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Big Little Lies’ Alexander Skarsgård on How He Sees Perry and Why That Finale Scene Was Like a Nature Documentary

Spoilers ahead for the Big Little Lies finale.

Alexander Skarsgård read all seven scripts of Big Little Lies and the novel before HBO’s hit mini-series began filming, so he not only knew Perry’s fate in the finale but also that he’s even more disturbed than it seemed for most of the series. The domestic abuser, who also turns out to be Jane’s rapist, was one of the most challenging characters of Skarsgård’s career.

Speaking from a break in production from Netflix’s Hold the Dark, which is filming in Calgary, Skarsgård said he is looking forward to bingeing the series to see Perry take his final tumble at the hands of the show’s five lead actresses. He also spoke about working with Nicole Kidman on those long, painful abuse scenes, his feelings toward Perry, and the fun he had getting beat up by Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, and Zoë Kravitz in his final moments on the show.

Tell me what attracted you to the role and whether your opinion of Perry changed at all as you filmed the series?
First of all, I thought it was a great script. I wasn’t familiar with the book, but I thought it had a beautiful and very unique tone. I felt that it was funny and light and camp in moments, and then it got into some really dark, disturbing territory, and then back to funny. It was like an emotional roller coaster in a way, and I was really intrigued by Perry and his relationship to Celeste. He didn’t feel like the stereotypical abusive husband. It felt richer than that. It felt like a character that could also be very sweet and sensitive, and someone who’s genuinely struggling with his demons. I was just really fascinated by that. And then talking to Jean-Marc, I got even more excited about exploring that.

Did you have any opinions about him? Like you said, he’s not the typical spouse-abuser we see on TV. But in therapy he revealed himself to be more vulnerable, or at least able to see he has a huge problem. As you went along, did you empathize with him?Absolutely. Playing him, it was important for me to understand him, and to understand his struggles and his demons. He doesn’t want to be a bad guy. It’s not like he set out to be an abusive husband. And he appreciates how fortunate he is. He’s got this gorgeous wife, beautiful kids, an amazing home, a great job. On the surface, it’s a dream life. And also that’s the introduction for the audience into this world and these characters, where you sit back and go, oh, yeah. I want that. Until you realize, oh no, I probably don’t. In the beginning, maybe you even understand him, or you feel like he wants to change, and maybe he can. You can relate to Celeste even more and understand her, because she fell in love with the other Perry. And he’s still there, and he’ll still be a great dad and loving husband. But there’s a switch, and sometimes it just goes dark and he’s someone else, and I thought it was interesting that it’s almost like she blames herself for it. Because their sex life is violent — there’s a line between rough sex and abuse — and she blames herself because it takes two to tango. But it’s one thing to like it in the bedroom, and then when it flips for him, it’s something completely different. But it makes it more difficult for her to just move on, take the kids and leave him, because she feels partly responsible and she feels that she still loves him. He’s still — in 23 hours and 50 minutes out of the day — the best husband in the world. It was really interesting because it makes it so difficult for her to accept the fact that she can’t change this guy. Like, I have to move on and leave him. I’m not responsible for this, and I can’t change him.

What about the revelation that he raped Jane? Whatever happens with him and Celeste is not just a function of their dynamic. There’s something about him that’s really wrong. How did you feel when you got to that?
I had read all the scripts before we started shooting, and I read the novel as well, so I knew. I was familiar with the backstory and the flashbacks, and that obviously helped me in understanding Perry and these demons. It’s not a new thing. It’s not something that popped up in the last year or two. He’s been dealing with this and trying to escape them for many, many years. He tried to physically leave it behind and move to a new place and start a new life, find a new woman. But he can’t. He’s irredeemable. He can’t move on.

