Tarzan’s about to return to screens - but not quite as you’ve ever seen him before. Susan Griffin meets True Blood star Alexander Skarsgard
David Yates, the director of the final four Harry Potter movies, admits it was tough finding the right man to bring to life the title role in his latest movie, The Legend Of Tarzan.
“To find a really good actor with a really good body is actually really quite tricky,” observes the 52-year-old.
“The Tarzan in my head was tall and vertical, had grace and poise, whereas Tarzan in the past felt really wide and square.”
He adds, thankfully, that “pretty much after about five minutes thinking about it, Alex came to mind”.
Ah yes, Alexander Skarsgard; the handsome, statuesque Swede, known to many as vampire Eric in the hit US series, True Blood.
Skarsgard, the son of River actor Stellan, might have the physical attributes to play the offspring of gentry, who’s raised by apes after his family is marooned in the Congo, but he still found the preparation tough.
“I wanted to put on weight to begin with, so for three months, it was basically 7000 calories a day and non-stop weightlifting to bulk up,” explains the Stockholm-born 39-year-old, who now lives in New York and speaks with an American accent.
The actor also focused on flexibility and movement, in order to perfect Tarzan’s physicality.
“I started doing a little bit more cardio and yoga and Pilates, and had the privilege of working with the choreographer Wayne McGregor. He’s incredible but it was quite a challenge for him. He works with the best ballet dancers in the world, and I can’t touch my toes.”
There have been many incarnations of Tarzan since the character, created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, first appeared in print in 1912, but what appealed to Skarsgard was the fact that in this version, the familiar origin story is turned on its head.
Usually, the tale begins with Tarzan in the jungle and follows his return to his family’s estate - “but I opened the script and page one is him, Tarzan, as John Clayton, drinking tea with the Prime Minister in London”.
“I thought it was such a beautiful way in to this iconic character, where it’s not the ape-man in a loin cloth but a civilised Victorian gentleman, who’s already been here for eight years and has kind of perfected being a British Lord,” adds the star, whose breakthrough performance was in the critically-acclaimed 2008 series, Generation Kill.
“He grew up in the jungle where he had to adapt to survive, so he’s a master in observing. I wanted him to play the part of a British gentleman to perfection, but he doesn’t belong there. He feels obligated to run the Greystoke Manor - that’s his heritage, but the jungle is his home.”
When he does return, the actor notes, “it’s not about taming the beast, but releasing the beast”.
“It’s something we can all relate to, that dichotomy, being human beings but also [having] those primal urges. I was very drawn to that.”
John, who’s joined on the adventure by American George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) is invited by Belgium’s King Leopold to return to the Congo, supposedly to see all the work that’s been undertaken.
But it’s a trap; he’s actually being lured back by the King’s treacherous envoy Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who intends to capture Tarzan and deliver him to an old enemy in exchange for a fortune in diamonds.
The backdrop is based on actual events. “The Congo was his [Leopold’s] personal playground,” notes Skarsgard.
“He said, ‘I will civilise the natives and build up infrastructure’, so he was considered a philanthropist, but John goes down there and sees what he’s actually doing to the natives, the animals, and [how he’s] pillaging the land.”
John’s wife Jane, played by The Wolf Of Wall Street’s Margot Robbie, accompanies him on the trip, but they’re soon separated with Jane’s held hostage by Rom.
Skarsgard, who also starred in 2015’s The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, Melancholia and What Maisie Knew, stresses: “She’s not a damsel in distress. It’s not about him saving her; he’s not complete without her.
“The whole second act is basically them trying to get back together, so it’s obviously crucial you’re invested in this relationship. You have to believe in the love, because if you don’t root for them to be together then we don’t have a movie.”
Skarsgard hit it off with Robbie immediately. “I mean how can you not have chemistry with this woman?” he exclaims, before confirming one particular scene wound up with him getting walloped by his co-star.
“There’s a moment where we come back to the village where Jane spent her teenage years, and that’s where she met Tarzan and fell in love,” he recalls. “It’s the first time you see them have an intimate moment, and David [Yates, the director] was like, ‘I want this to be intense, I don’t want it to be sweet and pretty. Go for it Margot, hit him’ - and she did!”
Skarsgard confesses he had concerns when told the film was to be shot in Watford, but thought the set was “incredible” once he saw it.
“They had two hangers, which were 200 metres long with real trees, bushes, a river running through, climate control so there was suddenly rain, and in the back lot they grew African grass and built a colonial town and a quarry.”
The actor grew up in the “concrete jungle” of south Stockholm.
“There’s not much nature around there, but I was in the military and spent 18 months out in the archipelago islands and really loved it,” reveals Skarsgard, who recently wrapped upcoming TV series Big Little Lies with Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon.
He’s also set to star, alongside Paul Rudd, as a mute bartender who goes up against his city’s gangsters in mystery-thriller Mute, and will soon be promoting new action-comedy War On Everyone with Michael Pena.
“I do love to escape from the business and civilisation in a way, so I went down to the South Pole a couple of years ago and sailed across the Atlantic and went to Greenland for a couple of months,” he says, reflecting on how he balances work and downtime.
“When the opportunities come up, I always embrace it, because that really recharges my battery.”
The Legend Of Tarzan is released on Wednesday, July 6