Alexander Skarsgård and Onata Aprile Talk Growing Close With Their New Film ‘What Maisie Knew’

Although the world first fell in love with Alexander Skarsgård as the dark lord of the undead, Eric Northman, in True Blood, the Swedish actor has transcended his hulking television status in the last few years to become one of Hollywood’s most sought after and talented actors. In 2011, he played the doting husband to Kirsten Dunst’s Justine in Lars von Trier’s doomsday ballet Melancholia, as well as the violent role of Charlie in Rod Lurie’s remake of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. And in the last few months alone, I’ve watched Skarsgård deliver vastly different and nuanced performances as an emotionally cut-ff veteran in Henry-Alex Rubin’s Disconnect, an impassioned anarchist in Zal Batmanglij’s The East, and most recently the role of Lincoln in David Siegel and Scott McGehee’s family drama What Maisie Knew.

Based on Henry James’ late 19th-century novel, the film adaptation stars Skarsgård as a bartender and musician who marries Susanna (played by Julianne Moore), a singer whom, along with her ex-husband Beale (played by Steve Coogan) neglects to take proper care of their six-year-old daughter Maisie (played by Onata Aprile). In the wake of their selfishness and egotistical concerns, Lincoln assumes the role of father-figure towards the young girl, alongside the help of her nanny Margo. It’s a heartbreaking film that centers on Maisie, a wise and absolutely adorable child caught in the middle of a bitter custody battle. But it’s the chemistry between Skarsgard and Aprile that shines the brightest in the film—their relationship dynamic and heartwarming, an magical touch of wonder between a man in over his head, and a lost child. 

Last week, I sat down with Skarsgård and Aprile at one of the film’s various roundtables to talk about what attracted him to the script, Aprile’s youthful exuberance, and their instant connection.

The characters you often play, are very self-assured and confident figures, but in this we see a more vulnerable side of you. Lincoln slouches and coasts through life in a way that feel like a strong contrast to the roles you usually take on.
Alexander Skarsgård: Well, a character like Derek in Disconnect, he’s broken—there was no swagger there. He was broken because of what he went through, and with Lincoln, it wasn’t about that. It’s not that he was a broken man, he’s just not super confident or very driven and ambitious. I see him as someone who is very genuine and talented and sweet but he doesn’t take care of himself, and he doesn’t really care. But there’s something that happens when he meets Maisie. It’s weird what happens, how he, out of kindness, marries Julianne’s character. They barely know each other and I don’t know a lot of people who would marry someone in a situation like that. But he does and then she’s not there for her kid. For the first time in his life he’s forced to take care of someone. He’s never done that before, even himself. He falls in love with this little kid and he doesn’t get why her parents aren’t there for her and how you can neglect someone so wonderful.
 
Did you compare and contrast between Henry James’ work and the modern script?
AS:
I read the novel many years ago and it felt, even then, very relevant. It’s Victorian England but something a lot of people can relate to and a lot of kids go through that. This is obviously a very different story and I feel like Sir Claude in the novel is a bit different than Lincoln, but the theme and the tone is very similar. It’s, in a way, a battle of two ego—two people so intent on destroying each other that they forget about what’s important. And it’s not that they don’t love their kid, they’re just so busy fighting each other that they neglect their child.
 
How did you go about building Lincoln’s character?
AS:
I wanted someone who definitely couldn’t be bothered. He doesn’t really care about appearance and all that stuff. Susanna is someone who is very successful and I wanted Lincoln to be kind of the polar opposite, someone whose not driven like her but very talented. You don’t see that in the film, but I imagine he’s a great guitarist. I definitely have friends that are very talented like that but just not driven,  and I wanted to capture that.
 
