Alexander Skarsgård’s first foray into the American film industry was a little movie called Zoolander back in 2001. Though the son of prolific Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård already had a handful of performances from his native country under his belt by that time, it was playing one of Derek Zoolander’s doomed model friends, Meekus, in Ben Stiller’s ribbing of the fashion industry that functioned as Skarsgård’s introduction to America. As the role was incredibly brief (the character is tragically killed in a gas station cigarette-smoking car explosion incident—or “freak gasoline fight accident,” as it’s called), it often shocks people when you bring it up. This isn’t helped by the fact that the eldest of the Skarsgård acting brood has since made his name in the Western world—in both movies and television—playing the kinds of guys who are the complete opposite of the dopey, braindead male model Meekus. Skarsgård has been a vampire (True Blood), an abusive husband (Big Little Lies), a racist husband (Passing), a neglectful husband (Melancholia), a predatory father figure (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), a sociopathic army sergeant (The Kill Team) and countless iterations of intense, macho tough guys over a career which spans nearly four decades.
Indeed, Skarsgård (like his father and brothers) has become accustomed to playing various kinds of unsavory men due to his appearance. Though—as he looks less conniving than his father Stellan and less ghoulish than his younger brother Bill—Alexander Skarsgård tends to get pigeon-holed as abusers, manipulators or uber masculine protagonists. He has a lean, towering build at 6’4” and is objectively gorgeous, but has a shrewd yet deceptively warm face that can be molded at a whim as either a hero or a villain. Skarsgård can play both with ease. But he’s proven that he wants to be funny, too, and that he absolutely can be. Not only that, but he is also at his very best when he’s allowed to play funny. Yet he is offered frighteningly few opportunities to do so. His naturally goofy smile; narrow, deep-set eyes; ample height, that can be played up as gawky and oafish—one of the less-exploited features of his handsome face is that it can fashion him as effortlessly into a doofus as it can a sadist. The latter is Alexander Skarsgård’s secret weapon.
As a dimwitted insurance salesman with dreams of becoming a multilevel marketing bigshot in On Becoming a God in Central Florida, Skarsgård is so perfectly attuned to the role that it’s a shame that his character dies in a freak alligator attack in the (tragically canceled) series’ first episode. His massive frame is less intimidating than it is bumbling and awkward, and the role is similar in physicality to his brief appearance in the studio comedy Long Shot, as the doofy, grinning Canadian prime minister. His persona as “big handsome guy” was utilized in the series finale of Eastbound & Down, with Skarsgård portraying the fantasy, grown-up version of Kenny Powers’ (Danny McBride) young son, Toby. He even had a guest role on Drunk History.
Since Skarsgård began his American film career with Zoolander (and probably before that; I have not seen his few early Swedish performances), he has displayed a natural finesse for portraying big, dumb, handsome goobers. Himbos, if you must. Such acts of himboism have even rippled out into real life. His IMDb profile photo depicts Skarsgård calmly looking at the camera in a pantsless tuxedo. He divulged in a Q&A that he was inspired by Zac Efron taking off his shirt on stage a year prior, but Skarsgård didn’t want to exactly copy him: “…I thought, well, then I’ll take my pants off because it’s equally sexy.”
Obviously, Skarsgård does the role of the sadist well. As Big Little Lies’ Perry Wright, Skarsgård is at his most quietly monstrous, playing the covertly violent husband to Nicole Kidman’s demure Celeste. In Skarsgård’s newest role, in Robert Eggers’ The Northman, he is at his most loudly monstrous, playing the bare-chested, yowling, frothed-at-the-mouth Viking prince Amleth that he was predictably born to play. Yet, as Brad Pitt is often considered a character actor in a leading man’s body, underneath gratuitous scenes of slicing viscera and naked volcano combat there is a big silly man with a shit-eating grin. The consistent surprise at Skarsgård’s early Zoolander role and the reactions I’ve seen to his infrequent comedy roles, like in Long Shot, are a testament to how shadowed his comedic abilities are.
For some reason, there is a hesitance in general to let gratuitously handsome men be funny. I am of the mind that this decision post-Mad Men flatlined Jon Hamm’s potential film career. The star-making role as Don Draper in the AMC series got him typecast as a series of well-to-do Serious Men written less capably than Draper and sadly overshadowed his demonstrated comedic skill on spots in 30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Saturday Night Live. I’m not saying that Skarsgård is to go the way of Hamm (the continued prosperity of his film career is evidence of that). I just think he should get to change things up a bit more often, and that it would be a shame to waste the breadth of Skarsgård’s talent on the same Handsome Monster Men and Handsome Hero Men. Sometimes, handsome men just want to be a Silly Little Guy. I think that, for society’s sake, it’s important we allow them that simple courtesy.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.