Alexander Skarsgard on finding the humanity even in the darkest villains

Dan Krauss’ fictionalised adaptation of his 2014 documentary 'The Kill Team' revolves around the murder of innocent Middle East civilians by US soldiers

Alexander Skarsgard in ‘The Kill Team’. Courtesy A24
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In recent years Alexander Skarsgard has found himself repeatedly portraying and excelling as dark and sinister characters. From his Emmy Award-winning work in the first season of Big Little Lies to his turns in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, War on Everyone, and Hold the Dark, Skarsgard has always managed to show the humanity in individuals – even the most disturbing and depraved.

Rather than just looking for evil figures to play, though, Skarsgard tells The ­National there's a combination of factors that ultimately help him decide whether to take a part. "It's the character, the script and the filmmaker. If I am excited about all three it is something I should jump in and take a chance on."

Being fascinated by the dark and disturbing

That's exactly why he decided to take on The Kill Team, Dan Krauss's fictionalised adaptation of his 2014 documentary of the same name, which revolves around the murder of innocent Middle Eastern civilians by US soldiers commanded by Skarsgard's character, Sergeant Deeks.

Skarsgard was "fascinated" by just how "dark and disturbing" The Kill Team documentary was, which was only enhanced when he read the script for the feature film and began to immediately envision and build Deeks in his mind. "Deeks has a complexity that I found really interesting. Dan had avoided tropes and stereotypes in the script and Deeks wasn't the classic archetypical villain," he explains. "That's what got me very excited about it."

Tapping into Skarsgard’s tremendous presence

Skarsgard was always Krauss's first choice to play Deeks. So what was it that the director saw in the Swedish actor that he wanted to tap into for The Kill Team? "He has a tremendous presence, physically, psychologically and emotionally," says Krauss, who decided to keep Skarsgard separated from the rest of the young cast, which included Nat Wolff and Adam Long, so that their awe and respect for Skarsgard could really be felt on screen when he first appears.

Skarsgard admits that he stayed on his own for the first few weeks of production, especially when the other actors were enduring their own “two-week boot camp.” However, once they’d shot his opening sequence, where he is introduced to the other soldiers, he decided to mingle with the likes of Wolff and Long. In fact, Skarsgard found it helpful to socialise, get to know and have a good time with the other actors over dinners and talks, because they were filming such “intense” scenes and covering such “intense subject matter.”

How does Skarsgard prepare?

It didn't take long for Krauss to be in awe of the work, preparation and talent Skarsgard brought to the film. Krauss recalls Skarsgard thinking "deeply about every scene" and constantly asking, "Where was the character before this moment? Where was he after?"

This preparation meant Skarsgard could formulate a number of ideas about Deeks' uniform, movements, barracks and even the shape and size of his mustache. So much so that Krauss admits Skarsgard took complete control of the character, and the director was more than happy to stand back and respect this ownership because he recognised that he is very much his own "storyteller at heart."

Alexander Skarsgard with Nicole Kidman in ‘Big Little Lies’. Courtesy HBO
Alexander Skarsgard with Nicole Kidman in ‘Big Little Lies’. Courtesy HBO

"I think that is what makes him such a talented actor, and his experiences make him such a wonderful storyteller. Everything he does as an actor is informed by advancing the story. He is thinking a lot about narrative in his process. Smartly, too. That is a gift for a director," Krauss says.

Moving away from the darkness to Godzilla vs Kong

But while Skarsgard clearly thrives, playing such complex and nefarious characters, he'll next be seen as a more charming figure in the huge Hollywood blockbuster Godzilla vs Kong, due out in March next year. While Skarsgard was never afraid of being pigeonholed, he is the first to admit that he initially considered Godzilla vs Kong because he "had done a row of quite dark and intense characters" and wanted to try something different. Ultimately, though, it was the opportunity to work with director Adam Wingard – who he describes as smart, lovely and incredible with actors – that actually made him sign up. "When he reached out, the tone of the genre and the movie is much different to the smaller, darker movies I have done. It was a character I was really ready to play. It is a character that is very likeable," Skarsgard says.

Following on from his recent comedic turn opposite Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron in Long Shot, Godzilla vs Kong gives Skarsgard another chance to bring some levity to a film. Which he does a lot "because even though he is the protagonist of a big action movie he is not a hero or ex-marine. He doesn't even have the tools to deal with what he is up against. He is just a geologist that is thrown into this world", Krauss says.

People come to these movies to see these big action set pieces, but if it isn't rooted in real characters you are invested in, that you care about, then the movie doesn't work.

Skarsgard immediately found this both interesting and appealing, especially as he the main protagonists of big action films are usually "quite boring" to him. What also sealed the deal was the fact Wingard and the creative team over at Legendary Studios were open to re-writing and re-shaping the character specifically for him.

Throughout its production, which wrapped a couple of months ago, and which Skarsgard calls a "great experience with great people", he was given the freedom and room "to explore the humanity" of his unlikely hero, which he believes will be integral to making Godzilla vs Kong work.

"People come to these movies to see these big action set pieces, but if it isn't rooted in real characters you are invested in, that you care about, then the movie doesn't work."

All of which proves that whether he is playing an abusive husband, murderous soldier or a geologist trying to save the world from monsters, Skarsgard’s preparation, detail and dedication is so impressive and inspiring that it has rightfully turned him into one of the most sought after actors of his generation.