Soft Porn: Stellan Skarsgård on Nymphomaniac

Lars von Trier’s favourite leading man Stellan Skarsgård tells us about working with the Danish enfant terrible and discusses their latest collaboration, Nymphomaniac

Feature by Tom Seymour | 07 Feb 2014
  • Nymphomaniac

Stellan Skarsgård is describing how he first heard about Nymphomaniac. “Lars [von Trier] called me up,” he says before mimicking the director’s strangled Danish voice. “He said: ‘Stellan, my next film is a porn film and you will play the lead in it. But you will not get to fuck. But you will show your dick at the end and it will be very floppy.’”

Such is the world of Lars von Trier, the co-founder – with Thomas Vinterberg – of the Dogme 95 movement, a director made great by being fantastically serious about being fantastically provocative.

Nymphomaniac is Von Trier’s first film since his ‘vow of silence’, taken after the controversy at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival when he tried to joke about sympathising with Adolf Hitler. “I was there in Cannes when he said that,” Skarsgård says, his voice rising on the phone. “It was horrible, because the journalists understand him and know he is absolutely the opposite to a racist. He tries to tell a joke, muddles the punch line and gets a little confused. Then he reads all over the world he is a Nazi. His kids were getting bullied at school about it. That misinformation is brutal. He’s a very vulnerable man. The fucking cowards at Cannes asked him to apologise, he apologised, and then they banned him. It was almost certainly to do with the festival’s sponsors.”


Lars von Trier's infamous Cannes press conference

The version of Nymphomaniac released in UK cinemas is an 'abridged and censored' jaw-dropper of a film; the unrelenting story of one woman’s need for all kinds of sex more than a few times a day. "Fill all my holes, please," is a request heard with regularity throughout Nymphomaniac’s four-and-a-half-hour runtime.

This is the sixth time Skarsgård has starred in a Von Trier film, their relationship spanning over 20 years. On how it first began, Skarsgård says: “I flew to Copenhagen to meet him after he offered me [the 1996 feature] Breaking the Waves. He was living with his previous wife at the time, and when he opened his front door the first thing he says to me was” – that mimicked voice again – “‘I don’t like physical contact.’ So of course I immediately hugged him and held him until he stopped shaking.”

As his reaction to the Cannes controversy suggests, Skarsgård is deeply supportive of his collaborator. “He has to make films to survive as a human being,” he says. But he’s also open about Von Trier’s human faults, at one point comparing him to the Swedish iconoclast August Strindberg. “Von Trier is totally honest and open about everything. He has no agenda,” he says. “He is of course very intelligent, but he is an anguish-ridden man. He has become better with actors – he has had to become better. He has learned to hug people.”

I ask Skarsgård whether he thinks that Von Trier, like Michael Haneke, is driven by quantifiable ideas, or if he is just out to provoke, to prompt, to prank “Lars’ first films were technically so skilful; micro-managed, overly controlled, but with a lack of life in them,” he says. “He never talks about his themes, rather scenes he would like to see, but I think he is interested in working through collisions; the difficulties not just of life, but of storytelling, communication, everything. His first films are as controlled as Michael Haneke’s films, even if they aren’t as skilled. But now he lets in enough of chance, enough of the actors, to create undercurrents that aren’t naturally Lars von Trier, that come from elsewhere but become one entirety.”

In Nymphomaniac, Skarsgård plays the gentle, monk-like Seligman, who finds the titular nymphomaniac, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), beaten, bloodied and abandoned on the pavement. After she refuses an ambulance, he takes her back to his sparse, shabby flat, tucks her up in bed, brews a cup of tea and carefully encourages her to detail her entire sexual history. “It will be long and moral, I’m afraid,” Joe says. Then: “I discovered my cunt at age two” (Joe always uses that term to describe her own body, on top of using the N-word when describing a ‘sandwich’ with two black men), before moving on to an impassioned defence of repressed paedophilia.


“Lars has become better with actors. He has learnt to hug people” – Stellan Skarsgård


Skarsgård’s Seligman listens to her attentively, leaping in to comment unabashedly and intelligently on how certain chapters of Joe’s long sexual history remind him variously of fly fishing, mountaineering, mathematical equations, religious iconography, Johann Bach and Edgar Allan Poe – with Von Trier montaging such diversions with stock archival footage, diagrams, and mock-up descriptive scenes.

In his review of the film, critic Anton Bitel suggests Seligman and Joe are 'both, in their different ways, figures for Von Trier himself.' It’s a fascinating idea – this lonely man prone to intellectualism but unable to understand feelings, and this lonely woman, prone to sexualisation but unable to properly control her impulses, as mouthpieces for this most contradictory of directors. It’s as if Von Trier has decided that this duologue is a way of interpreting his own creations, using Skarsgård’s Seligman as a kind of on-screen film critic, replete with his own very floppy dick.

Skarsgård isn’t drawn on such an idea, however. Describing how he developed such a charged, strange, compelling dynamic with Gainsbourg’s Joe, he says: “We didn’t rehearse anything, we didn’t even block the scenes, and we didn’t analyse the text much. We had 90 pages of text to get through in a week, so there was a lot to learn, a lot to do. It was very intensive. We just sat down and he rolled his camera. But when you work with good actors, the chemistry tends to just happen.”

Von Trier never tells his actors how to interpret a character, how to act a scene. If they want to do something, he lets them. Scenes can be told in radically different ways, from one take to the next: “It’s because his writing is so good,” Skarsgård says. “So it allows him to be so loose and leave so much to chance in the way he produces the films. There’s a really solid bone structure there so the flesh is allowed to wobble around. Although the flesh is ours, obviously.”

As Von Trier alluded when he first approached Skarsgård about playing Seligman, the character is not all that he seems. For all his worldliness and intelligence, he has made the most simple and crucial of misunderstandings: that women, all women, are always in charge, always in control, always the mistress of their own decisions, even women as vulnerable to their desires as Joe. “I tried to understand him psychologically,” Skarsgård says of Seligman’s reveal. “But I couldn’t really approach that final turn in an intellectual way, that was hard for me. So I tried to show what was happening inside Seligman, to describe the journey that led him to...” – the line goes quiet for a moment – “to err… pull out his dick.”

Skarsgård, with that beautifully memorable voice, laughs at his own turn of phrase. “But of course, I need to tell you, you don’t see the actors’ genitals in the film,” he says. “What you see are porn stars’ genitalia. But this was different; the floppy dick you see at the end is not mine – it is Lars’.”

Nymphomaniac Volume I and II are released 22 Feb by Artificial Eye

On 22 Feb, UK cinema audiences will have the opportunity to watch the double bill of Nymphomaniac Volume I and II back-to-back, screened simultaneously in cinemas nationwide – followed by on-stage interview with Stellan Skarsgård and Stacy Martin hosted by Edith Bowman, broadcast live via satellite from the Curzon Chelsea, London

www.Nymphomaniac-Film.com

Tom Seymour: @TomSeymour