Alexander Skarsgard worked eight months to get his rippling Tarzan body

Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgard explains how he got Tarzan's 8-pack as the latest iteration The Legend of Tarzan hits cinemas.
Alexander Skarsgard in The Legend Of Tarzan.
Alexander Skarsgard in The Legend Of Tarzan.PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

The Legend Of Tarzan will not only be entertaining, but also touch on deeper issues such as genocide, says its lead Alexander Skarsgard

As a child, Alexander Skarsgard hero-worshipped the Tarzan of the old Johnny Weissmuller films of the 1930s and 1940s, which he watched while curled up on the sofa with his father. That did not stop him from recognising what was questionable with them.

He knew portraying the iconic character in 2016 would require a more sensitive, politically correct approach, one which moves away from the imperialistic, "white saviour" overtones of the original books and early films, which are rife with negative stereotypes about Africans.

"You can't make a movie about the white man who comes to the jungle and saves the poor indigenous people," the Swedish actor tells The Straits Times in an interview in Los Angeles.

"Those old movies and old novels are very dated. It's very archaic, how the indigenous people are portrayed - it was a different time. So you kind of appreciate it for what it was, but you have to make something completely different today."

Thus The Legend Of Tarzan - which opens in Singapore tomorrow - offers a fresh take on Edgar Rice Burroughs' tale of the son of a British nobleman who is raised by apes in the African jungle and learns to communicate with all the animals.

For one thing, Skarsgard's Tarzan - his first lead role in a big blockbuster film - and wife Jane (Margot Robbie) are enlisted to help George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), a character based on the real African-American soldier who exposed Belgian king Leopold II's atrocities in the Congo in the late 19th century.

Skarsgard, 39, explains that the film will thus "deal with some serious subjects - about what happened in the Congo during King Leopold's reign, the genocide, what they did to the animals with the ivory trade, what they did to Mother Nature - issues that we are still struggling with today".

The action adventure people have come to expect of Tarzan tales is not forgotten.

Skarsgard says: "I think they balance it beautifully where it's a fun entertaining movie. If you want to just eat your popcorn and enjoy the ride, you hopefully will. But it touches on something more deep and meaningful as well.

"The fact that it's about the tribes reclaiming their land and taking back their power... is quite powerful," he says, adding that the film-makers also put a lot of "respect" and research into how the Congolese tribes are depicted.

Skarsgard, best known for playing a vampire in the television series True Blood (2008 to 2014), says he was well aware of the problematic racial and colonialist attitudes embedded in the original Tarzan stories written by Burroughs in the early 20th century, as well as some of the more than 200 screen adaptations of the character.

But he also has fond memories of watching some of those films with his father Stellan Skarsgard, a respected dramatic actor who has appeared in movies such as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011) and Breaking The Waves (1996).

"My introduction to Tarzan was the Weissmuller movies because of my father, who loved them when he was a kid and wanted to introduce his son to them.

"So my first memory was watching those on the couch with my dad and that's how I fell in love with Tarzan."

Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan, Lord Of The Apes - Christopher Lambert's 1984 movie - "was the last live-action Tarzan movie and that was 30 years ago. So I felt like the time was right (for a new one)", Skarsgard adds.

"And not only is the story completely different from Greystoke or the Weissmuller movies, but also with technology. What you can do in 2016 is be immersed in the jungle in a way that would've been impossible just a few years ago, and actually follow these characters through the trees in quite exhilarating ways," he says, referring to the film's cutting- edge computer-generated animals and jungle environments.

In addition to getting the socio- political message right, he was determined to perfect Tarzan's rippling physique, which has been front and centre in the film's trailer and billboards.

Director David Yates - who directed the last four Harry Potter films - says the star's punishing eight-month diet and training regimen went beyond anything he asked the actor to do.

"I've never worked with an actor who's been so diligent about getting the body right. We'd do fight sequences and he'd step off the set and get on the weights. He never stopped."

Yates cast the Swede despite his lack of high-profile big-screen roles because "I liked his length, his verticality, his gracefulness - I wanted a really graceful Tarzan, someone who was beautiful, in a way".

Skarsgard's work in the HBO war drama Generation Kill (2008) and the apocalyptic indie film Melancholia (2011) suggested to Yates that he had considerable dramatic range too.

But the actor's Hollywood career nearly did not happen after an early brush with stardom in Sweden turned him off the idea of following in his father's footsteps.

"I ended up in one of my father's friends' movies when I was seven and that led to another one. So for six or seven years till I was 13, I worked on a couple of projects during school breaks."

At 13, he played the lead in a Swedish TV movie, The Dog That Smiled (1989), which brought him much fame in the country.

He recalls: "It made me uncomfortable being in the spotlight. Being 13 is a tough age to become famous. When someone recognised or walked up to me and wanted an autograph, it made me paranoid. All I wanted to do was blend in.

"So I quit and didn't act for eight years at all."

Eventually, he returned to acting, at age 21, after trying to figure out what to do with his life and decided that he was "s**t at everything" else.

These days, the star - who is dating British model and television presenter Alexa Chung, 32 - has a better handle on fame.

"As an adult, I think I'm really passionate about this, I love working on a project, I have so much fun and I put so much energy and love into it, and it's quite lovely if it touches someone and he says he saw that movie and it meant a lot to him."

•The Legend Of Tarzan opens in Singapore tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2016, with the headline 'Fresh take on old Tarzan tale'. Print Edition | Subscribe