In his new film Battleship, Alexander Skarsgård plays a rugged naval chief trying to save the world from evil aliens. But in real life, the devastatingly handsome, quietly captivating, and surprisingly introspective True Blood star would rather command an audience than the USS Sampson. As he sprints through the streets of New York, dodging cars and pedestrians, Idil Tabanca does her best to keep up.
While sipping an espresso at Fat Radish, a dimly lit restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Alexander Skarsgård speaks with deep admiration about An Iliad, an off- Broadway restaging of Homer’s Trojan War classic featuring a well-reviewed performance by his True Blood costar Denis O’Hare. “If you’re into acting-acting, this is just the thing for you,” Skarsgård says, sounding like someone who’s into acting- acting. He looks down at his watch, worried that he’ll be late for the performance at the New York Theatre Workshop. “Do you want to run there with me?” he says, as he gulps the espresso like a tequila shot.
Once outside, the 6’4″ actor races across Houston Street, towering over the other pedestrians on the sidewalk. “We shot What Maisie Knew in Chinatown, out on the street,” he says, referring to the upcoming family drama, in which he stars opposite Julianne Moore. “It’s life, it’s real, it’s chaos, but it’s lovely,” says the 35-year-old Skarsgård with an accent that has all but disappeared after years spent embodying all manner of characters. “Let’s go for it, the light is green,” he says. We start to run across Second Street, when a car grinds to a halt inches away from him. “Shit, I’m going to miss the show,” he says, as he checks his watch again, ignoring the car that nearly turned the famous Swede into roadkill.
With broad shoulders, dirty-blond hair, and blue eyes, Skarsgård looks like a superhero—or at least a Homeric warrior—which has served him well in his portrayal of Eric Northman, the darkly sexual vampire of HBO’s True Blood, a supernatural drama loosely based on Charlaine Harris’ popular Southern Vampire Mysteries book series. In Harris’ first installment, Dead Until Dark, Sookie Stackhouse (played in the series by Oscar winner Anna Paquin) describes Eric as a “hunk—kind of like the guys on the cover of romance books.” But Skarsgård brings more to the role than come-hither fangs and a set of killer abs. There’s heft to his character’s brooding, which is no easy task given that he’s playing a 1,000-year-old vampire in a fictional world overrun with werewolves, shape- shifters, maenads, and witches.
At the end of season four, which aired last summer, Sookie, who’d been playing a competitive game of emotional ping-pong with Eric and Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), suddenly removes herself from the show’s central love triangle when she breaks up with both of them. In the season finale, Eric’s protégée Pam (whom he turned into a vampire) hinted at the plot twist when she said, “I am so over Sookie, and her precious fairy vagina, and her unbelievably stupid name. Fuck Sookie!”
But that doesn’t mean the party is over. “Bill and Eric have to set aside their disputes and team up. They bond in the process; they have no choice. There’s definitely a bit of a bromance going on there,” says Skarsgård, smiling. “It’s a little like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” referring to the Wild West outlaws immortalized on screen by Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
Their unexpected alliance is not the only surprise bond that Alan Ball—the show’s creator, head writer, and producer—has in store for season five, which begins airing in June: He’ll also welcome a new inhabitant to the topsy- turvy world of Bon Temps, Louisiana. “Eric runs into someone very special,” says Skarsgård, referring to the new character, Nora (played by British actor Lucy Griffiths), Eric’s sister and a member of the Vampire Authority, a council of powerful bloodsuckers who control institutionalized vampire-dom across the globe. “There aren’t a lot of human people who Eric really cares about—he’s only loyal to a few,” Skarsgård says. “We saw his passion with his maker Godric, with Pam, and with Sookie. Nora is definitely just as important; she’s played a significant part in his life. She still does.”
The next day, during his BULLETT photo shoot, Skarsgård swaggers down Canal Street in a blue Bottega Veneta suit, parting the crowded sidewalk like the Red Sea. He walks alone, ignoring the double takes from gawkers who change direction to follow him. As we arrive at the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge, Skarsgård walks up to the gate and waits for the light to turn red, only to leap onto the street with the photographer sprinting after him and snapping away as he tempts fate on the temporarily empty bridge. The light turns green, and they each race back to safety just in time for cars to continue whizzing by.
The oldest of seven children, Skarsgård was born into a Swedish family with strong ties to the film industry. They lived in Södermalm (many of them still do), an artsy area of Stockholm, where the patriarch, Stellan, was already an established actor. Describing his upbringing as “bohemian and artistic,” Skarsgård says, “I grew up in a very secular society. I have atheist parents. My morality never came from religion or from scripture, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have the same values or ethics.” Instead of Sundays in church, family time consisted of playing in Dad’s dressing room while Stellan performed in local theaters. “He would rehearse one play during the day and then perform the other at night, so I didn’t see him much,” he says. “He was on stage working with Ingrid Bergman, and I’d be in the makeup room, playing with all the prosthetic noses and wigs.”
Though Skarsgård initially had no interest in following in his father’s footsteps, at 7 he landed a role in the film Åke and His World. By 13, he was starring in a Swedish TV series, The Dog That Smiled, but the overwhelming attention from its success led him to quit acting. In his late teens, he joined the military, not to defy his liberal upbringing, but because he didn’t know what to do with himself. “I just needed a challenge,” he says. “I come from the city. Growing up, we were never out in the wilderness, and I wanted to do something completely different.” Skarsgård signed up for the anti-sabotage unit. “The stuff they got to do in this unit, it just sounded cool.” The experience came in handy when he later spent months dramatizing the U.S. invasion of Iraq for the HBO miniseries Generation Kill (and later still, while playing a commanding naval officer in his latest film, Battleship). It’s even come in handy in real life: “I definitely complain less,” he says humbly, “and I appreciate more.”
His military days behind him, Skarsgård began putting his life into perspective. While on vacation in the U.S., the then-25-year-old auditioned for Zoolander on a whim. Despite his brief screen time, his portrayal of the dimwitted male model Meekus, with his fashion pout and moronic philosophical debates that resolve themselves in a cry for “orange mocha frappuccinos,” turned heads. With its bumper sticker–ready quotes, the film became an unlikely cult success. Skarsgård returned to Stockholm and kept building his résumé, and was included on multiple “Sexiest Man Alive” lists, including People’s.
His return to American audiences came in 2008 via Generation Kill. “The writing felt so real. There are no cliffhangers—it’s not heightened at all,” says Skarsgård of the project, which required him to live in Africa for seven months. “War is 90 percent waiting, 10 percent action, the same as making movies. It’s the whole concept of hurry up and wait. ‘Get ready!’ And then you sit for hours.”
While working on Generation Kill, Skarsgård became aware of True Blood, a new series being developed by HBO. He auditioned for the role of Bill (which eventually went to Moyer) and instead landed the part of Eric, a Viking vampire who lusts after Sookie. When asked why he cast Skarsgård as Eric, Ball quips, “Aside from the fact that he looks like a Viking god?” The True Blood creator, who recently announced that the show’s fifth season would be his last as showrunner, believed that Skarsgård had the rare ability to bring Eric to life, so to speak. “Eric’s a tricky character,” says Ball. “He’s done some really horrible things, but we still have to like him. Alex can make Eric ruthless but at the same time totally captivating and even sympathetic.”
And he isn’t Eric’s only cheerleader. Of the roughly five million viewers who tune in each episode, a sizeable chunk do so to follow Skarsgård’s brilliantly executed portrayal of the conflicted antihero. Besides T-shirts emblazoned with Eric’s smug mug—“Vikings Do It Better” and “Team Eric: Because Being Dead Never Looked So Good” are some examples—there are countless beer glasses, key chains, action figures, earrings, pens, iPad covers, and other VILF-inspired paraphernalia devoted to the character.
Using the success of the show as a stepping stone, Skarsgård soon began appearing in art-house dramas that would solidify his reputation as a serious actor. “I spend seven months just playing Eric on True Blood,” he says. “But when I’m on hiatus, when I get my five months off, I’m not looking to play the same character again.”
Skarsgård’s determination to escape typecasting was apparent when he accepted the part of Michael, a passive groom-to-be, in Danish auteur Lars von Trier’s critically lauded 2011 apocalypse drama Melancholia. The role proved to audiences that he could excel at playing the victim just as much as the predator. “It was quite far from most characters I’ve played before,” he says of Michael, who gets spurned by Kirsten Dunst’s Justine at the altar. Skarsgård also got to share some screen time with his father, who’d collaborated with von Trier before. “I was waiting for someone to come up and be like, ‘We were just kidding. The real guy is here now so you can just go home.’ It was surreal.” He then took on the role of Charlie, an aggressive alpha male, in Rod Lurie’s retelling of Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 revenge classic, Straw Dogs, where he was tasked with filming a rape scene with his then-girlfriend Kate Bosworth.