When I spoke with Nicole Kidman a few weeks ago, she talked about how hard it was to film the fight scenes and that she often went home with bruises and didn’t feel that great. How was it for you? I know Jean-Marc doesn’t rehearse a lot. There’s a lot of filming on the fly, just trying to see where everybody lands.
It was very tough, yeah. It was emotionally draining. Working with Jean-Marc [Vallée], it’s a great way to shoot. It’s fun. And you feel very liberated and free as an actor because he doesn’t rehearse much. It’s not traditional filmmaking. It’s not your coverage, and then they turn around and it’s your co-star’s coverage. It’s all handheld, all existing lights, which is wonderful. It feels more like you’re in a play, in a way, where you have the floor to yourself and can really explore it. But it also meant you have to commit in every single take, and you shoot the scene from the first to the last second. You go through the whole thing, the whole emotional journey. So, it’s very exhausting, and fortunately Nicole and I got to spend some time before starting the project to get to know each other and to build that trust because it’s incredibly important, when you shoot physical and emotional scenes like that, that you feel like you have a good partner, that you really genuinely trust each other, and that you’re in it together. And, we have that. Even at the end of the day, and obviously in-between takes, to really check in with each other and make sure that we were okay. But it was tough. It was very tough. They’re horrible scenes to shoot. I agree with Nicole. It wasn’t like you could just shake it off and go home. It was very difficult.

When you first started out, did you hesitate at all? Did you have difficulty trying to land it the first time you had to be violent toward her?
Not really, because we shot somewhat in a chronological order so it escalated, which helped. It would’ve been tough to start with those very violent scenes. But we started with the sweet stuff with the kids, and them being in love and it was nice. And then slowly we got into the more abusive stuff. At the beginning, it was more a look or a grab and a warning. And then it escalated, and I think that really helped in building that relationship. By the time we got to the really horrible stuff, we were already two, three months into production.

Do you remember what the hardest part of it was for you? Was there any scene or anything you remember that was just really, really hard for you?
Yeah, I had to throw Nicole across a room and slap her and beat her and throw her up against the wall and over a chair. It was a long sequence around the bedroom where they would just use little snippets of it for flashbacks and memories. But we’d have to shoot it in one long sequence and that was very tough to shoot because it was emotional and very violent. So, yeah, I did not enjoy that.

I’d like to talk about the filming of Perry’s death scene. The way it was edited, we see glimpses of what happens, edited with other footage, so we don’t see it completely. We see him fighting with the women and Bonnie pushing him. And then we see him collapsed on the stairs. Can you walk me through the filming of that scene?
It’s almost like a collective effort. Reading it made me think of like a nature documentary where you see a larger predator being taken down by a group of smaller predators, where they collectively attack him from all angles. [Laughs.] He could take them down one-on-one, but as a group, it just exhausts him. It’s too many of them. It’s like when you set a bunch of dogs on a bear. That’s what I envisioned when I read it, where he gets in there and he tries to grab his wife to get her out of there, and then suddenly they’re all over him, and one is on his back, and he shakes her off, and then someone else attacks his leg and he shakes her off, but it’s relentless and they’re fierce and they just won’t stop and they finally take him down. So, Bonnie might be the one who finally pushes him down the stairs, but it’s definitely a collective effort. And they all felt like they did it together and they share that secret.

Where was that party filmed?
It was filmed in Los Angeles. I can’t remember the name of the place, but it’s like in East Hollywood or maybe Los Feliz. It’s this weird little place up on the hill, off of Hollywood Boulevard or Sunset Boulevard. There’s some gallery up there, this school up on a hill, with a beautiful view.

How long did you shoot there?
We were up there for like two weeks, two weeks of nights.

You spent two weeks dressed as Elvis?
Yep. [Laughs.]

But what about the fight with the women and Perry’s death?Maybe two or three days. I think it was all meant to be four nights, or something like that. But it’s obviously the climax of the entire show, and every single character is there so it took longer. But it was also really exciting because it’s such an incredible cast and 90 percent of my scenes are in the house with Nicole, so it was fun to get out of the house and get an opportunity to work with Laura Dern and Zoë Kravitz. I had worked with Shailene a bit before, and with Reese as well, but this was an opportunity to work with everyone. I enjoy night shoots because there’s a lot of sitting around, bullshitting, the entire city’s sleeping, and we had a lot of fun up there. Up until they killed me.

One of the best moments in that scene is when Jane realizes who Perry is and you both look at each other. It was so good. You both nailed it.
Oh, thank you. That means a lot because it’s a very, very important moment for us. It’s a very important realization. I can’t wait to see it.

How long were they beating on you?
For a while. [Laughs.] We did the whole lead-up and the conversation and the standoff. It was one night where we shot the actual violent aspect of it, where they all really physically attack me and push me down the stairs.

Sounds like that was exciting for you.
It was! It’s so fierce and so primal so I was pretty stoked about shooting it that way. I loved the idea of that being the ending of how it all went down.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Big Little Lies’ Alexander Skarsgård on How He Sees Perry