An accomplished Swedish actor who mastered the transition between European arthouse to the Americanised mainstream with the help of long-time collaborator Lars von Trier, Skarsgard is a versatile performer capable of everything from the gentlest soul to the most brutal.
Although everyday watchers may recognise him from Thor and the English rendition of Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, his greatest achievements in performance come from his European work and, of course, with filmmaker von Trier. In the following films, his performances either brought about the revelation of his brilliance to the mainstream or further cemented his true acting abilities.
*note this list is ordered based on both the quality of film and the quality of Skarsgard’s performance, with one discussed more so than the other depending on what qualified its position*
10. Good Will Hunting
Although not the best performance in the film, Good Will Hunting orientated western society to the future stardom of Skarsgard. He plays the extremely skilled mathematical professor Gerald Lambeau, who uncovers the potential talents within janitor Will Hunting (one of Matt Damon’s best performances).
After Lambeau takes the boy under his wing, Hunting is arrested for petty crime, and Lambeau offers to get him out on the condition that he goes to seek professional help from an old friend of his, Sean Maguire (Robin Williams in an Academy-Award winning performance).
The film isn’t focused on Skarsgard, but instead is heavily aimed at Will Hunting’s relationships with all those around him. Skarsgard is presented as first a beacon of hope and later an antagonistic presence. He plays one side of the father figure that Will desperately needs but is far harsher than Sean Maguire’s nurturing and compassionate idealism.
As Lambeau, Skarsgard propelled his castmates higher and higher, allowing them to feed off the confident and condescending characters’ energy to better themselves.
The most recent collaboration between best friends von Trier, Gainsbourg, and Skarsgard—and the conclusion to Trier’s traumatic depression trilogy—follows a mature woman, found beaten on the street by an old man (Skarsgard), who recounts her terrifying and sex addled life experiences.
A beautifully shot and cast film which re-established Gainsbourg as one of the best working actresses today and reignited Shia LaBeouf’s surprising acting ability, it is extreme in its depiction. Although some of the best scenes are about the experiences of Gainsbourg’s past, her subtle chemistry with the seemingly humble old man makes the film’s small interludes between traumatic experiences far more bearable.
Despite an underwhelming conclusion to the tale, Skarsgard and Gainsbourg never fail in their parts as actors and we see Skarsgard adopt a far more disturbing part in later parts of the second volume, once again highlighting the actor’s chameleonic prowess.
8. A Somewhat Gentle Man
This film is aptly summed up by the word ‘somewhat’. Not entirely a funny film, but not entirely a serious one either, it is quirky, clever, and distressing at times but it gives us something far too rarely seen: a leading part for Stellan Skarsgard. He plays semi-reformed criminal Ulrik who won’t really complain about anything so long as he gets something out of it, and throughout the film this occurs in the way of sex, violence, employment, and more tragically an altercation with his son.
The film is propelled entirely by Ulrik’s initially passive, indistinguishable, and un-emotive face but, as his happiness begins to creep back in we see joy in such an adorable display that it is easy to forget the character used to butcher people for the mob.
Tragically, as we empathise with his plight, we also become amused by it and eventually form a rare bond with Ulrik, a feat few underacting performances are able to accomplish, making every blow to his own personal happiness all the more tragic.
Not the greatest film to come out of European cinema, but certainly a film worth seeing- if not purely to admire Skarsgard’s work.
7. King on Devil’s Island
Skarsgard plays the ruthless overseer of a boys ‘reform school’ where horrible and relentless humiliation and torture are ongoing. When a new ‘inmate’ enters the reform school, he incites a revolt which eventually overthrows the corrupt and horrible regime implemented. Skarsgard plays Bestyreren, a terrifying and monstrous man overlooking the boys’ school.
The audience feels genuine fear in the boy’s eyes when he confronts Bestyreren over the rape of another boy and the man dismisses and punishes the kid for coming forth.
It is impossible to like his character. All that is felt for him is terror and hate. One of the greatest modern monsters in cinema of the past five years, Bestyreren’s true terror is felt through Stellan’s intimidating and overpowering take on the brutal real life figure.
A must-see performance in a strong film.
6. Girl with The Dragon Tattoo
Ironically, Skarsgard has starred on both sides of the Hollywood remake system. Skarsgard plays the lead in the original European Insomnia (later remade by Christopher Nolan with Al Pacino in the role), but stars in the American remake of the European Girl with The Dragon Tattoo. The film follows a convoluted yet cohesive murder mystery driven by a great cast, including Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig.
As one of numerous Nazi and Nazi-descendant family members on an island, Skarsgard plays Martin, the current business head of an old family corporation. He acts as both an assistant to the investigation and a suspect. He is devilishly charming—rare in his performances, but also at times chillingly genuine.
Without going into details he delivers a fantastic monologue which sends shivers down one’s spine and even if the film does not match up to the original in your eyes, Skarsgard far exceeds his counterpart in all minds.