What was it about the film that made you want to be a part of it?
AS:
I thought it was a great, great script. Onata wasn’t attached when I got involved but it was obviously very important to find the right Maisie because it’s all about her in every single scene of the film. So I felt there were great directors and a great script from a great novel; then you’ve got Juilanne Moore, one of the greatest actresses we have, Steve Coogan who—I grew up in Europe and he’s a very famous comedian over there—is just absolutely brilliant. But that said, it doesn’t really matter if you don’t have the right Miasie; it’s her journey, we’re all there to just serve that. So we talked a lot about that with the directors and then saw a couple of young actresses, but there was just no doubt once I saw her. If you watch 30 seconds of the film you’ll just get it.
 
Onata, how many times have you seen the film and how do you feel when you watch it?
Onata Aprile:
Well, I saw it three or two times. I think the film is really sad but at the same time, you kind of feel sorry for Maisie. 
 
That’s how I felt too. How was working with Steve Coogan, who is really funny and when we spoke to the directors said he would often changed the dialogue and improvise. When he’d do that, was it difficult to go along with him? 
OA: Sometimes.
AS: I’d say Onata was always very aware of the story and the character and was very open to to change. She’s very much in the moment and present, which made it very organic.
 
What was the most difficult part about playing Maisie?
OA:
I don’t know.
AS: Long days were hard. It’s tough when you get tired and stuff have to act, right? But you did a really good job with that.
 
What was the most fun about it?
OA:
Everything.
 
Do you want to be in another movie?
OA:
Yes I do.
 
This movie tackles a larger social issue of kids that are left without the care of a main guardian. What do you think about that effect on these children?
It’s easy for them to get lost; we’re so egocentric and so focused on ourselves. I’ve seen this with friends, where it’s an ugly divorce and they’re so focused on that custody battle, it becomes so personal and so ugly. And it can go on for years and you can forget that there are children there and they become almost like pawns in it. But that’s what I think is beautiful about the film: it’s not that they don’t love their children, it’s not lack of love, it’s just that the focus is on themselves. It’s about two egos, and I see a lot of that today, where for very selfish reasons people do that.
 
In a short period of time you have Disconnect, Maisie, and The East all being released. The characters you’re playing are all extremely different, so is that something you look for when you’re reading scripts? Is the script the most important thing for you at first or is it the director and their vision of what it could be that reels you in?
It’s a combination. It’s about getting excited. But to get to that place, you need a lot of ingredients: a great script, a director you’re excited to work with, and the character. You need a a character you feel challenged by and you need to feel that there’s a potential to grow or learn something. I need to feel like it’s going to be an interesting creative process—sitting down for the first time with the script and saying, okay who is Lincoln or Derek or Benji. If I sit down and have all the answers or feel like I’ve played this character ten times before, where I know exactly how to play it, I’m not going to have fun. If I have all the answers, why spend four months on it? So that’s always what I’m looking for; there’s got to be that mystery there or I won’t have fun and I don’t think the audience will have fun either.
 
What are you most looking forward to about the upcoming season of True Blood?
Eric is very busy this season. For the first time the humans can actually fight back; they find a way to be a real threat. So Eric’s very busy.
 
Like the character of Maisie, you grew up with a father who was a successful performer and always working. How was being a child in that sort of environment?
When I was a kid, my dad was a stage actor in Sweden, so he wasn’t traveling the world working on big international films. But he did repertoire theater which meant he rehearsed one play during the day and then performed at night. So it was a busy schedule and he was basically at the theater for sixteen hours a day. I grew up hanging out backstage a lot, if I wanted to be with my dad I had to be backstage because he was always there. It’s tough, but at the same time, what greater place to run around as a kid than at a theater with fake noses and wigs and a lot of very interesting creative people? And being back there when he was working with Bergman—not that I knew who Bergman was at the time—but it’s pretty cool looking back.
 
The most wonderful part of the film was definitely the connection between you and Onata. Did you spend time together before shooting or was it something that happened immediately on set?
It happened naturally. But you’re right, it’s so important; without that there’s no film. So I was nervous about it. I was in LA and Onata was in New York and I was like, I really hope the chemistry’s there because she was six then and with someone that age it has to be real, you can’t fake it. But then we got together at David’s house and it was pretty instant. I felt it after three seconds. I was like, we’re fine.
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