by Kuriko Sato
In recent years Peter Stormare has become what seems like Hollywood's favourite support player, acquiring cult stardom working with directors like Steven Spielberg, George Romero, John Woo and of course the Coen Brothers, whose Fargo was his launching pad.
With a Golden Palm for best film only a few days away, the good-natured Swede sat down in a garden in Cannes to answer questions from a group of international journalists about Dancer in the Dark, the Lars von Trier musical in which he stars alongside Björk and Catherine Deneuve.
Do you miss speaking Swedish in films?
Yes, sometimes. But Swedish is a hard language. Even today, when I see Swedish movies, it sounds very theatrical. In movies, we sound very strange. Me too.
You don't work in Swedish films anymore?
It's so far away, because I moved to another country. It's just very far, thirteen hours, to go to London and them change planes. And it takes one week before you're a human being again. It's also very hard for Swedish movies, because there's not a lot of money involved. They have to fly me from LA in business class, it's like half the film's budget (laughs). And they have so many talented Swedish actors, so I think it's only fair.
You played a lot of weird parts in the Coen Brothers' films, like Fargo and The Big Lebowski. Is it your looks they like?
Uhmmm, maybe. I just like the characters that are a little bit different than the regular guys. But the American way is different from the European way. I was brought up in the theatre where you do characters. I still like doing different characters. More and more, even in European filmmaking, acting has become all about exposing your private self, the private face and becoming a star. When you become a star, you're in magazines and you look exactly the same in your movies. You have a different costume, but you're exactly the same. So you promote yourself, not the character. That's an American invention.
I think I'm maybe a little bit old-fashioned. I like to do different characters. I was talking to this journalist about The Million Dollar Hotel. And she said "Were you in that film? I didn't recognize you." That's extraordinary. I'm very proud the she didn't recognise me and that she had liked my character, but didn't know it was me. For me, as an actor, that's wonderful. For other actors they would be scared shitless, like "You didn't see me?!", you know?
There are American actors who do that too, who work the way I do. That's why I like Kevin Spacey, he tries to do this, to become his character. Or Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage. But most American actors are the same. Whether it's in space or in medieval times, they always look the same, with the same hairdo and everything.
Why is it that a lot Swedish actors make careers in Hollywood and not Danes or Norwegians?
I don't know. But the Danes have all the athletes (laughs). It's very strange. I think maybe because when the Swedish movie industry started, a lot of Norwegians came to Stockholm to work in movies. Maybe it originates from there. And in World War One the only industry still alive was the Swedish one. People came from everywhere to Sweden because the industry was booming. So I think it's a tradition.
You don't think it has something to do with accents?
You're right now in the middle of shooting the film Chocolat?
Yes. It's fantastic, of course. Because everybody's jealous that Lasse Halström talks Swedish with me. They ask me "What? What is he saying?". Yeah, it's a dream come true of course, he's an extraodinary director. He's done a fantastic journey. His first movie is one of the best movies in Swedish film history. It has the title Should We Go Home To Me, Should We Go Home To You, Or Should We Just Go Home To Each Other's?
It's a film he did when he was maybe in his early twenties. It's a fantastic movie about young people just hanging out and drinking and having sex the whole night. For me being a teenager at the time, that was a fantastic movie. And then he did an ABBA movie, so he's a legend. He gets a bit bored with me, because I always talk to him about the ABBA film and his first movie, and he says "What about my other movies?" (laughs).
Was it also a treat for you to work with Lars von Trier?
Yeah. Everybody's seen Breaking the Waves in the business in the US and people like it or maybe they love it, but they know it's something very special, a special piece of art. Everybody wants to work with him, like Fellini and Bergman. I'm sure in a couple of years time, we're going to have all these big American stars up there outside Kopenhagen doing some bizarre movie.
What were your impressions of Lars von Trier?
He's a very special person and a really funny human being. He is a good storyteller. It's nice to ride with him in his car, because he always has ABBA or golden disco hits from the 70s and he likes to sing along and be happy. Sometimes when we're shooting, all of a sudden he says: "Now we've been very artistic for much too long. Let's have a break and play some tennis" (laughs). He also knows how to make actors or the people who work with him enjoy themselves. I thought maybe he would be more serious, very academic, and that we would have to do this and that, prepare and be very serious. It was the opposite.
