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Military experience fortified actor Alexander Skarsgard for what was to come

Alexander Skarsgard (left) and Florence Pugh costar in the TV adaptation of John LeCarre’s thriller, “The Little Drummer Girl” premiering Nov. 19 on AMC. (Jonathan Olley/AMC/Ink Factory / AMC)
Alexander Skarsgard (left) and Florence Pugh costar in the TV adaptation of John LeCarre’s thriller, “The Little Drummer Girl” premiering Nov. 19 on AMC. (Jonathan Olley/AMC/Ink Factory / AMC)
By Luaine Lee Tribune News Service

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgard’s career was over at 13. At least that’s what he thought.

Born into an acting family – his father is the well-known Stellan Skarsgard – Alexander found himself in a couple of movies before he hit puberty. It was not a happy alliance.

“I did something small comparatively, but in Sweden it got a little bit of attention when I was 13,” he says.

“And that’s a very difficult age to be known. It’s a hard age for anyone, let alone if you’re in the spotlight; you’re scrutinized. I did NOT enjoy it, so I quit and didn’t act for eight years.”

But Skarsgard thrives on challenges and much later was to flirt with the field again. When he was 19 and found himself part of the Swedish military, he realized he would be sorely tested. “I come from a very bohemian family, grew up in an urban environment so the notion of being in the military in the islands running around with a gun was very foreign to what I believe in and how I was raised,” he says.

“But for some reason, I felt a strong desire to do it. There was something about the challenge of it – this was in Sweden 15 years ago when the threat level was not very high. It’s way more intense in the Baltic today than it was then. If you enlist in the Marine Corps here you might have to fight. Sweden’s last war was 200 years ago. It wasn’t a patriotic calling, I just wanted the challenge.”

And a challenge it was. “I had three guys on my team and we were out on the islands and had to be self-sufficient for a long time. It taught me a lot about planning and organizing and leadership and the dynamics within a group,” he says. “And I feel I matured a lot while I was there. That was a huge shift. There were moments I hated it, but in hindsight I’m very glad I did it.”

That experience fortified Skarsgard, 42, for what was to come. After military service he headed for New York to attend drama school, but dropped out after one semester. He’d left a girlfriend back in Sweden, and though he’d only known her for three weeks, he was wildly in love with her.

“I was young and quite naive and thought that this was it. ‘I have to be with this girl.’ and then I moved back to Sweden, and it ended up lasting for a week or two,” he shrugs.

Soon he was making a living as a barista and busboy while he worked in theater in Stockholm. “But I felt something was missing. I wanted more opportunity. The industry there is very small, so sometimes I had to take jobs that I didn’t love just to pay rent. There’s so much more out here. Maybe I should give it a go.”

He gave it another go, moved to Hollywood and didn’t work for three years. He’d saved up a little cash from his busboy days, bunked in an apartment with three friends, and survived on “lots of noodles,” he chuckles. “I thought, ‘I have to be out here, have to go out and audition till something that I’m right for comes up.’”

Finally it did. They were shooting “Generation Kill” in Africa and wanted unknowns to play the roles of the embattled Marines. Skarsgard fit the combat boots, and while he was filming for seven months in Africa, got a call from Alan Ball asking him to audition for “True Blood.”

It was the part of the 1,000-year-old Viking vampire in the series that really jump-started his career. Skarsgard, who’s played everything from Tarzan to the power-hungry husband in “Big Little Lies,” shines in his latest role as an Israeli agent in the six-hour adaptation of John le Carre’s “The Little Drummer Girl,” premiering on AMC next Monday.

“I was a bit stressed in the weeks before we started principal photography because of the sheer amount we shot out of order,” he says.

“I do like a challenge because it’s so rewarding if you overcome that, but I’m not fearless,” he says. “I have a lot of self-doubt and insecurities, and I can relate to the idea of wanting to shy away from something because it feels daunting or I’m not up to it, like ‘I’m not good enough for this.’ That is very scary as an actor if you start to feel that about something because then you lose control of your character if you don’t believe in what you’re doing.”

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