Alexander Skarsgard tries to update Tarzan’s legend — and impress Dad. No pressure

Alexander Skarsgård has his first leading role in a big-budget movie in "The Legend of Tarzan," opening this weekend.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

As a boy, Alexander Skarsgard thought Tarzan was the ultimate superhero. Sure, the king of the jungle couldn’t shoot spiderwebs from his wrists or laser beams from his eyes. But he didn’t need special mutations or gadgets. He was willing to take on any beast or man, equipped only with his biceps.

Alex and his father, the actor Stellan Skarsgard, would spend hours watching old black-and-white Tarzan movies together when he was little. They were meaningful to Stellan, who’d grown up watching the films starring Johnny Weissmuller at Saturday matinees in Sweden. So when, just shy of 40 years old, Alex was offered the chance to play the character in a big-budget adaptation, he knew he had to do it. He had to make his dad proud.

But his father’s reaction to the news was, uh, a tad surprising.

“I laughed,” recalled Stellan, 65, calling from his native country. “And he laughed too. It was not meaningful at all. It was extremely comic. I can’t explain my kid being Johnny Weissmuller. But I’m sure it’s great. He’s a much better actor than Johnny Weissmuller.”


The fact that the younger Skarsgard has yet to convince his own dad that he’s the right guy to play the iconic character gives you a sense of the kind of expectations he is up against at the box office this weekend. “The Legend of Tarzan,” which hit theaters Friday, marks director David Yates’ attempt to modernize Edgar Rice Burroughs’ jungle hero. Before his death in 1950, Burroughs wrote more than two dozen Tarzan stories, which were then adapted for the big screen numerous times – the most memorable being 1932’s “Tarzan the Ape Man” and 1984’s “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.”

For the 39-year-old Skarsgard, who’s best known for his work on HBO’s “True Blood” and in independent films like Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia,” “Tarzan” serves as a test of his strength as a leading man. For years, Hollywood has struggled to find a young male action hero as popular as Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis. Colin Farrell tried and failed. So did Jake Gyllenhaal. Same with Taylor Kitsch.

Not that Skarsgard will cop to wanting to be a movie star, anyway. When it comes to discussing his career ambitions in interviews, Skarsgard gives those frustratingly diplomatic actor answers: He wants to take on any project that will challenge him. His choices are based on the quality of the material and the reputation of the filmmaker. He relies on his gut.

“I don’t really have a three-year plan or a five-year plan,” said the actor, who in the last year has appeared in both the critically acclaimed Sundance hit “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” and the underwhelming “Zoolander 2.” “I don’t know what’s next, and that’s what I find quite exciting. I dig it.”

Alexander Skarsgard
Alexander Skarsgard
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times )

It was a Saturday in early June and Skarsgard had flown in from his home in New York City for the day to shoot promos for “Big Little Lies,” an upcoming seven-episode miniseries on HBO. He was sitting outside a Culver City soundstage by craft services, still dressed in costume -- a crisp-collared shirt, tailored slacks -- as costars Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern took off in chauffeured cars.


Skarsgard’s first major Hollywood role was in a different HBO miniseries, the Persian Gulf War tale “Generation Kill.” He first came to Los Angeles nearly two decades ago, after an 18-month stint in the Swedish military. His enrollment in the national service was somewhat of a rebellion against his upbringing in Södermalm, a trendy part of Stockholm he likens to London’s Soho.

“I grew up in a very urban, bohemian family where everyone was a hippie or a pacifist,” the actor recalled, removing the wedding ring he was wearing as part of his costume. “It was artistically and intellectually stimulating, but they were definitely not into outdoor sports or activities. We never went up skiing in the mountains on Easter.”

So at 19 he joined the navy, helping to secure some of the 40,000 islands surrounding the Swedish coast. The country’s last war was more than 2,000 years ago – it remained neutral during WWII – so he knew he wouldn’t be dropped into gun-heavy combat. He just wanted a real challenge -- and that’s exactly what he got, according to his father.

“I was invited to come out and see him,” remembered the elder Skarsgard. “But when I got to where he was supposed to be, there was no one there. He was under a couple of bushes in wet snow. He had been lying there for three days without talking.”

It was brutal, but it opened his eyes to adventure. Since, he’s skiied to the South Pole for charity with a team of wounded veterans and Prince Harry. In fact, that was where he was when he found out he got “Tarzan”: a remote Russian base on the coast of Antarctica.

“I’d done my screen test and then left for this monthlong expedition,” said Skarsgard. “When it was over, we returned to this shipping container with a computer from the ’80s and super-slow dial-up internet. And I had an email from David saying Warner Bros. liked what they saw and, ‘I think we’re gonna do this next summer.’”


Watch the trailer for “The Legend of Tarzan.”

According to the director, the studio “would have been very happy with a complete unknown,” given Tarzan’s name recognition. “But I always really fancied Alex for the role very early on in the process,” said Yates. “I wanted to find someone who had a real grace and presence and sense of otherness. He’s a very vertical actor with great length and shape. I wanted to get away from that he-man, squared look with the big, strapping leading man.”

Still, after celebrating the news with the prince that night, Skarsgård knew he had to get in shape. The 6-foot-4 actor cut out gluten, sugar, dairy and alcohol. For three months, he ate 6,000 calories a day and lifted weights. Once he’d gained enough body mass, he moved to a stricter diet to keep the muscle but get rid of the fat. Ultimately, he put on 25 pounds of muscle.

In “The Legend of Tarzan,” we find the character eight years removed from the jungle, living in an austere British castle as Lord Greystoke. He’s abandoned vine-swinging for tea-sipping until he’s called to return to the Congo as a trade emissary. He and Jane, played by Margot Robbie, return to Africa only to find its people and wildlife ravaged by colonialism and pressed into slavery by the sinister Leon Rom, played by Christoph Waltz.

Though he was unable to visit the African jungle before filming got underway, Skarsgard did spend time with some wild animals -- lions in California, gorillas in England -- to observe their movement. He binged David Attenborough nature documentaries. He started working with a choreographer to figure out how a character raised by gorillas would walk. And he thought a lot about human nature -- the animalistic urges we all fight to keep at bay in the modern world.

“We are civilized human beings, but we’re all animals deep down, and that creates a certain friction in all of us,” he said. “When you’re in the public eye, we all feel like we’re constantly observed, so we don’t let things out. Anger, sadness, happiness -- when does that come out? Maybe when you’re in traffic, because you’re in the safety of your little metallic bubble.”


As if on cue, a driver in a town car idling nearby summoned Skarsgard -- it was time for him to depart for the airport. The actor apologized profusely for cutting the interview short and said he would call from the car.

Five minutes later, he rang. He was heading back to New York and then off to Tokyo, where he would embark on the worldwide press tour for the movie. He said he wasn’t nervous about the global unveiling -- except for a screening in Stockholm, where his friends and family would see the movie for the first time.

“I just want my dad to like it,” he sighed.

Days before that screening, Stellan Skarsgard -- who is regarded in Sweden as a George Clooney, of sorts -- said he was looking forward to seeing his son portray his idol.

“It’s very impressive,” he said, “but fame is such a silly thing. It’s so short. It’s the solidity of his work that is more important. He’s done so many good roles in small, independent films. And it’s the body of his work that is the great thing -- and the thing that will also give him a much longer career than Johnny Weissmuller.”

Twitter: AmyKinLA