The prolific Swedish character actor, best known for feeding Steve Buscemi to a woodchipper in ‘Fargo’, talks to Adam White about psychic powers, Disneyland, and why choosing movies is a bit like being in Oasis
Peter Stormare had a premonition. This was more than six decades ago, before he famously fed Steve Buscemi into a woodchipper in Fargo; before he gruffly helped Bruce Willis blow up an asteroid in Armageddon; before he discreetly became one of cinema’s most prolific and dependable character actors. This was during his boyhood in Sweden, back when he’d wander the streets of his hometown with Bible in hand, greeting neighbours with the Lord’s blessings.
“I was five years old and I told my parents I was going to live in California, close to Disneyland,” he remembers, his accent thick with Euro kindliness. “I said, ‘I think I’m gonna work in movies.’ Whether it was a premonition or a dream, I had a feeling inside of me. I never told anybody else that I wasn’t going to stay long in Sweden. I was going to take off for the US. Whether in theatre or movies or not, I had to leave because it was in my body, like someone had told me deep inside. Like a voice within.” He shifts, and seems to become one with the voice. “One day, you’re going to leave. Just wait for the right moment, I’ll let you know when it’s time.”
Stormare is calling from Hollywood. He’s lived in Los Angeles since 1997, having first reached America – via New York, initially – in 1990. Considering his devilish, mischievous face – sharp beard, sleepy eyes, that marvellous Roman nose – and how often it’s been used to embody abject villainy on-screen, Stormare is surprisingly gentle. Sitting in front of a slatted cabinet decorated with photographs of his two daughters, fussing over his headphones (“These are too ugly, I’m gonna swap!”), the 68-year-old is paternal and suburban. Endearingly so.
Then again, why wouldn’t he be? Stormare is the epitome of a “Hey, it’s that guy!” actor. You will have seen him in dozens of films, loved his work, yet probably not know his name. You will recognise him as the nihilistic porn star in The Big Lebowski (1998). Or the antichrist in Constantine (2005). Or the factory worker to whom Björk sings on the train tracks in Dancer in the Dark (2000). But you don’t actually know an actor like Peter Stormare. Off-screen, he could be absolutely anything. So when he rocks up for an interview looking like your dad, and pulls you down conversational rabbit holes about Jesus, UFOs and urinating next to Robin Williams… sure, why not?
Stormare is not talking about the new film he’s in. It’s called The Obscure Life of the Grand Duke of Corsica, and stars Timothy Spall as a British architect asked to design a mausoleum for a terminally ill eccentric played by Stormare. None of the journalists speaking to him have been allowed to see the film, making it hard to chat about it. So we don’t. But in general, can he tell when he’s working on a good movie? On a Fargo and not a – ahem – Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters?
“I think it’s like being one of the Oasis brothers,” he begins. “What are their names? Neil and Graham?” Liam and Noel. “Liam and Noel! It’s like they think every song they do will become the biggest hit ever, you know? And then it turns out it didn’t even end up on the charts. But in everything you do, you go in with passion. You go in with heart and you try to believe this can become something really, really cool.”
He does have a preference for a low-budget affair, though. “Sometimes they turn out to be really small little hits, and sometimes they just disappear. But it’s nice to be away from the big machinery of Hollywood, where there’s like 300 people surrounding you and everything is paint-by-numbers.” He jumps back a metaphor. “It’s more fun to start your own little band, or to be in a band that never had a hit before.”
Independent movies have also rescued him from typecasting. Stormare likes to boast that he only made it in Hollywood because he arrived at a time when films had embraced the ambiguously European villain again. That’s why he’s played so many Russian/German/whatever killers over the years, always tangling with the Willises, Cages and Travoltas of the world. “If you’re European in Hollywood, you’re either playing mad scientists or some goon,” he jokes. “The beginning was hard. I was always European. They didn’t want to cast me as American because they were afraid the audience wouldn’t believe it. In smaller movies or on TV, they don’t care.”
