Grey cashmere sweater Billy Reid — Black wool distressed overcoat Thom Browne

With his undeniable Scandinavian good looks, Alexander Skarsgård achieved “heartthrob” status playing a lady-killing (in every sense of the word) vampire in HBO’s True Blood and solidified it last summer as jungle hunk Tarzan. But with his ability to explore the emotional depths of even his most swoon-worthy characters, Skarsgård always creates just as much substance as surface, which is why, these days, the actor is a bona fide movie star.

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There is at least one person on the planet that thinks watching a sex scene featuring Alexander Skarsgård is “very boring,” and that person is Alexander Skarsgård. “I’m emotionally detached from it. I’m like, ‘Why did I do that? That was a weird choice. I could have done that better.’” With his quintessentially Scandinavian good looks and a body that’s kept in excellent shape even when he isn’t in full-blown Tarzan mode, it’s easy to see why plenty of people swoon every time the 39-year old Swede takes his shirt off. However, it’s this constant self-evaluation that makes him more than just another handsome actor with good abs. Still, at 6’4”, it’s hard to ignore Skarsgård’s physical presence. It’s an asset when it comes to roles like Tarzan and Eric Northman, True Blood’s hunkiest Vampire, and a detriment when it comes to blending in with a crowd, something that becomes increasingly more difficult as his star continues to rise. Despite his acting pedigree (his father is the phenomenal Stellan Skarsgård), success wasn’t handed to Alexander, which may account for why he boasts a certain maturity not typically exhibited by actors who blew up overnight.

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But growing up in Södermalm, an island in South Stockholm, it wasn’t as if being his father’s son didn’t have its perks when it came to breaking into the industry. The trouble was, Skarsgård had no interest in breaking into the industry. “I didn’t really want to be an actor. Allen Edwall, dad’s friend who passed away some years ago, was an amazing actor/director. He was hanging out and drinking wine at our place and was like, ‘I need a 7-year-old boy for my movie’ and then he’s like, ‘Hey, you’ve got one right here!’” But unlike Dad, Skarsgård didn’t take to acting, or rather, the attention that came along with it. After achieving local notoriety for his role in the hit Swedish show The Dog That Smiled, the budding actor retired at the ripe age of 13. “It’s a fucking awkward age. You’re going from a boy to a man and you have no fucking idea what’s going on and to be in the spotlight during that transformation was not great for me. I just wanted to blend in and be like everyone else.” He didn’t even like the leg up it gave him with the young ladies. “I couldn’t take a compliment. If a girl looked at me at school I assumed it was because she liked the show I was in.” So Skarsgård quit acting, a decision he describes as “easy.” However, once he completed school and served eighteen months in the Swedish military, finding a vocation to take its place wasn’t quite so simple.

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Like most 21-year-olds, Skarsgård, who was living in Leeds, England at the time, was a little lost. “I felt like I wasn’t good at anything. I was trying to figure out what to do and I was thinking about acting again and thinking how I kind of enjoyed it as a kid. The reason I quit was everything around it.” When he moved to New York to attend Marymount College, a theatre school on New York’s Upper East Side, his expectations were low. As he tells it, it was less a gut-wrenching dream and more a matter of crossing “actor” off his list of potential career options (another occupation on that list was architect, though he nixed that idea when he discovered how much math was involved). But this time, acting stuck. “I really loved it.” He takes a long pause. “Loved it enough to drop out and move back to Sweden.” Skarsgård didn’t have time for school; he had a career to attend to. And just like that he came out of retirement. True to form, the actor’s first American role came serendipitously and with a little help from dad. The born-again actor was visiting Stellan, who was shooting in LA, when Stellan’s manager asked if he would be interesting in going on an audition. “I thought it would be a fun story to tell back home. ‘Fucking hell, I went to Hollywood and went on an audition.” Much to his surprise, he landed the small but iconic part: an Orange Mocha Frappucino drinking male model named Meekus in beloved fashion world parody Zoolander. However, once Skarsgård relocated to LA for good, Hollywood wasn’t quite so welcoming.

