Alexander Skarsgård on Exploring ‘The East’ and the Joys of Creative Freedom

Following his initial reading of Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling’s brilliantly-crafted eco-thriller The East, actor Alexander Skarsgard had a simple message for his agent. "I don’t care what else is coming up out there," Skarsgård said. "I want to work with these people." It wasn’t only a testament to their thought-provoking and thrilling script, it was a reaction to the energy that Zal and Brit possess about their work, a voracious appetite for storytelling and a passion for making films that truly mean something and speak to the world we live in. 

As one of the most sought after and versatile actors in Hollywood today, Skarsgård’s been on everyone’s radar this spring with a slew of films that showcase the poetic nature and striking talent wrapped inside his hulking good looks. So after seeing him as the desolate veteran and husband in Disconnect and the hapless bartender-turned-father-figure in What Maisie Knew, with Batmanglij’s film we’re shown a more exposed side of Skarsgard, as Benji the charismatic leader of anarchist collective The East. 

Telling the story of Sarah, we see Marling as a young ex-FBI agent now working for an elite private intelligence firm who is hired to infiltrate an anarchist collective that is rumored to be attacking big corporate CEOs and forcing them to confront the harm they’ve inflicted on the masses. But in her time spent with the collective known as The East, her beliefs begin to waver as she starts to sympathize with the group’s leaders, growing closer to Benji, and opening her eyes to the wrongdoings that so easily go unnoticed.

"He has a lot of poetry in his eyes," says Zal of Skarsgård, who brings Benji to life with a vitality matched by his hidden vulnerability.  "At the end of the film it just made me think about morality," Skarsgård says, "and what is okay about civil disobedience, breaking the law, hurting someone, and how far you’re willing to go." Last week I got the chance to sit down with Skarsgård—for the second time this month— at the Crosby Street Hotel to discuss his unique and wonderful experience working on the feature, the importance of creative exploration as an actor, and bringing Zal and Brit’s vision to life.
How did you first become involved with the film, and what attracted you to the project?
Well, I got involved the good old way. I was sent a script from my agents two years ago on the 4th of July. I was in San Diego with some friends and I read it and was just blown away. I thought it was such a great script—so intelligent and interesting and felt like an old school spy thriller from the 1970’s but relevant and an important issue. It really made me think about these issues. So I called my agents and asked to meet the filmmaker. I’d seen Sound of My Voice and thought it was beautiful, so I drove up to LA and met with Zal and Brit. They just have a phenomenal energy; you get very inspired by them. We met and talked and hung out for an afternoon and I just thought that I would love to work with these people. 
I’ve been enormous admirers of those two for a while now, and feel like not only are they extremely talented but such an important new voice in cinema. As an actor that must be exciting to discover.
Oh, absolutely. I walked out of that meeting and called my agent immediately.  I said, I don’t care what else is coming up out there, I want to work with these people.
How did you jump into helping develop Benji and get to know him?
I was on my way to New York to shoot What Maisie Knew and Disconnect back-to-back, so I met with Zal and Brit a couple of times. And then working on Benji, it was basically over the phone. Zal and I would talk and Brit and I would talk about him and the relationship between Benji and Sarah. It was a great process because they’re so open to the collaborative process of exploring it together, and at no point did I feel like there were egos involved or they were holding onto something because they wrote the script. They were very open to letting me explore and exploring it together and playing around with it—which made it very exciting on set when you have a director who loves to be surprised. 
Do you enjoy this kind of collaborative environment? I imagine that’s refreshing when plenty of directors are more closed off and really just want you to serve their vision.
It’s just more inspiring when you work with someone who makes you feel that there’s a creative freedom, where you’re allowed to follow your instinct. And sometimes that might change and I love those moments when you prepare for a scene and you work on it and you think about it and you have an idea of how the scene will play out and which direction it will go in and I love moments when it doesn’t and something will happen because it’s an interaction between you and the person you’re in the scene with and that energy. You feed off each other in a way and it changes and I love that and being able to go with it and have director that’s applauding behind the camera being like, "Go go go!" Its about creating a safe environment on set where people feel like they’re allowed to make mistakes or go in a direction and just free fall; that’s how you create moments that are interesting and unique because you’re not playing it safe and you’re not trying do exactly what you’re prepared to do. And Zal is definitely one of those directors who is extremely prepared and knows the story and knows the characters, but also loves those moments that happen.
You and Brit had such a phenomenal chemistry together. It must be great working with someone like her whose also written the script so she knows the characters completely inside and out.
But that’s what so interesting about it because Brit wrote it, but it was also like she didn’t write it for herself. She was a writer but then she took it on as an actress and she was also in that process of exploring Sarah and getting to know who she was . We would get together on Sundays and just play around with the scenes and talk about it. We’re very similar in that way, Brit and I. And it’s also a domino effect—you shoot a scene and its different than the way you planned it and that will effect the relationship and that will effect the following scene, so we would sit and play around with it. She also gets very excited when we’d discover things.
With a film like this you can tell that it was a very close set.
Yes, unlike any set I’d ever been on. It was a combination of the material—just such a great script and interesting story—and Zal and Brit’s energy. To have them on set everyday and their enthusiasm, everyone was so effected by that and felt it. Even the people behind the camera, everyone was so intrigued and so involved in doing their job—like telling the story and making this film to a level I’ve never experienced before, where a grip would come up at lunch and be like: "Alex that scene this morning, when Benji said that—what did that mean?" And even give me notes and I would love that. We were all in that together. When we weren’t on set we’d all hang out;  Zal and Brit rented a house and we’d all hang out there and cook and on weekends play around with the scenes.
Have you enjoyed seeing the array of reactions to the film as you’ve taken it around to different festivals?
We’ve had some really great conversations with people, and people get really engaged. What I loved about the script—and I hope we were able to capture that—is that it’s not didactic, it’s not preachy. It’s not about a girl who works for the big bad corporation and then she joins the bearded people out in the woods and she realizes they’re the good guys and it’s a Robin Hood story of her fighting with them.
It’s more complex than that.
Yeah, it has much more depth than that and is more complicated. Even within the group they don’t all agree, which I thought was very interesting and very real. If you look at groups like the Weather Underground, one of the reasons they imploded was that they didn’t all agree. Some of them were willing to go really far and hurt people or kill people for the cause and some weren’t and we wanted to capture that. We also wanted to end the movie with the feeling I got when I read the script, where it didn’t feel like they were shoving an opinion down my throat or propaganda,it felt like at the end of the film it just made me think about morality and what is okay about civil disobedience, breaking the law, hurting someone, and how far you’re willing to go. And to do that and combine that with a movie that’s actually entertaining and fun a great spy thriller with a love story, I think Zal and Brit did a phenomenal job with the script and that’s how I got excited. 
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