Trailer: The Legend of Tarzan
Tarzan, having acclimated to life in London, is called back to his former home in the jungle to investigate the activities at a mining encampment.
December 11, 2015
Growing up in Stockholm, Alexander Skarsgard vividly recalls being introduced to Tarzan as a young boy by his famous father, Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard.
“When my father was a kid, he would go to the matinees in Sweden every week and see the old Johnny Weissmuller movies,” he says. “So then he had these VHS cassettes of all the old Tarzan movies and I remember watching them as a kid, as well as a lot of old Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Tom and Jerry and Akira Kurosawa. So it was a very nice, eclectic mix.”
Is it safe to assume, then, that Skarsgard senior – whose own eclectic film range includes Breaking the Waves, Mamma Mia and Dogville – had a positive reaction when he heard his son was stepping into the iconic role in the new film The Legend of Tarzan? “He was possibly even more excited than I was when I got the job,” he beams.
Margot Robbie and Alexander Skarsgard in The Legend of Tarzan. Photo: Jonathan Olley
Skarsgard has taken up residency for the day in a hotel suite in Beverly Hills, leaving the balcony doors open to allow in a gentle breeze. His lean and athletic 195-centimetre frame, along with those prominently chiselled cheekbones and magnetic blue-green eyes, suggest he could be intimidating in person, but he quickly allays the notion when he jumps up to give me a hug, then escorts me into the room and insists on sharing his fruit plate while we talk. The 39-year-old Scandinavian has to be aware of the effect he has on women – he was voted the sexiest man in Sweden five times and is reportedly in a long-term relationship with British model Alexa Chung (a topic that’s off-limits) – but if he is, he keeps his ego in check with an endearing determination to focus only on the work.
“It was important for me to find my own character and create my own Tarzan for this project and not go back and ask, ‘What did Christopher Lambert do?’ or ‘What did Johnny Weissmuller do?’ ” he says. So we won’t hear the immortal line, “Me Tarzan, you Jane” first uttered by Weissmuller to Maureen Sullivan in the 1932 film Tarzan the Ape Man or, as in the 1984 film Greystoke, watch Jane (Andie MacDowell) teach Tarzan (Lambert) how to speak English? “No,” he says, unapologetically. “I wanted to let my own creativity find him, wherever that would lead me.”
The Legend of Tarzan was directed by David Yates, the British filmmaker behind the last four Harry Potter films, and begins many years after Tarzan has traded the jungle for an aristocratic life in London as John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke, with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie). When he’s invited back to the Congo to serve as a trade emissary of Parliament and discovers he’s become a pawn in a deadly plan masterminded by Belgian Captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), his animal instincts are unleashed.
Alexander Skarsgard (back to camera) in the film The Legend of Tarzan. Photo: Warner Bros
“The novel and the other old movies are about taming the beast but we’re about releasing the beast, as he goes from being John Clayton back to Tarzan,” Skarsgard says. “I think it’s something we all connect with and understand in a way, because we are all human beings and animals at the same time.”
Skarsgard confides that he wasn’t initially excited about the role when he first got the script. “I was thinking, ‘It’s been made so many times, why again? but then I read on page one that he is in London having tea with the Prime Minister and I thought, ‘So, it’s not the boy in the loincloth growing up with apes’.”
Margot Robbie can’t resist making fun of the ridiculously handsome vision of the shirtless actor with perfect abs on a movie poster in her hotel room. “Isn’t it great I get to be in a movie where the guy is the eye candy?” she says. The Australian actress, 25, is also at the top of her game, thanks to her breakthrough drama The Wolf of Wall Street and the coming comic-book blockbuster Suicide Squad – and she talks excitedly about her Jane also defying tradition and not being a damsel in distress. She praising her co-star for toning down the testosterone. “Alex just doesn’t have that alpha male bravado that can squash the other people in the room, not at all,” she says. “He’s just very present with you even when people are going nuts over him, which happens a lot.”
