Marvel Cinematic Universe profile: A look at Stellan Skarsgard’s career

BERLIN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 09: Stellan Skarsgard poses at the "Out Stealing Horses" (Ut og stjæle hester) photocall during the 69th Berlinale International Film Festival Berlin at Grand Hyatt Hotel on February 09, 2019 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Matthias Nareyek/Getty Images)
BERLIN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 09: Stellan Skarsgard poses at the "Out Stealing Horses" (Ut og stjæle hester) photocall during the 69th Berlinale International Film Festival Berlin at Grand Hyatt Hotel on February 09, 2019 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Matthias Nareyek/Getty Images) /

Stellan Skarsgard ended up being a bigger part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe than originally expected. He plays Erik Selvig in four movies.

Stellan Skarsgard supports the Thor cast as Dr. Selvig, the astrophysicist that works with Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster. Together with Darcy, they find Thor after he crash lands onto Earth. The three makeup a well-rounded little group of scientists; Jane being Thor’s love interest, Darcy providing comic relief as the quippy intern, and Selvig befriending Thor as well as relaying celestial jargon.

Skarsgard balances Selvig’s expert genius side with a bit of quirkiness. In the first Thor, he is both professional and an excited fanboy as he gets wrapped up in the plethora of discoveries that follows Thor’s arrival. Skarsgard plays off Chris Hemsworth pleasantly when they go out drinking at a local tavern. Selvig’s main contribution to the story is getting Thor out of the SHIELD facility, and he then would participate in more pivotal plot points in The Avengers.

Not many side characters were invited to join the Avengers in their giant-sized collaboration. Skarsgard could have been exclusively a Thor player, but luckily for him, The Avengers features elements that call for his unique set of skills. First of all, he is already familiar with Loki and earns more screen time alongside Tom Hiddleston. And the Tesseract, consisting of energy that opens wormholes through space, requires a scientist like Selvig to study it.

After his mind-control wears off, Selvig is also helpful with figuring out how to close Loki’s portal. He is one of the earlier Infinity Stone experts in the MCU – first experimenting on the space stone, followed by an intimate encounter with the mind stone, and then helping the team prevent a reality stone catastrophe during a cosmic event. In Thor: The Dark World, Skarsgard amps up the eccentricity as he suffers from the psychological fallout of being controlled by the God of Mischief.

Surprisingly, Skarsgard’s Selvig makes it into Avengers: Age of Ultron, specifically to consult with Thor as Earth’s leading authority on the Infinity Stones. It is his smallest part in any MCU movie, although it further extends the appeal of his character as well as the favorable practice by Marvel to weave their wide collection of characters throughout their film universe wherever they best fit into the overall narrative, regardless of whether one appears in a solo hero’s story or an epic ensemble crossover.

Before joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Stellan Skarsgard was in the business for 40 years. One can break down his career into a triad of select groupings; his European dramas, his Hollywood dramas, and his genre fare.

Acting in Sweden as a young man, some of his early movies were thematically carnal, starring opposite Christina Lindberg in Anita: Swedish Nymphet, he then had smaller roles in Swedish Sex Games and Taboo.

Skarsgard gained international attention in Hans Alfredson’s The Simple-Minded Murderer where he plays a callow farmhand who is pushed to the brink by a Nazi sympathizing landowner. With Simple-Minded Murderer being a Swedish production, it wasn’t until the late 1980s when Skarsgard was brought to mainstream American cinema – he was cast in Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being as a suave yet nameless man who Juliette Binoche encounters.

The Hunt for Red October was just the first of many big budget features for Skarsgard. He plays one of the submarine captains in John McTiernan’s action thriller. Later in the 1990s, he would join Robert De Niro’s mercenary team in John Frankenheimer’s Ronin. Some blockbuster films he contributed to were underwhelming. He plays a scientist in Renny Harlin’s Jaws wannabe, Deep Blue Sea, opposite his future SHIELD teammate Samuel L. Jackson, then a villain in Antoine Fuqua’s take on King Arthur. He also stars in back-to-back Exorcist prequels as the younger version of Max von Sydow’s priest.

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Skarsgard is one of the highlights of the under-the-radar Beowulf and Grendel adaptation, as King Hrothgar. Although not nearly as large a budget, that tale falls within the same genre as the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Skarsgard laces up in Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, as Bootstrap Bill Turner, a character who resolves the unanswered question from the first film – “what happened to Will Turner’s father?”.

While not nearly as successful, Pirates of the Caribbean paved Skarsgard’s way into billion-dollar franchises such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For his other film series, he only appeared in one of the Da Vinci Code trilogy’s films Angels and Demons, Mamma Mia may or may not go any further than the sole sequel, and the Hollywood version of the Millennium series was discontinued after The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Although, Skarsgard’s character in the latter was only meant for the one film anyway; he is quite chilling as Martin Vanger.

Aside from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Skarsgard is a part of Lars von Trier’s cinematic universe. That is not a series of interconnected storylines, rather the Danish auteur is known for distinguished themes and aesthetics. They have worked together for decades – Skarsgard had smaller parts (similar in size to The Dark World and Age of Ultron) in Dancer in the Dark and Melancholia, while having key supporting roles (like in Thor and Avengers) in Dogville and Nymphomaniac. He is particularly vile as an abusive “family man” in the allegorical Dogville.

Whether featuring in one of Von Trier’s American settings, like Dogville, or in a European story, such as Breaking the Waves, these profound dramas bring out some of Skarsgard’s best work. Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgard are phenomenally tragic in Breaking the Waves, both achingly full of grief and agony. Shortly after that, Skarsgard gives his most accomplished performance in Good Will Hunting as the professor who desperately tries to push Will to realize his potential. He has his soul crushed in the scene where Will mocks and dismisses his life’s work.

Stellan Skarsgard’s Top 10 Movie Roles

1. Professor Lambeau in Good Will Hunting
2. Jan Nyman in Breaking the Waves
3. Chuck in Dogville
4. Sven in The Simple-Minded Murderer
5. Jonas Engstrom in Insomnia
6. Finlay in The Railway Man
7. Francisco Goya in Goya’s Ghosts
8. Erik Selvig in the MCU
9. Martin Vanger in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
10. Seligman in Nymphomaniac

Skarsgard delivers high quality drama in Insomnia – a role that is later recreated by Al Pacino, in The Railway Man as a haunted ex-prisoner of war – and as the Spanish artist Francisco Goya in Goya’s Ghosts. Despite playing the titular figure in the latter, the real draw is in Natalie Portman’s dual role as well as Javier Bardem’s, pre-No Country for Old Men, villainous turn. In The Railway Man and Goya’s Ghosts Skarsgard proves his worth by rounding out a great cast, similar to his placement in the MCU.

Dr. Selvig is still Skarsgard’s best character to come out of the actor’s popular cinema filmography. He brings his wide-ranging background in comedy, action, fantasy, as well as more serious subject matters to the MCU table. He appears to have put more thought in developing Thor’s buddy compared with his characters in other big brand movies like Pirates of the Caribbean or Cinderella (re-teaming with Thor director Kenneth Branagh), where his job was to stand around looking grumpy.

Even if Skarsgard’s time with the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come to an end, fans of action or fantasy films will likely enjoy his work for many years to come. He can next be seen in the upcoming Dune remake.

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Which of Stellan Skarsgard’s performances were your favorites? Let us know in the comments below!