‘The Northman’ director Robert Eggers treated Alexander Skarsgård like a robot during filming

the northman
Image via Focus Features

The Northman boasts some of the most realistic depictions of the Viking era in cinema yet, including a primal performance from star Alexander Skarsgård. So how did director Robert Eggers pull such powerful performances? Apparently by treating the actor like a robot.

In a recent sprawling interview with The New York Times, Eggers opened up about how he approaches directing. As a former actor himself, he was asked if that had any bearing on how he directs.

“I should be an actor’s director, but at times I’m naughty. Alexander Skarsgård felt he was being treated like a robot for the first couple weeks, but then he understood why I was directing the way I was.”

Eggers was asked if that frustrated Skarsgård.

Yeah. And also, I don’t indulge in a lot of table work — talking about your character and how they grew up and all that stuff. I’m more interested in doing than talking, as far as acting’s concerned.

He said he took a similar approach to directing Robert Pattinson in his other film, the indie darling The Lighthouse.

With The Lighthouse, Pattinson would say sometimes, “Is it this or is it that?” And I said, “You know what? Pick the one that works for you, but you’ve got to do this scene 25 percent faster.”

Despite his somewhat Draconian directing techniques, Skarsgård apparently warmed up to the director and Eggers got the performances he wanted from the actor – even going so far as to call Skarsgård “sweet.”

He’s the sweetest, dorkiest guy. Alex has been into Vikings since he was a kid, so this was something that he was super passionate about, and he demanded perfection of himself. For the first couple weeks, he was trying to understand how Jarin and I worked and he was frustrated, but once we did the scene where he does a shamanic war dance, things changed. I think the fury, insanity and vulnerability he needed to show, it unlocked something. And then for the rest of the shoot, every take was great.

As for Skarsgård, he recently revealed that the easiest scene to shoot in the movie was his emotional reunion with Nicole Kidman’s character Queen Gudrún. Mostly because he got to do it with his clothes on.

The Northman‘s been getting a lot of buzz and was certified fresh by Rotten Tomatoes at 89% and has an audience score of 78%. Eggers said he’s hopeful it will do well because there needs to be room for big movies that don’t involve superheros.

“I’m incredibly humbled and excited by the early reviews being so positive, but even if you absolutely hate this movie, I feel it’s society’s responsibility to root for it a little bit because other filmmakers should get the opportunity to do this, and audiences should have the opportunity to see things other than superhero movies. I’m not even deriding superhero movies, but there needs to be room for something else, too.”

The Northman is in theaters now.