We meet Alexander Skarsgård at the sweet spot in his career, when he is morphing into a movie star. To commemorate the change, M set him up at Fortune Gym, on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, to re-create the sweaty Hollywood glamour of Somebody Up There Likes Me (starring Paul Newman, 1956), or Champion (Kirk Douglas, 1949), or maybe Kid Galahad (Edward G. Robinson, 1937). At left is former heavyweight professional and current gym proprietor Justin Fortune, who fought Lennox Lewis back in ’95. “I was six-two when I went in the ring,” Fortune says, just before working with Skarsgård. “Now I’m five-foot-nine.”
His film career got its start in 2001, while he was visiting his papa (actor Stellan Skarsgård) in Los Angeles. “My dad’s agent said, ‘Oh, I’ll send you out on a meeting,’” Skarsgård says. “I auditioned for Zoolander and got it.” It was the small (but crucial!) role of Meekus, a dim-bulb fashion model who perishes in a gasoline fight. It did not hint much at what was to come for the star of HBO’s True Blood, who is now making his name in three movies playing at the same time: The East, What Maisie Knew, and Disconnect.
“He’s a good mover,” says film director Henry-Alex Rubin, who made the Oscar-nominated 2005 documentary Murderball and cast Skarsgård in the recent Disconnect. “The way an actor moves through space is essential to believing them. Alex moves like a soldier. More important, there’s a mystery to him. You don’t meet Alex and immediately think, ‘I understand him.’ It takes a long time. If I were to compare him to someone that he is going to grow into, he reminds me of Clint Eastwood.”
When gym proprietor Justin Fortune saw Skarsgård lying on the canvas, he said, “Don’t get used to that fuckin’ position, all right?” The actor lifted his head and laughed. He has been down before. Roughly 10 years ago, he found himself auditioning for stupid parts. Then he saw something he wanted—the role of U.S. Marine Sgt. Brad “Iceman” Colbert in the HBO miniseries Generation Kill, which was co-produced by The Wire’s David Simon and Ed Burns. “I got lucky,” Skarsgård says. “I got the part.”
Skarsgård is six-foot-four. His arms are like ropes. Those attributes (and his linguistic skill) made him right for the role of a Mississippi golden boy turned rapist in Rod Lurie’s brutal and effective 2011 remake of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. In real life, though, as if to compensate for his physical gifts, Skarsgård has a gentle manner, which he shows off to good effect in What Maisie Knew. In that one he plays a slouchy bartender who impulsively marries a self-involved musician (Julianne Moore). Little by little he becomes a doting father figure to her neglected daughter, Maisie (Onata Aprile), in the sweetest cinematic pairing of an adult male and a young girl since Ryan and Tatum O’Neal starred in Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973).
Skarsgård was famous as a kid, after appearing on a popular Swedish TV show, but he hated being recognized—so he quit acting for his teenage years. Now, at age 36, he doesn’t mind being approached by even the most smitten True Blood fan. “I’ve learned to be genuinely happy if someone likes what I do,” he says. It helps that he’s a fan himself. “I love Spencer Tracy. And Marlon Brando was phenomenal—I’m a huge fan of his. Paul Newman, as well, with Hud. There was a darkness and also something very naturalistic about the way they acted that you didn’t see so much of before that. They weren’t theatrical. James Cagney had it, too. That intensity. For a leading man, to have that darkness, and to be able to explore that, back when a lot of them were just flashy leading men… Cagney was awesome. Awesome.”
Skarsgård began making his own way at age 19, when he joined the Swedish army. “My dad is an actor,” he says as he sits on the bike behind Fortune Gym, “and all his friends are artists, painters, musicians, actors—so it was great, growing up with these super-creative, interesting people. There were big dinner parties, and my dad loves to cook. Tons of wine—it was a crazy household, but so much love, as well. So I come from a family of these super-left-wing pacifist bohemians and wanted to challenge myself and do something completely different from what I was used to.” As a member of a special operations unit called SakJakt, he picked up a lot of what he has used as an actor—skills that may come in handy once more if Warner Bros. decides to go ahead with Tarzan as its new tentpole franchise, with Skarsgård in the loincloth.