The character that Alexander Skarsgård plays in the dramatic film “What Maisie Knew” is almost as far apart as you can get from his role as the menacing, hedonistic vampire Eric Northman in the TV series “True Blood.” In “What Maisie Knew” (which is loosely based on the Henry James novel of the same title), Skarsgård plays Lincoln, a mild-mannered bartender who is caught up in a volatile relationship with a rock singer named Susanna (played by Julianne Moore), who manipulates Lincoln into marrying her so that she can have what she thinks will be an advantage in her custody battle over her 6-year-old daughter Maisie (played by Onata Aprile).
Maisie’s father is a self-absorbed art dealer named Beale (played by Steve Coogan), who is an ex-boyfriend of Susanna’s. Susanna’s sudden marriage to Lincoln happens shortly after Beale’s sudden marriage to Maisie’s Scottish ex-nanny Margo (played by Johanna Vanderham). Lincoln and Margo become attached to Maisie, and these step-parents turn out to be more stable influences in Maisie’s life than biological parents Susanna and Beale. On May 2, 2013, Skarsgård and Aprile did a roundtable interview with me and other journalists at the New York City press junket for “What Maisie Knew.” Aprile, who is a gifted young actress, didn’t say much during the interview because she was busy sketching drawings on a notepad. But her natural talent in the movie shines through, and that speaks for itself.
You tend to play a lot of characters who are confident, but Lincoln seems very insecure. It shows in his body language, because he’s often hunched over in his posture. How much direction did you get from the filmmakers to show that vulnerability in this character?
Skarsgård: Derek in “Disconnect” is also broken, in a way. I didn’t feel that with Derek, in his posture and the way he moved, there was no swagger there at all. He was broken because of what he went through.
With Lincoln, it’s not about that. It’s not about that he’s a broken man. He’s just not very super-confident. He’s not very driven, not very ambitious. I see him as someone who’s very talented and genuine and sweet, but he doesn’t take care of himself. And he doesn’t really care.
But there’s something that happens when he meets Maisie. It’s kind of weird what happens. Out of kindness, he marries Julianne [Moore’s] character. They barely know each other, and they’ve been dating, and she’s like, “I need you to please do this for me.”
I don’t know a lot of people who would marry someone in a situation like that. But he does, and she’s not there for her kid. And I think, for the first time in his life, he’s forced to take care of someone. He’s never done that before, not even for himself. He falls in love with this little kid, and he doesn’t understand why her parents aren’t there for her, and how you can neglect someone so wonderful.
Did you ever read Henry James’ novel “What Maisie Knew” to compare it with the movie’s screenplay that was written by Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne?
Skarsgård: I read the novel many years ago. It felt, even then, very relevant. It’s Victorian England, but I think it’s definitely something a lot of people can relate to. A lot of kids go through that.
This is obviously a very different story. And I feel like Sir Claude in the novel is very different from Lincoln. But it’s obviously based on that and the theme and the tone of it is very similar.
And it’s about, in a way, a battle of two egos: two people [Maisie’s parents], who are so focused on destroying each other that … it’s not that they don’t love their kid, but they’re so busy fighting each other that they kind of neglect their child.
Is there anyone you know who is like Lincoln?
Skarsgård: Yeah, I have a couple of friends. I don’t see Lincoln as a hipster. To me, a hipster is someone who’s very aware of his style. There’s a thought behind it. With Lincoln, I wanted someone who definitely couldn’t be bothered. He doesn’t really care about appearance and all that kind of stuff.
Susanna is a musician and is or was someone who was very successful. And I wanted Lincoln to be kind of the polar opposite: someone who’s not successful, not driven, not ambitious like Susanna, but very talented. You don’t see that in the film but I imagine that he’s a great guitarist. And I have friends who are very talented who just aren’t driven. And I wanted to capture that, in a way.
What attracted you to your role in “What Maisie Knew”?
Skarsgård: It’s a combination. I thought it was a great, great script. I was a fan of “The Deep End” [which was directed by “What Maisie Knew” directors David Siegel and Scott McGehee]. I don’t know if you saw David and Scott’s film.
Onata [Aprile] wasn’t attached [to “What Maisie Knew”] when I got involved, but then it was obviously very important to find the right Maisie, because she’s in every single scene of the film. So I felt like even though it had great directors, a great script based on a classic novel — you’ve got Julianne Moore (one of the greatest actresses he we have) and Steve Coogan (I grew up in Europe, and he’s a very famous comedian over there; I don’t know if you’ve seen [his character] Alan Partridge and his stuff; he’s so hilarious) — but that said, it doesn’t really matter if you don’t have the right Maisie.
She’s the glue. It’s her journey. We’re all there to serve that, in a way. We talked a lot about that. I saw a couple of young actresses, but there was no doubt [about Onata Aprile]. The second I was in L.A., they met Onata here, and emailed me the [audition] tape, and I felt like … if you watch 30 seconds of the film, you’ll get it. She has just this amazing energy.
Onata, how many times have you seen “What Maisie Knew” and what goes through your mind when you see yourself playing the Maisie character?
