If you don’t know who Gustaf Skarsgård is already, it’s not strange. He doesn’t really give interviews, doesn’t really care about publicity, or socializing at “important” events. That’s because he prefers to put his attention on his job - an Actor.
I had the chance to meet Gustaf in Stockholm. We met at his regular cafe spot in Stockholm, Sodermalm. It’s a fresh summer afternoon. The cafe is small, colorful and has a little area for outdoor seating with a view of the nearby park. There’s a mix of characters and personalities all around, like Gustaf himself.
I see him from a distance and immediately recognize him from seeing him play Hamlet at Stockholm’s Stadsteater a few years earlier. Gustaf walks towards me but stops to talk to two women at another table first. I walk up to him and introduce myself, afraid that he did not notice me. He immediately gives me his full attention and excuses himself to the women. While ordering an espresso, I reveal honestly to Gustaf that I am not a journalist. I ask him to bear with me. He laughs and says, “Thank God.”
He tells me later that the two women actually were his sister and her friend, and says he comes here all the time. He loves the diversity and all the different kinds of personalities. His presence is hard to ignore. His expressions are alive and full of energy, and he has a true passion in his voice. I feel instantly inspired, and the questions start pouring out of me. I want to know everything about Gustaf.
During our meeting, I understand how acting comes so naturally for Gustaf. Not only was he born into the Skarsgard family, but he has a curiosity about life and desire to experience it from all different perspectives and conditions true to the characters that he plays.
He recently starred in the feature film, Kon-Tiki directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Bengt Danielsson was the character). He also starred in VI, directed by Mani Maserrat Agah, and The Way Back, a Hollywood production, directed by Peter Weir. Gustaf is currently playing the role of Floki in the History Channel’s TV series, Vikings.
Dorothea: How do you manage a role that is hard to grasp?
Gustaf: When I'm confused in my work, one clear sign is when I notice myself writing background stories about my characters. I'm searching outside of the role instead of basing it on the script.
Do you then restart the process all over again?
No, then I'm screwed, but that happened a long time ago. (Gustaf smiles)
Is there any difference between how your process is now in comparison to when you just started out? Is there a pressure to deliver?
Absolutely, I can see in my earlier work that my ambition killed the creativity. it’s a common mistake made by beginners to live fully with extreme emotions, like complete anger or sadness. it’s the easy subtle expressions - and everything in between. it’s hard though and demands a lot of practice.
What makes you regain energy after hard work?
Family and close friends. When I'm flying so much and working on new roles, it’s important to have some sort of grounding to fall back on - a concrete place where I can regain new energy. it’s a privilege that I have and would never want to lose. The other way is to spend time in nature, which fascinates me since I grew up in the city and discovered nature later on in life.
When you’re filming, do you think it’s important to create a personal relationship with your co-stars or do you try to keep it professional?
I don’t look for new friends, but it comes naturally. When you work very hard together, it’s in the shared intense moments where you reveal yourself in the moment. I'm always searching for the real person, the deeper you. But with that being said, some parts of me are very closed, and only a few know me that way.
But what if you don’t connect?
I used to want to be loved by everyone, but now I accept if we don’t connect. I'm not going to blame myself like I used to. I don’t know who I am, but I'm fine with just being.
I think you know who you are more than other actors.
Lots of actors are wasting all of their talents on playing the role as “the actor who’s playing the role,” instead of playing the actual role.
If you’re honest towards the people you meet, you gain trust.
And that can also be difficult. I have a tendency to open up closed people. Somehow they interest me more. Even if it was a great connection in the moment, it doesn’t mean we are best friends. I live for the moment, and we share it. But then I let go, and people can mistake the moment for more than it is... holding on to it.
So what do you dislike about the business?
I hate the elitists. The narcissistic environment where you need to hang with the right people, be seen and kiss asses. I'm trying to avoid that and focus on my job instead.
How do you prepare yourself before a scene?
The method is not very interesting to me. The important thing is to be present and deliver when I'm in front of the camera. it’s the energy I have to work on and build up so the character can be alive. The most important thing is life and flow. if it’s too methodic, there is a risk that it becomes lifeless.
What do you get out of acting?
I live for it and have been since I was six years old. it is a diverse profession where you have the opportunity to relate to different dimensions, situations, and lives. I love a fantastic script and role that I have to dig into. Sometimes it can be as simple as the joy of chopping wood, or riding horses. it’s in the diversity of life that I'm able to explore all kinds of views within any given situation.
What turns you off?
It turns me off to see actors on stage enjoying their experience too personally, then you’re not truly present in the role. it should be the character’s emotions and not your personal experience. I'm trying to surrender my own personal experience and focus on the role.
Do you find it hard to keep characters apart?
Every character I've played or will play is a different expression of myself. They intertwine with each other. it’s about different ranges of energy and it has to fit into the frame of the character I'm playing.
It seems like you have been choosing the right roles in your career - complex and challenging, like Hamlet.
Hamlet is a maniac and requires tremendous energy to play him, and avoid making it become a routine. it was a challenge to remain sane and not get burned out. But yes, I love the complexity of the great roles where you can go very deep. Even if everyone is coming into the project with good intention, it’s still never guaranteed that project will be good, even if the script and your fellow actors are well respected. You have to take risks and you never know where it’s going to take you.
What about acting as an art form?
