Stellan Skarsgård has been one of Sweden’s hardest working acting exports for many years, but his recognition in the States may have reached a new high when he was cast as Dr. Erik Selvig in Marvel Studios’ Thor in 2000. Ever since then, the Marvel Universe has been keeping Skarsgård busy, but not enough to have him turn down his good friend, Norwegian filmmaker Hans Peter Moland, when he comes to Skarsgård with a role.
Skarsgård plays Nils, a quiet snowplow driver in the middle of a snow-covered section of Norway in Moland’s new film In Order of Disappearance, his main responsibility being to remove snow from a long strip of road that connects the towns. When Nils’ son turns up dead, he starts going after the men responsible, leading him to an outlandish crime lord known as “The Count,” who is also interested in finding those responsible for taking out his men.
In Order of Disappearance is meant to be more of a comedy than the duo’s last collaboration, A Somewhat Gentle Man, but who knows if Americans will be able to appreciate that dark and dry Scandinavian humor? The movie does get some points for having a lot of original ideas on display, and it’s one of a number of Scandinavian crime films that Hollywood is already looking at as something that might be remade into an English language film, possibly starring Liam Neeson.
LRM went to the offices of Magnolia Pictures in New York to talk with Skarsgård and his director for the following interview:
LRM: You and Hans have worked together three times before, so is doing a movie like this fairly organic in terms of how you decide whether to do another movie together written by the same writer as “A Somewhat Gentle Man”?
Stellan Skarsgård: We’ve tried to do something new in the last two films. The first two films were heavy dramas, very serious, and we tried to be funny for two films now… with some success. We’ve developed the language a little, but when Hans Peter came with this script to me, I didn’t quite understand it, because it was such a mixture of genres and tones. I didn’t see the film. I couldn’t see what kind of film it would be, so I was hesitant to do it, even if I love working with Hans. But he just said, “Trust me,” and I decided to trust him and I did, but I didn’t know exactly what kind of film it would be until I saw the first cut.
LRM: I feel that actors have to take some projects blindly, because you can have a great script and scenes that work on set, but until you see the final movie, it’s almost impossible to tell what it will be.
Skarsgård: Yeah, you have no idea.
LRM: While there’s a lot of dialogue in the movie, your character doesn’t talk a lot. He’s one of these classic…
Skarsgård: Quiet, strong man. (chuckles)
LRM: So what was the appeal of that and what did you think might be interesting about playing that kind of role?
Skarsgård: I love working without dialogue. To me, film acting is about everything between the lines, more than what’s happening in the lines. I love showing rather than telling, and Hans Peter understands that very well and is lovely in his way of shooting what you’re expressing when you’re not talking. A bad director shoots who is talking at the moment.
(At this point, we’re joined by director Hans Peter Moland, and we exchange a few pleasantries.)
LRM: My first question was about the two of you working together and the process of you approaching him with the script for this one, and how much convincing you have to do to get him to commit to do a movie.
Skarsgård: Hans Peter doesn’t have to convince me really because I want to work with him all the time, but as I said, I didn’t know what kind of film this was, and I was hesitant, but he just said, “Trust me.”
Hans Peter Moland: But also, sometimes it’s healthy to have somebody question your stuff, because it sharpens your own perceptions about what you’ve written or what you’ve made. In a way, I had to formulate both for myself and for him what it was that I wanted to achieve. It’s a good input in the process in the long run.
LRM: Since this was written by the same guy who wrote the last movie you did together, were you aware of it while it was being written or did you get it after it was done?
Moland: No, it originated as a story that I wrote many years ago, and then presented it to the producer after the A Somewhat Gentle Man premiere in Berlin and we decided to develop it. I pretty much had my hands in it, the whole time.
LRM: Stellan mentioned the comedic aspects of the movie that may not be so obvious on the page than in the final movie. Was that something you were shooting for, more of a comedy than other stuff?
