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Alexander Skarsgard Getty 2.jpg

The Body – Physical and Cinematic – of Alexander Skarsgard

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | April 28, 2022 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | April 28, 2022 |

Alexander Skarsgard Getty 2.jpg

If you google ‘Alexander Skarsgard naked’, you’ll get over 1.05 million results. That’s not too shabby, even by the standards of perverts like me searching the term for important research purposes. There are several headlines that helpfully inform us that the award-winning Swedish actor has no problem doing nude scenes. He has also candidly discussed growing up in a household where his own father, head Skarsgard Stellan, seldom wore clothing while indoors. Clearly, nudity is not something that bothers him, which isn’t always the case with actors (maybe because it’s seldom seemingly as required of them as it often is for women.)

It’s not hard to see why Skarsgard’s body fascinates us. He’s hot. Hell, he’s not just hot: he’s a stupidly breathtaking level of handsome that would inspire loathing if he weren’t so damn charming. He’s gorgeous, so tall and muscled and utterly in possession of that quality of beauty that makes him hard to ignore. None of this will be news to those of us who have looked at him for longer than a few seconds. Or minutes. Hours. You know what I mean. Dude’s sexy. Really, it was, for the longest time, the most defining aspect of his acting career aside from being Stellan’s oldest kid. That’s a fate that’s befallen many a beefcake hoping for on-screen glory. We could be here all day listing the tall drinks of water that dominated magazines and bad action films before being replaced with the newer and hotter model. Many predicted this fate for Skarsgard, a regulation hottie whose most famous role for many years placed him firmly in the ‘eye candy’ slot with not much else to offer. That Skarsgard broke out of it is one thing: that he managed to do it through roles that consistently use or subvert his hotness is a whole other conversation we’re going to have. With pictures.

If you’re not Swedish then the chances are that your late 2000s and early 2010s image of Skarsgard was defined by one of two things: his brief turn as a dopey male model in Zoolander or his scene-stealing work in HBO’s True Blood as Eric Northman. The latter is of particular interest because, as many have been quick to forget, that series was one of the most popular things on TV for many years. Skarsgard was positioned as the sex symbol of HBO at that time, the dangerous bad boy who seemed eager to remove his clothes at a moments notice, the man that made SO MUCH MORE SENSE as Sookie’s ultimate love interest than Bill, dammit! This was a character defined by his seductive allure and the specific eternal vampire beauty fantasy that was everywhere in the post-Twilight era. Eric in the books is a more tempestuous figure, one who the author, Charlaine Harris, strained to make less appealing in the wake of the show’s popularity. It didn’t really work and, for many fans, Skarsgard’s portrayal is the definitive Eric. It’s not just because he’s hot, mind you. He really is great in True Blood, fully aware of the balance between schlock, camp, and baroque bombast that many of his castmates seemed to struggle with. No matter how silly the show got - and it got VERY silly - Skarsgard seemed committed. He also seemed comfortable with his standing as a sex symbol. He didn’t grouchily reject it in interviews or sneer at the predominantly female fanbase of the series that made him a star. Often, he played up his sexiness, such as appearing on-stage at an MTV Awards ceremony without any trousers (blessed be to whoever made that image his IMDB profile photo!)

But then True Blood ended and you could tell that Hollywood didn’t entirely know what to do with Skarsgard. How do you use a tall, hot blonde guy with muscles and charm? Surely the only route is a blockbuster of some kind? Enter The Legend of Tarzan, a film that nobody asked for, based on a property audiences don’t care about, and made with a budget so high that it seemed doomed to fail from the get-go. Remember that weird brief period where every studio tried to launch an expanded universe franchise in the style of Marvel via public domain stories? Ah, fun times. Tarzan was cut directly from that cloth and it bombed hard. It’s also a waste of Skarsgard, and I’m not just saying that because he never dons a loincloth. He’s not bad but you can feel the restraints he’s been forced into. It sees him as defined musculature and nothing more, which is probably due to the screenwriters wanting to make this old-school material as non-problematic as possible. The protagonist becomes a vessel for plot and sequel hints more than a living breathing character, a fate that also befell the likes of Taylor Kitsch in John Carter and Taron Egerton in Robin Hood. It assumed that Skarsgard’s physicality is enough to get the job done. In fairness, the dude worked out hard for that role but his natural easy-going charm had been bled out of him for a stock stoic muscle-bro part.

