Playing the bad guy is never easy — it's too simple to fall into caricature or get eye-rolls instead of screams. Thankfully, Alexander Skarsgard, who plays a 35-year-old sleeping with a teen in Diary of a Teenage Girl , has a lot of experience; before taking on the role of Monroe in Diary, he played a manipulative vampire on True Blood and an unfeeling father in The Giver, among other parts that required good amounts of viciousness and disdain. The actor knows that the best villains are not simply evil, but, as Monroe does, straddle the line between wicked and misunderstood.
"To play him as a predator would not be interesting," says Skarsgard, speaking with Bustle. "You make it too easy for the audience that way.... It's always more interesting if you make it uncomfortable for the audience, if you can find moments where they like the guy, and understand him."
It's hard to like Monroe — he comes off as an immature, selfish man who uses both 15-year-old Minnie (Bel Powley) and her mother (Kristen Wiig) — but it is easy to understand him, thanks in large part to Skarsgard's brave, heartfelt portrayal. Although Monroe's actions are clearly wrong, he isn't a pedophile, or even cruel; he develops real feelings for Minnie, and might need her more than she needs him.
Says Skarsgard, "I thought that was the only way of making it real and making it interesting, to find those moments where Minnie might be more responsible, and she’s the grown-up in the relationship rather than him."
The actor never pitied Monroe — "I think it would have been quite dangerous to do that," he says — but he did feel for Minnie, a teenage girl exploring her sexuality for the first time in an unhealthy way, without any role models to guide her through. Skarsgard says he was drawn to the movie's portrayal of its young heroine, whose desire for and confusion about sex is painfully realistic.
"Teenage girls’ sexuality is never talked about in movies," says the actor. "Young boys are allowed to have sex and think about sex and talk about sex, and when it comes to girls that age, the stories are usually, the girl wants to find a husband and she wants two kids and a cute little house and a dog."
And if you're a young girl having a sexual awakening but without any examples of others like you, "you feel even more alienated," he continues. Diary, though, is set on changing that: "The fact that a teenage girl is sexually frustrated or thinks about sex...to have it really talk about that, that was really great."
The film does more than just talk; there are several scenes featuring Minnie and Monroe having sex, Minnie having sex with other men (or, more accurately, boys), Minnie examining her naked body and analyzing all of its supposed flaws and strengths.
"It's very emotionally naked," says Skarsgard, adding that before Diary, "Bel had actually never done a sex scene before, not even an on-screen kiss."
To get comfortable, both actors spent weeks rehearsing the scenes and developing their characters, "playing around" and "building trust," the actor says. They spent substantial time dissecting Monroe and Minnie's sex scenes, making sure that none of the content felt dishonest or gratuitous, along with the film's director, Marielle Heller.
'The fact that she was so open to letting us take control of our characters and discover where we would take the relationship, that’s a dream as an actor," says Skarsgard. "I think that’s the only way of getting something interesting, and something great."
Their discussions included figuring out the character of Minnie's mother, Charlotte; distant, immature, and a heavy partier, Charlotte is far from an ideal role model for her daughters, but she's also caring and kind and ultimately, sympathetic. Skarsgard, who knew Wiig a bit but had never worked with the actress he calls "one of the funniest women in the world" before, says "people will be very surprised" by her performance.
"Charlotte is someone who’s quite irresponsible and not a great mom, but at the same time, you want the audience to relate to her and feel empathy," he says. "It’s really a difficult character to play, and she did it beautifully."
Skarsgard has similar praise for Powley, and especially for Heller. Speaking of the director, he says that he "was just blown away by her energy and enthusiasm, and how passionate she was."
"After I met Mari," he says, "I felt like I just had to be in this."
It's hard to imagine anyone else taking on the role; Skarsgard imbues Monroe with a perfect balance of creepiness and sympathy.
"You need to find those layers," the actor says, "to make it real and make it human."
Images: Sony Pictures Classics (2)