‘Mamma Mia’ is back, and Stellan Skarsgård says the singing’s not improved

Stellan Skarsgård plays Bill, one of Sophie’s three potential fathers in Mamma Mia. He is also Swedish and remembers what it was like when Abba was taking over the world, so who better to chat to about the film’s socio-political significance?

The original Mamma Mia in 2008 was the all-singing, all-dancing calm before the storm that followed. It’s been left to seemingly constant repeats on ITV2 to tide us through a decade of global turmoil from Brexit and the fractures in Europe, to war and the refugee crisis. Greece, which provided a paradise setting for Mamma Mia, became the country hit hardest; its economic troubles compounded by an influx of people fleeing terror in the Middle East and North Africa.

The sequel, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, arrives this week into a world much different to the one that welcomed the original with open arms. But Stellan Skarsgård, who plays Bill, one of Sophie’s three potential fathers in Mamma Mia, insists one thing hasn’t changed – his, Pierce Brosnan’s and the other male leads’ sometimes dubious-yet-charming singing voices.

The Big Issue: In musicals related to Abba, do you feel like a Swedish ambassador?

Stellan Skarsgård: Not at all. I detest nationalism, it’s a really bad idea that has given us two terrific world wars so I try to work against the idea that the nation is something holy.

What was it like in Sweden in Abba’s heyday?

At that time, I didn’t listen to their music because I was at an age where my taste wasn’t on par with their music. When they won [Eurovision] you heard Waterloo 15 times per day on radio. You couldn’t avoid it, which made you eventually not be able to listen to it. But I’ve come over that. It’s very nice that the group is so popular; music is a good export for Sweden, which has helped our economy and makes it possible for us to have better healthcare here.

Did they have to twist your arm to make you come back for Mamma Mia 2?

No not at all. It’s the same people and it’s the same material basically. I wouldn’t say high school reunion, but it was like returning to a very nice party you had 10 years ago.

Did you know that Mamma Mia would become a phenomenon?

I thought it would be a huge success because I went to see the extremely successful theatre version. And instead of perfection in singing and dancing, they were allowing some well-known actors to fail and become very human in front of the audience.

There have been 10 years for you, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth to get singing lessons. Did anyone come back with a much-improved voice?

It seems like we all gave up our singing and dancing careers with the last film. We went back and we haven’t improved at all.

Did they consider casting one of your sons [Stellan’s dynasty includes the actors Alexander and Bill Skarsgård] to play the younger you?

I think they looked at at least one of my sons but they found they actually needed someone who could sing. There’s much more singing for the young version. I didn’t interfere but I’m very happy. And our younger selves sing much better than we do, which means that time obviously hasn’t been very good for us…

Since Mamma Mia came out, science-fiction and Marvel movies have become mainstream. Are other audiences with different tastes being forgotten about?

Most of the blockbuster films are heading for the main target group, kids between 15 and 25, Mamma Mia has the uniqueness of catering for people from the age of three to 93. Very few films do that. I noticed that already after the first film. Before that, with my Lars von Trier films, no three-year-old came up to me and said ‘Hey Bill, happy to meet you!’

Speaking of Marvel, is your character in that universe, Erik Selvig dead?

Not that I heard. He’s not dead. There might be a future in Marvel for him where you find him in a retirement home, doing crazy things.

After the release of Mamma Mia in 2008, a lot of crazy things started happening in the world…

I hope there will not be a huge change for the worse now Mamma Mia 2 is coming!

The Greek islands looked like heaven in the film, how did you react when they became associated with the hellish refugee crisis?

The problems of the world are getting closer. You can’t live in a secluded little paradise anywhere and believe you don’t have to care about the rest of the world. In a way that’s a good thing, you have to think globally, you can’t think locally any more. And when it comes to the nation state, which is a 19th-century invention, I think you have to give up on these ideas and think in different ways.

Sweden has taken in more refugees per capita than anywhere else in Europe, but is it something everyone there is happy about?

The problem is society hasn’t been totally prepared. Like all of the Western world, the class difference and the difference in income between the poor and the rich, that gap is widening everywhere. That is a social problem not a refugee problem. The fear of the other is something that is also profited on by some shady people in politics.

In another decade when there will be more problems in the world we need escapism from, will there be a Mamma Mia 3?

I don’t know. I mean, Mamma Mia is not solving anything on a political level. But Mamma Mia interjects some humanity and joy into people and that’s all you can hope for.

Image: Still from Mamma Mia