The Northman Interview: Alexander Skarsgård On Filming With Robert Eggers And Anya Taylor-Joy

Robert Eggers is one of the most distinctive directors working in Hollywood today, having cultivated a brand of eerie, unsettling, sometimes unexplainable unease in his first two feature films, The Witch and The Lighthouse. The Northman, however, is a major departure. Made with a $90 million budget, it retains Eggers' style but transplants it into the historical action genre, breaking new ground for the director. You can read all about why Eggers went in this direction in my interview with the director here, but star Alexander Skarsgård also has a unique perspective on The Northman.

While Skarsgård has a varied filmography including dark romantic turns in Passing and Big Little Lies, he also has experience as an action lead from the likes of True Blood and The Legend of Tarzan. When I sat down with Skarsgård, I asked him about his experience shooting intense action scenes with a director usually known for intensely intimate movies.

"It's an undertaking that I knew was going to be challenging," he says. "With Robert, it's one thing to do to shoot this way when you're shooting a movie about two characters in a lighthouse. It's a whole different story when you have 300 extras and 50 stuntmen and horses and chickens and Vikings climbing walls, and all the while the camera’s moving with them. I knew it was going to be challenging, but also I just embraced that and was really, really excited that Rob had the guts to try it this way. Because people just don't shoot movies that way. And definitely not action movies. So it entailed a lot of prep, we had to work on those big set pieces for many months before shooting them. Figuring out the choreography, building it up in a gymnasium where we trained so we would work with the camera department on the speed of those sequences, so that we would have the right fluidity and on so that on the day when we shot it, we could limit it to only like 25-30 takes."

Another challenge of The Northman was the language. While most of the movie is in English, there are exchanges, particularly between Skarsgård and on-screen romance Anya Taylor-Joy, in Olde Slavic. While neither of them speak Icelandic, between them they speak five languages (Skarsgård was born and raised in Sweden and also speaks German, while Taylor-Joy speaks Spanish from her Argentinian childhood and has French-speaking mother, plus the obvious fact they both speak English), but Skarsgård notes that his native Swedish is much closer to modern day Icelandic, and therefore to Olde Slavic, meaning he had an easier time with the script initially.

"It was definitely easier for me than for Anya," he tells me. "Anya has to speak Olde Slavic, and has no connection to that language, so that was quite impressive how she managed to pull that off. I don't speak Olde Icelandic or Old Norse, but speaking modern day Swedish, there's definitely a strong link between the two as it derived from Old Norse, so it was helpful. You understand most words, even though they're quite different in modern day Swedish."

While Taylor-Joy had greater challenges linked to the language of the movie, she has a lot of experience with Eggers' style. She made her breakout in Eggers' The Witch and is heavily rumoured to be playing the lead in Eggers' upcoming Nosferatu (the project has fallen apart twice because of other stars dropping out, but Taylor-Joy has remained firmly attached). As well as Taylor-Joy, The Northman also features former Eggers collaborators Willem Dafoe, Kate Dickie, and Ralph Inneson, and I asked Skarsgård what it was like to be on set with so many actors who knew Eggers' distinct style.

"In prep, it was really helpful," he says. "Rob and I had known each other for five years when we started the movie, we've been developing it together. So I knew him very well, but I'd never been on a set with him. Theoretically, I knew exactly how he worked, but I hadn't had the physical experience of being on a set with him. So talking to Anya was very helpful in understanding how he operated together with Jarin [Blaschke] the cinematographer. The way they work is quite unique. They shoot on film, which is rare these days. It's one camera only, so no b-camera and also no coverage. All the scenes are just one long take, or 90 percent of the scenes are just one long shot. The beginning of the first two weeks, we shot quite easy scenes around the farm or pedestrian stuff, which was helpful in getting that flow and understanding how we have to make the relationship between myself and the camera and to find the right fluidity in those shots."

The Northman, starring Alexander Skarsgård, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman, and Claes Bang, is in cinemas April 15.

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