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It was late one night on Bourbon Street in New Orleans’ famed French Quarter and, as tends to happen there, things were getting out of control. HBO was on location filming an episode of True Blood, its hit series about a coven of Louisiana vampires. The director was trying to film a group of gorgeous blood-suckers as they cut a swath through the crowd, but far from being intimidated the revelers kept running up to high-five their favorite actors. The crew was running out of dark and the crowd was getting rowdier. Would they get the shot?

Alexander Skarsgård, the imposing 6’4” actor who portrays Eric Northman on the show addressed the crowd – told them how excited he was to have them be a part of the show, but that it would help if they could pretend to be a little scared.

“So, did it work?” I ask Skarsgård. He pauses before answering “The problem, of course, is that five minutes later it’s a whole new crowd of people.”

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The story embodies two qualities that have marked the 36-year-old Skarsgård’s rise as one of Hollywood’s most sought after leading men. He has enough presence to give stage directions to a drunken mob at three in the morning yet also has enough self-reflection to analyze why it didn’t work. “Alex is unbelievably interesting,” says Alexa Fogel, the casting agent who pushed Skarsgård for his breakout role in the HBO series Generation Kill. “But that’s just the beginning of it; he is also unusually articulate and educated.“

Those traits came to the fore in Skarsgård’s portrayal of Brad “Iceman” Colbert, the sergeant leading a unit of Recon Marines in Generation Kill. Based on Evan Wright’s book, Colbert is described as a thinking man’s Marine. Finding an actor who could capture Colbert’s charisma as a leader as well as his wonkish side proved difficult. “We auditioned a lot of people,” recalls Nina Noble, an executive producer on the series created by Ed Burns and David Simon – producers of The Wire and Treme.

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“Colbert had kind of a regal bearing, sort of an intellectual compared to other Marines.” The producers had considered — and discarded — a slew of actors before Fogel came across Skarsgård, who was still largely unknown in America (this despite a memorable turn in 2001 as the doomed model Meekus in Ben Stiller’s Zoolander). Fogel saw Skarsgård’s reel while in London at his British agent’s office. “A lot of it was in Swedish, but he was still compelling,” she recalls. For Skarsgård, Fogel’s interest came at a low moment in his career.“I’d been out in L.A. for pilot season,” he says. “And I was not happy with what was going on. I really did not want to go out for another shitty part in a shitty show. I was happy to go back to Sweden and do a play.” When he read the script for Generation Kill, he recalls, “it was the first time in six or seven months that I got excited creatively. I thought, ‘I’ve got to get this.’”

It wasn’t easy selling the studio on an unknown Swede to play the All-American Marine – even though Skarsgård had himself served as a sergeant in the Swedish Army. His accent, though not all that noticeable, was a concern, as was his height. “We were a little worried about how he’d fit into a Humvee,” says Noble. After numerous call backs, he got the job, much to Fogel’s relief. “I remember thinking ‘if this doesn’t work out, I’m going to have to give up casting’... for me nobody else came close.”

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Two qualities that have marked thirty six year old actor Alexander Skarsgård’s rise to stardom are his stature and stage presence, as well as his uncanny ability to analyze situations, thus giving his career a direction that matches up to his talents.

These days Skarsgård doesn’t have to worry much about the casting mill. In addition to a sixth season of True Blood, he’s recently starred in Lars Von Trier’s moody Melancholia, as well as Peter Berg’s big-budget Battleship. Later this year he has the lead next to Julianne Moore in the big screen adaptation of Henry James’ “What Masie Knew,” and opposite Ellen Page in the thriller The East.

Skarsgård also garnered attention for his recent appearance in a ten-minute short film by Fabien Baron for Calvin Klein’s spring 2013 campaign. Skarsgård said he loved the project, but has no plans to do more modeling anytime soon. Not even to bring back Meekus in the rumored Zoolander sequel, I ask, forgetting for a minute the character’s fiery demise in the original. “But maybe,” Skarsgård allows, “his ghost can come back to haunt Zoolander, or better yet, a prequel!”

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