It is well known that Alexander Skarsgård — the 6-foot-4 Swedish giant from films like The Northman and The Legend of Tarzan — comes from a family of thespians. His father, Stellan Skarsgård, is a massively successful actor (Good Will Hunting, Thor, Dune) as are three of Alexander Skarsgård’s younger brothers.
But although he is the oldest and most famous of Stellan Skarsgård’s six children, Alexander Skarsgård did not always intend to follow in his father’s footsteps. Before Skarsgård ever sat in a makeup chair for a big-budget movie or practiced vocal warmups for an HBO miniseries, he served in an elite counterterrorism unit of the Swedish Navy.
When Skarsgård was 19 years old, he broke from the family tradition of pursuing the arts and enlisted in the Swedish military. “It was my way of going off into the unknown,” he told GQ in 2011. “I didn’t want to just be somebody’s son.”
Military service is compulsory in Skarsgård’s native country, at least officially. Given that none of his siblings nor his father ever served, it seems that avoiding conscription in Sweden requires little more than simply saying “no thanks.” Skarsgård not only chose to serve, but he also opted to pursue a career in a highly selective unit known as SäkJakt, which roughly translates to “protect and hunt.”
Nigel Allsopp’s book about the history of military working dogs, Cry Havoc, describes Säkjakt troops as “counter-special operations Rangers” and the direct-action component of the larger Bassak counter-special operations unit. Their primary mission is patrolling the 650-square-mile Stockholm Archipelago and conducting anti-sabotage and anti-terrorism missions.
As the second-largest archipelago in the Baltic Sea, the Stockholm Archipelago encompasses more than 30,000 small islands, including vast swaths of uninhabited coastline that are especially vulnerable to enemy infiltration. During the Cold War, Soviet Spetsnaz soldiers in mini-submarines regularly infiltrated the maze of tiny islands, leading to Sweden’s decision to create the “hunt and protect’’ unit Skarsgård served in.
Though Skarsgård never served in combat, the Emmy Award-winning actor did lead a real-world mission to intercept an individual suspected of disembarking from a foreign submarine and swimming to one of the many islands. Skarsgård’s unit never located the suspected infiltrator, but the mission was close enough to real danger to satisfy Skarsgård’s thirst for adventure beyond the stage.
Skarsgård left the military in 1996 and soon after began pursuing a career in film. The following year, he studied acting in New York City and quickly began landing roles. Then, in the mid-2000s, he was cast as a stoic Recon Marine nicknamed “Iceman” in HBO’s critically acclaimed miniseries Generation Kill, and his career was launched to new heights.
Tapping into his real-world experiences in the Swedish Navy, Skarsgård nailed the role of Iceman. He then went on to play, among other things, a lusted-after vampire in True Blood, the devil incarnate in an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand, and, most recently, a Viking berserker in The Northman. So while he may have ultimately decided not to devote his life to protecting Swedish shores, his decision to join the Navy and do more than “just be somebody’s son” definitely gave him a leg up when he returned to the family business.