Director David Siegel, left, actress Onata Aprile, actor Alexander Skarsgard… (Matt Carr / Getty Images )
TORONTO -- Alexander Skarsgard’s fame is closely tied to his starring turn on HBO’s hit show “True Blood.” But playing the brooding Viking vampire Eric Northman -- and such other alpha male roles as Charlie in Rod Lurie's remake of "Straw Dogs" or Cmdr. Stone Hopper in this summer's water-logged action movie "Battleship" -- has left the actor eager to explore other types of characters.
Along came “What Maisie Knew,” from directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel, a modern-set adaptation of the Henry James novella centering on 6-year old Maisie and her understanding of her parents' messy custody battle. The movie offered Skarsgard, 36, the chance to shed his steely vampire shell and portray a very paternal caregiver to Maisie (newcomer Onata Aprile).
The role of Lincoln the bartender was just what Skarsgard was looking for: vulnerable, quiet, nurturing. What he wasn’t expecting was the formidable talent he was up against in Aprile.
FULL COVERAGE: Toronto International Film Festival 2012
“It didn’t matter how good all the other actors were,” said Skarsgard, who costars along with Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan and Joanna Vanderham. “If we didn’t have an amazing Maise — if you don’t watch the movie and fall in love with her — then the movie doesn’t work.”
Millennium Films just scooped up the U.S. distribution rights to the movie after it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival over the weekend.
Skarsgard made a surprise appearance at the premiere, watching the film with Aprile, whom he hadn’t seen in many months. The two actors clearly developed a connection both on and off screen and they sat next to each other for the screening, which he described as “watching home movies, only Onata is the size of Godzilla.”
PHOTOS: Toronto International Film Festival 2012
“It’s so wonderful to work with someone like that — once you get over that she’s better than you are,” joked Skarsgard during an interview. The actor was clad in customary black jeans and black T-shirt; Aprile played with a gold balloon nearby.
“She’s not self-conscious, whereas we actors try hard to fake it and she doesn’t even have to try. It’s frustrating. She doesn’t deserve it," he said with a laugh.
Though Skarsgard’s parents -- actor Stellan Skarsgard and mother My Skarsgard -- divorced after 35 years of marriage, it was nothing like what Maisie’s character goes through. Skarsgard is the oldest of eight children, six from his mother, two from Stellan’s current wife Megan Everett. (The younger children are 3 years old, and 2 weeks old.)
“My parents still hang out, are still best friends and still spend Christmas together. Dad likes to cook every night, so Mom will come over and have dinner with Dad and Megan and all the kids,” said Skarsgard. “It’s much less dramatic than ‘What Maisie Knew.’ It wouldn’t be a very good movie.”
In order to travel to the festival, Skarsgard took a quick break from the Vancouver set of Warner Bros.' thriller “Hidden,” where he’s playing another intense role, a character living in a fallout shelter. And his other upcoming movies see him in equally serious mode: He's an ex-Marine with post-traumatic stress disorder in the ensemble drama “Disconnect” and an angry eco-anarchist out to attack corporations in the indie “The East” opposite Ellen Page.
“I need to find something with Danny McBride or Will Ferrell, something like that,” Skarsgard said. “I need a comedy. I need something fun.”
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