Sam Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs" was one of several films released in 1971 ("A Clockwork Orange" was another) that kicked off a long and loud debate about on-screen violence. The film included a highly disturbing rape scene and ended with an extended and unsparing sequence of bloodshed.
Rod Lurie's remake changes the scene from rural England to the American South, but the gist of the film is the same: A timid husband is forced to use extreme violence to defend his wife and his house against a group of menacing toughs.
The new film stars James Marsden and Kate Bosworth, in roles played by Dustin Hoffman and Susan George in the original. The chief villain in the remake is played by Alexander Skarsgard, best known as the vampire sheriff in HBO's "True Blood." He registered in a small comic role as one of the male models in "Zoolander," and more recently turned up as the boyfriend in a Lady Gaga music video.
In "Straw Dogs," Skarsgard, son of actor Stellan, plays Charlie, a small-town construction worker whose ex-girlfriend, now a TV actress, returns to her backwater hometown with her new husband, a Hollywood screenwriter. By local standards, the husband isn't much of a man's man, and Charlie and his buddies begin a none-too-subtle campaign of bullying. The husband responds to the climactic attack with unrestrained savagery.
Skarsgard spoke by phone from New York, where he is filming an updated version of "What Maisie Knew."
Q: Your "Straw Dogs" character, Charlie, isn't simply a small-town sadist, even though he commits horrendous violence.
A: You needed to understand Charlie and where he was coming from. You want the audience to be on the fence, at least at the beginning of the movie. You almost feel sorry for him. He was the king of this little town 10 years ago, he was the star of the football team, then was going to go to college and play in the NFL. Cut to 10 years later and his girl isn't there. She comes back with this writer from Hollywood who, in Charlie's eyes, is a little condescending and thinks he's better than us.
We thought it would be interesting if we got the audience to think: Maybe she should go back to Charlie, that (her husband) doesn't deserve her. To me, it's about the fact that we're animals, we're territorial. Charlie feels that this is his turf, this is his woman, and this guy (David) shows up in his hometown, with what Charlie still feels 10 years later is his woman. And at the end David has to step up and defend his house and his wife. ... I don't feel it's gratuitous violence; it's this slow boil that leads up to the madness at the end of the movie.
Q: You grew up in Sweden. Were you worried about playing an American Southerner?
A: We shot the film in Shreveport (La.), which helped tremendously. We were there for three months, down in the South, which is great. I lived in Texas for a summer when I was a kid. Other than that, I haven't been there much. It was great to be in that culture. We would go to country festivals and hang out with locals. Really try to embrace it. And of course I had to work with a dialogue coach every day, on the accent.
Q: Some people get upset about remakes of films, especially of films by directors who have a serious critical reputation. Was that something you were concerned about?
A: To me, the question is: Does it make sense? When you meet a director who wants to remake a movie, you have to ask: Does he or she have an interesting vision and idea, something that intrigues you -- is there a reason why we should do this? It definitely made sense, when I met with Rod (Lurie), because he was so passionate about it and created his own world. He had his own unique ideas about it, and thoughts on my character and the relationships that were quite different from Peckinpah's version. And that's what got me excited about it.
Q: How much did the original Peckinpah movie influence this production? Were you asked to watch it? Did the director talk about it?
A: I'd seen the original version many years ago, and I re-watched it before we started shooting. I wanted to see it again to see how it was different, and what to focus on in creating my Charlie. But after that, I let it go. It was important for me, and for Rod and the other actors as well, to take creative control of it, be free with it, and have fun with it.
Q: Your father is a well-known actor. How has that affected your work? Have you learned from him?
A: I didn't really want to be an actor, you know. I was a child actor. I started when I was 7, because of my dad. His friend was a director and I was in one of his movies, and one thing led to another, but I wasn't one of those Hollywood child actors who could sing and tap-dance when he was 4, and could show a resume. It just happened.
Then I quit when I was 13, and he was always very supportive. He basically said: I love this job, but it's really, really tough, and if there are options out there (that appeal to you), go do that. Only do this if you feel like you have to do it, if you feel like you have no choice.
I quit, and I'm so grateful that he didn't push me, or try to convince me to stay in the business, because I needed that break. I needed seven years of just being a normal kid and having fun and doing my thing. And then finding my own way back, when I was 21.
Q: You play Lady Gaga's boyfriend in the music video "Paparazzi." How did you get involved with that?
A: Jonas Ackerlund, who directed the video, is a good friend of mine. He's also from Stockholm, and we've known each other for many years. He called me one day and told me the idea of the video, and it sounded fun. We shot in L.A., and I had a pretty good time doing it. It was a wild day; she was great to work with.
Q: You have another film coming out this year, "Melancholia" by Lars von Trier. How was it to work with him?
A: One of the most amazing experiences of my career. I'm a huge fan. I would show up on set and just make coffee if he asked me to. To get a small part in his movie is just a dream come true. He's so playful, and you can do whatever you want.
To see a trailer for the film, go to www.strawdogsmovie.com.