Paul Risker chats with River star Stellan Skarsgård…
River is a series that is difficult to boil down into a simple description, on one level it is a detective, crime and mystery story that looks to feed the audience’s enduring appetite for this variety of drama. And yet beneath its surface River will be seen by some to feature a supernatural edge that could to the more observant eye be put in the context of less the supernatural and instead a deeper and more penetrating psychological dimension that fuels the angst and instability that seems to be a pre-requisite for the contemporary onscreen detective. And stepping into the shoes of this angst-ridden and haunted detective is veteran Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård, who through his presence merges or rather bridges the British crime heritage with the Nordic crime heritage.
As an audience the mystery is the momentary spark of interest in a project or role for an actor. We witness them transform to become the incarnation of the character, to breathe life into them and yet before that can happen there must first be a spark. And that first glimmer of a naked flame that would light up the path leading to John River for Skarsgård was an impression. As he explained: “It was the writing, and it was that it did not follow the normal rules – not only for television writing, but definitely not for a normal police show. The backbone of it wasn’t the procedural. The focus, the heart… Everything was much more intensely emotional and at the same time from a story point of view much vaguer, which gave me a feeling that there would be a lot of space for me to do things that are not on the page.”
In conversation with Flickering Myth, Skarsgård reflected on the art of performance across stage and film, the process and practices of telling stories across film and television, as well as sharing his thoughts on the intricate use of the camera in River and the importance of embracing those silent moments.
Paul Risker: Why a career in acting? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Stellan Skarsgård: There wasn’t really… I never intended to become an actor. I wanted to become a diplomat because I wanted to save the world and make peace [laughs]. But I studied acting as a child at an amateur theatre and then I had small roles in municipal theatres in Malmo. I then got this TV series when I was sixteen years old and I just kept on doing it.
PR: Over the course of your career how have the various characters changed your perspective of acting and performance?
SS: Well it has changed gradually. I come very much from theatre, which to me is a totally different profession. I think a good thing with this job is that you are still learning and you can never be fully trained so to say [laughs]. But I started out being very skilled and technical. Gradually I have been trying to undermine my skills more and more to try to find the absolute quality of an amateur, but at the same time to be somewhat in control or rather be in control at willing which framework.
PR: I have been always been told that theatre is the best training ground for an actor, but one or two actors have recently remarked that they do not consider theatre to be the best training ground for film actors. Where do you land on this side of the discussion?
SS: Well it depends on how you use it. You cannot use the same tools in front of the camera as you do on stage. But what you learn by working on stage is that because you are working with an audience, then you learn how to keep the material alive, how to build arcs and how to make an entire scene and play work. And that is the knowledge that helps you in front of the camera.
Sometimes amateurs are better than professional actors on camera because the camera really needs the flickering of true authentic life, and if you go in with skill they see your tools and they don’t believe you. On stage they will believe you anyway because you are in the same room – you are a physical presence in the room together with them. You can play the mechanical theatre if you want, but you will still be there with them. But in this two-dimensional picture it has to have all the irrationality of true life, and that can be hard to achieve. Often when actors come from theatre and start working in cinema or they come into play for a day or two, it’s far too technical; far too planned and thought through. It takes time to wear that down, and when Fincher does forty takes of every set-up when he shoots, it is not just because he is searching for perfection – it is also to wear down the technical skills of the actors I believe, and that’s very efficient.
PR: In TV you don’t necessarily get all of the scripts at once and so you are almost discovering as you go along. Unlike in film where you know what will happen from beginning to end, this creates in television a greater synergy between you as actors and your audience. How does the nature of television influence you as an actor compared to film?
SS:Well personally I would prefer to have the entire story when I start working because I can then be much more in control of my arcs. It doesn’t mean that I should play it linear; it means that the deviations I can make can be planned. So I definitely prefer that. This time it wasn’t like that and it worried me a little. But it was Abi Morgan and so whatever was going to come out was going to be interesting [laughs]. So I wasn’t worried about that.
I have very limited experience on television, but I think now that all the films between two million and a hundred million dollars are gone, then all those character driven, well written films by the best writers, directed by the best directors and acted by the best actors, they are all gone. So that kind of storytelling will now be in television. But it also means that television has to adapt to it more, and that they can’t produce television as factories anymore because they will have to adapt to different talents. And I think it is disastrous with the method they have of directors that come in and just direct two episodes each. The first season of True Detective for instance was made by one director, and it makes a big difference because then it is one creative centre. Of course in America the writers are usually the creative centres, but that means that you destroy a whole generation of directors because they become just movers of cameras as they don’t have enough input. I think anything that should have a lasting value has to come from one creator and have a very strong personal voice. So I would like to see more power to the directors in television and I want to see a bigger flexibility from the producers in television. We were lucky on River, but I know many, many producers work like they used to when television was totally based on all the information being in the dialogue. It didn’t matter what actors or what director you had because you just said the lines and people could follow it. But it is not like that anymore.
