The only Swedish import that ever stole my heart was IKEA. OK, maybe a Volvo. But then along came Alexander Skarsgard, the vampire bad boy with a true (though a non-beating) heart in HBO's True Blood. Skarsgard plays Eric Northman, the 1,000-year-old Viking sheriff of the undead, but he might as well be named Vampire McSteamy. Do we blame Anna Paquin for secretly fantasizing about him when the sun goes down? That smoldering face. That surfer-boy hair. Those chiseled cheekbones. (Article continued below...)
There are thousands, maybe millions, of women out there who are smitten with Alex (as I like to call him). He also charms the pants off men, like his costar Nelsan Ellis. "He's very humble, extremely talented, and so freaking Mount Olympus good-looking that sometimes I just want to be him," says Ellis, who plays another True Blood fan favorite, Lafayette, a gay, cross-dressing, short-order cook. "But, I want to say, 'Brother, please don't stand next to me.' " In that case, Alex, could you stand next to me instead?
Skarsgard's take on Eric is a little bit Gordon Gekko from Wall Street (he's so mean) mixed with a little Mr. Darcy (he's so misunderstood). His character lurked in the shadows in season one—"I was a glorified extra," he says—but he's quickly become a pivotal part of the show. Eric is the hunk trying to woo away Sookie (Paquin) from her vampiric main squeeze (Stephen Moyer), in a love triangle inspired by the Charlaine Harris books, that could get extra heated in the show's season finale this weekend. As True Blood has become HBO's biggest hit since The Sopranos, averaging about 5 million viewers a week, Skarsgard is the vampire of the hour. Paquin might have won the Golden Globe, but Skarsgard won over the blogosphere. "The real truth is, I was in Europe when season two started, and I had no idea how big the thing had gotten," Skarsgard says. "I landed in L.A., went to Comic-Con and it was absolutely crazy."
Skarsgard might suck blood on TV, but, so far, he's not going to be sucked into his own fame. He's a little bit of an anti-celebrity, even if his other major marquee credit was sharing a bed with Lady Gaga in the music video for "Paparazzi." Skarsgard is now in Shreveport, La., shooting the Rod Lurie (The Contender) "reimagining" of the 1971 Sam Pekinpah film Straw Dogs. The film raised a lot of eyebrows back in the day for an excruciating rape scene that seems to morph from violence to lust. The perp is Skarsgard's character, Charlie Venner. "It's something that we talk about every day on the set," says Skarsgard. "It's going to be tough. It's a painful scene, but it's also a crucial moment."
Skarsgard stays in character during our interview, and he speaks in a soft Southern accent that could make the toes of 1,000 middle-aged women instantly curl. He's humble and polite, and hispter smart about the indie- and punk-music scene (Glasvegas, the Buzzcocks, the Adverts, the Clash, and the Arctic Monkeys are all sprinkled into conversation). He's been so busy, he almost didn't celebrate his 33rd birthday this year. "I was chilling in my hotel room and a couple guys from the Straw Dogs set dragged me out to dinner," he says. "It was actually very casual. And it was very sweet of them to do this. I haven't been doing a lot for my birthdays the last couple of years."
Part of the reason why Skarsgard is so low-key about his new celebrity status is that he's been acting nearly all his life. A director pal of his father, the Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard, gave him a role in the film version of the Swedish children's book Ake och hans värld (Ake and His World), in which he played Kalle Nubb. Then came some Swedish TV, including the lead role in 1989's Hunden som log (The Dog That Smiled). "My parents never dragged me to auditions. They didn't push me. Things just kind of happened, and I thought it was fun," Skarsgard says. But by age 13, he'd had enough. "I was really self-conscious and I wasn't comfortable with all the attention. Thirteen is a tough age. You're trying to figure out if you are a child or a man. It's a strange time. People on the street would recognize me, and I hated it. It was too much. I said to my dad and mom, 'I don't want to do this. I want to play soccer.' I wanted a girl to like me because I was funny or cute, not because she saw me on TV. So I quit."
"If I didn't quit at that time," he says, "I would have crashed and burned, and I doubt I would be acting today."
He still crashed a little. He moved to the United States in his early 20s for theater school, but he dropped out after six months. "I was lonely, I had no money, and I was in love," he says. He packed his bags and flew back to Stockholm. Two days after he landed, he and his girlfriend broke up. Then came more Swedish productions, and a small role in Zoolander, playing Meekus, a dimwitted Eurotrash model who dies in a gasoline fire. Then more Swedish films.
His big U.S. break happened when he was cast in Generation Kill, the 11-time Emmy-nominated HBO miniseries following the exploits of the Marines' First Recon Battalion during the early part of the Iraq War in 2003. The series is based on the book written by Evan Wright, an embedded Rolling Stone reporter, and Skarsgard plays the alpha male team leader Marine Sgt. Brad (Iceman) Colbert. "Alex was definitely put through his paces, and there was a lot of discussion throughout the ranks about casting him," says casting director Alexa L. Fogel. The Colbert role was a fine tightrope act: military brawn combined with intellect, and then there was the language issue. The entire seven-part series is rich in the peculiar, colorful shorthand of the Marine slang, with phrases like "Oscar Mike" (on the move) and "Stay frosty" (stay alert) peppered into the screenplay. "In walks this skinny guy that looked like a really tall Kurt Cobain," says Rudy Reyes, a former recon Marine sergeant who played himself in the miniseries. "But once the cameras started rolling, Skargard became Colbert."
Skarsgard didn't get nominated for an Emmy for his performance, but he has been named the Sexiest Man in Sweden five times. "I give him a lot of crap about that," Reyes says. But at least it's prepared him for the furor he's creating in his True Blood role.
We know that True Blood will end its second season with a cliffhanger (involving—duh—likely you know who). But expect to see plenty of Skarsgard next season, literally. And that should make the fangirls happy. "I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that there's no problem with violence, but I have to sign these legal documents if I show my ass onscreen," he says. "It's really not like that in Europe."
He is hoping to keep working in both U.S. and Swedish productions, and maybe even some theater. "I love the idea of working up close with an audience like that," says Skarsgard, who starred in a Swedish Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. But right now it's all about being afraid of Skarsgard. He'll start filming the third season of True Blood in a few months, and the vampire love is contagious. At least when it comes to his cast. "I really miss those guys," he says. "It sounds so stupid, but these guys really have become my family." I guess that makes them blood relatives.