In indie roles, of which he played many during and after True Blood, Skarsgard fit neatly into ensembles and often happily took the backseat with supporting parts. The best of these continued to use his hotness in ways that surprised and unnerved audiences familiar with him. My particular favorite from this period is The Diary of a Teenage Girl, the startling and frank coming-of-age debut of director Marielle Heller. Skarsgard plays the boyfriend of the protagonist Minnie’s mother, and it is he who our 15-year-old lead chooses to lose her virginity to. His character, Monroe, is attractive, if hindered by a deeply ’70s ‘tache that nowadays screams ‘sex offender’, and clearly a man who is aware of what his looks do to women. Watching him take advantage of a minor, a teenager who truly believes herself to be in charge of the situation, is queasy, a moment for Skarsgard to be uncomfortably present in his star image. To Minnie, whose naivety is cloaked in the ego of faux-maturity, his actions seem normal, even sexy. To those of us who know better, his smarm is tough to unsee. The attractiveness that lured in Minnie, and many Skarsgard fans, is now a cruel weapon.

That’s also the case for his work in Big Little Lies, where he plays the abusive husband of Celeste, the seemingly perfect mother whose stunning façade has made her the envy and scorn of many fellow suburban wives. Perry is a beautiful man who hurts his wife, an arc many of us are familiar with but it remains disturbingly potent in Skarsgard’s hands. The allure is still there, particular given that Celeste and Perry’s sex life is shown to be fiercely passionate, and there are moments where you as a viewer feel lured in by his deceit. We’ve been programmed over the centuries to equate beauty with heroism and goodness and untangling oneself from that web is easier said than done. It never stops being shocking when he is violent towards Celeste, which is the point. It may not be surprising but it always startles you to see Skarsgard spit in the face of the handsome prince delusion. He won an Emmy for the show and rightly so.

His newest film, The Northman, was a real labor of love for Skarsgard, a project he spent many years hoping to get off the ground. With director Robert Eggers, he found an ideal partner. Eggers’ films are deeply fascinated by our relationship with the past and how the mundanities of humanity fit into wider ideas of mythic lore and the power of storytelling. What greater way for a muscled Swede to show his mettle as an actor than to play a literal Viking? It’s not just that Skarsgard worked out to have the kind of body that defines Norse iconography in the modern era; it’s that the film makes such excellent use of it as a conduit for the wider themes of revenge and the impotence of masculine ego. There are moments where it honestly looks like it’s uncomfortable to inhabit such a body, to be so weighed down by brute strength and spiteful vengeance. When he’s shirtless, and he often is, there’s sexual power there but it’s easily overwhelmed by the exhaustion of our protagonist’s lifelong mission. He looks like ‘A Hero’ but we are constantly reminded that the ways he uses his physicality are cruel, often needlessly so (seriously, SO many organs are sliced out of bodies in this movie!) There’s no joy to be had in this body, no pleasure or even the ability to simply be. This is the Skarsgard as idealized man that Hollywood probably desired when he first broke through but grounded in the painful reality of being such a figure.

The best Skarsgard films make use of the specific darkness that often accompanies the dream of the perfect man. He’s the literal devil in the recent remake of The Stand but styled to be undeniably captivating with a rockabilly quiff. As an Israeli intelligence officer in the sadly underseen John Le Carre adaptation The Little Drummer Girl, Skarsgard’s hotness allows him to blend in and entice his targets. He doesn’t appear in Passing for long but the image of him as the seemingly perfect catch for a mixed-race woman is instantly believable, and then he reveals himself to be a massive sh*tting racist. All of these roles, as varied as they are, rely on revealing the layers of cultural expectations that accompany that simple image of a hot guy and all that implies. In an industry defined by beauty, broaching such a tangled subject may not be Hollywood’s priority, not when there are dozens of wannabe Hemsworths happy to flex their guns and smile for the cheap seats.

The Northman is Eggers’ work through and through but Skarsgard fought for it to happen. His awareness of his own talent and appeal have allowed him to do more than the film world demanded of him. He’s got a far more interesting filmography than any Chris! As he ages and starts to look evermore like his dad, I am curious to see where he goes with his project choices. Six-packs aren’t for life, after all, but certain kinds of beauty do last a long time.

Header Image Source: Jeff Spicer via Getty Images for Focus Features and Universal Pictures