Embracing indies has meant he’s needed to supplement his tiny salaries with an occasional – and far more lucrative – TV advert at home. He doesn’t mind too much. As it happens, he’s just flown back into Los Angeles from filming one in Sweden, for what sounds like a Scandi variant of Homebase. “But don’t tell anybody,” he whispers.
While the young Stormare was sure he’d end up working in movies, it took him a while to actively pursue it. After moving to Stockholm from the small town of Arbrå in his early twenties, he began working in the prop departments of the Royal Dramatic Theatre and on local television. Roped in to act on the show – a sketch comedy series called Hur Bär Du Dig Åt, Människa?! – Stormare realised he had a knack for it. He decided to properly train, and quickly became one of the Royal Dramatic Theatre’s most acclaimed actors, appearing in productions of Hamlet, Miss Julie and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Theatre took him around the world, to New York – where he made a cameo in Awakenings (1990), his first English-language film – and then to Tokyo and back again. After being cast in Fargo in 1996, US movie work poured in. Despite the sheer number of classic movies on his resume, though, Stormare has barely seen anything he’s made.
“Just excerpts,” he says. “It’s like, you don’t want to hear yourself on tape, or see yourself in a photo. We tend to see all the negative things in our appearance. When I see myself on film, I only see a giant beak and a giant jaw. And, you know, that I walk kind of silly. You just see the ugly things about yourself.”
Whether he’s watched them or not, those movies have defined a life worlds away from the priesthood he was also tempted by as a child. He doesn’t know why he was drawn to religion, just like he doesn’t know why he was so certain he’d end up in America. But he gets those strange stirrings a lot – unexplained instincts, or voices guiding him to certain places. His mother had them, too.
“She was kind of spiritual and psychic,” he says. “It came down from her father and then passed down to me, and hopefully one of my two daughters will have that gift, too. It can be draining, but most of the time it’s very rewarding.”
Is he a spiritual man? “I have my own chapel within my body,” he says. “As Jesus Christ said, you don’t have to go to church, you are your own temple.” He says he doesn’t necessarily believe in a god. “But there is something out there, a big force that created all this. I get asked whether I believe in aliens and UFOs, and I say, yeah, because it’s more fun to believe than just to be a naysayer to everything. I pity people who don’t believe in anything, or believe that you die and everything becomes black. Well, you can believe that, but I’m gonna sit with John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix and have some good-good whiskey between us and talk and play guitar together.”
He says he’s “well prepped” for his own death as a result, but that might also be because he’s acted out practically every fatal scenario imaginable. If there’s one thing that seems to link Stormare’s otherwise disparate characters, it’s that they always seem to end up dead. He remembers one of his daughters showing him a YouTube supercut of all of his death scenes, from being eaten by tiny dinosaurs in The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), to being shot in the head by Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Last Stand (2013). The montage somehow runs four minutes long. He claims that, for his death in the TV series Prison Break, he wore the highest ever amount of “squibs” – those tiny blood-pack explosives strapped to an actor’s chest whenever they’re shot on camera.
“Bad Boys II is a pretty good death,” he adds. “That’s Michael Bay – he knows how to shoot death.” The scene involved his character being pumped with lead by a swarm of FBI agents, then tumbling back into a fountain. “I think I had around 100 squibs there,” Stormare says, stroking his beard. “Yeah, that’s a nice death.”
And with that, I’m told to wrap up. I have one last question, though. That premonition of his – did he ever make it to Disneyland in the end? “Absolutely! After I moved here, I flew my mother and father over first class.” Stormare paid for them to stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel, in the room always favoured by Marilyn Monroe – his mother’s idol – and then took them to the happiest place on earth. He also made sure they had VIP tickets, so they could bypass all the queues.
“It’s the only time I’ve seen my father crying,” Stormare says. “He was sitting on a bench just outside the Space Mountain, with tears in his eyes, and he said, ‘How the hell could you know about this when you were five years old?’ I said, ‘I really don’t know… I just knew.’ So I was able to do that and, yeah, prove to them that I was right all along.” He cracks a cheeky smile. “They should have listened to me more.”
‘The Obscure Life of the Grand Duke of Corsica’ is in cinemas now