Like most people, Alexander Skarsgård grew up watching old movies with his dad, who introduced him to one of cinema’s most iconic figures: the vine-swinging, loincloth-clad Tarzan. The only difference is that his father is actor Stellan, of Good Will Hunting and Thor fame, and when the younger Skarsgård grew up, he ended up playing one of his dad’s favorite characters, landing the lead role in the upcoming Legend of Tarzan.
“He was probably more excited about this job than I was when I got it,” Skarsgård says, laughing. “When I was a kid, we had old VHS cassettes at home of the old Johnny Weissmuller movies, so those were the movies that I grew up watching. And also I was raised in the ‘80s, so obviously the Greystoke movie with Christopher Lambert is also something that I remember from my childhood.”
With The Legend of Tarzan, out Friday, Skarsgård joins the dozens of actors who’ve tackled the king of the jungle on screen, from Elmo Lincoln, who starred in the first 1918 silent film Tarzan of the Apes, to Tony Goldwyn, who lent his voice to Disney’s 1999 animated version. But the best known film incarnation is probably Weissmuller, the Olympic swimmer-turned-actor who played Tarzan in a dozen films from 1932 to 1948.
It was the Weissmuller films that Stellan Skarsgård fell in love with as a child in Sweden, so when the younger Skarsgård found out he’d be playing Edgar Rice Burroughs’ legendary hero, he went back and rewatched his dad’s favorites for inspiration. Still, Skarsgård insists, the thing that drew him to the project wasn’t the chance to merely update the classics but rather the opportunity to explore a new side of Tarzan.
“It wasn’t just, ‘Alright, we’re telling the same stories we told in the ‘30s and ‘40s with Johnny Weissmuller, but now we have the technology to do it on a more epic scale,’” Skarsgård says. “For me, that wouldn’t have been enough because they’re so iconic, those movies. What I found interesting about this was that it was a new story and a new take on a very, very famous character, that kind of duality of man versus beast.”
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This new twist on Tarzan, directed by Harry Potter’s David Yates, had a long path to theaters, beginning back in 2003 when the late Jerry Weintraub signed on to produce. Over the years, actors including Henry Cavill, Charlie Hunnam, and Tom Hardy were all considered for the part, and at one point, Michael Phelps was even rumored to be in the running. (Which sort of makes sense, when you consider Weissmuller’s Olympic swimming history. But still.)
In the end, the part went to Skarsgård, the former True Blood star who’s now making his blockbuster debut as leading man. Instead of retreading the well-known Tarzan origin story, The Legend of Tarzan picks up in Victorian London, where the man now known as John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, has married Jane (Margot Robbie) and adapted to his new life as a British aristocrat. But when the sinister Belgian captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) invites him back to the jungle as an envoy, he soon finds himself tangled in a colonialist conspiracy that threatens both his former home and his new life.
“[Tarzan is] a character that had never really had their day, had always been relegated to sort of B-movie treatments,” Yates says. “And we had the opportunity to make a really big, exciting, romantic, action-packed movie based on this extraordinary character who still captures the imagination, even now.”
The Legend of Tarzan hits theaters on Friday.