The Northman Star Alexander Skarsgård Talks Maintaining Muscle, Learning Old Norse, And Mythmaking [Interview]

In "The Northman," leading man Alexander Skarsgård gives a powerfully brutal performance as Amleth, a berserker Viking seeking to avenge his father, save his mother, and kill his uncle, Fjölnir. Set over 1000 years in the past, the story is carried entirely on the muscled shoulders of Skarsgård as Amleth weaves (and slashes) his way towards his destiny. He's also surrounded by an incredible cast that includes Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, and Willem Dafoe.

Focus Features gave us the chance to talk one-on-one with Skarsgård ("Godzilla vs. Kong," "The Stand") about why he was so passionate about "The Northman," the difficulties inherent in the five-month hiatus the film went through in 2020, and how he went about mastering an ancient language. Also be sure to check out our interview with director Robert Eggers, and read our review of the film right here

'It's like a religion created by people on shrooms'

For most people these days, awareness of Norse mythology comes primarily from Marvel's "Thor" movies, which ironically feature your dad. Can you talk about some of the ways these original myths ⁠⁠— and the way they were perceived at the time this movie takes place ⁠— are different from our modern perception?

How this idea was born was basically about 10 years ago I started thinking about how I've never seen a historically accurate depiction of the Viking age. I've never seen a big, epic Viking adventure film based on the old Icelandic sagas that captures the laconic tone that's really harsh, just like the landscape. It started to percolate in my head about why I've never really seen that. I think that the "Thor" movies are wonderful, and they obviously take a lot of creative freedom. They're very inspired by a lot of the old sagas and have elements of them, but they've turned into something else. I think they're very entertaining. Taika [Waititi, director of "Thor: Ragnarok" and "Thor: Love and Thunder"] is a dear friend of mine, he did an amazing job on his "Thor" movie. I loved it, thought it was super funny, but again was wondering why there had never been a more realistic or more grounded Viking movie. 

That's basically how it all started. I wanted to have an opportunity to go deeper into the Norse mythology, really get into the headspace of a Viking 1000 years ago. How would someone like Amleth perceive the world? Can we, as an audience, see the world through his eyes? Can we understand his relationship to fate, to the Norns, to the spirits inside of him? The woods, the gods, the deities, all those aspects. It's such a rich culture and a wild mythology. It's like a religion created by people on shrooms. Basically, I had the desire to tell the story through the eyes of someone who actually lived 1000 years ago in Northern Europe.

'I was trying to stay in it'

Filming was halted for five or six months due to COVID. You got enormous for this movie, so how much of a challenge was it to not only maintain the physicality of the part, but also waiting in the wings with all that intense rage that the character harbored during those months in hiatus?

It was challenging. We were shut down six days before we were supposed to start principal photography in March of 2020, when the pandemic hit Europe real bad. Obviously at the time no one knew how long it would be, so we shut down for a couple of weeks to start with. There was no Covid protocol at the time. No one knew how to shoot safely during the pandemic, nor how long the epidemic would last. Like you mentioned, I was basically in standby mode. I couldn't stop training or get off the diet because any day I could get a phone call like, "Alright, we're now back." So it ended up being five months of just kind of trying to stay in it. 

Also it's a big, expensive movie and I've been around long enough to know that sometimes when s*** happens financing falls apart, and maybe it'll be years before we can do it again ... if ever. I was trying to stay in it, keeping the conversations going with the other producers: "How's it look? Have we figured out a way to do this?" It's a big movie shot on location with hundreds of people, so we have to do it in a safe manner. I didn't really have an option. I was incredibly excited and motivated, so I just kept going during that hiatus and waited for that phone call.

'I would love to be reunited with Rob'

How difficult was the Old Norse language to master? Was there some crossover with Swedish?

Swedish is basically derived from it. All the Scandinavian languages come from Old Norse. Modern day Icelandic is the one closest to Old Norse because Iceland is an island and they've been more isolated and less influenced by Germanic languages and Latin languages over the millennia. Modern Swedish is very different from Old Norse, but you can see similarities in most words so it makes sense. It's not completely foreign to me, as opposed to Old Slavic for Anya. I was incredibly impressed that she pulled that off, because I speak Swedish so I had some knowledge of Old Norse, but she went in and it was a completely unknown language to her. To own it the way she does in the movie is really, really, really great.

I spoke to Robert Eggers briefly about his planned version of "Nosferatu," which was actually one of the movies you studied for "True Blood" (where you're playing a character called Northman). If Robert ever gets that film off the ground, is that something you'd be interested in being part of?

I don't know if there's a role for me in that movie, but I absolutely adore Robert and this has been one of ⁠— if not the ⁠— greatest journeys of my professional life working on "The Northman." I would love to be reunited with Rob in some way, shape, or form in the future.

"The Northman" opens in theaters this Friday, April 22, 2022.