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Cannes 2011: Melancholia & Stellan Skarsgård

The Swedish actor talks about working with Lars Von Trier, the director’s controversial comments in Cannes and the end of the world

To fans of Lars Von Trier, Stellan Skarsgård is a familiar face. The Swedish actor has worked with the renowned director on several films, most memorably Breaking the Waves (which won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 1996) and Dogville. He is also recognisable from a host of movies as diverse as Good Will Hunting and Thor. Most recently he stars in Von Trier’s elegant evocation of depression, Melancholia, which has just premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

The film tells the story of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and the approaching planet Melancholia. Skarsgard plays the role of Jack, Justine’s arrogant boss and one of the guests at Justine’s wedding where the film begins. Described as ‘a beautiful movie about the end of the world’, Melancholia draws on the aesthetics of German Romanticism to explore the state of depression, which plagues Justine.  

The film’s premiere, however, was somewhat overshadowed by comments made by Von Trier at a press conference where he joked about being a Nazi and sympathising with Hitler, which lead to international outrage and condemnation, and the filmmaker being declared ‘persona non grata’ at the festival. Dazed sat down with Skarsgård in Cannes to discuss the controversial director, the making of 'Melancholia' and the end of the world...

Dazed Digital: What is Lars Von Trier like to work with on set?
Stellan Skarsgard:
It's like playing, you feel extremely free and safe and it's a kind of family feeling you have when you work with Lars, it's kind of amazing. And he doesn't say much, usually he doesn't say anything. You just start and maybe after a couple of takes he says can we try something else, another attitude or another take on the scene, but not much. And it's that freedom that he gives the actors that brings so much life into it.

DD: Did he talk about his inspirations for the film whilst you were shooting?
Stellan Skarsgard:
His sources he doesn’t discuss really. And you don’t need it as an actor. The performance wouldn’t be better if I know he’s thinking of Tarkovsky. We don’t have those discussions. It’s not a very intellectual process when you shoot with him, it’s more faithful, it’s like kids playing, inventing things together.

DD: What did you think when you first saw the film?
Stellan Skarsgard:
I suspected, a little, when we were shooting, ‘Ah, this is going to be pretty beautiful, isn’t it?’ And I accused him [Von Trier] of doing a too-sweet picture, ‘What are you Antonioni-ing it?’ He was worried about that himself, that it would become too elegant, too beautiful, too romantic. But I think it has this classical quality of a sweet, beautiful sadness that you find in some art.

DD: Kirsten Dunst gives an impressive central performance…
Stellan Skarsgard:
I think Kirsten does something absolutely wonderful in this film, and it's all in her eyes. You could see it when she was acting on set. I knew she was good but I didn’t know she was that good. It’s very subtle.

DD: What do you make of the controversy following Von Trier’s comments in the press conference at Cannes?
Stellan Skarsgard:
I think it's absolutely silly. Everyone knows that he's not a Nazi; he was a Jew until he was 33 years old. He got stuck in a joke that he couldn't get out of and he forgot to have a punch line and instead he kept on talking. People have a problem differentiating words and the meaning of the words, that's the problem. And I think we have bigger problems in the world then that Lars Von Trier lies!

DD: Melancholia is a film about the impending apocalypse – during the making of the film did you think about what you would do if faced with the end of the world?
Stellan Skarsgard:
I don’t know… get on with my life to the last moments and have as much fun as possible!