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I was like, ‘It’s super easy! You just walk in and Ben Stiller is in the room and two weeks later you’re in Tribeca, riding down Broadway in a jeep.’” Instead, he became the town’s most common cliché, an out-of-work actor, for three years, before landing a role in celebrated mini-series Generation Kill. He’s been working steadily ever since, largely in indie flicks like The East and Melancholia. Now that he’s carried a summer blockbuster, there is no question that Skarsgård is a bona fide movie star, but in the wake of Tarzan, there is also another term being thrown around: sex symbol, a phrase first associated with the actor back when True Blood was at peak popularity. Just as 13-year old Skarsgård squirmed under the attention of his female classmates, movie star Skarsgård can’t quite own the lofty title, even if he occasionally looks the part. “I honestly don’t think about it much. I think vanity is creative suicide. If you start to believe the hype and think that you’re a ‘sex symbol,’ that can affect you in choosing characters and in the way you play them.” It would be easy to call bullshit on this response (what man wouldn’t want to be called a sex symbol?), but we’re convinced by the way he laughs nervously when he says the words. He continues: “I want to be completely open when I read a script and start to embark on that journey of discovering who that character is. If I feel like the guy should have a moustache, I have to follow that instinct.” The moustache instinct kicked in when sculpting the character of Monroe, a sleazy deadbeat who sleeps with his girlfriend’s teenaged daughter in last year’s indie hit The Diary of a Teenage Girl. If that isn’t an unsexy role, we don’t know what is. Anyway, lately he seems content with the attention of just one woman: girlfriend Alexa Chung.

Black double-breasted cotton trench Juun.J — White cotton Henley Greg Lauren

Black double-breasted cotton trench Juun.J — White cotton Henley Greg Lauren

Skarsgård isn’t your regular genetically blessed actor going out of his way to show audiences he’s more than just a pretty face. Though it sounds cliché, for him it really is all about the work. “It’s not about proving to people something like, ‘Look at me, I’m a real actor so I want to play this dark character now. I’ll play this guy who’s not very attractive.’ It’s about making sure that I fucking enjoy every job and every creative journey.” This year, Skarsgård will have plenty of opportunities to flex his acting chops rather than his muscles. First he stars opposite Michael Peña in War on Everyone, a buddy cop dark comedy in which he portrays an officer who doesn’t exactly play by the book. “He’s constantly drunk, beats people up, steals their money, does blow with criminals in bathroom stalls… I enjoyed that challenge: make this guy a fucking nutcase, but likable.” Then he’s back on the small screen, starring opposite Nicole Kidman in Jean Marc Valée’s Big Little Lies, a series that surrounds an affluent group of families whose lives unravel following a murder. For our photo shoot, we offered Skarsgård yet another opportunity to blend physicality with theatricality by embodying a modernized Hamlet. This movie star is no stranger to the stage — he worked in a Swedish theatre company for several years — and as he tossed chairs around the studio as if they were fashioned from paper, it was evident that when all is said and done, acting is simply in Skarsgård’s blood.

Black wool overcoat Alexander McQueen — White cotton t-shirt Greg Lauren — Navy oversize wool trousers Juun.J — Navy silk scarf Burberry

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Words Allyson Shiffman — Photography Hunter & Gatti — Creative Direction Jakob F.S. — Styling Alicia Lombardini — Grooming Charlie Taylor / Tracey Mattingly — Manicure Alicia Torello / The Wall Group — Digital Tech Juan Carlos Zorrilla — Photo Assistants Ace Buhr & Clifton Prescod — Lighting Assistants Allison Retina & Josh McCaghren — Fashion Assistants Sarah Alkhaled & Alexa Levine — Tailor Sharon E. Clarke / Lars Nord Studio — Location Sunset Studios Brooklyn — Retouch The Sharp Line — Thanks to Molly & Liz / ID-PR