Stellan Skarsgard on WWII film The Painted Bird: There is no sugar on this cake

Stellan Skarsgard tells Laura Harding about his punishing new film The Painted Bird, as well as the joy he took from Chernobyl and the upcoming Dune

Stellan Skarsgard in The Painted Bird

STELLAN Skarsgard is at home in Sweden right now, but his laugh is so warm it comes down the phone line in comforting waves that make it feel as if he is in the room with you.

It’s a laugh we haven’t heard much of on screen of late, given the serious nature of his recent projects.

He played the Soviet politician with a conscience, Boris Shcherbina, in Chernobyl (a performance that netted him a Golden Globe), he will soon be seen as the villainous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in the upcoming sci-fi epic Dune, and he is currently starring in the unrelenting and bleak black-and-white war film The Painted Bird.

“There is no sugar on this cake,” 69-year-old Skarsgard admits as he reflects on the three-hour saga about a lone Jewish boy wandering through a cruel obstacle course of survival and abuse in eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War.

He had been contacted by director Vaclav Marhoul 11 years ago to take part, after the film-maker finally acquired the rights to the book by Jerzy Kosinski.

“I had read it before and I knew this was a film that was absolutely impossible to finance because who would invest in a film like that? Nobody who wants his money back, right? It’s truly a dark story about a poor child during the Second World War in Europe in black and white with almost no dialogue.

“It’s the kind of film that rarely gets made anymore, it resembles more eastern European films from the 60s or early 70s than anything that is made for today but I really want those kind of films to be made, they are very cinematic.”

The film is filled with unimaginable horror, violence, torture and rape, although Skarsgard, who plays a German soldier who crosses paths with the boy, is keen to stress that reports of large-scale walkouts at the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival last year were overhyped.

“Some people said that the violence wasn’t pleasant enough in it, which I think is a horrible statement, because violence isn’t pleasant, at least not for the people who are exposed to it.

“There is not much violence, but the violence there is is realistic and cruel, even if it’s packaged in the most incredibly beautiful pictures and images.

“The film shows what the violence he is exposed to does to him and how desensitised he gets. Of course if you give your children love, they will be more likely to give love to others and vice versa, it’s the same thing with violence. If you live with violence around you, you create a culture of violence.

“It shows really the worst of humanity and how we are and how anybody can become under these circumstances. We should be really careful thinking that the world consists of good people and bad people because there are people that can be good and can be bad and we are all capable of cruelty, but fortunately if you have a good society then that side of you doesn’t come out.”

Stellan Skarsgard in The Painted Bird

It has been a gruelling run of projects of late, but Skarsgard has no real strategy when it comes to navigating his career, which has included projects as diverse and entertaining as Good Will Hunting, Pirates Of The Caribbean, Mamma Mia! and the Thor films.

“I am not planning my life or my career but I’m attracted to material that I don’t see every day on television or in the cinema,” he says.

“When it comes to writing, I said I would never do a police show because I find them extremely cliche and boring most of the time and I’m really not good at saying all those police lines, but then Abi Morgan came and gave me a 60-page script, which was something else (the 2015 BBC drama River).

“You see someone who doesn’t write in a conventional way, doesn’t try to imitate something that already has been done and that is where you can add new life to a way of telling a story.

“With Chernobyl, I was very happy because it was about something that is important to us all today, the importance of actually listening to the scientists and not oppressing the truth, there are different reasons.

“If you boil down everything I’ve done, you will find something, even in the way I play the characters, you will find a mirror of my ideologies, my ideas about humanity. But as a hired hand, which you are as an actor, it’s very hard to have an imprint on things in the way you do if you are a painter or a writer.”

Stellan Skarsgard. Picture by Ian West, Press Association 

Next up is his Dune villain, a role he seems to have tackled with glee.

“We will see how it will be received but I really wanted to do it for the joy of working with Denis Villeneuve (the director), who is such a wonderful man and also such a great film-maker.

“I had one job – be horrifying – and I think I can do it. But it’s also fun because I had to look like I had a body of about 400lb or so, there is a lot of prosthetics, I think I spent far more time in make-up than I spent in front of the camera.

“Five or six hours a day in make-up and it’s pretty hard on you, but I didn’t film more than eight or 10 days or something like that.”

While Sweden did not lock down during the pandemic, the international nature of Skarsgard’s schedule means he has not been able to work much of late.

“The first thing I did was two weeks ago, when we did an additional scene for Dune in Hungary, and it is complicated because there are a lot of tests you have to go through. On the set, they test you every second day and they take your temperature every day and there are a lot of restrictions.

“I can’t wait to get back to work and I think the next thing I will do is the Star Wars TV series (an untitled show about Cassian Andor). That was supposed to go in June and now they are saying November, but of course it depends on if Britain has more lockdowns.”

Here’s hoping we get to hear that laugh again soon.

:: The Painted Bird is available digitally and in selected cinemas in Britain and Ireland now.

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