Stellan Skarsgård: Going for the Grand Slam in Borg vs. McEnroe

November 14, 2017
The veteran Swedish actor chimes in on his role as Lennart Bergelin, Bjorn Borg's devoted tennis coach, in Borg vs. McEnroe.

Did you know Bjorn Borg at the time the film is set?

I didn’t know him, I met him years later for the first time. At that time he was living in Monaco, because of tax reasons, which didn’t go down well in Sweden.

We like to build our heroes up so tall and then enjoy pulling them down. Is that what happened to Borg?

I don’t think he needed any help, but the problem is that he was the biggest sports hero in Sweden ever – he still is. He didn’t have the tools to handle that kind of fame, no one did because there wasn’t an industry to do that. He quit school when he was 16 and his whole life was just tennis. He didn’t know anything about anything else, meaning that you’re not really fit for this life.

Was the role exciting for you because you were able to play a countryman?

It was nice to play in Swedish, but that wasn’t the reason. I read the script and got interested, because I’m not interested in sports films, per se. I was interested because this was dealing with richer human material than they usually do, which caught my interest. I met with the director [ Janus Metz Pedersen] and he started talking about what he wanted to do, and what he wanted to express with the film, and all of that to me was interesting. I saw that he had the strength and persistency to actually do something interesting. That’s why I took the role. I have done one Swedish film in 20 years.

Have you ever been tempted to move to Los Angeles, or are you happy enough being in Sweden and London? [Laughs] I’m so happy being in Sweden. Sweden is a brilliant country, the most emancipated country in the world. Even when I’m in England I feel like I’m in a sexy old fashioned place, the attitude towards children is much different than Sweden. The European thing with the welfare state and taxes, I love it. It has been undermined now severely because of a couple decades of ne liberalism and we are paying for it more and more. Sweden is still probably the best place in the world to live, especially if you’re like me and have eight children: good healthcare, good childcare, free schools and universities.

Did Borg give the film his blessing at all?

Yeah, I met him at the premiere, and he was so happy. He was very happy with it.

Has he become a humble person, or is he still the Borg that we remember?

He has always been a humble person, very Scandinavian in that sense. After Borg quit at the age of 26, he was a guy that had no puberty, he had no life, it had only been tennis, didn’t finish school, never read a book. 26 years old, world famous millionaire, all the vultures descend on you.

You got into your career at a very young age too – is this all that you have ever done?

When I was 16 I was extremely famous, like a rock star in Sweden. But I had a very big and funny family that made it clear to me very early on, that I should be led on to believe who they think I am. So the difference between my person and the public figure that I was, I have been constantly trying to undermine the gap between the two. It’s still like that, I love my work, but it’s not my life. The best job I have done in my life is raising eight children. They are good together, they have fun together, and it’s the best thing I’ve done. That means I am not vulnerable to the hazards of fame.

Your character, Lennart Bergelin, is deceased, but you spoke to his wife. Was there anything interesting that she told you?

I didn’t speak to her until one week before the opening. I rang her up and apologised, because I was playing her husband, but not her husband. She is 90 years old, a very funny woman. When you play someone that has lived, reality has to take a step back because it’s fiction that you’re doing. Even if you do a documentary, it’s still fiction in a way, it’s subjective, just depends on the angle. What I do is to mainly serve the film. There are two things that you need to be careful of when you do these films. Firstly, don’t hurt anybody. Secondly, don’t rewrite the facts of history.

How can you avoid hurting someone when they haven’t exactly been the best person in their life?

In this film, we have several people who are still alive. The portrait of Borg isn’t overly flattering, but Borg was very happy anyway. It tells a very distinct part of Borg’s life, and there’s a level of truth in it.

What’s your own tennis game like?

My tennis game… in Our Kind of Traitor, the John le Carre film, I had two tennis games that I had to play in the script. So, I started training, and I trained for months, but when we started I still couldn’t hit the ball. My tennis is really bad. I’m not good at any sports. Chess maybe.

Didn’t this all sort of raise a generation of kids that wanted to be tennis stars?

Oh it did. After Borg there were some really good Swedish tennis players. They dominated tennis for years; all the kids started playing tennis. It’s failed now.

Were you like that?

No I’m hopeless. It scares the shit out of me, seeing a ball coming towards me.

 

Borg vs. McEnroe is in cinemas from Thursday, November 16, 2017. Check out our review here.

 

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