Bolder and braver than ever, Skarsgård filled up his recent hiatuses from True Blood with even more diverse projects. Battleship, based on the classic Hasbro combat game of the same name, marks his first attempt at toplining a major studio movie. In it, he plays strong-jawed naval commander Stone Hopper, who—alongside a cast that includes Taylor Kitsch and Liam Neeson—must fight off an alien invasion at sea. Peter Berg, the film’s director, had been ambushed by the women at his office, who’d practically begged him to cast Skarsgård in the film. “I was a big fan of True Blood— that’s why I started thinking about him,” says Berg. “One day, a gang of women who heard that came into my office—there were about seven of them—and told me it was not negotiable.”
Before signing his contract, Skarsgård did some negotiating of his own. He wanted to make sure that the story would take precedence over special effects, and that Berg, who’d sharpened his teeth on less bombastic fare like Friday Night Lights, wasn’t a slave to bottom-line studio executives. “He sat me down and said, ‘The studio trusts me. They know I’m good with actors. If you have ideas, talk to me. We’ll make it work,’” says Skarsgård of their partnership. “Pete cares about the characters and their relationships. He wasn’t like, ‘Just say your lines so we can get to the awesome aliens and explosions.’”
The action flick, which was released on May 18, also marks pop sensation Rihanna’s debut as an actress. “God, I thought I worked a lot,” says Skarsgård. “We would shoot until late Friday night and she would jump on a plane and go to L.A. to perform at the MTV Video Music Awards in front of a billion people, and then get straight back on the plane and fly to Hawaii, and go to set Monday morning with a smile on her face.” It didn’t hurt that she was working alongside Skarsgård, whose most distinctive personality trait is his contagious sense of humor. “Alex is a serious actor, but when the cameras are off, he’s the one making everyone laugh,” says Ball.
According to breakout screenwriter Brit Marling, the actor was constantly cracking jokes on the set of director Zal Batmanglij’s upcoming eco-thriller The East, starring Marling and Ellen Page. Skarsgård can’t hide his fascination with Marling, who recently co-wrote and starred in Another Earth, and has been pumping out some of the most original screenplays in the industry. The East stars Skarsgård as Benji, the strong- headed leader of a radical environmentalist collective that Marling’s character infiltrates. Marling’s search for the key part took an unexpected turn when she saw True Blood. “I remember thinking that the show was so fantastical, and yet he made me believe it,” she says. “He believes, therefore the audience believes—you find yourself willing to accept these completely preposterous things.” She wanted to cast a person who would “make you walk away from your desk job and go into the forest with them to start an insurrection.” Needless to say, it’s a hard role to pull off. “Alex was so ‘it’ from the beginning because he has this gravitas, this deep well of soulfulness and feeling. You would follow him into the woods.” On the second day of shooting, the cast was naked in frigid water, bathing one another for a scene. “When something like that happens on the second day, it cuts through all the insecurities and everyone gets really close, very quickly. The experience was so raw and intense.”
Opting for something entirely different from the theme of eco-anarchy, Skarsgård then took on the multi-plotted Internet drama Disconnect, which explores relationships affected by technology. Skarsgård plays an ex-marine reconnecting with his wife (Paula Patton) as they try to find the cyber criminal who stole their savings. “In the beginning, their marriage is not working,” says Skarsgård. “He feels like he’s not a man because he can’t give her a kid. He feels emasculated. He’s been out of the military for 10 years, but suddenly he has a mission again, so they slowly start to reconnect.”
Shortly after that, he filmed What Maisie Knew, which centers on a 6-year-old girl caught in the middle of a custody battle between her fading-rock-star mother (Julianne Moore) and her father (Steve Coogan). Skarsgård plays Lincoln, the girl’s stepfather. “The story is based on Henry James’ 1897 novel, adapted to contemporary New York,” explains Skarsgård. Although he says Moore’s involvement was his main draw when accepting the part, he admits, “I fell in love with Onata [Aprile], the little girl who played Maisie. In Hollywood, a lot of child actors are so professional that they don’t have the natural raw energy we needed. You meet 6-year- olds who have headshots and can tap dance. They are drilled to memorize the names of every casting director in Hollywood. Onata is just a regular kid with amazing energy.”
Back on set with BULLETT, Skarsgård radiates a similar magnetic energy as he takes off his shoes and sits down on the floor to eat with the team. He nuzzles his face into his photo partner, a baby lamb wearing a blue tie-dye shirt to keep warm during setups. “You’re the cutest!” Skarsgård says, cradling it in his strong arms. Looking her square in the eye, he whispers, “But I just had lamb stew last night.”