Alexander Skarsgard, centre, on the set of the film The Legend of Tarzan. Photo: Jonathan Olley
Robbie describes the film as “a massive love story”, but Skarsgard spent eight months in intense training, including trapeze work and a strict diet, to achieve the physique of a vine-swinging wildman. “I put on some weight,” he says, “but it was also important that Tarzan didn’t look like a bodybuilder, because if you grow up in the jungle, you want to look like you can move, so a big part of my training was also just being able to touch my toes and seem super-flexible.”
Growing up in the now-popular Stockholm neighbourhood of SoFo (south of Folkungagatan) as one of four brothers, Skarsgard began acting at age eight, when a director friend of his father gave him a part in his film. At 13, when another film he did attracted a lot of attention, he promptly decided to quit acting. “It hadn’t really been my choice when I first started acting and I got paranoid and didn’t like people recognising me, so I took off for eight years until I found my way back,” he says. He eventually studied theatre in New York, then moved to Los Angeles and got his break playing a Marine team leader in the 2008 miniseries Generation Kill before hitting it big as vampire Eric Northam in the TV drama True Blood.
Ironically, The Legend of Tarzan was shot almost entirely indoors – even the animals were digitally added to the film using jenny green-screens shot in a former aeroplane factory converted into the 80-hectare Leavesden Studios, south-west of London.The jungle sets had real trees, real bushes and real soil as well as a river and a mountain, so it was very much alive,” Skarsgard says. “On the back lot, they’d even planted a whole field of African grass a year earlier to let it grow, as well as African flowers, and they built an African village, so that all made the acting part much easier.”
Stephen Moyer as Bill, Alexander Skarsgard as Eric and Lucy Griffiths as Nora in True Blood. Photo: Supplied
When he’s not working, the grounded performer likes to get out of Los Angeles on escapes. After his London screen test he went to Antarctica to participate in a gruelling trek for the Walking with the Wounded organisation, alongside ambassadors including Prince Harry.”I knew that when I got back to civilisation after a month in the South Pole, there would be an email in my inbox saying either I was making the movie or not, so that was pretty trippy,” he says. “We eventually stopped in this tiny Russian base on the coast of Antarctica with dial-up internet and that’s when I found out they liked my screen test and I was going home to be Tarzan.”
The Legend of Tarzan is released in cinemas on July 7.
SIX OF THE BEST TARZANS
Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane and Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan in Tarzan the Ape Man. Photo: Supplied
Tarzan first appeared in the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel Tarzan of the Apes in 1912, and has been portrayed over the past century by countless actors of film, TV and animation. Here are the top six:
Johnny Weissmuller The Romanian-born Olympic swimming gold medallist appeared in a record 12 Tarzan movies, from 1932 to 1948, including: Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan Escapes (1936). He’s largely acknowledged as the most famous screen Tarzan.
Lex Barker After fighting in World War II, Barker returned home and pursued an acting career, playing the lord of the jungle in his first starring role, in the 1949 film Tarzan’s Magic Fountain. He played Tarzan in five films from 1949 to 1953.
Alexander Skarsgard’s father, actor Stellan Skarsgard, in Dogville. Photo: Supplied
Gordon Scott The professional bodybuilder-turned-actor made six films as Tarzan and two of them – Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959) and Tarzan the Magnificent (1960) – are generally considered by critics to be among the best Tarzan films ever made.
Christopher Lambert The French actor found stardom and critical acclaim in the 1984 drama Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. It was also the first Tarzan film ever nominated for Oscars (best supporting actor Ralph Richardson, best screenplay adaptation and best makeup).
Tony Goldwyn Disney’s animated 1999 film based on the Burroughs story featured television’s Scandal star Tony Goldwyn voicing the title character. The film also earned an Academy Award for Phil Collins’ song You’ll Be In My Heart.
Alexander Skarsgard in The Legend of Tarzan. The actor believes people can relate to Tarzan’s story “because we are all human beings and animals at the same time”. Photo: Warner Bros
Casper Van Dien The newcomer was supposed to reboot the franchise in the title role of Tarzan and the Lost City (1998), set in the 1920s, but instead the movie was box-office poison and it was 18 years until someone tried again.