Bonding over a love of beer helped John Michael McDonagh cast Alexander Skarsgard in his new film

John Michael McDonagh bonded with Alexander Skarsgard through a shared sense of humour and a love of beer, writes Helen Barlow
Bonding over a love of beer helped John Michael McDonagh cast Alexander Skarsgard in his new film

WHEN Alexander Skarsgard had finished swinging through trees and depriving himself in order to play Tarzan, he was ready for a few laughs. And John Michael McDonagh (The Guard, Calvary) was just the man to provide them.

When the Swedish actor read the first 10 pages of McDonagh’s screenplay for the London-Irish director’s first US movie, War on Everyone, he had to read it again. He couldn’t believe it. His dry Scandinavian humour was perfect for the role of Terry, a corrupt heavy drinking New Mexico cop who with his buddy cop Bob, Michael Pena, will do anything to anyone to make a quick buck.

As one might imagine with the irascible McDonagh, who once told me, “I’m the more commercial cigar-chomping brother”, to Martin, his more playwright sibling (who also directed In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths), the casting process was far from conventional. In fact, he saw Skarsgard sozzled on social media and knew he was a man he could rely on.

“I continued my casting remit of only hiring actors who like a good booze-up. Brendan [Gleeson], Don Cheadle, Mark Strong, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Caleb Landry Jones, Tessa Thompson — they’ll never say no to a few pints. I actually cast Alexander not because of his great performances in Melancholia, Disconnect or What Maisie Knew, but because I saw a YouTube video of him drunk at a Hammarby football match trying to incite the crowd.”

At the Berlin Film Festival, where the film premiered, I asked Skarsgard whether this was true.

“I don’t know how he found that, but he saw a clip of me at a football game in Sweden when I went with my friends. I was singing and there was something about that energy that he liked.”

Were you drunk?

“Yeah I was probably pretty drunk,” he sniggers.

How much does it take to get you drunk?

“I weigh 98kg so it takes quite a bit.”

Like so many Europeans, the 1.94m, 40-year-old had served in the military. A running gag in the film is that he can flatten someone effortlessly.

“Instead of it being long choreographed fight sequences, it’s just a lot of posturing, then one hit and it’s over! There’s an obvious comedy aspect of that happening three times in the movie. I don’t think I’ve played a character like Terry before and I was really excited about it.”

His co-star Pena, the 40 year-old Hollywood actor who was awards-nominated for his gritty portrayal of a very different kind of cop in End of Watch, knows a thing or two about policing.

“My brother’s a cop and there’s a good percentage of good cops over bad cops,” says the son of Mexican farmers who emigrated to Chicago.

Like his co-star he responded to McDonagh’s distinctive blend of comedy and drama, and his ability to switch between the two in the blink of an eye.

“The way John shoots, the tempo of it, seems very much like a European film with American actors,” Pena says. “I didn’t want to make it too American. It’s very different to any kind of American humour, like Ant-Man [where he voiced Luis) was very American and very specific. Watching American movies or NCIS didn’t help with this kind of movie.

“Watching John Michael McDonagh’s movies was the best preparation, because I’d never really seen movies like this where people just don’t give a fuck.”

BUTCH AND THE SWEENEY

“The Sweeney was a reference,” says Skarsgard, who has a clearer reference of where McDonagh is coming from, though he refers to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid too, as the 1969 film shares the banter, the tone and dynamics of those British shows from the 70s, the classic bad cop/bad cop.

“War on Everyone is such a good title because they insult everyone and even if they do horrific things, you root for these guys. In terms of police brutality there’s no racial profiling. It’s not like they target the rich or poor or people of colour. They insult and fuck-up everyone, be they Jew or Muslim or Irish. They just want some money.”

For all his ability to swing through the trees though it seems that Skarsgard can’t dance. “When I saw that dance with Tessa made me realise what a horrific dancer I am,” the slightly awkward star admits.

War on Everyone was shot near Albuquerque, New Mexico. “I wanted it to have the feel of a contemporary western and to use the light, the widescreen look of the place,” says McDonagh. “I knew it would be a great counterpoint to when the pair take off to Iceland [for the final scenes] when it’s all chilly blue.”

McDonagh says he made the film in the US because of the tax breaks and was not interested in providing an outsider’s point of view.

John Michael McDonagh
John Michael McDonagh

“I just like to make a kind of crazy anarchic black comedy. It’s a good time fun movie and hopefully the more times you watch it you realise there’s more things going on,” he says.

Though it turns out he’s fed up with writing his own original screenplays as he has done in the past, because it’s “too much boring work”. Actually he’s just plain fed up.

“People talk about writers having some sort of glamorous exciting life but you’re alone in a fucking room. Now I want to find books where other authors have done all the work. In fact I don’t want to work at all. That’s what I aiming towards. I’m trying to save up enough money to go and retire to Australia at about the age of 55, so I’ve got about six years left. I just don’t want to engage any more with anybody.

“The thing is when I was young it was the only thing I was any good at. So I had to persevere with it basically. I kept getting fired from jobs I didn’t want to do anyway. I do consider other scripts but I find other people don’t write as well as I do.

“I know that sounds really arrogant but especially in Hollywood you get sent a lot of really bad scripts.”

McDonagh really isn’t enamoured with some of the material he sees. “Any actor will tell you, you specifically get American scripts sent to you that are all written as if by a 24 year-old virgin who’s just got out of USC Film School and they live in Orange County in their mother’s basement. They all read like that and they’re always crap.

“They’ve all read the manuals. The lead character he’s 30 and he’s devastatingly handsome but nobody goes, ‘He’s 50, he’s as ugly as shit’. They never do that.”

McDonagh is set to shoot an eight-part mini series for the more liberal cable network HBO and says he has two American scripts at various stages of development. One is Assumption, his adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel about a black deputy sheriff in New Mexico.

He also has to make The Lame Shall Enter First, the third part of his trilogy with Brendan Gleeson that started with The Guard and Calvary. It follows a paraplegic ex-policeman.

“I might write it next summer. I’ve got most of it in my head,” McDonagh acknowledges. It will mostly be set in London. As I’m saying there’s so much work it’s already upsetting me.”

  • War On Everyone opens tomorrow

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