Aprile: I think it saw three or two times. And I think the film is really sad, but at the same time, you kind of feel sorry for Maisie.
How did it feel to have to cry in this movie? Was it easy to stop?
Your mom was there, right?
Aprile: [She nods] Mmm-hmm.
Steve Coogan is known for improvising a lot of his dialogue. How often were you able to handle him doing things that weren’t in the script?
Skarsgård: I’d say always. Onata is very aware of the story and the character and was very open if you changed something. Not once did she go, “Oh, that wasn’t what you were supposed to say.” She’s very much in the moment and present, which made it kind of organic and alive.
What was the hardest part about playing Maisie?
Aprile: I don’t know.
Skarsgård: The long days were tough, wasn’t it? It’s tough when you get tired and you have to act, but you did a good job.
What was the most fun about playing Maisie?
Did you get to keep any of your pretty dresses from the movie?
Aprile: I don’t think so.
Skarsgård: They tend to hang on to them in case there’s a reshoot, they’re afraid to give them away.
Onata, do you want to do another movie?
Aprile: Yes, I do.
Maisie is obviously a latchkey kid. And after a while, it’s not really clear who her main guardian is. What do you think about how kids like this are handled in America?
Skarsgård: I just think it’s easy for them to get lost. We’re so egocentric, in a way. We’re so focused on ourselves. I’ve seen this with friends, where it’s an ugly divorce, and they’re so focused on that custody battle, and it becomes so personal in a way and so ugly. And throughout that, you forget, and it can go on for years. And there’s actually a child there or a couple of kids, and they almost become pawns.
And I think that’s what’s beautiful about the film. It’s not that they don’t love their child. It’s not lack of love. It’s just that the focus is on themselves. It becomes personal. It’s about two egos. And I see a lot of that today where, for very selfish reasons, people do that.
In 2013, you have the movies “Disconnect,” “What Maisie Knew” and “The East,” in which you play very different characters in each movie. What are the deciding factors when you choose to do a movie? Is it more about the characters or more about the directors?
Skarsgård: It’s a combination. It’s about getting excited. And to get to that place, you need a great script. You need directors that you’re exited to work with. And obviously, the character. You need a character that you feel challenged by.
You need to feel that there’s potential to grow there and learn something, because if I don’t feel that a an actor, there’s not going to be an interesting, creative process where in sitting down for the first time with a script and starting to figure out, “Well who is Lincoln, or who is Derek in ‘Disconnect,’ or who is Benji in ‘The East’?”
If I sit down and have all the answers, like, “Oh, I’ve played this character 10 times before” or “I know exactly how to play it,” I’m not going to have fun. I have all the answers. Why would I spend four months discovering it if I had all the answers?
So that’s always what I’m looking for. There’s got to be some mystery there. Otherwise, I won’t have fun. There’s got to be some mystery there. Otherwise, I won’t have fun, and I don’t think the audience will have fun watching it either.
Speaking of having fun, what are you most looking forward to in Season 6 of “True Blood”?
Skarsgård: [My “True Blood” character] Eric is very busy this season. He’s been around for a millennium, but for the first time, the humans can actually fight back. They figure out a way to be a real threat. So he’s very busy fighting humans for the first time.
Will you be at Comic-Con in San Diego this year?
Skarsgård: I hope so. It depends on work, but I always try to go. It’s so much fun. And it’s so great to be in that room with my 5,000 dear friends. It’s crazy, but it is fun, actually.
Your father, Stellan Skarsgård, is a famous actor. When you were growing up, did you ever feel like his work kept him away from you for long periods of time?
Skarsgård: No. When I was a kid, my father was a stage actor in Sweden, so he wasn’t traveling the world, working on big, international films. But he did repertory theater, which meant he rehearsed one play during the day, and then he performed at night. So it was a busy schedule, so he was basically at the theater for 16 hours a day.
So I grew up hanging out backstage a lot. If I wanted to be with my dad, I had to hang out backstage because he was always there. It’s tough, of course. He was gone a lot, but at the same time, what great a place as a kid to run around! Backstage at a theater, with fake noses and wigs and a lot of very interesting, creative people, and being back there when he was working with [Ingmar] Bergman. Not that I understood who Bergman was back then, but it’s pretty cool, looking back.
Did you spent a lot of time with Onata before filming “What Maisie Knew,” since it was really important that the two of you have believable chemistry?
Skarsgård: We got together before. You’re right. It’s so important. Without that, there’s no film. I was nervous about it. I was in L.A., and Onata was in New York, and I was like, “I really hope the chemistry is there.” She was 6 then.
It has to be real. You can’t fake it. We met at David [Siegel’s] house and played around for the afternoon. It was pretty instant. I felt it after three seconds: “We’re fine.”
For more info: “What Maisie Knew” website
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Interview with Alexander Skarsgård for “True Blood” (Comic-Con 2009 panel)
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Interview with Alexander Skarsgård for “Straw Dogs”
Interview with Alexander Skarsgård for “Melancholia”
Interview with Alexander Skarsgård for “Disconnect”
Interview with Alexander Skarsgård for “The East”
Interview with Julianne Moore for “What Maisie Knew”
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