River: Stellan Skarsgård’s thoughts on this second-sighted detective

River StellanRiver, which stars the ever-absorbing Stellan Skarsgård, starts screening next week on BBC TV. John River is a brilliant detective whose fractured mind traps him between the living and the dead. He exists among the dead and dying victims and killers from the murder cases he’s trying to solve. Through time spent with these lost souls, River pieces together the truth behind the crimes he investigates. His greatest asset – his empathy for the damaged, the deranged and the disenfranchised – is also his greatest flaw; the fragility of his own psyche…

Skarsgård has long been attracted to unusual, often challenging roles. Mainstream audiences know him as ‘the Swedish guy’ in Pirates of the Caribbean and Avengers popcorn movies. Dedicated enthusiasts would tell you to check out Scandinavian productions like In Order of Disappearance, Insomnia or The King Of Devil’s Island. River, a drama told over six hours which is being aired at prime time on BBC1, should introduce a whole new audience to Skarsgård’s subtle acting talents.

Here’s what he has to say about the role, and playing a fictional TV detective – something, until now, he has studiously avoided…

What’s the story of River?

If it was a normal TV series it would be rather easy to tell you about it but it’s not and that’s why I’m in it. You could say it’s a crime story on the surface, but it’s really more about a person’s breakdown or his psychological status. This police officer I’m playing, he has a mental disorder. We’ve heard a lot about people that hear voices, but he actually sees those people as well that he’s talking to, and very often it is victims of crime that pop up and have conversations with him. They’re not like ghosts, they’re his own creations.

Who is John River?

RiverThe colleague who was probably closest to him was murdered three weeks earlier and we learn he is working on the case of solving her murder, as well as all other cases that pop up during his journey. Very often the victims of murder cases show up and have discussions with him, and try to help him solve the crime; ‘manifests’ as we call them. As an audience, we see those victims, or ‘manifests’, as real living people in a room, but of course it’s not the victim that is helping him solve the crime because the victim is dead. We’re not talking about ghosts here, he produces these dialogues himself: they are an internal discussion almost like his own kind of checklist as he investigates their lives and the moments leading to their death. The audience see these characters and get used to them being around, and should be happy (or scared in some instances) to see them when they show up even if you know they’re dead. It’s always interesting when they do: it sort of jars reality, but in an intriguing way.

What’s the effect of the manifests on River’s life and relationships?

Well he’s a police officer, and he’s supposed to have a record that shows no psychological problems whatsoever and he’s of course hiding this, but it’s hard when he suddenly starts talking to somebody who isn’t there. Some of those situations become quite comical and some are tragic. His behaviour is of course bizarre sometimes to the people around him, but the audience can see who he’s talking to so the audience are hopefully on his side.

Would you say the presence of those manifests is an extreme representation of a common experience?

It’s a tool in this drama of course, but some people hear voices and can’t get rid of them. Most people have inner dialogues; before you go into a meeting, you might even make the dialogue of that meeting before you enter the door just to rehearse yourself. The manifests are a way to play the internal life of a person which is not necessarily what it looks like on the surface but what it feels like inside.

Can you relate to River and to that aspect of his character?

I can relate to anybody and I can relate to River too, but it’s not like ‘oh yeah I’ve seen a lot of manifests myself.’ It’s nothing like that. I relate to him; when he’s angry I can relate to his anger and when he’s sad I can relate to his sadness, when he’s jealous I can relate to his jealousy, as we all do.

Do the manifests serve a purpose that helps River?

They serve a purpose for River. First of all he’s a very lonely man and they are his friends, like children have imaginary friends, but in his case it’s pathological. They serve the purpose that an inner dialogue can serve for you of course, but they also terrorize him because some of them represent the darkest sides of him.

How does River differ from so many other cop shows out there?

RiverI don’t know exactly how this show will differ from other shows but I think we’re all doing our best to be sure it does. First of all, the satisfaction of the show is not to find out who did it, the satisfaction of the show lies in the beautifully written characters and what’s happening between them and their relationships. Hopefully it will have a tone of its own, and a tone of its own that works. We’re taking some risks in the way we do it and that makes it very interesting. Without risk, it’s not worthwhile is it? It’s a pretty highly strung and tense show because the psychological stakes are high, and the personal stakes for a lot of the people are also high. It’s a mixture of the danger of illegal actions and psychological vulnerability.

For the viewer, what would you hope they get from watching River?

I hope of course that they would be entertained, not necessarily in the sense that it’s the average kind of entertainment; I want them to be entertained but in a different way and maybe find some fascination in things that they don’t usually see. It’s very much a series about humans and human behaviour; extremely lovely, warm and compassionate without being overly sentimental…

It’s all made with a lot of love for life, even if on some levels that can be depressing or sad, on other levels it’s like life; comical and dramatic and funny.


River Stellan4The first season of River comprises six, one-hour episodes. The first is shown at 9pm on BBC1 on 13 October 2015; the DVD is released on 23 November.

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