10 Years After Generation Kill Alexander Skarsgård Is Still 'Frosty'

By Ashley Morton

The actor known for True Blood and Big Little Lies reflects on the miniseries that started it all for him.


HBO: When was the last time you watched Generation Kill?

Alexander Skarsgård: I watched the whole show about two years ago, and I hadn’t seen it since it aired. It was quite emotional and nostalgic to watch the whole thing again.

HBO: It’s been 10 years since the show aired. What are your impressions of it now?

Alexander Skarsgård: The reason I loved it so much, was that it felt so grounded and real. It was so brave of Ed Burns and David Simon to create a show that didn’t revolve around one famous incident; it’s not one huge battle or heroic action. There’s no score, they don’t heighten anything or sensationalize it.

To me, it’s the most honest depiction of war I’ve seen in many years. I served in the military in Sweden, and I’ve never been to war, but I can relate to the camaraderie, the hierarchical structure, the lack of information; all of that was so beautifully told in this show.

HBO: What sort of impact did the show have on you?

Alexander Skarsgård: It was such a profound experience. I am where I am in my career today thanks to Gen Kill. It was kind of where it all began for me. Before that, I had done a very small part in Zoolander, but that was it in the States.

When I heard about the show I was already a fan of The Wire, so I knew the people behind it were incredibly talented. And I read the book, and thought it was extraordinary. I was so blown away by Brad “Iceman” Colbert. I knew it was a long shot for them to hire an unknown Swede, but I was very motivated. It was a long and tough exhausting audition process.

HBO: Could you elaborate on what the casting process was like for you?

Alexander Skarsgård: It was horrible, personally, because I wanted it so badly! When I auditioned in New York, I didn’t know Alexa [Fogel, casting director], and today she’s one of my closest friends. I auditioned for her in New York, flew to London to audition for the director, Susanna White, then went to Baltimore for Ed and David. I returned to New York, and waited around.

I was on pins and needles every time I got a phone call. I was unemployed, I had no money, and was either going to go home to Sweden for unemployment because my visa for the States was about to expire, or go on incredible adventure seven months in Africa, working on the greatest mini-series. The stakes were very high. My heart would stop every time the phone rang.

And then one day it did ring, and I went back for a fourth callback. Alexa was in my corner and was trying to convince the skeptics. I was up in her office one day, and she basically said, “You owe me a nice lunch if you get this.”

And at the very end, I was at her office, and she basically said, “You owe me a nice lunch, Alex. You’re going to Namibia tomorrow.” It was the craziest moment of my life. I was so happy and terrified and overwhelmed. And within 24 hours, I was on a plane with seven scripts about to go to boot camp and shoot this massive series. It was scary but exhilarating.

HBO: Was it challenging to play a part based on a real person?

Alexander Skarsgård: I felt such a responsibility to get it right. I fell in love with the character; I thought he was the most incredible human, but it was important to make him real and flawed. I didn’t meet Brad Colbert before the show, but I got a pretty good idea of who he was from speaking with [military advisor] Eric Kocher, Rudy Reyes [who plays himself], and [writer] Evan Wright. All of these stories you hear him talk about are real. It’s very personal. Brad is a private guy; he’s not someone who asked for the world to share his stories.

HBO: How did you prep for the part?

Alexander Skarsgård: I remember the moment where I really tapped into Brad and realized exactly how I wanted to play him. Evan was in a Humvee with these guys for five weeks, all the way from Kuwait to Baghdad, and he would record a lot of the conversations. And I discovered the essence of why Brad was called “Iceman” when he played one for me. They’re driving, and taking fire — you can hear bullets ricocheting off the Humvee — and they open up and start firing back. And as Brad’s shooting out the window, he’s talking to Ray [Person] about doing a three-point-turn and avoiding a burn. And the other guys are all screaming, and Brad is so calm — it’s almost like his heart rate slowed down. He is so precise in giving directions to Ray. You can tell he’s stressed, but he’s like, “OK, back up, back up, you’re good,” as he’s being shot. And to me that was Brad.

HBO: Do you remember the first scene you shot?

Alexander Skarsgård: I do, and I was nervous about it. I berate Ray [played by James Ransone] because he f**ked around with a stove and it exploded in the tent. It was a difficult scene because I wanted to find the right tone. Brad had such an ease; he’s not a guy who had to exaggerate the fact that he was in command. It’s an important moment, and it set tone for the dynamic, and that was Day 1.

HBO: Do any other scenes stand out in your memory?

Alexander Skarsgård: When Brad talks about his ex-girlfriend, who is now with his best friend. He does it in a way that’s not melodramatic, it’s just a fact. The emotions register on the other guys in the Humvee, not on him. It’s so beautifully written.

Again, it was important to get the tone right and it was stressful because we were shooting as the sun was setting. By the time we got to the coverage, we only had time for two takes, and I was frustrated because I wasn’t sure if we got it or not. I remember walking away from set being upset, I cared so deeply about that scene. But in hindsight, I think that tension added to the moment.

HBO: What was the atmosphere on set like?

Alexander Skarsgård: The dynamic was as close to as when I was in the military as I’ve ever experienced on a set. There is a lot of hurry up and wait in both the military and on set. And usually, if you’re not active in a scene, you don’t have to be on set, but for Gen Kill, we were all the extras. If there’s a scene between the guys in the third Humvee, you’ll see me walking in the background. So all 40 of us were on set every single day.

It meant that we spent so much time bored together, which is very bonding in a way. When you sit around and bulls**t you really get to know each other. It helped create that chemistry between the characters. If we had we shot in L.A., and people had gone home to their families every night, it would have been different. We lived together in the desert for seven months, and you can feel that when you watch the show. It was the most extraordinary experience of my career to date. I still hang out with all of the guys whenever we’re in the same city.

HBO: What’s your favorite phrase from the show to still say?

Alexander Skarsgård: “Stay frosty.” It’s something Brad would say, which summed up his character a lot. I still use that quite a bit.

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