Alexander Skarsgård is an embarrassing creep who tries to coerce women into partying naked with him in hotel suites. Or so it would seem from the version of himself that he played last year in Donald Glover’s comedy Atlanta. “I’m not saying that I dance around in a leopard-print thong in front of girls I don’t know,” he says. “But I’m also not saying that I don’t. That kind of thing works really well when there’s a kernel of truth in it.”
This twinkling, teasing playfulness represents the default setting of the 46-year-old actor. His natural self-deprecation is what makes it so startling when he turns up on screen as another of the brutes and bastards that have become his speciality over the years. There was the violently abusive husband in the HBO series Big Little Lies and the violently abusive cop in War on Everyone; a racist in Passing and a rapist in the Straw Dogs remake, as well as a sad, moustachioed sleazeball who sleeps with his partner’s underage daughter in The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Eric, the vampire he played across all seven series of True Blood, was an absolute catch by comparison.
It could even be argued that Skarsgård looks lost or vague in those roles that don’t supply some darkness to temper his natural sheen. He was ferocious as a mud-caked proto-Hamlet in Robert Eggers’s wild Viking epic The Northman, but as the yodelling vine-swinger in The Legend of Tarzan, there was none of the usual depth present behind his beauty. Whereas his character in the new satirical horror Infinity Pool – directed by Brandon Cronenberg, son of David – is up to his disbelieving eyes in vanity, amorality and rancid privilege.
Skarsgård plays a novelist called James living off the wealth of his wife, Em (Cleopatra Coleman), and struggling to write a second book six years after his debut. In search of inspiration, he and Em visit a luxurious resort in an unnamed country. What begins as a taunting comedy about the awfulness of the 1% veers off into extremity when the couple fall in with the hedonistic Gabi (Mia Goth) and her partner, Alban (Jalil Lespert). All it takes for the impressionable James to be hooked by these reprobates is a few compliments from Gabi followed by a sex act shown in graphic detail. “My job is so hard,” the actor says with a smirk.
Cronenberg and Skarsgård are both the sons of talented men. (Skarsgård’s father is Stellan Skarsgård who, like him, is part of the Lars von Trier Cinematic Universe.) Director and actor also have a certain placid temperament in common. “There’s a politeness to Canadians and Swedes,” says Skarsgård. “But it’s all just a fucking facade. Deep down we’re animals. We’re just very good at concealing it.” He gestures at me. “Brits too. It’s all down there, though. You can just open the tap and let it out. That’s what this movie does.”
Even as the film descends into gruesome horror, Skarsgård remains committed to the idea of his character as a show pony with delusions of being a stallion. “James is arm candy. His wife buys him all these expensive clothes. The two of them look like something out of a travel brochure: the perfect couple on vacation. And he’s trying to play that part while wanting also to be this serious author. But he’s not a Charles Bukowski, he’s not tormented and twisted. He isn’t in touch with the darker side of his personality.”
That changes when James finds himself facing the death penalty after accidentally killing a local farmer. He is assured by the police that there is a way out: for a hefty price, a clone of him can be created to take the fall on his behalf. This is no dumb beast, however; the sacrificial lamb will possess all his memories and feelings. It will, in effect, be indistinguishable from him. In a film featuring explicit sex and violence, there is still nothing quite as unnerving as the moment James encounters his own double as it wakes with a shocked gasp in a vat of red goo.
“The film company gave me a prosthetic of the clone’s face with all that goo round it,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s incredibly disturbing. What am I meant to do with it? Should I just hang it on the wall? Put it in the fridge?” He decided to go down the practical joke route. “When I have guests over, I’ll hide it in different places around the house.”
Would he take the clone option himself, I wonder? “One hundred per cent! I don’t blame James for going to the ATM. But it opens up other questions. If the clone retains all his memories, then how will he ever know that he is not the clone? Maybe they’re killing the real James. That fascinated me, and I love that there’s no answer in the movie. To throw another wrench in the works: maybe James has even been to the island already. Maybe he’s done this sort of thing before.”
