Why Child Stars are Scarier Than Vampires for ‘What Maisie Knew’ and ‘True Blood”s Alexander Skarsgard

Thelma Adams
The Reel Breakdown

"What scares me," Alexander Skarsgard explains, "is Hollywood parents that live vicariously through their kids." The lanky "True Blood" star knows what it's like to be a screen kid: he started acting in Sweden at seven. Skarsgard, now 36, is currently killing in a role as a Manhattan bartender who marries Julianne Moore’s bad rock 'n roll mamma in the new indie release "What Maisie Knew."

The Stockholm native continued his criticism of typical Hollywood parents: "They love their kids, but they put pressure on them to move out from Arkansas to Hollywood. For the kid, your entire family is suddenly out in Los Angeles and you’re six years old and you’re the breadwinner."

Skarsgard warmed to the topic of child actors while discussing "What Maisie Knew," a contemporary adaptation of a Henry James novel. It centers on a six-year-old only daughter's reaction to her parents' nasty custody wrangle. The actor recalled that while they were casting Maisie: "The kids knew the casting agents and the producers. Six-year-old kids aren't supposed to know which casting directors are hot. You're a kid. Be a kid."


All that said Skarsgard has high praise for Onata Aprile, the young child actor who anchors the film emotionally.

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"Onata is an amazing kid. I knew that the moment I saw her," said Skarsgard. "It doesn't matter if we have a script that's great, two great directors, or Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan playing the parents. Without the right Maisie, it doesn’t work. It's on Onata's shoulders to show the kid's strength and vulnerability. It's something in Onata's eyes. When I flew out to New York and met with her she just had amazing energy. I knew this was our Maisie."


As for Skarsgard's own acting experience, he began back in Sweden as the eldest son of a dramatic dynasty anchored by his father, Stellan, a Swedish star of stage and screen best known to American audiences as Dr. Erik Selvig in "Thor" and "The Avengers," and Bootstrap Bill in multiple "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies.

"I got my first part kind of randomly," Alexander said. "My dad's friend was a director who cast me [in "Ake and His World"] when I was seven. And then I worked for years. When I was thirteen I did something [TV's "The Dog That Smiled"] that got attention and I suddenly became famous in Sweden. I didn't like it. I wanted to be one of the boys and play soccer."


Skarsgard's early fame and recognition in Scandinavia led to a personal crisis. As a teen, he turned to his parents for counsel. "I was very fortunate. My dad's advice was 'I love my job, but it's difficult. So many of my friends are extremely talented but they are waiting tables. Even if you're lucky enough to support your family, it's still difficult.'"

"When my dad was doing repertory theater in Stockholm," Skarsgard revealed, "he would rehearse one play during the day and perform another at night. I had to see him backstage. When you're in movies, you travel."

"'Only do this if you don't have a choice,'" the elder Skarsgard told his son. Alexander's parents were on the same page. His mother, My, was a doctor. "Mom had nothing to do with the limelight. She was a sane workhorse. Her advice was that if you want to do this, only do it for yourself. When I was thirteen and I felt uncomfortable, they said, then don't. Do what makes you happy."

After that, he took a ten-year hiatus, during which he played soccer with his pals, then did his National Service in the Swedish Army. He kicked around and briefly studied English at Leeds Metropolitan University, where he remembers partying more than participles. He circled back to acting in his twenties, when he attended Marymount Manhattan College in New York. For a while, he bounced back and forth between Sweden and America, getting cast as Meekus in "Zoolander" in 2001, and as Sgt. Brad Colbert in the HBO miniseries "Generation Kill" in 2008.


That same year, HBO cast him as Eric Northman, the sexy thousand-year-old bloodsucker in "True Blood." That role of the Viking-turned-vampire brought Skarsgard the level of stardom that he'd experienced at 13 back in Sweden – but now he was ready for it.

[Related: 'True Blood' Sets Season 6 Premiere Date]

Skarsgard is currently wrapping up shooting on the sixth season of "True Blood," where undead life takes a turn for the worse for Northman. "My character has been very busy," he said, in a break from the set as they get the last two episodes in the can. "The humans have figured out a way to fight back for the first time in one thousand years. It's very disconcerting. He hasn't been vulnerable but now humans pose a threat. Up until now, they've only been food -- and it's a real concern."

Coincidentally, Alexander isn't the only Skarsgard to play a Viking. His younger brother Gustav is currently rocking the raccoon eye-linered boat builder Floki in the History Channel's acclaimed series "The Vikings." Little brother Bill also acts ("Hemlock Grove," "Anna Karenina").

While Skarsgard's thoughts are currently on "True Blood," "What Maisie Knew," and "The East" (an eco-thriller out next week), he could also be the next Tarzan. The project is as big as the legend himself, with director David Yates (four of the "Harry Potter" films) attached at Warner Brothers. But don't expect to see Skarsgard in a chamois loincloth just yet: the Tarzan reboot remains in development.

Watch 'What Maisie Knew' Trailer: