More Skarsgard re TARZAN: On “integrity,” “character,” and how the “beast inside” slowly comes out

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The upcoming release of Diary of a Teenage Girl with Alexander Skarsgard in a leading role is producing a flood of quotes from  Skarsgard about that film — and a trickle of quotes, albeit interesting ones about Tarzan. WB has an embargo on any official promotion of the movie, so for now — this is all we get. But drip, drip, drip … it’s forming an image of what the Tarzan movie is likely to portray.

The latest is an interview which happened at the Edinburgh Film Festival over a month ago, but has just now been released.

We should really talk about Tarzan, shouldn’t we? Skarsgard has already wrapped on the latest take on Lord Greystoke. It is, as he acknowledges himself, a big deal, “a tent-pole Warner Brothers action adventure movie”.

But it’s also well written and smart, he says, and it’s got a great director in David Yates who made the last four Harry Potter films. “It wasn’t like ‘OK, I do one for them and then one for me. I do an indie just because I love it and then I do something big because it’s a good pay cheque.’ This is a massive film but with so much integrity and so much character. It was an unbelievable experience.”
It’s also his big chance to become a proper copper-plated movie star. The weight of a tent-pole movie will fall on his handsome naked shoulders. Are you feeling the pressure, Alexander?

“Not really, no. It was tough because it was physically and mentally demanding. It was the biggest job of my career so I was excited and focused. And I thought it was a fascinating take on it. The first act you meet him he’s already Lord Greystoke, so he’s very buttoned up. He goes back with his wife Jane to the jungle and slowly the beast that he really is inside comes out.
“We’re dealing with the fact that we’re civilised human beings but we’re also f****** primal beasts. And we’re trying to function in that dichotomy. We politely line up at Starbucks for our lattes but at the same time, we’re f****** animals, you know?”

He thinks about what he’s just said and corrects himself. “We’re not f****** animals. We are f****** animals.”

It’s interesting to hear these kind of comments — and also to see the kind of films that Skarsgard is choosing, which is another indication of what to expect. In other words, he’s not pursuing any kind of action hero image; he has a penchant for indie films and films with a darker edge to them.  So when he makes these comments, consider the source (not to mention Sweden with the whole Ingmar Bergman kind of thing going on in the background).

My two takeaways from this:

“This is a massive film but with so much integrity and so much character.”

Don’t we all wish, and dream, that this is the case — that Yates has looked into the Tarzan material and distilled something special.

And then:

The first act you meet him he’s already Lord Greystoke, so he’s very buttoned up. He goes back with his wife Jane to the jungle and slowly the beast that he really is inside comes out.

This is not a news flash — it is known that he returns to Africa and it’s apparent that Jane goes too.  But I find it interesting to hear him talk about the beast inside slowly coming out.

I think we can count on seeing a Tarzan who, through the course of the film, undergoes a level of psychological torment that has not been part of the way Tarzan has been presented on screen before.  I can’t guarantee this … but signs pointing to it are the casting of an introspective indie-flavored Skarsgard in the first place; the decision to incorporate the character of Leon Rom (prototype for Captain Kurts of Heart of Darkness) into the story; the Congo Free State atrocities; and the reverse journey from civilization to the wild, rather than vice versa as would have been the case in an origins story.  The stripping away of the veneer of civilization; the engagement of the primal self…..

Could be very, very good.  I so hope it delivers on this promise.


  • Thanks Maggie. He was also spotted reading Leopold’s Ghost, the non-fiction account of the atrocities in the Congo Free State under King Leopold of Belgium — a historical context that includes the characters Leon Rom (Christoph Walts’s character) and George Washington Williams (the Samuel Jackson character) …..I have no doubt whatsoever that he approached the role in a thoughtful way with ample respect for the literary creation he was playing.

  • Skarsgard is an avid reader and read 7 of the Southern Vampire Mystery novels in preparation for his role of Eric Northman in True Blood. This is a man who carted a copy of Steppenwolf by Herzog to Anarctica so he would have reading material and one who has been photographed on numerous sets reading as he awaits his next scene or carrying a book in his hand as he negotiates an airport. He read a history of the Congo covering the time period that the film encompasses just so that he would have a better feel for time and place and the bigger picture that surrounds the events in Tarzan. He did not need to read What Massie Knew by Henry James for his part in the film as he had already read it. Skarsgard not only reads novels,but political , philosophical and historical nonfiction books as well. He is highly literate and given his desire to fully understand the characters and times in which they live,it is a given that he read some if not all of the Tarzan books. He may have even read them as teen. If not ,you can rest assured that he did so after he knew he would be playing the part.

  • It’s Rip, not Rick, but don’t worry, that’s a common mistake. (My grandfather’s name was Richard, and he hated being called Rick or Dick, so he made sure that I wouldn’t suffer under the same burden.

    What I meant in stating my feelings about the version of Tarzan that we will be seeing next July is that, with the exception of the now relatively few who are familiar with Mr Burroughs’ character in the original form, no one actually knows who Tarzan is, why he was raised by Great Apes, NOT gorillas or chimpanzees, or why John Clayton was Lord of the Jungle long before he was Lord Greystoke of England.

    In short, very few people have ever actually met Tarzan. I just hope that, finally, they will finally get the opportunity to do so.

  • MCR it occurs to me that one thing we have going for us this time around (as opposed to Carter) is that there is an obvious inner conflict in the character that was placed there by Burroughs … that is, the civilized Greystoke (heredity) vs the beast (environment). Yates didn’t have to manufacture that … it was there.

    Now, I would argue that something similar was there with Carter but Stanton just didn’t see it … the lonely outsider, no childhood to remember, continuing as a thirty-year old while while contemporaries age and die. All of that could have been mined and it would have been consistent with the books.

    But Tarzan … it’s right there in front of anyone trying to write a modern Tarzan story — with “modern” meaning a story that involves a character arc, movement from one state of awareness to another, inner conflict, all of that.

    I mean, who among us can argue about Greystoke, after years in London being gentrified, going back to Africa and having the veneer of civilization stripped from him and discovering or re-discovering the primal beast within. It’s hard to argue with that as a basic framework. Obviously the execution, how far the journey goes, where it ends, those are all matters for consideration. But the basic framework is solid.

  • I agree that it would have been nice if Skarsgard said he had dived into the books and that the writers were following or at least using them as a basis. That said I’m not surprised. Then again we might hear him say this later as more PR starts for the film.

    At least it isn’t some mindless response agreeing with the director’s point of view on the material (cough..cough…Lynn Collins agreeing with Stanton’s dismissal of Dejah Thoris or the books for that matter).

  • I hear you Rip …. I hear the same kind of frustration from so many longtime ERB fans. I’m just as frustrated as any ERB fan with the inept, mindless approach taken to the portrayal of Tarzan, most of the time, on screen. But there’s a danger of “projecting” all those frustrations onto this production without giving them a fair shake, and in the process creating what could end up being a self-defeating and self-fulfilling prophecy.

    I think the situation with Tarzan is different than it was with John Carter in the following way. John Carter had never been portrayed on the screen. The only legitimate reference point was the books, and there was reason to hold the filmmakers’ feet to the fire regarding fidelity to Burroughs’ original. By contrast, Tarzan has been made into a movie … what … 80 times? If you count the Hindi and other foreign language versions it’s hundreds of times. A case can be made that Tarzan is the single most well-known literary creation in the world. But he’s existed not just in the books, but in all these movies; comic strips; comic books; TV series;l plus everything down to Tarzan bread and Tarzan lunchboxes (I had one).. At some point, the reference is not simply to the books, but to the totality of the icon that exists across all these different media.

    When I consider that context, I just don’t feel quite as intense in my demands for fidelity to the original books — and I’m more focused simply on the character of Tarzan, because it’s that character that has never been satisfactorily presented in movies. If they can get the character right …. that will be a huge step forward. There are so many different ways a film could go ….. or perhaps it’s like the old thing about it not being surprising that a dog walks awkwardly on two hind legs — it’s remarkable that he walks at all that way. To me, it’s remarkable and encouraging that a) the film is set in the same historical period (more or less) as the books, and b) it depicts a Tarzan who by all accounts sounds more like ERB’s Tarzan than virtually any other. I mean … of all the film adaptations, this is the first one that will depict Tarzan as a fully acculturated English lord who leaves civilization and returns to Africa….which is not something we’ve seen before, and is something I’m anxious to see on screen.

    When I read the setup and storyline for this Tarzan — it reminds me to some degree of The Beasts of Tarzan in the way it presents Tarzan in London and Paris, then being drawn back to Africa. For me … I will give Yates lots of credit and lots thanks for picking up on this un-mined aspect of Tarzan.

    (I went back to re-read the beginning of The Beasts of Tarzan to confirm my recollection….think I’ll share it here. This is Burroughs’ Tarzan and it sounds close to what Yates and Skarsgard have cooked up.)

    The Beasts of Tarzan

    Chapter 1


    “The entire affair is shrouded in mystery,” said D’Arnot. “I have it on the best of authority that neither the police nor the special agents of the general staff have the faintest conception of how it was accomplished. All they know, all that anyone knows, is that Nikolas Rokoff has escaped.”

    John Clayton, Lord Greystoke—he who had been “Tarzan of the Apes”—sat in silence in the apartments of his friend, Lieutenant Paul D’Arnot, in Paris, gazing meditatively at the toe of his immaculate boot.

    His mind revolved many memories, recalled by the escape of his arch-enemy from the French military prison to which he had been sentenced for life upon the testimony of the ape-man.

    He thought of the lengths to which Rokoff had once gone to compass his death, and he realized that what the man had already done would doubtless be as nothing by comparison with what he would wish and plot to do now that he was again free.

    Tarzan had recently brought his wife and infant son to London to escape the discomforts and dangers of the rainy season upon their vast estate in Uziri—the land of the savage Waziri warriors whose broad African domains the ape-man had once ruled.

    He had run across the Channel for a brief visit with his old friend, but the news of the Russian’s escape had already cast a shadow upon his outing, so that though he had but just arrived he was already contemplating an immediate return to London.

    “It is not that I fear for myself, Paul,” he said at last. “Many times in the past have I thwarted Rokoff’s designs upon my life; but now there are others to consider. Unless I misjudge the man, he would more quickly strike at me through my wife or son than directly at me, for he doubtless realizes that in no other way could he inflict greater anguish upon me. I must go back to them at once, and remain with them until Rokoff is recaptured—or dead.”

    As these two talked in Paris, two other men were talking together in a little cottage upon the outskirts of London. Both were dark, sinister-looking men.

    One was bearded, but the other, whose face wore the pallor of long confinement within doors, had but a few days’ growth of black beard upon his face. It was he who was speaking.

    “You must needs shave off that beard of yours, Alexis,” he said to his companion. “With it he would recognize you on the instant. We must separate here in the hour, and when we meet again upon the deck of the Kincaid, let us hope that we shall have with us two honoured guests who little anticipate the pleasant voyage we have planned for them.

    “In two hours I should be upon my way to Dover with one of them, and by tomorrow night, if you follow my instructions carefully, you should arrive with the other, provided, of course, that he returns to London as quickly as I presume he will.

    “There should be both profit and pleasure as well as other good things to reward our efforts, my dear Alexis. Thanks to the stupidity of the French, they have gone to such lengths to conceal the fact of my escape for these many days that I have had ample opportunity to work out every detail of our little adventure so carefully that there is little chance of the slightest hitch occurring to mar our prospects. And now good-bye, and good luck!”

    Three hours later a messenger mounted the steps to the apartment of Lieutenant D’Arnot.

    “A telegram for Lord Greystoke,” he said to the servant who answered his summons. “Is he here?”

    The man answered in the affirmative, and, signing for the message, carried it within to Tarzan, who was already preparing to depart for London.

    Tarzan tore open the envelope, and as he read his face went white.

    “Read it, Paul,” he said, handing the slip of paper to D’Arnot. “It has come already.”

    The Frenchman took the telegram and read:

    “Jack stolen from the garden through complicity of new servant. Come at once.—JANE.”

    As Tarzan leaped from the roadster that had met him at the station and ran up the steps to his London town house he was met at the door by a dry-eyed but almost frantic woman.

    Quickly Jane Porter Clayton narrated all that she had been able to learn of the theft of the boy.

    The baby’s nurse had been wheeling him in the sunshine on the walk before the house when a closed taxicab drew up at the corner of the street. The woman had paid but passing attention to the vehicle, merely noting that it discharged no passenger, but stood at the kerb with the motor running as though waiting for a fare from the residence before which it had stopped.

    Almost immediately the new houseman, Carl, had come running from the Greystoke house, saying that the girl’s mistress wished to speak with her for a moment, and that she was to leave little Jack in his care until she returned.

    The woman said that she entertained not the slightest suspicion of the man’s motives until she had reached the doorway of the house, when it occurred to her to warn him not to turn the carriage so as to permit the sun to shine in the baby’s eyes.

    As she turned about to call this to him she was somewhat surprised to see that he was wheeling the carriage rapidly toward the corner, and at the same time she saw the door of the taxicab open and a swarthy face framed for a moment in the aperture.

    Intuitively, the danger to the child flashed upon her, and with a shriek she dashed down the steps and up the walk toward the taxicab, into which Carl was now handing the baby to the swarthy one within.

    Just before she reached the vehicle, Carl leaped in beside his confederate, slamming the door behind him. At the same time the chauffeur attempted to start his machine, but it was evident that something had gone wrong, as though the gears refused to mesh, and the delay caused by this, while he pushed the lever into reverse and backed the car a few inches before again attempting to go ahead, gave the nurse time to reach the side of the taxicab.

    Leaping to the running-board, she had attempted to snatch the baby from the arms of the stranger, and here, screaming and fighting, she had clung to her position even after the taxicab had got under way; nor was it until the machine had passed the Greystoke residence at good speed that Carl, with a heavy blow to her face, had succeeded in knocking her to the pavement.

    Her screams had attracted servants and members of the families from residences near by, as well as from the Greystoke home. Lady Greystoke had witnessed the girl’s brave battle, and had herself tried to reach the rapidly passing vehicle, but had been too late.

    That was all that anyone knew, nor did Lady Greystoke dream of the possible identity of the man at the bottom of the plot until her husband told her of the escape of Nikolas Rokoff from the French prison where they had hoped he was permanently confined.

    As Tarzan and his wife stood planning the wisest course to pursue, the telephone bell rang in the library at their right. Tarzan quickly answered the call in person.

    “Lord Greystoke?” asked a man’s voice at the other end of the line.


    “Your son has been stolen,” continued the voice, “and I alone may help you to recover him. I am conversant with the plot of those who took him. In fact, I was a party to it, and was to share in the reward, but now they are trying to ditch me, and to be quits with them I will aid you to recover him on condition that you will not prosecute me for my part in the crime. What do you say?”

    “If you lead me to where my son is hidden,” replied the ape-man, “you need fear nothing from me.”

    “Good,” replied the other. “But you must come alone to meet me, for it is enough that I must trust you. I cannot take the chance of permitting others to learn my identity.”

    “Where and when may I meet you?” asked Tarzan.

    The other gave the name and location of a public-house on the water-front at Dover—a place frequented by sailors.

    “Come,” he concluded, “about ten o’clock tonight. It would do no good to arrive earlier. Your son will be safe enough in the meantime, and I can then lead you secretly to where he is hidden. But be sure to come alone, and under no circumstances notify Scotland Yard, for I know you well and shall be watching for you.

    “Should any other accompany you, or should I see suspicious characters who might be agents of the police, I shall not meet you, and your last chance of recovering your son will be gone.”

    Without more words the man rang off.

    Tarzan repeated the gist of the conversation to his wife. She begged to be allowed to accompany him, but he insisted that it might result in the man’s carrying out his threat of refusing to aid them if Tarzan did not come alone, and so they parted, he to hasten to Dover, and she, ostensibly to wait at home until he should notify her of the outcome of his mission.

    Little did either dream of what both were destined to pass through before they should meet again, or the far-distant—but why anticipate?

    For ten minutes after the ape-man had left her Jane Clayton walked restlessly back and forth across the silken rugs of the library. Her mother heart ached, bereft of its first-born. Her mind was in an anguish of hopes and fears.

    Though her judgment told her that all would be well were her Tarzan to go alone in accordance with the mysterious stranger’s summons, her intuition would not permit her to lay aside suspicion of the gravest dangers to both her husband and her son.

    The more she thought of the matter, the more convinced she became that the recent telephone message might be but a ruse to keep them inactive until the boy was safely hidden away or spirited out of England. Or it might be that it had been simply a bait to lure Tarzan into the hands of the implacable Rokoff.

    With the lodgment of this thought she stopped in wide-eyed terror. Instantly it became a conviction. She glanced at the great clock ticking the minutes in the corner of the library.

    It was too late to catch the Dover train that Tarzan was to take. There was another, later, however, that would bring her to the Channel port in time to reach the address the stranger had given her husband before the appointed hour.

    Summoning her maid and chauffeur, she issued instructions rapidly. Ten minutes later she was being whisked through the crowded streets toward the railway station.

    It was nine-forty-five that night that Tarzan entered the squalid “pub” on the water-front in Dover. As he passed into the evil-smelling room a muffled figure brushed past him toward the street.

    “Come, my lord!” whispered the stranger.

    The ape-man wheeled about and followed the other into the ill-lit alley, which custom had dignified with the title of thoroughfare. Once outside, the fellow led the way into the darkness, nearer a wharf, where high-piled bales, boxes, and casks cast dense shadows. Here he halted.

    “Where is the boy?” asked Greystoke.

    “On that small steamer whose lights you can just see yonder,” replied the other.

    In the gloom Tarzan was trying to peer into the features of his companion, but he did not recognize the man as one whom he had ever before seen. Had he guessed that his guide was Alexis Paulvitch he would have realized that naught but treachery lay in the man’s heart, and that danger lurked in the path of every move.

    “He is unguarded now,” continued the Russian. “Those who took him feel perfectly safe from detection, and with the exception of a couple of members of the crew, whom I have furnished with enough gin to silence them effectually for hours, there is none aboard the Kincaid. We can go aboard, get the child, and return without the slightest fear.”

    Tarzan nodded.

    “Let’s be about it, then,” he said.

    His guide led him to a small boat moored alongside the wharf. The two men entered, and Paulvitch pulled rapidly toward the steamer. The black smoke issuing from her funnel did not at the time make any suggestion to Tarzan’s mind. All his thoughts were occupied with the hope that in a few moments he would again have his little son in his arms.

    At the steamer’s side they found a monkey-ladder dangling close above them, and up this the two men crept stealthily. Once on deck they hastened aft to where the Russian pointed to a hatch.

    “The boy is hidden there,” he said. “You had better go down after him, as there is less chance that he will cry in fright than should he find himself in the arms of a stranger. I will stand on guard here.”

    So anxious was Tarzan to rescue the child that he gave not the slightest thought to the strangeness of all the conditions surrounding the Kincaid. That her deck was deserted, though she had steam up, and from the volume of smoke pouring from her funnel was all ready to get under way made no impression upon him.

    With the thought that in another instant he would fold that precious little bundle of humanity in his arms, the ape-man swung down into the darkness below. Scarcely had he released his hold upon the edge of the hatch than the heavy covering fell clattering above him.

    Instantly he knew that he was the victim of a plot, and that far from rescuing his son he had himself fallen into the hands of his enemies. Though he immediately endeavoured to reach the hatch and lift the cover, he was unable to do so.

    Striking a match, he explored his surroundings, finding that a little compartment had been partitioned off from the main hold, with the hatch above his head the only means of ingress or egress. It was evident that the room had been prepared for the very purpose of serving as a cell for himself.

    There was nothing in the compartment, and no other occupant. If the child was on board the Kincaid he was confined elsewhere.

    For over twenty years, from infancy to manhood, the ape-man had roamed his savage jungle haunts without human companionship of any nature. He had learned at the most impressionable period of his life to take his pleasures and his sorrows as the beasts take theirs.

    So it was that he neither raved nor stormed against fate, but instead waited patiently for what might next befall him, though not by any means without an eye to doing the utmost to succour himself. To this end he examined his prison carefully, tested the heavy planking that formed its walls, and measured the distance of the hatch above him.

    And while he was thus occupied there came suddenly to him the vibration of machinery and the throbbing of the propeller.

    The ship was moving! Where to and to what fate was it carrying him?

    And even as these thoughts passed through his mind there came to his ears above the din of the engines that which caused him to go cold with apprehension.

    Clear and shrill from the deck above him rang the scream of a frightened woman.

  • He can talk all he wants to about how well written and smart the new movie will be, how physically demanding, how much integrity it is going to have, and any of a dozen things, and I honestly am not as impressed as I would be if he simply said, “I, the writers, and the director have read (at least) the first two “Tarzan” novels, and we have determined that we are going to portray Tarzan in such a way that Edgar Rice Burroughs and the fans of his books will finally recognize the character the way that he was written.”

    Of all the actors who have played the role of Tarzan, either in the movies or on television, to my knowledge, only one, Ron Ely, ever mentioned reading the books and at least trying to play the part as closely as the writers and directors would allow.

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