TV

Stellan Skarsgård: "Scandinavia is the most emancipated corner of the world"

River star Stellan Skarsgård discusses the decline of cinema, Disney's 'morality clause' and when exactly the UK should have closed its borders

A standout show for the BBC this year has been the crime thriller River. As well as providing riveting drama it taps into topical trends, such as the invisible community of migrants living in our cities. The lead character John River is also unlike other TV detectives. Namely, he sees dead people, or manifests, who sometimes help him solve crimes but more often than not exacerbate his fragile mental state.

River is the first major TV role for one of Sweden’s best known acting exports, Stellan Skarsgård. He has popped up in countless Hollywood films, alongside superheroes in The Avengers, been quite the super trooper in the memorable Mamma Mia! and pioneered Scandinoir. He also has plenty to say about Sweden’s role in the world and what Britain can learn from his country about immigration…

With River you have become yet another film actor taking on a TV role.

We all have to venture more and more into television. Cinema distribution has adapted to the popcorn industry. You have big movies with a budget of $100-$200m then nothing-nothing-nothing-nothing, then a few independent films for $2m. Everything in between has gone, and they used to be the films that were character driven, written by the best writers, directed by the best directors and played by the best actors.

You are part of the Marvel and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises. Do you feel complicit?

No, I don’t feel complicit. The market rules, it’s not my fault! Cinemas make more money from selling popcorn than selling tickets.

All TV detectives have their personal demons and flaws – were John River’s interesting enough for you to want the role?

We are showered with thousands of detective stories. I’m really bad at doing those cop lines, “Download the CCTV and go through his bank accounts…” I can’t find enough enthusiasm to say them. Usually the procedural side of who did it is more important than the character but this script was totally different because the very core of the story is about this strange man, and the procedural side is in the background.

You have said that River allowed you to be both an actor and an actress. What do you mean?

I often envy actresses. They get to show uninhibited emotions, everything that is going on inside the character. Most male characters are, for cultural reasons, written to contain their emotions. But in all the scenes with the manifests my character River is wide open. That is very liberating.

The good roles for women are usually better than the good roles for men, even if they’re fewer

But people from within and outwith the industry often complain about the lack of good roles for women.

That’s true but that’s another problem. The good roles for women are usually better than the good roles for men, even if they’re fewer.

Did your performance, alongside Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth in Mamma Mia!, give you a taste of the kind of roles women often get cast in?

We were supposed to be cute and silly – typical bimbos. I really enjoyed it. In a way it was an extremely feminist production, written, produced and directed by women.

Mamma-Mia

Does River qualify as Scandinoir because there’s a Scandinavian in it?

No, that’s a label that has become commercially viable and is used to make the audience feel familiar. I don’t even know what Scandinoir is. Probably I did one of the first, Insomnia, many years ago but now almost anything that comes out of Scandinavia is Scandinoir, which is sad.

What do you call Scandinoir in Scandinavia?

It’s called TV. Nordic Noir got a great push from the Millennium Trilogy. That is a really mediocre crime story but it has really interesting characters. Scandinavia is far more emancipated than any other corner of the world, which means our female characters are written in a different way.

Why are we so repressed in the UK?

I don’t know! I’ve been asking that myself. Why did you put pink lights on Tower Bridge when a princess was born? Is it a fucking Barbie country? We don’t colour code our children depending on whether they have a penis or not.

There is probably much we could learn from Sweden but is there anything Sweden could learn from us?

We’ve learned some bad things. Whatever Thatcher did to England, we did 20 years later. Now you’ve got an interesting reaction to that with Corbyn as the new Labour leader. Maybe we should look at something radical for our Swedish Social Democrats as well.

River explores the hidden migrant community in London – what did you learn about that?

I saw a London I hadn’t seen before. I was in apartments smaller than my bathroom where five people were living. I was staying in Islington, which isn’t the fanciest, but the house next door was sold for £6m. There are a lot of people suffering in the world but it’s very hard to see them suffer that close to richness. It’s horrifying and it will eventually lead to clashes and extremism.

When should you have closed your borders? Before 1066 maybe? Or before the Vikings came?

If any country is familiar with immigration it is Sweden, which has taken more refugees per capita than any other country – up to 200,000 in 2015.

We’ve been doing that for decades. Dealing with a lot of immigrants is not a big problem because they can be absorbed into society, the problems are with the right-wing parties that thrive from the fear they can spread. We were the last of the European countries to have an anti-immigration party that had any success but now our Ukip has over 10 per cent and it is growing, especially among working-class people who feel more anxiety. The interesting thing is 65 per cent of Swedes still want us to take more. That’s encouraging.

Sweden grants more than 10 times the number of asylum claims than Britain, yet our society probably complains about it 10 times as much. Why the disparity?

It’s the attitude. When should you have closed your borders? Before 1066 maybe? Or before the Vikings came? You have to understand people will move, societies will change and we all live in a little flicker of time. In America they want to build a wall between Mexico. First of all, America stole Texas and California and most of the southern states from Mexico – but I think who really should have been restrictive with immigration was the Indians!

Why have you never been tempted to go into politics yourself?

Because your thinking, and especially what you say, has to be restrained.

Do you enjoy saying whatever you want?

I find it a great pleasure! After the Enlightenment you’re supposed to be allowed to say everything, and still you’re not allowed. You’re not even allowed to use all the words you want to use. When Benedict Cumberbatch used the word ‘coloured’, which once was the decent way to describe a black person, he got so much shit that no one listened to what he was actually saying. It’s so weird in America – the crime is to use the wrong word but at the same time you have double the infant mortality amongst blacks than whites. You don’t change anything by changing the words.

Benedict Cumberbatch is now part of the Marvel universe. Don’t Disney make their stars sign a contract where they promise to always be on their best behaviour?

Oh, the morality clause?

It’s actually called the morality clause?

Disney has had it for years. It basically says that if you upset a substantial part of society they can take your name off the film, sue you and do other evil things to you. I’ve never signed it. I said that’s infringing on my freedom-of-speech rights, my constitutional rights – and I also said, what society are we talking about, Salt Lake City or Kabul? So they reformulated it for me. I can still take my pants off in public without being sued by Disney.

River is out on DVD and Blu-ray from November 30 (Arrow Films)

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