PR: When you first read the script for River, what was the appeal of both the character and the story?
SS: It was the writing, and it was that it did not follow the normal rules – not only for television writing, but definitely not for a normal police show. The backbone of it wasn’t the procedural. The focus, the heart… Everything was much more intensely emotional and at the same time from a story point of view much vaguer, which gave me a feeling that there would be a lot of space for me to do things that are not on the page. Also with it being a character that on one level lives amongst the living, tries to maintain a normal life and hides who he is, and then on the other hand when he is with the manifests he is totally in privacy, which means he doesn’t have to hide anything. And that was fascinating to me.
PR: One of the interesting aspects of the show is how some of the characters are being defined as ghosts. Yet they are not ghosts but rather they are manifestations And through this distinction the series enters a psychological terrain. River strikes me as a series that does not want to be pigeon holed as either a supernatural narrative nor a detective story and hence it is a series with a genuine flexibility.
SS: Yeah it definitely is and they are not ghosts. You know there are a lot of schizoid people for instance that hear voices all the time. These are real voices that they hear, but that they produce themselves. And it is the same with those characters – they are dead and they are not coming back; they are projections and creations of River’s own mind. I saw a review that said: well why doesn’t he just ask the manifests who the murderer was? But he can’t – the manifests cannot know more than he knows because he creates them. And it becomes much less about those persons coming in and being in a way, but rather they are all his fabrications and that makes it interesting because it is his inner dialogue that you are actually seeing.
PR: One of the aspects of the show that I appreciate in particular is the way in which the series approaches the camera. It is said that the difference between literature and film is that with literature you can get inside the head of your character while in film you don’t have that same ability. Watching the opening episode of River I realised how within film the camera becomes an extension of the main character, which raises the question of the reliability of the camera – whose perspective is it sharing? And so I question whether there a literary quality to film and television in the sense that it adopts specific literary tools through the camera?
SS: One of the first discussions I had with Richard Laxton was about the camera, and how if this idea should work then the camera has to be with River. You cannot be objective for more than a couple of seconds where you cut out and you see him talking to mid-air – they are sorts of flashes. But the camera has to be loyal to River and follow him. It has to be glued to his face, and what happens then is that the literary quality that you talk about is how everything is not said through dialogue. On the contrary a lot of things happen outside of the dialogue, and that is where you as an audience can go in and fill in and read the faces – read what is going on in between the lines. And that is much more cinematic than television, which has been stuck with a closeness to theatre – in the sense that it is literature where what is said is what is happening, while film is a totally different medium, or it has been.
PR: There are moments in which River and Ira’s attempts to build a connection are depicted through shared silences. I find it interesting how in storytelling we are still looking back to silent cinema and silent storytelling to the point that it remains a significant influence. You previously spoke about learning how to keep it fresh and keep the audience involved in theatre. Silent moments in film or television encourage that audience participation and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the importance of silence in film and television.
SS: I think it is extremely important. I worked on a film once where the director wanted the dialogue to be improvised, and because an actor feels like they are really acting when they are in conflict with someone, every scene ended up with the two actors shouting at each other. What they never improvised was silence and that was a big problem because if film is really good then it’s not the words you say, but it is why you say them, where those words come from and how they hit the other person. It is all between the lines and you can say that really bad actors do all the acting within the lines. They stress the words and try to make the lines sound as though they really meant it, and then it’s dead. The best thing is usually to mean it and just drop the line.
PR: Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” But then Abner Pastoll remarked to me recently that you don’t change; what changes is people’s perception of you. Working creatively do you perceive there to be a change within you from project to project?
SS: It is not dramatic, but it is gradual. I have made about a hundred films and thank God I haven’t changed personality a hundred times. But there is not one project, not even the really bad ones that I haven’t learned from. I cannot always say that I knew what I had learned, but I knew I was learning. And to me my entire career is like a growing process that through life, through the friends you have made and the family you have, and your experiences, you grow as a human being. You grow also through your work. And when your work has so much to do with not only the technicalities of the work, but you are actually dealing with human reactions and human thought all of the time, then that hopefully develops you. But I know that it gradually changes you.
RIVER is released on DVD & Blu-ray Monday November 30th
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Film International, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.