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Why Stellan Skarsgård spent 8 'painful' hours a day transforming into his 'Dune' character

Why Stellan Skarsgård spent 8 'painful' hours a day transforming into his 'Dune' character

Whether he's playing the egotistical professor in "Good Will Hunting" or the deadly psychopath in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," Stellan Skarsgård knows how to dive deep into his character's psyche to make a chameleonic transformation on-screen.

But when given the chance to literally camouflage himself under mountains of makeup and prosthetics for a role, he won't pass up the opportunity.

To play the corpulent evil Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in "Dune: Part Two," the 72-year-old Swede spent eight hours a day in the makeup chair.

"It was painful, but it was worth it," Skarsgård told Business Insider of his metamorphosis, adding that he found the role interesting because of the Baron's striking physicality.

"We wanted him to be so well defined as an image that he made an imprint on people just by showing up on the screen," Skarsgård continued. "And that imprint should last throughout the film without having him show up all the time."

Stellan Skarsgard as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in "Dune." A bald man covered in grey sludge rises from a pool of water.
Stellan Skarsgard as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in "Dune."Warner Bros.

While the actor is relieved he no longer has to sit for hours, often naked, transforming into the Baron, he admitted that when it comes to torture by practical effects, he's a glutton for punishment.

He recalled a similar instance almost two decades ago when he played the barnacle-covered Bootstrap Bill in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise. When it came time to choose between wearing prosthetics or simply doing his scenes with motion-capture dots on his face, Skarsgård opted for hours in the makeup chair.

"I was the only one on set with real prosthetics on," Skarsgåard said. "Everyone else on that ship showed up five minutes before we started shooting and had dots put on their face, and away they went. I had been there for six hours."

"But the thing is, I like it," he added with a laugh. "I like to see the artists paint, if that makes sense."

For the latest interview in Business Insider's Role Play series, Skarsgård reflects on his short-lived music career, doing a million takes with David Fincher, and being pranked by Robin Williams on the set of "Good Will Hunting."

On his ill-fated teenage music career and why he likes playing villains

Stellan Skarsgard in a hat
Stellan Skarsgård in "Bombi Bitt och jag."BO-AJE MELLIN/SVT1

You became famous in Sweden at 16 thanks to your starring role in "Bombi Bitt och jag." You've said that before pursuing acting, you wanted to be a diplomat. How did you react to the stardom at that age?

I don't know why I wanted to be a diplomat. [Laughs.]

You wanted to save the world, right?

Yeah. I wanted to save the world, and I wanted to do good for people. But then I was seduced by the acting and the thing about being someone else — being able to do things that you would never do or would dare do. That's why I like playing bad guys.

Your fame as a teen got to the point where you were sent to Stockholm to record an album, though you couldn't sing at all. So when the reviews came out, they weren't the most glowing. You went from being the darling to being broken down in the press. How did you get through all of that?

It hurt when the reviews came out, but I also knew I wasn't a singer. So I totally agreed with them. I should not have done that record. But also, I had very good parents. I was 16 at the time, and that's a vulnerable age, but my parents taught me to keep a distance from my public persona and not to try to become that person. Make sure to tear it down.

Let's fast-forward to some years later when you meet the director who would change your life, Lars von Trier. You two would go on to make classics like "Breaking the Waves," "Dancer in the Dark," "Dogville," and "Melancholia." Can you recall your first meeting with him?

Yeah. We were testing another actress for the lead in "Breaking the Waves." It was Helena Bonham Carter. Of course, we eventually went with Emily Watson.

But I'm with Helena, and we go to the door of Lars' home, and I hug him. And I felt that he was absolutely stiff. And he said to me, "I'm not comfortable with physical contact." So I hug him even tighter. And I didn't let go for a while. And after that, we were pretty good with physical contact.

On doing silly takes with Robin Williams and doing stunts with F1 drivers

Robin Williams and Stellan Skarsgård looking at each other
(L-R) Robin Williams and Stellan Skarsgård in "Good Will Hunting."Miramax Films

The success with Von Trier opened the door for you to more roles in the US. One of those memorable early English-speaking roles was "Good Will Hunting." Is it true Robin Williams pranked you on one take during filming and suddenly started improvising and talking like Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro?

