Interview with Alexander Skarsgard from the set of Legend Of Tarzan
When director David Yates first approached you about reimagining this iconic character, what went through your mind and what ultimately drew you to the project?
David is obviously an amazing filmmaker, so I was curious. Tarzan is a story that has been told so many times; what could be different about this one? And then I opened the script and you meet him in London where he’s having tea with the Prime Minister, and he’s in a suit and speaks with a perfect British accent. It wasn’t the Tarzan you would expect to meet, which I thought was interesting. It was a character who has left the jungle behind and doesn’t think he’ll ever go back. He’s been living in England for almost a decade as John Clayton III. So I thought it was a really smart take on this very famous story. It’s almost the opposite of the novel or most of the previous adaptations, which are about taming the beast … this is about releasing the beast. He’s afraid of himself, in a way, and it’s not until he goes back to the Congo that the layers slowly come off and he transforms from this sophisticated British Lord to a more primal state, from being John Clayton to becoming Tarzan. It was incredibly fun to explore that journey.
It’s an interesting dichotomy that I think is timeless and universal because we, as human beings, all struggle with that. We’re in a big city; we function somewhat successfully next to strangers, but, at the same time, we’re animals. It’s quite fascinating. I mean, even though the novel was written a hundred years ago, it doesn’t feel dated at all. I read it in 2015 and was mesmerized and blown away
One of the most fascinating aspects of Tarzan is the concept of growing up in the wild, being raised by apes, and the kind of spiritual connection he has with nature. How did you find your way into that mindset that as an actor?
I started out by getting a whole bunch of documentaries about apes and watching them because even though the story’s told ten years after he’s already left the jungle, he sees his family again when he goes back. There are also flashbacks of him growing up among apes. Animals are obviously a very important aspect of the movie, so it was important to me to study how they communicate, how they socialize.
I had an amazing opportunity to spend some time with gorillas at the Aspinall Foundation in Kent, England. And even here in California, I was able to go out and hang out with some big cats – lions, tigers and panthers. It was incredible. We don’t have any wild animals in the film – they’re all animated – but I knew it was important to do that research so that I would have that in the back of my head. It’s crazy to now watch the finished film and see these emotional scenes with the animals. He meets this elephant that he knew when he was a kid and tells Sam Jackson’s character [George Washington Williams] about his old friend and the wisdom of an elephant. When we were shooting, it a tennis ball on a C-stand, so it’s lovely to now see that beautiful elephant. I was blown away by the animation. It was incredible.
Can you talk a little about working with Margot Robbie to build this powerful bond between your characters, and what it means to them as they take this journey together?
When you first meet them, they’ve been living in England for a long time; they’ve lost a child; they’re not happy there. And I think Jane acknowledges that in a way that John doesn’t because when this opportunity presents itself to return to Africa, she’s eager to go. She spent her childhood there as well – she grew up in the Kuba Village – so she’s excited about it. He’s scared. He doesn’t want to go back. He’s afraid of who he was, afraid of that more animalistic side of his personality. But she convinces him to do this, and they go back, and almost immediately get separated.
Christoph [Waltz]’s character, Rom, takes Jane captive, and John and George, Sam’s character, go after them through the jungle. But she’s not a damsel in distress, like, ‘Go on, do the strong man thing and come save me.’ He needs to get to her because he’s very vulnerable without her. Jane anchors him in so many ways. Their relationship, and how they find their way back to each other, really drives the story, so it was important to find that dynamic. Margot and I didn’t have much time to establish that connection, but it was quite easy with her. Margot is so lovely and so charming that it doesn’t take long for the audience to fall in love with her, so hopefully they’ll be rooting for us to be together.
When we spoke to Margot, she said the relationship came very naturally to both of you.
Yeah. From the first meeting, we had a very, very strong connection and she’s so much fun. None of that Hollywood diva stuff. She likes to just hang out and go to a pub and drink beer – she’s very adventurous. And since I was on a strict training and diet regimen – no alcohol, no dessert, nothing – every Monday, I’d see her on set and ask, ‘All right, Margo, what happened this weekend? What did you do? What did you eat?’ She’d say, ‘Are you sure you want me to tell you?’ And I’d be like, ‘You have no idea – I want to know!’ So, I just lived vicariously through her for eight months [laughs].
This film has such an amazing cast. What was it like for you as an actor to work alongside iconic actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz and Djimon Hounsou?
I don’t even know where to begin. It’s just such a treat to work with actors who are not only so incredibly talented, but just decent human beings and incredibly generous. It’s not about them; it’s about the movie and collaborating and doing what’s best for this scene or this moment. It was incredible.
Sam is so much fun. No ego at all, just super chill, super fun, really hard-working, but very humble. It’s just so easy because he’s incredible. And the nuances in every single take are different, so you just have to try to be open to that and respond and you’re going to get a lot of good stuff.
How about working with David as a director?
I remember when I had my first fitting: we’re in this room trying out pants and we’re deciding between brown or beige, or something like that. And David turns to this 20-year old assistant from the costume department and said, ‘What do you think? Do you like these or these?’ And it was just wonderful to see her reaction: ‘Is David Yates actually asking me for my opinion?’ That’s how he works. He wants people to collaborate and there’s no real hierarchy. No matter what your position is, if you have an idea you can pitch in, he wants that. And that makes people love him. They feel like they’re working with him and not for him. Even though it’s a massive movie with a huge crew, it’s still very intimate – everyone wants to work harder because it’s David and they love him.
[Producer] David Barron is also an incredibly humble, nice man. When people are genuinely invested in a project, there’s no fear on set, which is quite lovely. It affects me as an actor when you feel that kind of energy in the room.
Can you talk about the process you went through to get attain the physical presence of this character?
It was important to look like someone who was raised in the jungle – that’s his natural habitat. You want to feel like when he moves through the jungle he can do it blindfolded, and his physicality was a big part of that. I had to be agile and flexible, and getting there was tough. We prepped for about four months and then, obviously, I had to train throughout the shoot. So it was about nine months total. It was quite all-consuming; I had to say goodbye to friends and family for quite a while because it was very, very intense – the diet and the training. All my energy went into this, so if I ever had a day off I just spent it passed out on the couch. I’m not complaining because it was an incredible adventure, but I had to give every last bit of energy I had to this.
We had Wayne McGregor, who’s the greatest choreographer in the world, with us during prep, and every day of the shoot. To work with him for an hour is a treat, but to have him for that long was incredible. And it was so much fun because we developed the physicality of the character, it was about finding those moments of him going from John Clayton to Tarzan. We wanted to know what that looked like in terms of his physicality, his posture, the way he moves. Wayne is used to working with the best ballet dancers in the world, and then he got me, so that was quite a challenge for him because I can’t even touch my toes [laughs]. We worked a little bit on Pilates and yoga and stuff like that so I could move more freely.
I can’t take credit for some of the crazy vine-swinging and stuff. I did a little bit of that, but we had this incredible trapeze artist there, so I would just jump off the branch and do a little bit of it and then I’d be in my trailer drinking tea while he did like all the crazy stuff. Then I’d come out and I’d do the perfect landing [laughs].
What do you hope people come away with when they see this movie?
Obviously, it’s a big, fun action movie, but it also has quite an interesting backdrop. It’s the Congo during King Leopold’s reign, so it touches on some quite serious subjects in terms of slavery and how they treated the land and the animals, and what they did to the native people. It was a genocide. They estimate that 20 million people died. It’s this very subtle undertone of the movie that you experience through John’s eyes when he returns to this land where he grew up.