Stellan Skarsgard Discusses Venice Festival Drama ‘Painted Bird’

No stranger to the world of prestigious film festivals, Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard drew notice almost from the very beginning of his film career when he won the best actor award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1982 for his role in Hans Alfredson’s “Simple-Minded Murderer.” Next stop for the Emmy-nominated star of HBO’s “Chernobyl” is the Venice Film Festival, where Skarsgard co-stars with Harvey Keitel, Barry Pepper, Julian Sands and Udo Kier in Czech writer-director Vaclav Marhoul’s adaptation of the classic Jerzy Kosinski novel “The Painted Bird.”

“The Painted Bird” was an unusual production as Vaclav Marhoul shot across Eastern Europe for several years. Did you know the unorthodox filming plan when you signed on?

Yes and perhaps it’s an even longer project than you realize. Vaclav called me nine years ago when he obtained the rights and told me about his plans and I knew immediately that I wanted to be part of it. It was extremely hard to finance and I think it’s fantastic that he got this film made. It’s hard to get any film financed these days and this one is so ambitious and risky. But I’m so happy with how it turned out and I know it’s all worth it.

Had you filmed in the Czech Republic and Slovakia before?

Yes, I did a TV series about Strindberg and we filmed in Bratislava back in the Soviet days. I remember that I was not a big fan of McDonald’s, but when I was done shooting I couldn’t wait to go to McDonald’s! But the region has completely changed and all for the better.

“Painted Bird” is a tough story about a boy in World War II-ravaged Europe and “Chernobyl” chronicles a monumental ecological tragedy. Are these films tougher to do than say something a little lighter like “Mamma Mia?”

I don’t imagine Caravaggio was crying while he painted “John the Baptist.” I suspect he found great joy in the process. The main thing for me is to enjoy being creative with other interesting actors.

Film projects and TV projects generally have very different tempos of production. Is that jarring for you? To go between the two rhythms?

Thanks to the director of “Chernobyl,” Johan Renck, the whole experience was remarkable. He’s not just directing us in terms of dialogue and blocking but there are so many small, subtle decisions he makes and things he does to create a very special atmosphere and he’s responsible for how well it turned out.

And you got to work with Emily Watson again!

When Emily Watson and I did “Breaking the Waves,” we had a lot of fun and this was true with “Chernobyl” as well. You know, Emily is accessible, even though her character in “Chernobyl” isn’t.  But it was kind of funny when we did our first scene. It’s been 25 years and I think maybe we were both blushing a little, because we both remembered the characters we played and our relationship in that Lars von Trier movie.


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