s a different experience and a different language, a dying language in a way. They are trying to make television more cinematic, so storytelling will go on and there is so much brilliance in television, but I would miss those beautiful films on the big screen. If you have Ida on while you’re making coffee at home, you won’t get anything out of it.
My friend has a three year old who plays with an iPad, flicking through TV shows. With movies like Gordon & Paddy, which is contemplative, can it teach children patience? To sit down and indulge in something, not always be seeking something better?
Yeah, and it’s good to put them in a cinema to do that, if possible. If you give them Gordon & Paddy on the iPad they may flick into something else. The concentration, the entering a universe and sharing it with other people, that cinematic moment, for that a film like Gordon & Paddy is really good.
It’s also nice to show a film to young children that shows humanity in a decent way.
I didn’t particularly think about that in this film, but I think about it in general, I think about it all the time. The times are troubling. Especially the opposition against what is happening in the world, the Left, the social democrats, they have to find an alternative and they haven’t. They’ve accepted the idea of the market as rulers and gave away the power and the democracy and they have to have come up with an alternative economic theory that is a good alternative. They also have to come up with ideas that are not only identity politics but real politics that will change a society.
On the messages in this movie, do you think sometimes it’s easier to access profound messages and themes through animations or science-fiction films, because sometimes we almost have to step out of reality to best understand it?
Yeah, I think so. The fable has enormous advantages, you’re not trapped by reality, you don’t have to have your image blurred by all the details of reality, you can be extremely focused.
Gordon is a character who is very tired, he has been in his career a long time. But by being an actor, have you avoided that feeling of tedium? That sense of coming to the end of something. It’s a cool job.
It’s fucking cool, it is. No two days are the same, but then I have small children, still. I’ve done a vasectomy now so there will be no more, and I already regret it. But it’s new all the time, and I’m not a painter sitting on my own doing a shit, I met new people all the time and I’m challenged by other people. Half of what I do is made by my fellow actors. It’s fantastic and it’s fun, it’s like never getting out of the sandbox, I get to play all the time and there’s new toys coming in all the time.
This year marks 50 years since you began your career. Does that make you look back on your career?
To think about what I should have done differently? (Laughs, nda) It’s too late! No, I don’t look back very much, I don’t. I know there is a past, but I don’t dwell on it. I’ve been around for a while, yeah.
Has a lot changed during this time?
Of course it has. I started before the fantastic wave of American films in the 70s, and when I started it was a totally different world, there were no iPhones. There was no internet, and the market hadn’t taken over films as much as it has now. The Godfather opened in a 100 cinemas in the United States. Now that doesn’t happen, you shove out a film in 4000 copies and it’s vacuum cleaned before people get the chance to say what they thought about it.
And you’re a part of biggest aspect to the film business in Marvel…
I’m having fun doing them. I don’t do things that I don’t think will be fun. I make a lot of money making them, but I’m really having fun. It’s a good meal, it can be a fantastic reindeer steak, but then you can also have a little piece of chocolate after. You like it. It’s important to have a varied diet because otherwise you will get bored. And I have so much fun making those films, you use different acting muscles and you don’t have to worry too much about the psychology of your character, but you have to be present and alive in front of the camera and that’s hard enough.
You’ve reached that quite privileged position that not every actor gets to, where now when you pick roles you pick them based on what you will enjoy. Not how much you get paid, or what it will do for your career – you can just do whatever you want to do?
Exactly. I’ve been really bad at career choices anyway, I’ve never been interested in it. I’ve been really good at trying to find ways to have fun, and I still have fun.
But you’ve said before that you’ve spent the last 40 years changing diapers.
There was a little gap in the children, but I changed my mother’s diapers those years, so it is 40 years.
On a different note, you’re not in Lars Von Trier’s next film?
No, he called me and said: «Stellan – I’m going to make a Skarsgard-free film». Good luck, I said. Lars Von Trier on his own – unplugged (laughs, nda).
Have you ever thought about moving to the States?
To live? Why, with eight kids, would you live in a society where you don’t have free healthcare or free schools, where women aren’t free, where you have a President who is a nutcase, with an absolutely corrupt election system? Give me one reason.
It is sunny, that’s true. I’ll move! No, it doesn’t suit me. I really like living in Scandinavia, and in Europe. It’s a very civilised society. I pay more taxes and nobody is starving, it’s a good concept. But of course we have problems in all of the West now with anti-democratic movements. We have problems with peace in Poland, in Czechoslovakia, we have Brexit, we have Trump. It’s happening everywhere, and this is the price we’re paying for the Chicago School of Economics, the trickle-down effect. It doesn’t trickle well.
You’ve played some complex characters in Scandinavia that aren’t black and white, I guess this too could be why you stay in European cinema?
Yeah, that’s one reason because you get to do them. You can fuck up the occasional American film by throwing in some complexity. I had a line in Return to Montauk and there was a line I really liked when my character said something about American heroes, and they have heroes in America, they love their heroes. In Europe our heroes are much more ambiguous, they are Hamlet, Don Quixote, it’s the losers. They are our heroes, and it’s a totally different tradition.
You’ve played so many roles, it must be so interesting to look at the world from so many different points of view?
Yeah, and I do not see the world as being consistent of good guys and bad guys, I see it as a conflict between ideas and conflict between different views of humanity, but not good guys and bad guys.
Is that perspective, in part, down to the fact that you’ve play bad guys on screen? You’ve had to try and understand the way they operate and think, and you’ve had to find empathy in the process.
Yeah, and hopefully make the audience understand bad guys. When Lars Von Trier said you have understand Hitler in the bunker you can almost feel sorry for him. Yes, that upset a lot of people because they want to see the Nazis as bad guys, which makes us good guys, which is a terrible mistake. If we don’t see that all those crimes of humanity were made by humans, if we think it’s just some bad eggs and that we’re not bad eggs, then we can’t protect ourselves from the fascist inside us. That’s why it’s so dangerous having this idea of good guys and bad guys in general. And also it’s blinding. After the 1928 financial crash, in America since they have this idea of good guys and bad guys, they didn’t say there was something wrong with the system, with the mechanisms of their capitalistic system, they said there were some bad, greedy people. It’s pretty naïve, it’s sad.
Do you see any differences in your attitude towards the industry compared to your offsprings Bill, Gustaf and Aleksander?
No, we’re pretty much on the same page. I’m happy they’re successful but I’m also happy to see how approach it and what they see in the material they are working with and how free they are from the bad side of the business, which is very nice to see, they don’t take the business seriously. They take their jobs seriously, and that is something completely different.
Have you ever felt like you’ve taken yourself too seriously?
When I was 19 years old I took myself far too seriously. Everything had to be art, and I had a very vague definition of what art was. Relativity is something you learn, I think.
Check out below the subtitled trailer of Gordon & Paddy: