I love Stellan Skarsgård! I don’t really need an excuse to talk about him, but today also happens to be his birthday. It’s a very happy birthday indeed for Skarsgård’s career. Lately, he’s been finally getting the attention he deserves and working on big budget Hollywood blockbusters which should help him make a name for himself in the mainstream and popular culture. Not that I care about any of those movies, but it’s nice to finally see one of my favorite actors getting noticed and recognized by people, which I hope will translate in more great collaborations with more visionary filmmakers as well.
Film connoisseurs all over the world know that Stellan Skarsgård’s career broke out a long time ago, when he starred in Lars von Trier’s indie hit Breaking the Waves (1996). However he had been working long before, in fact his first film Strandhugg i somas dates back to 1972. Since then he appeared mostly in Swedish and Scandinavian films, before making his breakthrough in American cinemas with Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting (1997). Since then he continued to collaborate with von Trier and increasingly appear in English language films, making a name for himself by working with great filmmakers and only on projects he believed in.
The reason why I am a big fan of Stellan Skarsgård is that he has a very subtle acting style. It doesn’t really seem like he’s acting, but rather being himself. I believe everything he says when he’s on screen, but at the same time I’m always aware it’s him, even when he’s under heavy makeup like in the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies. I also like that he always seems to have a lot of fun, especially in Lars von Trier films. I was very happy to see him get a key role in Nymphomaniac and I think he nails it. Even though he always seems to be playing a version of himself he has a lot of range and you would never mix up the characters he plays.
He always gives his characters something distinct, something that makes them unique. It’s always something subtle, mostly linked to their personality. It reflects in his character’s mannerism, in the way they talk, carry themselves, in their facial expressions and body language in general. I would venture to say that every time he’s on-screen he’s the best actor on-screen. He’s memorable even in smaller roles like Melancholia. I feel that he brings a depth and sophistication to the picture that few actors can pull off. He seems to do so effortlessly, which only makes me marvel at how he does it and admire him more.
To honor his career I’ve decided to highlight five films of his I’ve enjoyed most over the years. To avoid a top five of his Lars von Trier collaborations I’ve restricted this list to only include one (well, technically two) film per director, otherwise it would be pretty predictable and not very representative of his career. Looking at Stellan Skarsgård’s filmography I noticed that I need to dive in more into his Scandinavian works. So as usual if you’ve seen a film starring Stellan Skarsgård you recommend feel free to leave a comment. So now without further ado here are some of my favorite films in chronological order.
5. Insomnia (1997, Erik Skjoldbjærg)
Stellan plays a Swedish detective investigating a murder in a Norwegian town located above the Arctic Circle. I recommend this thriller not only because it’s in the Criterion Collection, but because it’s a well-crafted and well-put together film. Skarsgård is the protagonist and he gives a quiet, nuanced performance. Already at this stage of his career is incredibly intense and so is the film.
4. Good Will Hunting (1997, Gus Van Sant)
Not my favorite Gus van Sant film, but still a pretty damn good film. Skarsgård has a supporting role as mathematics professor Prof. Gerald Lambeau. This film got a lot of Oscar attention including three actors nomination and one win (Robin Williams), but honestly Skarsgård’s is the performance I remember enjoying most. Unfortunately, his role didn’t require anything showy.
3. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006, Gore Verbinski)
Lots of makeup for Stellan in this one. I have to applaud the casting people for their intuition here. This is the second ‘Pirates’ film, which I enjoyed more than the first one oddly enough. While I normally don’t care for these kind of films I have a lot of respect for Gore Verbinski as one of the few auteurs working in the studio system. Also I have a soft spot for Jerry Bruckheimer productions.
2. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011, David Fincher)
Skarsgård is slimy and disgusting in this one, not unlike his role in Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003). I love it. This is one of the few remakes I actually prefer to the original. This film looks stunning and Stellan is the perfect villain. He fully embraces his character’s misogyny and genuinely has fun with it. The rest of the cast is pretty damn good as well. An excellent mystery/thriller in my opinion.
1. Nymphomaniac: Vol. I & Vol. II (2013, Lars von Trier)
Of all the films Skarsgård and von Trier made together this is the one where he’s given most space and freedom. While the film is comprised of an ensemble cast, Seligman (Skarsgård’s character) plays a key role in the narrative that frames the whole story. By the end of the second volume I was a bit disappointed for the fate of his character. Still he makes him very relatable and definitely unforgettable.
Grattis på födelsedagen, Stellan Skarsgård ♡