I think that acting can be the most honest, beautiful and complete art form. Your instrument is your body, voice, mind, and soul. To express yourself, you use your whole existence. I'm trying to keep it as honest as I can. it’s potentially the most beautiful art form. But most of the time it doesn’t reach that higher level and it becomes dirty, like prostitution.
Any plans for starting a family sooner or later?
(laughs) If I will beat my father if I have nine children! Theoretically, it’s possible...joking aside, I have my family and I need to focus on my work. I'm dedicated so it’s hard to justify focusing on creating a family of my own right now. I would probably not be present enough.
Are you ever get attracted to your co-stars?
Of course. There’s always a connection between you and your co-star. There has to be. otherwise, we shouldn’t work together. acting is all about connection. I'm conscious of it and take it for what it is.
Have you dated a co-star?
I’ve been in a relationship with another actor before. The advantage of it is that they understand your life, your routine-less schedule, and have respect for the profession. There’s also a danger to it. Doesn’t matter how much you work on yourself and with acting, you and everyone else are identifying you with the success you have. You will start to question yourself, and feel worthless when not booking jobs. and there will be times you can feel some sort of jealousy when your partner is booking jobs, and you’re not.
What inspires you?
I’ve been a big Hip Hop nerd, as I’ve always rooted for the underdog. as a younger man, I identified with the angry men from the United States - the ones who shouted the truth. Even if I was a middle-class teenager from Sodermalm, my gang of people were outsiders here. nobody really knew what Hip Hop was, but we identified with the culture of Hip Hop.
What do you think about art?
Depending on the concept, I like art that I can experience and not think my way to. I like what I like and don’t care about the trends. I'm the viewer and I always have right. if I think it’s shit, it is shit for me. if it doesn’t arouse something within me, it’s bad art.
Have you always had high expectations of yourself?
I wanted to be best very early on which I'm very happy for, (Gustaf smiles) because now I am “The Best.” I'm just joking, but it made me commit to drama school and work my ass off, almost to the point of absurdity.
So do you ever question yourself and your work?
Absolutely, doubt and megalomania are so close to each other that it’s hard to separate sometimes. I'm calmer now. When I was in my early twenties, I was extreme between doubting myself and the megalomania, now I'm searching for balance.
But do you like extremes?
I love it, but it’s dangerous, depending on which context. I have the everything-or-nothing genes. it can be terribly difficult with everything.
Have you ever been on the wrong track?
Yes, a lot of times. But you also need to walk the wrong path to realize who you are, question, and look around to find the right things. it’s part of life to take risks and have the courage to let go. Maybe you’ll get lost, but then you need to search again. it makes life more interesting to put yourself outside of your comfort zones.
Did you ever lose yourself in the process?
Yes, I used to. nowadays I don’t have the same need for it anymore. My philosophy was always, (Gustaf laughs) to smoke weed day in and day out. Just joking... I used to be so afraid of stagnating that I actually lost myself in refusing to hold on to any identity and in the constant search. it’s not that I felt like I have found myself now I've just stopped looking more...
So how did you get back into yourself?
It depends on the project and role. after Hamlet, for example, I burned the candle at both ends over a long time frame. The only way for me was have a solid place where I could just be, and ground myself. But I feel calmer within and realized I don’t have to search all the time. I can allow myself to be.
That is so important in relationships as well, to meet your partner, or every human being you meet with the aware the now, knowing that we change every moment.
Exactly, especially in relationships. it’s so important to see the person for what they are and not project your own expectations or the past into that moment. That’s why it’s so important to be single sometimes, to reconnect with yourself without the projections of your partner. You are your own being, with ups and downs. You have to meet somehow in the middle.
I saw this picture that symbolizes love in such a beautiful way - two cycles intertwining almost halfway.
Definition is a lie. it’s stagnation. The picture is defined, that’s why it stopped being. Everything is constantly moving. and the funny thing is, even in Quantum Physics the molecules are affected by your observation.
I don’t understand?
The smallest components when you study them, cannot be studied objectively. They get affected by your observation. They get affected by the expectation of the viewer, therefore the whole is composed by that expectation.
Do you believe in a higher power, spirituality, God?
I don’t believe in any religion, but I'm open for something more. I like to question. But I'm fine without knowing. I find life magical and mystical enough as it is. The sun is a big burning star in the universe. That’s divine enough! it fascinates me that we are a part of this universe.
What sign are you?
I hate when this question comes up. I'm a Scorpion.
I’m a Scorpion as well.
(Gustaf laughs) Really what date?
November 6th, and you?
November 12th. I'm a proud Scorpion. I like the myth of the Scorpion, a powerful sign. I think there is a cosmic effect on your date of birth, but I'm questioning the interpretation.
Gustaf, where are you going next?
I’m flying to LA to spend some time with Alexander (Gustaf's brother). Then I'm continuing shooting Vikings in Ireland.
For my last question, since I’m not a journalist, I would like to know if you like interviews?
I like interviews when there is good intention behind it, but some journalists want to provoke you and get a bad reaction. it’s superficial, and I don’t want to open up to them. This is a conversation. You and I had a conversation and we talked about interesting things. When I walk away from here, I'll feel I had a good time. I had fun.
Photography: Elisabeth Toll
Stylist: Nicole Walker / Lundlund
Grooming: Kristina Kullenberg / Lundlund
Photography Assistant: Aron Heinemann