LOS ANGELES — Playing an aloof, sexy Viking vampire sheriff on HBO's True Blood requires many things of Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgard, not least among them a willingness to endure long stretches of night shoots and a commitment to spend at least a certain amount of time in the gym.
Anyone who has watched the show, which returns Sunday for its fourth season, knows that virtually every major character is afforded plenty of screen time wearing not much at all.
But every now and again, the hit series, masterminded by Alan Ball and adapted from mystery writer Charlaine Harris' best-selling novels, really takes a turn for the surreal — as in Season 3, when Skarsgard, who plays Eric Northman, and actor Allan Hyde, as Eric's vampire "maker" Godric, hunted werewolves dressed as SS officers in a World War II-era flashback scene.
"We shot that early in the morning after the Golden Globes two years ago," a casual, sunny Skarsgard says. "At 7 in the morning, I'm hanging from the ceiling in a Nazi uniform with fangs in (my mouth). I look over and I see (Allan) there in his Nazi uniform hanging like a puppet. We're about to descend down to kill this wolf, you know? And that was the moment where we just looked at each other like, 'This is what we're doing for a living?'"
This, it would seem, is life at the center of a pop-culture juggernaut.
True Blood had its premiere in 2008, and by the beginning of its second season, the show about the supernatural travails of telepathic cocktail waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) in fictional Bon Temps, La., had grown into a steamy, savvy and very adult answer to the teenage vampire fantasy of Twilight, with a similarly devoted fan base. An average of 13 million people watched each episode last season (that figure includes multiple airings and on-demand views), making it the most popular of HBO's current original series.
Fans, Skarsgard suggested, are seduced by Ball's signature brand of metaphor wrapped in lurid eye candy.
"It's sexy, it's wild, it's violent, but at the same time, it's grounded and it's about our society," he says.
Like Stephenie Meyer's high-school based romance, Twilight, True Blood developed a love triangle, with the old-fashioned Southern gentleman vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) and the moodier Eric vying for Sookie's affections.
In real life, Moyer got the girl — he and Paquin married last year — but Skarsgard, son of actor Stellan Skarsgard, has won a following for his chiseled good looks and the swagger and deadpan sense of humor he brings to Eric.
The sheriff's brooding authoritarianism is nowhere to be seen, though, when Skarsgard, clad in a white dress shirt and gray pants, recounts what led him to this turning point in a career that inadvertently began at age 7, when he appeared in his first film opposite his father, 1984's Åke och hans varld.
He's cordial and polite, recounting his decision to quit acting at age 13, when the spotlight became too intense, and how he returned to the profession roughly seven or eight years later, after serving in the Swedish military. (Any time he mentions Sweden or his family — he has five brothers and one sister — he brightens noticeably.)
He eventually landed a small part in the Ben Stiller comedy Zoolander before going on to star in HBO's 2008 acclaimed Iraq war mini-series Generation Kill, and then True Blood.
He's now poised to make the leap to a career on the big screen, with two films due out before the end of the year: Rod Lurie's remake of Sam Peckinpah's controversial Straw Dogs and Lars von Trier's elegiac sci-fi meditation Melancholia, which was shot in Sweden and allowed him to work again briefly with his dad.
In May, he'll star as a naval officer in Battleship, Universal's big-budget action movie directed by Peter Berg and, yes, based on the board game.
"I was first made aware of Alex Skarsgard by the 15 women who work in my office who came in collectively as one with a picture of Alex and said, 'He is going to be in Battleship. It's non-negotiable,'" Berg says with a laugh.
Skarsgard remains conflicted about the celebrity that accompanies Hollywood success. "Being followed is weird," he says. "That people want to discuss where I ate lunch or what I wear when I go to lunch. ... The private life is just gone. That's a little tough. It's quite different in Sweden. We don't have paparazzi following you in Sweden. You're allowed to have a private life in Sweden in a different way."