Moland: Yes, I think all along that was a very integral part of it, both the absurdities. There’s a lot of humor in it and a lot of different kinds of humor—it’s high comedy, even slapstick comedy occasionally and there’s satire in it. The only rule was that none of the characters in this film are aware that anything is funny. They’re dead serious… or dead… or both.
LRM: Especially the actor who plays “The Count” — I mean, he’s hilarious without making jokes so much, but he’s so over-the-top. Was that an actor you both knew beforehand?
Moland: He’s a very famous Norwegian actor. I’d never worked with him before. I had a lot of people I thought could do it, who ultimately are in the film in other roles, people who I like to work with, but he came in and he did an audition or a test which really brought something fresh to it that I hadn’t really thought of, and it really inspired me, so we developed the character a lot together after that.
LRM: You mentioned before about not knowing how the movie might be until you see the final movie. There is that whole section of stuff going on with “The Count” and his life and you’re off in your own movie.
Skarsgård: Yeah, that worried me, too, because there was a big part of the movie that I wouldn’t even be on the set for. Where’s that going to go? (chuckles)
LRM: I’m not sure if you are familiar with Michael Mann’s “Heat” but that whole movie is the two main actors doing their own things and then appearing together for maybe ten minutes. Were you around at all while they were shooting the other stuff?
Skarsgård: No, I just did my things. I wasn’t around when they were shooting with The Count’s story. With Bruno Ganz a little more.
Moland: But that was one of my ambitions with this film was to break the genre limitations and conventions and allow myself to freely movie from one type of genre onto the next without missing a beat and not be shy about being playful when we were in one certain setting for instance, when the Count is looking for the gym bag of his kid. It’s a totally ridiculous thing, but it says a lot about his relationship to his wife that she can wind him up like she does.
LRM: The setting of the movie is interesting because a lot of that is on that one stretch of road where it’s constantly snowing. Was that an early decision to have that as part of the original idea, to have him driving the snow blower and have that be a part of the plot?
Moland: And also to have it being desolate, so his house is… I don’t think it’s in the script, but my idea was that both graphic and symbolically, his house is on the edge of civilization and he’s like a pathfinder that drives out into the wilderness and forges this path to the other side, which we never see, for his fellow man. I think it gives him a sense of purpose, but it also gives him a sense of being civilized, which is actually quite shallow and untested.
LRM: I think you might have actually gotten a credit as a stunt driver on the film, which comes from you driving that giant snow blower. Did you have to get training to do that?
Skarsgård: The man who owns the plows, he taught me how to drive them and I thoroughly enjoyed it. That credit was added by the stunt coordinator after I crashed into a couple of cars…on purpose.
LRM: The use of equipment as part of the plot is interesting, not just the snow blower but also the log lifting device. I don’t think a movie like this would get made in America.
Skarsgård: Sexy things, a snow plow.
LRM: Visually, it adds a certain scale to the movie by setting this in the middle of nowhere with a snow plow cutting a path through the snow.
Moland: It’s almost poetic, too, sending the snow flying. I spent a lot of effort with the designer to find the right… all of the modes of transportation are important in this film, for instance, the Fisker Karma that the Count drives is a totally ridiculous car for a man who’s six foot six or six-seven, whatever he is. Especially to have a chauffeur in the car like that, because it’s a sports car, but it’s perfectly fitting for his personality. It’s an electronic car, for those that don’t know, so it’s a super-expensive electric car, but it fits his own self-image of being environmentally conscious and vegan and all that. Then sitting squooshed up in the back, because a man of his stature of course has a chauffeur, but the car is clearly designed for people that drive themselves
LRM: It’s a very strange character and one of the things I enjoyed was the artwork in his house and the shelf of hand statues. Every time they cut back to that room and I see the shelf full of hands, I was curious about who came up with that idea and who might have a shelf of hand sculptures in their house?
Moland: I had a wonderful designer working on this film. He came up with a lot of really delightful ideas that we both went with and expanded on. I think he found those hands and he found a lot of other stuff for the hands from a source that he kept presenting us. One thing leads to another. I think the hands have something to do with when he says he’s going to cut his hands off at the end and cut his nose off, so I think it was related. In a subtle ways, for anyone who makes the connection, it has to do with him having chopped off hands prior, but we also actually made the hands say something in sign language.
LRM: I was hoping you’d tell me that you filmed in someone’s house and that happened to be the artwork they had in the house already. I was curious about that mindset.
Skarsgård: Somebody was in jail so we could use the house.
LRM: I do want to talk more about the humor in the movie. I’ve been to Norway quite a bit myself so I have experience with Norwegians and their sense of humor, but does the humor go across Scandinavian countries well? I notice a lot of Swedish actors work in Norway and vice versa, and you have a Danish writer.
Moland: There are differences. I think the differences between Sweden and Norway are not as big as between Norway and Denmark, for instance. Danes are less dry wit and understatement is not the forte of Danes. Although they enjoy this film, I don’t think they could have made it themselves. I think they recognize that it’s something that isn’t part of their DNA, but they enjoy it. It’s not that they don’t have a sense of humor, it’s just that it’s different. Danes are much more tied to European or German culture historically and to a much greater extent are a part of Europe as Norway has just been this satellite or colony that’s been exploited by the Danes.
LRM: Any thoughts on this, Stellan, having worked a lot with Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier?
Skarsgård: There are small cultural differences, but like Sweden and Norway is basically the same thing, but also, humor, as we talked about it before, because we got a lot of questions after “A Somewhat Gentle Man”—“Is this Scandinavian humor?” but the humor we grew up with was Monty Python, it was Anglo-Saxon humor more than anything else. Billy Wilder.
Moland: Yeah, Billy Wilder for me.
Skarsgård: Whose humor is not very Austrian, is it?
Moland: No, he’s more like New Yorkish.
LRM: The Monty Python comparison I can see.
Skarsgård: Jewish, maybe.
Moland: Yeah, Jewish. I remember when I was living in New York in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, I felt like I was being exposed to a lot of brutal, dry humor, and it was new to me that nothing was sacred, that you could make fun of anything. I remember when Marvin Gaye’s father shot him, only maybe a half hour later on the radio news, the first joke came out. “What did Marvin Gaye’s father say to Marvin Gaye before he shot him?” “This is the last 45 you’ll ever hear.” Which is a really brutal thing to say. I don’t think you can make that joke today in this country but at that time it was very common way to…
LRM: Yeah, people are a lot more sensitive these days than they were. The reason I asked about the difference in humor is at one point your character is talking to one of his neighbors and he’s talking about your character being an immigrant since he’s a Swede living in Norway. I think if Americans watch this movie, I don’t think they would know the difference, so I was curious about that comment.
Skarsgård: Yeah, but it’s not that big a difference. The joke about that is that you don’t consider Swedes immigrants, because they look like you. To be a real immigrant, you have to have darker skin I think.
Moland: It’s a man who slices the baloney very thin. When he makes the distinction between Swedes and Norwegians and even saying he’s well-integrated, it’s like complimenting a man from Connecticut for having made the transition to New York without stumbling.
LRM: Obviously, when you entered the Marvel Universe, you reached a new level of recognition in the States in some ways. How has that transition been and do you find yourself being recognized more now?
Skarsgård: It’s been gradual, because I’ve done more commercial American films before like Good Will Hunting or the "Pirates" films, and stuff like that, but of course, the fans of the Marvel Universe is a new group. Then I have small girls that love Mamma Mia and then I have arthouse movie buffs that love my small, independent films. I’m in a pretty good place.
You can also read what Skarsgård had to say about his character, Dr. Erik Selvig, and his return to the Marvel Universe, possibly in Avengers: Infinity War right here.