These questions of authenticity, dilution and duplication are especially intriguing for an actor who proposed that twisted alternate version of himself in Atlanta, and who claims to suffer even now from impostor syndrome. Had you been present in 2008 on the set of Generation Kill, the HBO Iraq war mini-series written by the creators of The Wire and shot in Namibia, Mozambique and South Africa, you might have noticed him sitting off to one side between takes, quietly totting up figures with a pen and paper. “It was my first big job,” he explains. “I was so convinced they were going to fire me that I started calculating the cost of recasting the role once they realised I wasn’t good enough. A month or two in, I was still convinced that every time the phone rang, it was my agent saying: ‘Pack your bags, you’re not cutting it.’ It was only when we’d done some big battle scenes that I knew it would be too expensive to replace me.”
It wasn’t as if he has a history of flunking, though there was the job in the Stockholm bakery that he was sacked from at the age of 16. “We were dipping little biscuits in chocolate for six hours a day in a basement and that was the only thing we got to do,” he says pleadingly, as though mounting the case for his defence. “When you get chocolate on your fingers, it’s tempting to put little stains on your buddy’s white robes. That turned into a bit of a food fight.” He smiles bashfully. Chocolate wouldn’t melt in his mouth.
A few years earlier, he had abandoned a childhood acting career after feeling freaked out by all the attention he received. “When people recognised me, or I thought they did, it made me very uncomfortable. I also believed everything I heard about who I was. Most people at 13 have no idea who they are. I was going from a boy to a man, which is a crazy transformation anyway, but to do it while being in the spotlight was not healthy. That’s why I didn’t work for eight years.” What could he learn now as an actor from his younger self? “There was a lot of joy,” he says. “That makes me sound bitter now! But there was something innocent and lovely and wide-eyed. It’s worth remembering that it can still be a big silly game.”
His continuing appetite for comedy bears this out. He was a riot in the opening episode of On Becoming a God in Central Florida, where he played a dope who gets involved with a pyramid scheme before being eaten by an alligator. (His on-screen wife was Kirsten Dunst. For further proof that their marriages never end well, see Von Trier’s apocalyptic Melancholia.) He also goofs around gloriously in the new season of Documentary Now!, in which he stars as a Werner Herzog-esque director shooting an epic in the Urals while simultaneously showrunning a US network comedy pilot called Bachelor Nanny. “I’ve met Herzog a few times over the years, but I don’t know if he’s seen this yet,” he says, slightly sheepishly. “I’m curious to hear what he thinks.”
It was in fact comedy that tempted Skarsgård back to acting again after all those years away. He was on holiday in Los Angeles in the early 00s when his father’s agent suggested he try out for an audition. Six weeks later, he was pootling around New York in the back of a Jeep with Ben Stiller, pouting away happily as gormless Swedish model Meekus in Zoolander. Getting that job was such a breeze that he was crestfallen to be knocked back repeatedly in other Hollywood auditions. He returned to Sweden to continue acting; another six years elapsed before Generation Kill kickstarted his US career.
These days, he seems somehow both ubiquitous and judicious. He is getting ready to make his directorial debut with The Pack, in which he and Florence Pugh star as documentary makers in Alaska. And he will return this month in the fourth and final season of Succession, which reportedly places even greater emphasis on Skarsgård’s character, the tech bro Lukas Matsson. Another bad boy of sorts.
“Quite a few of the projects I’ve chosen deal with the juxtaposition of someone trying to function in modern society while also dealing with that atavistic primal question of who he is deep down and what happens when that flares up and can’t be suppressed any longer,” he says. “It’s incredibly cathartic to play those roles. Maybe because I’m quite mellow in my disposition. These darker, more twisted characters give me an opportunity to howl that primal scream and let it out, which I rarely do in everyday life.”
James in Infinity Pool has his head turned by the tiniest compliment; Skarsgård knows that, for all his own protestations about refusing to read what is written about him, he is just as susceptible to praise. “I really don’t read reviews,” he says. “That said, it’s so nice when people enjoy your work enough to come say something or take a photo. I’d prefer that to the alternative, which is crawling around in the mud for seven months and giving it everything and then it’s just … crickets. I like people appreciating what I’ve done. I’m a vain motherfucker!”