He always did that.

Oh, so it wasn't just one time?

No. No. He was extremely funny. And we laughed. It was a shoot where it was OK to laugh and do a couple of crazy takes. The thing with him is he had to get it out of his system. He would have an idea about something funny, and he would have to get it out for him to continue. We would do 10 takes on something, and it was good, and Gus Van Sant was pleased, and Robin would say, "Can I do one more take!" And then he had to get it out of him. He was fantastic to work with.

You were the star in the original "Insomnia." Williams starred in the American remake directed by Christopher Nolan. Did Robin ever come to you and talk about the project before making it?

No. And Chris Nolan didn't come to me either. But they did their version of it. I haven't seen it.

Is that intentional?

No, it's not intentional, but I know the story, obviously, and I have more important films to see.

When I say "'Ronin' car chase," is it excitement or terror that enters your mind?

At first, it was enormous excitement. I came to the set and saw that the camera car was a Porsche, so I knew it was going to be fast. And ['Ronin' director John] Frankenheimer had changed all the stunt drivers to real Formula 1 drivers. I just thought, it's going to be fast! So I had this idea that my character, he's so cool he doesn't care about safety belts and shit like that. So I didn't put one on when I got in the car.

We then did the first take, and I went, "Uh, make sure you get a shot of me putting on the safety belt." So that's funny, a really dangerous guy, but he puts on his seat belt.

Also, I'll never forget this: we were driving in the tunnels where Princess Di had just died.

On singing in 'Mamma Mia!' with the help of some movie magic

Stellan Skarsgård holding Julia Walters
Stellan Skarsgård singing with Julia Walters in "Mamma Mia!"Universal

Now knowing your past with singing as a teen, "Mamma Mia!" is an interesting choice. Did any part of you take that role to get over your fear of singing?

No, I still know I couldn't sing. In fact, I was shocked when they called me and offered the role. "Are they crazy?"

But I went to London and sang in a theater with the director and a pianist. And they told me to sing, and I'm like [singing off key] "lala lala." The director, Phyllida Lloyd — she'd done lots of operas, and this was her first film — she looked really worried. So I said to her, "I can't do this, but you can help me, and you've never directed a film, so I can help you with that." That was kind of the deal we made.

And the thing is, they can do things electronically to make you sound great.

Skarsgård didn't mind that "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" director David Fincher wanted "25 takes" for scenes

Stellan Skarsgård sitting at a table
(L-R) Daniel Craig and Stellan Skarsgård in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."Sony

You've thrived working with directors who are hands-off and allow the actors to figure things out themselves, like Lars von Trier and Milos Forman. What was it like working on "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" with David Fincher, who is known for his meticulous style and having actors do multiple takes?

I love him. Because he does so many takes, I have many chances to fuck up. He rarely said anything. He would just say, "Let's do it again." He's more dealing with camera movements, but he doesn't bother the actors that much.

When he does 25 takes, as he sometimes does, it is sometimes good, because there could be an actor who is nervous and stiff and is a little clunky, but you can't do that for 25 takes. You get tired. Sooner or later, that person will loosen up. It becomes more real.

Hollywood is in an interesting state right now, so I want your opinion. Audience interest in superhero movies — like the "Thor" movies you starred in — is fading. Movies like "Oppenheimer" and "Dune" are finding their footing. The $100 million movie isn't going away, but perhaps more creativity is coming in those projects. Do you see that?

I do, in a way. Those films you named made a lot of money, so it makes the studio heads courageous. But it only takes one flop to make them scared again.

The thing is, it takes a lot of talent to make an "Oppenheimer" or a "Dune," and we can't produce that much talent enough to have 100 releases like that each year. But I think the cinema will survive. They will go back to how the multiplex was intended to be.

The biggest screens show the biggest blockbusters, and the smaller screens show other films. What has been happening is they show the same shit on all the screens. I think that will change. I'm positive.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Read the original article on Business Insider