Alexander Skarsgard: Nicole Kidman told me I had to do Little Drummer Girl

The Emmy-winning actor says his Big Little Lies co-star was the person who pushed him towards BBC1's latest John le Carré adaptation

Alexander Skarsgard plays Becker in The Little Drummer Girl

Like 2016’s The Night Manager – which gave Tom Hiddleston his, well, cheekiest role yet – John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl is a tightly plotted, globe-trotting affair of spies, terrorists and radical politics.

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Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgard, 42 – who was in True Blood and scooped multiple awards for his portrayal of Perry, Nicole Kidman’s abusive husband, in Big Little Lies – plays Gadi Becker, a Mossad agent preparing to infiltrate a terrorist cell. He entices Charlie (Florence Pugh’s character), his feisty British girlfriend, into plotting a perilous honey trap.

Becker seems to be a character of few words?

We wanted him to be very enigmatic in the beginning, so he is introduced to the viewers and Charlie simultaneously on a beautiful Greek island. So he doesn’t have too much back story – as she gets more intrigued, hopefully the audience will as well.

Did you screen-test for chemistry with Florence Pugh?

It was sheer luck because I didn’t meet Flo until a week before we started shooting. But I’d seen her in Lady Macbeth and thought she was sensational. We hit it off, and now we’re very, very close. Hopefully that comes across.

The Little Drummer Girl cast
The Little Drummer Girl cast (BBC)

What was the appeal of this project: the BBC, le Carré, director Park Chan-Wook…

All of those! I was dying to work with Park – I loved the Oldboy trilogy and The Handmaiden. I was shooting Big Little Lies when I read the script and Nicole [Kidman, who starred in Park’s film Stoker] said, “Don’t even think about it – you have to do this. He’s amazing amazing amazing…” And the fact that it was a John le Carré story, and a character like Becker… I couldn’t have been more excited.

What does playing a monstrous character like Perry do to you?

I have to leave it on set. It would be very difficult to function otherwise. I did Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on stage in Sweden 15 years ago. It’s a very dark play and it was one of the first things I did as an actor, and I was having a hard time – it was 140 performances over five months. You can’t go home 140 times from the theatre feeling that depressed and having that weight on you. So that’s where I Iearnt to leave the character behind. It was important for me to be able to have a normal life and go out and have fun. It was the same on Big Little Lies. We shot in LA and I stayed with friends. That helped a lot. They have kids, and it’s a loving, warm, family atmosphere. It was nice that I didn’t come home to an empty hotel room.

It was a show full of great female actors [Kidman, Reece Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern]. Was there a different energy than on a set dominated by men?

Not only are they extraordinarily talented women, they’re so supportive of each other. I’ve been on sets with men where it gets very competitive, especially alpha dudes who want to make sure they’re the silverback gorilla in the room. That can hurt the creative process, because egos and insecurities come in. So it was wonderful to be in a situation where people cared about the project more than their character.

You studied English at Leeds, so the UK must feel very familiar. Or does that feel like a lifetime ago?

It does and it doesn’t. It was an interesting time in my life. I didn’t know what I wanted to do and it was actually while at Leeds Metropolitan University that I decided to apply to theatre school. It was in the library that I picked out a book of monologues – it definitely wasn’t Shakespeare! – and my buddy filmed me on a VHS camera, and I sent it to Marymount Theatre School in New York. I got in, and two months later I moved to New York.

Now you’re back, how many times have you been asked about Tom Hiddleston’s bum?

Quite a few! And I’ve never seen it. I’d love to, though… I definitely can’t live up to Tom’s gorgeous bum!


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The Little Drummer Girl airs on BBC1 on Sundays at 9pm. You can watch the trailer below