Photography by Matthew Kristall
What is it about Sweden that is making this far-flung country of less than 10 million people so culturally relevant right now? From Robyn and the Knife to the The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Sweden has leaped ahead of its European neighbors and infiltrated America's mammoth entertainment machine. We invited Alexander Skarsgård, best known for his role in HBO's lusty drama True Blood, to sit down with director Jonas Åkerlund -- whose seminal videos have included Madonna's "Ray of Light," Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful," and Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi," (which starred a then–largely unknown Skarsgård as Gaga's paramour) -- to help answer the question.
Out: As Swedes abroad, both working in the entertainment industry, you must feel like the go-to spokespeople for Sweden.
Alexander Skarsgård: I love my country. I always love talking about it, especially as an expat. When you live there you bitch about everything, but when you move away, all you remember is how amazing and wonderful it is. You remember all the sunny days and forget the rainy days.
Jonas Åkerlund: It was very rare to hear about Sweden, period, when I moved to Los Angeles in 1996. You were still mixed up with Switzerland. Now there’s Swedish music everywhere, actors and directors, everything, everywhere. And it didn’t used to be like that. You were very happy and proud when you heard Ace of Base on the radio.
Skarsgård: Not to mention all the songwriters and producers, as well as the musicians. Every other song on Billboard seems to be produced or written by a Swede.
Åkerlund: The one profession that was left behind was filmmaking, which is now catching up a little. Music and fashion has been out there for a while, but lately I’ve also begun to notice Swedish co-producers and directors working abroad.
Skarsgård: The reason I went to L.A. a few years ago was because the young interesting filmmakers didn't get a chance to tell their stories or do their movies because the older generation, who were pretty mediocre filmmakers, were the only ones making movies in Sweden. That's changed so much now. I'm excited about going back to Sweden to work with young, cool Swedish filmmakers. It's really a vibrant industry. And now, for the first time, there are a lot of Swedes working on Hollywood projects, often on super low-budget films.
Åkerlund: But it becomes a trend -- everyone wants a Swede now. Getting that opportunity is one thing, but living up to it or holding onto it is another thing.
Skarsgård: Exactly, we’re like the flavor of the month. Next month it will be Finland.
Åkerlund: Oh, never say that. Never Finland. It's interesting, though, Alex. I met you at the Chateau Marmont. We looked around and there were, like, 10 Swedes around us, and not one Finn, no Danes. Wherever you go there are Swedes. But I rarely meet other Scandinavians.
Out: Is there anything that helps define a Swedish sensibility or identity?
Skarsgård: I think it has to do with minimalism in terms of everything. There's a lot going on under the surface. It's something hidden. And that's always interesting to me. You have to dig deeper. It’s like a duck -- calm on the surface, but paddling like a motherfucker underneath.
Åkerlund: It all depends on where you are in the world. It's easier for a Swede to stick out in America than, say, Italy or France, because their personalities are so different. The one thing we learn is we don't really talk much about what we’re doing -- we just do it. And that's the biggest difference between us. In America, people talk a lot. I never talk; I just work. To me, to be on time and to deliver on time and stay on budget, and not just say, "Let's do lunch," but actually call up and book a lunch -- that makes you different.
Skarsgård: There's something about the sincerity that I miss in America. When someone asks, "What do you think of this painting?" or "How do you like these shoes?" I would take a second and actually look at the shoes or painting and say, "I like it." Some people are kind of uncomfortable with that. When you ask, "How do you like my shoes," they say, "I LOVE THEM." They say, "YOU LOOK AMAZING; I LOVE IT!" At the same time, the reason Swedes can hold back is just because they don't want you to think that you're special or great or better than they are. At least when people in the U.S. like something, they say it.
Åkerlund: That’s very true. There aren't many compliments flying around Sweden. I worked a good 10 years in Sweden before I came to America, and not once did anyone tell me I was good or that my stuff was great. And then I came to America and I heard it every day. That was the first time I actually believed in myself. But you can never return home a hero. Whatever you do is not really interesting in Sweden.
Skarsgård: Even if you have money in Sweden, it's frowned upon to show off. In L.A., you see all these people driving around in yellow Hummers and wearing rhinestone dresses, and they live in fake palaces. Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of Ikea, was riding around in a beat-up old Volvo from 1980 until just a couple of years ago.
Out: Many of us have this impression of Sweden as this utopian paradise, but a lot of the arts culture is characteristically dark, from death metal to Bergman.
Åkerlund: I wouldn't say it's just that, is it? Maybe. I always thought we had a different shock level there. I didn't realize, until I came abroad, that some of the stuff I did was controversial or different or dark.
Out: So that probably makes something like True Blood, which is seen in America as pretty dark, seem relatively mild in Sweden?
Skarsgård: Very tame, very tame, by Swedish standards.
Åkerlund: One thing I notice when I've been in Los Angeles and then come back to Sweden is that when I put on the TV and see a naked person, I go, "Whoa." It takes me a little bit of time to convert every time I come back. It's just two different cultures.
Skarsgård: And that always strikes me as weird because parents in the States freak out if their kids see a nipple or a butt cheek, but at the same time they're OK with their kids watching people bash each other's heads in with baseball bats. I notice in interviews in the U.S. all people want to talk about is nudity. You have a half-hour interview, and you spend 25 minutes talking about the nude scenes, and of course, if it makes sense as a scene, I'll do it. I don't even think someone -- some guy who doesn't know any gay people or black people, who may have all these prejudices -- if that guy watches the show and thinks, I really like this character, then you've done something pretty good.
Out: If you had to choose the greatest Swede of all time, who would it be?
Skarsgård: The actor Ernst-Hugo Järegård. He's been such a big inspiration in my life. He played the lead in Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom, the Danish TV series. And that performance was kind of when I knew I wanted to be an actor. It’s just amazing. It's similar to what Ricky Gervais did in The Office -- one of those characters that you just love to hate, or hate to love. You're not sure what it is, but you're just mesmerized.
Out: What's the thing you always miss when you're away from Sweden?
Åkerlund: Two things only: the change of the seasons, which are so extreme in Sweden, and my mom's cooking. Those are the only things I really care about.
Skarsgård: Also, I think part of the reason why there are so many musicians coming out of Sweden is you're encouraged to play an instrument, or to sing and be creative, from a very early age, and it's free. It's a combination of a good school system and the long, dark winters. Because that means people sit in their garages and play music for five months because it's too cold and dark to be outside.
Åkerlund: That's the boning season. [Laughter] And then it's spring, and that's also boning season. And summer's the best boning season.
Skarsgård: And that's also why we're so liberal and so cool with our sexuality -- because we fuck a lot [laughter].
Åkerlund: How much time can you spend playing the drums?
Skarsgård: When you're bored, just have sex.