Exclusive interview: Stellan Skarsgård talks ‘Last Words’
Stellan Skarsgård has built his career around seamlessly flitting from genre to genre, delivering knockout performances in everything from awards season favorites to mega budget blockbusters, and this year has summed up the actor’s approach in microcosm.
Having recently been seen buried under a mountain of prosthetics as the villainous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in Denis Villenueve’s $165 million sci-fi epic Dune, Skarsgård follows it up with Jonathan Nossiter’s intimate apocalyptic drama Last Words, which comes to select theaters and on-demand tomorrow.
The plot follows Kalipha Touray’s Kal, who stumbles upon Nick Nolte’s Shakespeare and ends up instantly falling in love with cinema after being shown some old reels. The unlikely duo travel across the ravaged wastelands of 2085 Europe, before falling in with a commune of survivors that includes Skarsgård’s Zyberski, Charlotte Rampling’s Batik and Alba Rohrwacher’s Dima.
Ahead of the movie’s release, We Got This Covered had the chance to speak to Skarsgård about Last Words, reuniting with director Nossiter and co-star Rampling again, his thoughts on going viral for defending superhero cinema, gearing up to shoot Dune: Part Two and more, which you can check out below.
How did you first get involved with the project? Were you familiar with the novel at all [written by Santiago Amigorena] or was it a case of jumping at the chance to work with Jonathan Nossiter again?
Stellan Skarsgård: I wasn’t familiar with the novel, it was Jonathan. Of course, we worked together on Signs and Wonders many years ago, and we’ve stayed friends. But then, it was also attractive. I mean, we shot it at the Amalfi Coast in Italy, where I always wanted to go. Unfortunately, it was November, and there was supposed to be a lot of rain! But then, it was also working with Charlotte Rampling again. I’ve done… I don’t know, maybe five films we’ve been in together, so there was another thing that attracted me.
It’s a post-apocalyptic story, but also a bit of a road trip movie, a socially-conscious drama and a love letter to film. It’s ambitious, but it works even though there are so many genre and thematic elements in the mix.
Stellan Skarsgård: Yeah, it’s… I mean, in a way, you’re kind of tired of post-apocalyptic movies now. And it’s a genre that I think I read about four or five scripts a year, post-apocalyptic scripts. But this was also… it was also an homage to cinema. And it was an homage to art as something essential in life.
Jonathan said you were heavily involved in shaping the early drafts of the script. Was that just for your character, or did you have a bigger impact on the story as a whole?
Stellan Skarsgård: No, he sends me scripts, then I am always honest!
Kalipha Touray does a great job for a first-time actor, were you impressed by what he brought to the film having never acted before?
Stellan Skarsgård: When you work with amateurs, which I’ve done a lot, it can be… they can sometimes be better than professional actors, because they never see the tools. And if they’re good, they have a natural presence. He’s fantastic, and I think he did a great job. And Jonathan had worked with him to a certain extent to prepare him for it, but it was of course, it was him.
It was his private self, that had this sort of beauty and glow that he has, that works very well for him. I mean that, the original script, it was a lot of very lyrical text from the book. Some of that was then translated into his mother tongue, because he couldn’t do that in English.
Last Words is relatively low on budget but high on production values, and it’s impressive what Jordan’s managed to pull off in terms of maximizing the resources on offer. Did it feel like a big film when you were shooting it?
Stellan Skarsgård: I mean, shooting at a fantastic archeological site with those temples and everything, it’s a grand place to shoot. But it was raining and there were no trailers! And we were very cold, all of us. But on the other hand, Jonathan also has a vinyeard and he’s a foodie. So we ate very well, and we had some wonderful wines!
Last Words was supposed to release last year, but would you agree it’s become even more timely in 2021? Especially when the story involves a global virus, the climate crisis and the importance of cinema as a means for bringing people together?
Stellan Skarsgård: Unfortunately it becomes more and more timely, but I mean, it was shot before the pandemic. The pandemic shouldn’t have been a surprise to anybody. So, it wasn’t really looking into the future. By magical means, it was just a logical means.
You mentioned earlier that this is far from your first time working with Charlotte Rampling, did that sense of familiarity make it easier to develop the relationship between your characters?
Stellan Skarsgård: Yeah, I mean we’re very comfortable onscreen. And in private, too, I’m a big admirer of her not only as an actress, but also as a human being. And I think she’s grand, beautiful, dangerous and very intelligent. So it’s fun to hang with her. And I feel that, of course, we were in front of the camera with a certain ease.
Last Words is Jonathan’s first film in a while, but you guys have been friends for 20 years. So do you sign onto anything he sends your way, or do you read a script first before making a decision?
Stellan Skarsgård: No! I mean, I said no to his film in Rio, for instance, that he did before, and I don’t know why! But I think it was because I had just been to Rio, so there can be different reasons for doing it. But, I mean, I like hanging out with hum. And he’s now into farming. He’s got a farm in Italy, and he’s struggling with 10,000 tomato plants! So he’s got other things to do! I visited him there, and we have a very good relationship, even when we don’t shoot together.
It’s been another eclectic year for you with Dune and Last Words releasing just a few months apart, and the two couldn’t be more different from each other. How was it moving from the big blockbuster to the small independent film, or was it the other way around?
Stellan Skarsgård: It was the other way around! But, I mean, normally you would think that the big Hollywood movie would be more comfortable. But in this case it wasn’t, because of the 40 kilos of prosthetics that I had to drag around. But it’s… I haven’t done much sci-fi. And it’s like, you can see two sci-fi movies of different kinds. But what they have in common, is that they’re very much based on the visual language.
So you’re looking forward to putting the prosthetics back on for Dune: Part Two, then?
Stellan Skarsgård: I’m not looking forward to putting the prosthetics on, but to be on the set with Denis Villenueve and the rest of the cast. It’s a fun project, but it’s really, really uncomfortable.
Earlier this summer, David Dastmalchian said he was thrilled to be working with you on Dune, and Dave Bautista admitted that he geeked out when he saw you on set. How does it feel to be at that stage of your career to be held in such high regard by the people that you work with?
Stellan Skarsgård: I think it’s exaggerated! I’m just a fellow worker, really.
I don’t know if you’ll be aware of this, but you went viral on social media recently for your comments about the superhero genre. And people appreciate that you’re speaking from a place of experience as someone that goes from small independent films and Oscar-winning movies to big blockbuster, so you can see as much of the industry as you can.
Stellan Skarsgård: Yeah, I’m curious, of course. So that’s one reason, but it’s also that I’ve done.. I don’t know, 120 productions or something. And in fact, it’s very nice to have a varied diet, and 200 different-tasting things all the time. So it’s also beneficial because if I do a couple of big Hollywood movies, I become in this world what they call ‘more bankable’, which is a horrible term. But that also means that if I sign up, we might get some extra financing!
That concludes our interview with Stellan Skarsgård. Last Words is coming to select theaters and on-demand Friday, December 17.