Alexander Skarsgard is hungry for flesh. “I need some protein,” the actor best known for playing a vampire says, scanning the menu at Vandaag in the East Village. He’s just completed 30 six-minute-long interviews via satellite to promote his new movie, Straw Dogs, and he is ravenous. “It was insane,” he says of the local-TV feeding frenzy in between gulps of a hen smørrebrød. “They can see you, but you can’t see them. So you just sort of watch the camera, and it’s nonstop: Here’s Tony in San Diego. You’re like, ‘Hey, Tony! You have five questions!’ ‘You’re on with morning news in Houston.’ ‘Good morning, Houston!’ ‘Meredith in Minneapolis!’ ‘Meredith, what’s up!’ Then Access Hollywood runs in …” he pauses for breath and apologizes. “Right now my brain is so fried. I’ve been talking about myself since eight this morning. And I’m a narcissist, so of course I love it, but it also gets to the point where …” He trails off. “I mean, it’s all good, but it’s so surreal. It almost feels like you’re watching yourself, like you’re in a movie. You’re just like, Is this really happening?”
It is, in fact, really happening, and he’s also in several movies. Skarsgard, a Swede, had had small roles in America (notably as a happy but witless male model in Zoolander) before his career-making gig as Eric Northman, the vampire sheriff on
Women dig this shit. Ask our waitress. In person, Skarsgard is less physically imposing than he is on-screen. He’s tall but gangly, with a goofy Scando-Cajun accent and two-day stubble covering an overbite that might, come to think of it, be partially responsible for that on-screen vulnerability. Still, the server’s hand trembles as she fills his glass, until she stops abruptly when he informs her that actually he was drinking sparkling. There’s something a little intimidating about a man who can channel evil so convincingly. “Don’t worry, it’s fine,” he says, looking up at her with his unsettlingly blue eyes. She looks like she might dissolve into a pile of ash. “Really,” he insists, smiling gently.
For the remake of Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 shocker Straw Dogs, the action has been moved from the English countryside to a small town on the Katrina-hobbled Gulf Coast. Skarsgard plays Charlie Venner, the local underemployed alpha male, whose clash with a yuppie couple (Kate Bosworth and James Marsden) that cruise into town in a Jaguar to renovate an old house turns horribly violent. As in the original, the class resentments that underpin the film make it unnervingly relevant to Our Time, and that the cast is stacked with pouty-lipped young things, including a girl from The O.C., also seems cheeky in the Us Weekly era: What are celebrities if not the sacrificial beasts of the title, treated with reverence, then cruelly tossed aside when their time is up?
Skarsgard could be one of them. He’s been among People’s sexiest men alive for two years running. Newly single after breaking up with Kate Bosworth, he spent Labor Day weekend downing shots in the Hamptons “surrounded by adoring women,” according to the Post. But he’s adamant about being more than the sum of his pecs. “I’m not interested in parts where they are looking for a good-looking guy,” he says. “I want to be a weird little sidekick in a crazy comedy and then play like a dark drama or a thriller.”
Most actors typecast as weird little sidekicks would probably kill to have such problems, but it’s true that other than his lead in the upcoming action flick Battleship, in which he insists he plays a “a real character,” he’s gone for fairly unconventional projects. He’s in New York filming What Maisie Knew, a Henry James adaptation, with Julianne Moore. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, in which he plays a befuddled man getting married to super-depressive Kirsten Dunst on the eve of the apolcalypse, comes out this fall. Even Straw Dogs is something Brad Pitt might have done when he made Kalifornia. Skarsgard’s character, Charlie, has shades of Eric: even though you know right away he’s bad news, he still manages to glamour you into trusting him right up till he commits a brutal rape. This is a difference from the original, in which Charlie is a menacing lug throughout. “When I read the script, I saw that the character could just be a villain,” he says. “I wanted him to be more three-dimensional and understandwho he was ten years ago, the dreams and ambition—what he has lost.”
So what about Skarsgard’s own background made his character? He’s one of seven children of actor Stellan Skarsgard (Good Will Hunting, Breaking the Waves), and he acted as a kid in films and TV. The early notoriety “made me really insecure,” he says. “I got paranoid—it actually got to the point where I assumed if someone was giggling, it was at me.” But eventually he decided to give it another shot. “I didn’t want to wake up 65 and bitter,” he says. As an adult, “I found it to be such an interesting exploration. All the characters I play are all inside of me in a way, and they’re all different, the darkness, the lightness, whatever that is.”
These days he’s come to terms with the attention, though he’s not entirely comfortable with it. At lunch, he stops talking every time the waitress comes near, and after the six or seventh time she’s refilled our water, he jokes “That’s one of the perks, when you get famous,” he says dryly. “You get a lot of free water.” And in interviews, he reveals almost nothing.
In Straw Dogs, there’s a scene where Marsden, who plays a nebbishy screenwriter but still possesses the physique of the Versace model he once was, rams up against Skarsgard’s bare-chested villain. It’s like watching a cocker spaniel run into a glass door. He bounces right off him. Talking to Skarsgard is a similar experience. When I ask him what he reads, “Everything from fiction to nonfiction” was his non-answer, and when I pressed, he resisted elaboration for a full three minutes. “I just think I have very eclectic taste, from like, fucking Nabokov to Tom Friedman, his stuff, Hot Flat and Crowded or something.” Silence, piercing stare.
Skarsgard has either figured out a way to avoid falling into the trap actors all say they want to avoid—where their personality overpowers the characters they play—or maybe he’s just kind of empty. As I’m pondering this, another long silence falls across the table. Then he breaks it with a chuckle. “You feel like you know me now?” he asks.
Not really, I say, no.
“Good,” he says with a fangless grin. “Then I have succeeded!”