A Swedish actor who has become known to American audiences thanks to roles in Breaking the Waves and Good Will Hunting, Stellan Skarsgård is one of Scandinavia's best-known and most well-respected performers. Renowned for giving measured characterizations that draw their strength from a delicate complexity, Skarsgård is one of those rare actors who is able to do strong work regardless of the quality of the material he is in, displaying the sort of quiet fortitude that allows him to survive even the worst screen fiascos.
Born in Gothenburg on June 13, 1951, Skarsgård became a star in his country, when, as a teenager, he was cast on the TV series Bombi Bitt och jag. After his film debut in 1972, he did years of stage work with Stockholm's Royal Dramatic and made a number of dramas with the director Hans Alfredson, the most notable of which, Den Enfaldige Mordaren, featured Skarsgård in a Silver Berlin Bear-winning performance as a misunderstood man with a deformity. In 1988, Skarsgård got a tentative introduction to a transatlantic audience with a small role in Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being; two years later, he had a similarly minor role in another international hit, The Hunt for Red October.
Skarsgård's true international breakthrough came courtesy of his role as Emily Watson's husband in Lars Von Trier's highly acclaimed Breaking the Waves (1996). The actor more than held his own opposite Watson, who gave one of the year's most lauded performances, and he found previously unimagined opportunities available to him in Hollywood. In 1997, he starred as a frustrated mathematician in Gus Van Sant's award-winning Good Will Hunting and was also featured in Steven Spielberg's Amistad; his work in both films culminated in an Outstanding European Achievement in World Cinema award from the European Film Academy. Later that same year, the actor appeared in My Son the Fanatic as a German businessman with the unfortunate surname of Schitz -- he also gave a stellar portrayal of a detective who slowly loses his mind while investigating a murder in the Norwegian film Insomnia.
A prolific actor, Skarsgård appeared in a number of small ambitious projects in 2000, including Passion of Mind with Demi Moore, Mike Figgis' Time Code, and Harlan County War. The following year, while he showed up in the poorly-received thriller The Glass House, Skarsgård gained critical praise for his performance in Taking Sides.
2003 saw Skarsgård taking a role in Lars von Trier's highly anticipated Dogville and signing on for the oft-plagued The Exorcist: The Beginning. After several debacles, the prequel to the horror classic finally found its way to movie theaters in 2004, the same year the actor costarred in Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur. After going toe-to-toe with the Devil himself in 2005's Exorcist: The Beginning (as well as Paul Schrader's alternate cut Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist), Skarsgård joined the crew of the Flying Dutchman in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and its follow-up Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, and went medieval in the Swedism Arn films. A chilling turn as the ruthless warden in the fact-based King of Devil's Island showed a downright malevolent side to Skarsgård, though it was subsequent roles in the Marvel Comics features Thor and the Avengers, as well as a turn as the mysterious Martin Vanger in David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, that offered the veteran actor the most international exposure in the wake of his voyage on the high seas.