It was a lot of fun. He was shooting with his own camera a lot and one time he was hanging outside the car that I was driving, with a rope. It was dangerous! I was driving and he's hanging there in the fucking rope and holding on to me sometimes. Then when we started shooting, he said: "Drive slow, pretend I'm not here, Peter". I thought "If I kill him now, I can just see the headlines". So he's very funny. After a take he can say "Peter, you were very artistic, Let's do it again, but with less symbolism". Yeah, he makes me laugh all the time. There's a wonderful warmth. You feel secure with him, because he knows what he wants.
What was your reaction when you heard it was a musical?
Anything that he wants me to do, it doesn't matter. But I was so happy because two and a half years ago, I had the pleasure of working with Spielberg. And at that time Spielberg told me that he always wanted to do a musical. So I said why haven't you done one? He says that it's really hard to get the money for it. He says: "I can't get people to believe in musicals. 1941, that was a musical. There was music written but then people started pulling out, they got cold feet". So he shot it like a commercial movie and the only thing missing was the music, the musical numbers. I said if there's anybody in this industry that can get the money it's him. And he said not even he could get it done.
So one and a half year later I get the news that Lars in Denmark wants to do a musical and that he's going to use Björk in the lead and do I think I would like to be part of it? It's a miracle, a dream come true.
How was it for you to act with Björk?
First of all I love her music. I've done for many years. I can proudly say I have her records, which she beautifully signed. She's very special. I've been to Iceland a couple of times and I love it. I love the Icelandic people, I have a couple of friends from Iceland and they're all very special there. Actually, Björk is a very normal person on Iceland. Anybody who's been to Iceland knows what it's like. People are a little bit crazy. Everybody is an artist. You walk into a bar and 9 out of 10 people that are sitting and drinking and screaming there are artists. People work as a mail man or in a grocery shop and they also publish poetry, they write for the theatre or they're in a amateur group or in a music group. Everybody has a double job and everybody is an artist. It's a fantastic hidden community.
So I think it was an excellent choice of Lars to use Björk, for her incredible ability of being so unique. I think you need to have been in the production to understand. I've never seen anyone work so hard as she. She's written six major songs for the movie. She has written music in between and come up with ideas for the music, she has constructed the opening and closing themes. She also trained very hard with Vincent Patterson, who is a very demanding guy, together with fifty or sixty dancers. On top of the that she had to learn five sheets of text every day and every night. And she had to improvise too. She had learned the lines and then she had to throw them away and improvise. Which is hard even for any professional actor. And she worked six days a week from 7 o'clock in the morning until 8 o'clock at night for four months.
I have never worked with anybody that had that amount of work, that load on her shoulders. I think it's a miracle she didn't die. It's a miracle she could do it all. I have never been in a production where one person had to do so much. Never. I was expecting her to freak out aal the time, to have fits of screaming. Lars and the production really forgot to take good care of her, because she's such a humble person and she never complains. It happened lots of time we would break for lunch, there was one person who would break last and who would never get any food and that was Björk. And she's always coming around serving water and coffee. Fantastic woman.
But I think the production itself they fogot a little bit to take care of her, because she's so giving. She never complains. If you work 16 hours a day and do everything, you go to bed and your head continues to tick. You don't get any sleep. After a while, you have no more energy and you start to get sick or get a cold. At the same time she takes of her twelve-year old son and she's a wonderful mother. So I've never seen a person who had so much to do. It's a miracle that she didn't kill anyone from the production.
She didn't have any assistants?
She had one of her friends helping out, but not a regular service-minded assistant. She doesn't want to, really. She feels embarassed.
Didn't the other actors take care of her?
We did. After a while, certainly. But in the beginning she was so quiet. If you didn't say anything, people would take her for granted, you know. And it was her first time on a movie, so she wanted to be normal, not to be treated in any special way. But you should be treated specially if you have to write the music, sing, dance and read every day.
You really had to change your voice to sing the parts. Why didn't you sing with your own voice?
This is a hard one, because Björk has written the music for her, it's not really for anybody else to sing. Even if there's other voices involved. On the cd she sings everything herself, I think. She's a very good instructor. Of course I'd like to sing it in a different way but she want to be precise. She's like the composer, she wants you to try again and hit the notes exactly. She really knows what she wants. And of course it's easier and more fun to sing as you want, but Björk wants to be really, really precise. It's in her nature.
Did you feel self-conscious dancing and singing in the film?
You always think you look so ugly and so horrible. It's like seeing yourself in a swim suit. You never look at yourself like "Wow, I look so fucking good". I think if you take all actors and ask them that question, honestly, I think 99 out of 100 actors will say it's horrible to see yourself. But as an actor, you have to professionally look at yourself so you don't do the same thing over and over.