Actor Stellan Skarsgard has explained the importance of violence in his new film The Painted Bird.
The Swedish actor, 69, was recently nominated for a BAFTA for his acclaimed turn as Soviet politician Boris Shcherbina in HBO/Sky Atlantic mini-series Chernobyl.
Of the show’s record-breaking success as the highest-rated TV series of all-time on IMDB, Stellan Skarsgard told Mirror Online: “The thing about Chernobyl is not just about what happened then but it’s about what happens all the time.
“It was a TV series about what happens if you don’t listen to science and if you cut corners for political reasons, for ideological reasons, or like in Fukushima for financial reasons.
“The success of Chernobyl tells you that people are starving for serious stuff about real things without any zombies or supernatural or sci-fi, it’s about us, human beings. I like that.”
Now, the actor – who is something of a Swedish acting patriarch – has a new film arriving in cinemas that is similarly thought-provoking.
Skarsgard stars as the world-weary soldier Hans in Czech director Václav Marhoul’s black-and-white war drama The Painted Bird, based on the acclaimed novel of the same name by Jerzy Kosiński.
The Painted Bird follows the journey of a young Jewish boy as he wanders through the desecrated countryside, the boy encounters villagers and soldiers whose own lives have been brutally altered by the Second World War and who soon come to enact brutality upon the child.
The gritty film took years to get off of the ground but Skarsgard was always an advocate for the film from the get-go.
Stellan said: “I got involved ten or eleven years ago when the director called but he had a struggle to get the rights to the novel and it was a hard film to finance and he wanted to shoot over two years, so it was a pretty expensive arthouse film. So, I wanted to support it, so I said yes very early on.”
“My role, I filmed for one or two days but I wanted to support it.”
The Painted Bird drew some attention when reports came out of the severe violence in the film leading to walk-outs at Venice Film Festival.
However, Stellan insists that this was an overreaction, with many just going to the toilet.
“Some people walk out and they can get a headline, they’ll write it,” he notes, adding that the film got an “8-10 minute applause afterwards.”
Yet the Melancholia star does recognise that the film has faced some detractors for its explicit violence, but argues its content is necessary.
Stellan explains: “When it comes to the violence, there’s much less violence in it as in most Hollywood films but the problem with the violence here is that it’s not pleasant enough.
“I think if you’re seriously making a film about the Second World War you can’t have pleasant violence because it is not pleasant.
“It isn’t pleasant for the people who are exposed to it, but we are so used to violence that is entertaining and that is sad.”
He also suggests it is important for understanding the cyclical nature of cultural violence in society.
Stellan posits: “What is interesting in this film is how the brutality that [the boy]exposed to eventually makes him brutal himself. I think that violence is also cultural.”
In discussing the relevance of the film’s themes for today’s increasingly chaotic and politically divisive landscape, the veteran Swedish actor gives a firm explanation.
“The thing about this film is that the people tormenting this boy are not Nazis, they’re normal people like you and me and the living conditions they are all living under are extremely harsh and it’s war,” he opines.
“What is important from this film is we should all know that we are capable of cruelty. We are all capable of the most horrible ideologies, of supporting authoritarian regimes, as you know.
“34% voted for [Adolf Hitler] of the German population and when he got to power he got more popular because of the nationalism that he was whipping up.
“The question is not ‘How can all those people be evil?’, the question is ‘How can so many good people vote for Hitler?How can so many good people vote for [President Donald Trump]?’. Because I know many good people who voted for Trump.”
He concludes: “It’s very dangerous to divide humanity into good guys and bad guys because it’s simplification that makes us think we belong to the good guys and means we will be even more possible that we contribute to the most horrific things.”
To have such a topical film released during a global pandemic may only serve to increase its importance, but how has the actor been spending his lockdown?
“I’m extremely privileged. In Sweden we didn’t have total lockdown,” he details, “we had social distancing and it just worked very well here, so you could go shop and there would be no lack of produce in shops and you could go to a restaurant and you had to sit 2 metres away from everybody.”
Like many of us, the Thor star was with his family, including his actor sons Alexander Skarsgard (Tarzan, Big Little Lies), Gustaf Skarsgard (Westworld) and Bill Skarsgard (IT’s Pennywise), whose success he attributes to entirely their own talents and decisions.
“Most of my time i spent on an island just outside Stockholm where we have a little house,” reveals the father-of-eight.
“All of my kids, they weren’t working either, so we had twenty people out there and we had a great meals.
“It makes you feel guilty for all those people in third world countries and America who don’t have healthcare and they don’t have any protection if they lose their jobs.
“I am so privileged, I feel ashamed.”
Of his work projects, Stellan discussed how the pandemic had directly impacted his upcoming projects.
He explained: “One film I was due to start in March was one of the first to be cancelled in the world because it was financed by Chinese money and then they locked down Wuhan and all of the cinemas in China lost money…
“Then I had a Star Wars TV series that I was supposed to start in June but now that’s pushed until November, but we’ll see when we get back and start running again.”
Skarsgard will appear in the upcoming untitled Disney+ limited series which focuses on the Star Wars character Cassian Andor, played by Diego Luna, who appeared in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
However, there is little Stellan can reveal about it at this stage, apart from that he will begin filming on the show in November.
“I’ve read some episodes but i can’t talk about it,” he laughs, “I’ll be killed.”
Although he did add that it has a similar tone to Rogue One and says: “I’m looking forward to it, it’s very well written.”
Despite the delays to these projects, Skarsgard remains most concerned for the underprivileged across the world throughout the pandemic, and also for the smaller areas of the film industry that will be most hardest hit.
He laments: “Of course, you worry that the arthouse cinemas that already were struggling, many will not be able to survive this and many films like The Painted Bird it will be hard to get out there.”
The Painted Bird will be released in UK cinemas on September 11, 2020.