Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie and Alexander Skarsgard star in The Legend of Tarzan.
Alexander Skarsgård has crossed a lot of items off his bucket list. Brief child acting career. Check. Served in the Swedish military. Check. Studied in England. Check. Star in a hit HBO show. Check and check for “Generation Kill” and “True Blood.” Appear in a Lady Gaga video. Check for “Paparazzi.” Named Sweden’s sexiest man. Check off five times. Dabble in some modeling, appear on fashion magazine covers and get photographed by the legendary Annie Leibovitz. Check, check and check. He can now check off another item off the bucket list: star as a literary icon on the big screen with his new role as Tarzan in The Legend of Tarzan.
In the film, it has been years since the man once known as Tarzan (Skarsgård) left the jungles of Africa behind for a gentrified life as John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke, with his beloved wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), at his side. Now, he has been invited back to the Congo by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) to serve as a trade emissary of Parliament, unaware that he is a pawn in a deadly convergence of greed and revenge, masterminded by the Belgian Captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz). But those behind the murderous plot have no idea what they are about to unleash.
When you’ve done some of the things in your life like Skarsgård has, it’s no wonder he didn’t have much trepidation about tackling such an iconic role.
“When I read the script, I was a huge fan of Tarzan, and I was really excited when I heard that Warner Brothers and David [Yates] were making this movie. But then, of course, it’s been told 200 times over the past 100 years, and you always have to ask, ‘Why are we doing it again? What’s the motivation? Why are we embarking on this two-year-long adventure?’ But you open the script, and it’s John Clayton drinking tea with the Prime Minister. I just thought it was so brilliant in the fact that it’s more about returning to your roots than taming the beast. I thought that was so smart the way that Adam Cozad wrote that.”
I remember watching “Tarzan” on TV as a little boy. Skarsgård also has his childhood memories of the King of the Apes.
“Every Saturday my dad and I would go to the matinee in the small town in Sweden where he grew up and watch the old movies, so he introduced me to Tarzan, and that’s how I fell in love with him, the jungle and that whole world,” he shares. “I was very excited when I heard about The Legend of Tarzan project.”
Many iconic characters have an iconic line. Tarzan is no different, though it’s not really a line per se. How many of us tried to do the famous Tarzan jungle call as kids? Though the call only makes a cameo appearance in the film, a lot of work went into the sound mixing. Skarsgård offers his take.
“It was a tricky one because you obviously have to have it in the movie otherwise people would be like, ‘Where’s the call? It’s not in the movie.’ But also, when you watch the old movies, they are quite dated and especially the call. It comes in these moments when he’s hunted, and you definitely don’t want it to be a comedic moment. That kind of [he warbles like Tarzan] it would just take you out of the movie watching it, so I didn’t come up with the idea of doing it the way it is now but I think it’s really smart to, instead of having a cheesy shot of Tarzan doing the call, you see the impact on the antagonist’s face – Christoph’s [Waltz] face – because it makes it more eerie and haunting. I thought that was really smart, having it in the movie, but you kind of avoid it being cheesy or comedic, which would be even worse. I did the call for sure, but it’s kind of a hybrid.”
Like the iconic jungle call, we can all picture Tarzan in his iconic loincloth. Unfortunately for you loincloth fans, the loincloth, like the famous call, only makes a cameo appearance in the film. Fortunately for you loincloth fans, as with tackling the role, Skarsgård also had no trepidation about wearing the famous outfit.
“I was trying to get a little sexy loincloth. I was trying to convince David [Yates, the director] for weeks when we were doing prep, and unfortunately, the way the script is written, it opens in London, it’s Victorian and he’s acclimated to life in London then he goes back [to the jungle], and David was like, ‘It doesn’t make sense. That little loincloth’s got to go.’ It shows up after that when he swings through the trees, but it’s more like a little mini-sarong.”
Of course, if millions of people are going to see you fly through the air with the greatest of ease in said loincloth, you don’t want a beer gut to be the first thing people see as you swing from vine to vine. Like all actors who take on such an intense, physical role, Skarsgård went on an intense, physical training regimen.
“It was different phases. The first phase was three months of bulking up while I was wrapping up ‘True Blood’ here in L.A., so it was Tupperware with 700 calories a day, steak and potatoes, that kind of stuff and weightlifting. Then, when I got to London about a month and a half before we started the movie, I had a great opportunity to work with Wayne McGregor who is one of the biggest choreographers in the world, and that was one of my favorite parts of the whole experience, working with Wayne on the physicality of the character. It was very important that Tarzan is flexible and agile when he moves through the jungles and that he doesn’t look like a body builder, so even though I wanted to put on some weight, the goal wasn’t just to get buff, it was to look athletic.”
The biggest problem with getting buff is the diet. It can be hard to eat grilled chicken and steamed vegetables everyday when you really want pizza and ice cream.
“The diet was horrible, but I’ve got to give credit to Guy our chef who really tried to make it [tasty]. He’s an amazing artist chef, but he had his hands tied because this was like no sugar, no dairy, a very strict diet. When we wrapped the movie, my father was shooting this Netflix mini-series, ‘River,’ in London at the time and I got in my car and went straight to his house. My dad loves to cook so I spent four days on his couch just being fed. It was the most incredible week of my life. It was bone marrow, fried mozzarella, pastries and red wine.”
With such a physical role, many stunts are required. Like many actors, Skarsgård did some of his own stunts, but most stunts were left to the professionals of course.
“There are some things in this movie I can’t really take credit for. It was a long, intense training period to get ready for the role, but the really cool stuff in the movie was done by a trapeze artist. We obviously did quite a bit of the vine swing ourselves. The scene where Sam [Jackson] is riding on my back is real. That amazing stunt, we pulled off, but I was just blown away when I saw the movie because it was so crazy what they can do with technology today. They had a 3D scanned version of my body then they had Augusts Dakteris, one of the greatest trapeze artists in the world come in. I don’t know how tall he is, but he’s very short and it was a circus. We sat there with our coffees and watched him do these amazing stunts on the vine. Then they would just remove his body, use his movements and replace it with my body. I’m watching the movie, and I recognized myself doing these, like, Olympic stunts where I’m like, ‘Should I take credit for this? I’m awesome.’ But I think Augusts deserves all the credit for sure.”
As with most summer tentpole movies these days, CGI is almost as big a star in the films as the actors themselves. When you’ve been acting in Hollywood long enough, you will eventually find yourself acting in front of a green screen. However, no matter how long you’ve been acting in Hollywood, it’s always weird acting in front of a green screen.
“We were slightly worried there for a second, weren’t we, when we were on the Savannah, and there’s a scene with the big male lion running across the Savannah, and there were two guys holding a cardboard cutout of a lion, and they were running like this [indicates a silly run]. Sam, Margot and I were like [sarcastically], ‘This is going to be a great movie. They really went all out on this one [laughing].’”
It’s every actor’s dream to be the star of a summer tentpole movie. So how did he celebrate when he learned of his casting coup?
“I was actually on a sailboat in the Canary Islands about to sail across the Atlantic. I was looking forward to three weeks of being off the grid entirely with no e-mail or cell phone or anything. I was on the boat, we were getting ready to push off, and David called me and said, ‘It’s looking good. I think we’re going to do this,’ so that was quite exciting. I was pretty stoked when I got off the phone and set course for America to sail across the Atlantic. It was an incredible moment. I celebrated by just sailing for three weeks from the Canary Islands to the U.S. It was an incredible experience.”
The Legend of Tarzan is now in theaters.