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"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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New Territory: Bill Skarsgård and Nadia Hilker on "The Divergent Series: Allegiant"

"The Divergent Series: Allegiant" introduces several new characters to its dystopian universe and two of the most scene-stealing are played by Bill Skarsgård ("Hemlock Grove") and Nadia Hilker ("Spring"). Bill plays Matthew, an assistant of the mysterious David (Jeff Daniels), the engineer of a community outside of Chicago that's seeking genetic purity and now sees Tris (Shailene Woodley) as evidence of their purpose. Hilker plays Nita, one of the soldiers of this new society who teaches Four (Theo James) how to use some wicked-cool drones. The pair of talented young stars stopped by Chicago this week to promote "Allegiant" and discuss why we're so obssessed with post-apocalyptic features, Jeff Daniels' guitar playing, when they knew they wanted to be an actor, and much more. 

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Let’s talk about loyal, rabid fan bases. This series has got one. Why do you think fans are so loyal, why do you think they love it so much? 

BILL SKARSGÅRD: It’s an escape to an alternate universe. You go and you sit and you completely escape from your own life and you can watch a movie where this is a universe where things are very different. You can go, “What if this was different?” 

NADIA HILKER: “How would I react?” 

BS: “Who would I be there?” All of that is very stimulating for a younger audience as well, the demographic that this is targeting, at least the most loyal fans. But it’s very interesting. I’m sure there’s been a lot of analysis about why these movies are so successful, but I think that’s a cool reason. 

Do you think it says anything about youth today that there are so many of them that paint the future as dark and grim? Why do we see everything as post-apocalyptic, like in "Walking Dead" or "Hunger Games"? 

BS: It’s more interesting. I don’t know if you could have much of a story if it was, you know, “great place!” But we also live in very interesting times. We have all of these threats in terms of wars and nature and global warming and all of these things. I think every generation has had in the past 100 years at least, whether it’s been a world war or a cold war of nuclear weapons ... there is this tension today and a lot of kids feel that tension. These big movies that have this darker dystopian future, it’s very exhilarating, it’s exciting. Because you’re semi-worried but also intrigued at the same time, right?

Were you guys fans of the "Divergent" series before you signed on? 

NH: Not a fan. I watched the movies and I liked it and I loved the message. But also being from Germany, you would never think that you’d end up being in one of those films. 

How did you get involved? 

NH: My management just called me one day and said, “We’ve got an audition for you for ‘Divergent,’” and I’m like, "Guys, I don’t even need to do it because we all know I’m not getting the part. I’m just gonna waste five hours of my life." 

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BS: Those are the ones you always get! 

An actor once told me that he saw every movie as a learning experience. So, what did you learn from this one? 

NH: I learned to handle pressure. It’s so much bigger and so much more expensive, and so much more people involved. Hitting the mark is so much ... if you don’t hit it, it’s going to cost a lot of money. That was a lot of pressure in the beginning. But I also learned that it’s just a job, whether it’s like “Spring” where it’s 30 people, or something like “Allegiant” where it’s like hundreds and hundreds of people. It’s always the same, just be focused, do your job, make yourself believe whatever and be truthful in the moment. 

BS: My dad, who is an actor [Stellan Skarsgård], told me this. He’s like, “I never regretted a single film I ever did.” He might regret taking the job at times, but he never regretted the experience. So even if it was the worst, most horrendous production and the movie turned out garbage, whatever it is, the experience was something that he learned from and he wouldn’t want to live without. And I think that the actor you talked to, that’s a good way of looking at it, with everything that you do. There’s a lot of elements of this movie where neither of us, or neither of our careers, have seen before, in terms of the size of the film, in terms of the budget and the fan base and the hype and all of that. This is kind of completely new territory for both of us, and there’s a lot to learn from that. It’s like, what can you do in this little scene, or what can you do to make that scene more interesting, to elevate the character? It’s a completely different approach than making a movie where you play the lead in it, then the story tells your character, or it follows your character or whatever. It’s just a lot of fun to be able to do different projects. This is completely new territory for me, and therefore I’ve learned so much. 

NH: It’s also about picking up the tone in a very short amount of time, and then trying to fit in, and not stand out with your performance. 

You don’t want to lose focus or anything, but you’ve got to be grounded. How do you stay grounded? Do you make backstories for your characters? Do you know more about your character than what we see? 

NH: Oh yeah, much more. Even if we don’t express it, it’s in us, yeah. 

BS: When I need to. I’m not one of those actors who will write a journal about what my life has been like before. 

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Like the day you went to kindergarten, yeah. Some actors do that. 

BS: Some do, and I think it’s kind of irrelevant. I think there’s no right way or wrong way, it’s just your way. Some actors have a very particular way. It could be for curiosity it could be for fun, or it could be the need that to reach a certain place. And sometimes it helps. With this thing you have the books and then you read the books and you have the script and you talk to the director and try to come up with, “Who is this guy?” Then you come up with a backstory with the people that you work with. And that can help insinuate things in scenes where the audience might go, “What’s up with that?” because of the thought process that you’ve created for who this guy is, and what he’s thinking. You’re saying something, and your character is reacting to it in a certain way. There’s a lot of reacting, that’s the thing about these movies, like, "Why is he reacting that way?" And then you always have the reason clear as to why you do a certain thing. 

What did we learn from our co-stars here? I am thinking Jeff Daniels is the kind of actor who teaches you quite a bit.  

BS: He plays guitar on set. He brings this practice guitar, it’s super small and it’s all electronic. It has strings and everything and you can practice stuff. 

Does he do it to relax? 

BS: Or just for fun. It’s not like it’s loud like a normal guitar, it’s just a neck. And he just sits there and [makes guitar solo sounds] and I’m like, "Do you always bring it?" And he says, “Yeah, I always bring it.” 

Did either of you have that “I wanna be an actor” moment? The moment that you knew this is what you were going to do?

BS: [To Hilker] When did you have that? 

NH: When I did it for the first time, I’m like, “This just feels right.” I just found something, I just found myself. And it’s also interesting because there are a lot of actors who act in their personal life, and I always felt like people who are that way, who imitate people, who are really funny should be actors. I’m like the opposite. You’d never see me act or imitate anyone, me as Nadia. I always felt like I don’t have any artistic background, my parents never did any of that. I used to be a dancer, that’s it. I think it’s like doing drugs, like shooting heroin—which I’ve never done—once you do it you just can’t live without it anymore. 

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Bill, did you have a moment? 

BS: It was different for me because I got interested in it very early on, and I just grew up with my dad having the coolest job on the planet, which a lot of kids maybe think about their parents. But I got to travel around on film sets and live on different locations. As a young kid, I was on the film set of “Deep Blue Sea,” which is not a very good movie, but it’s about sharks. And they had this huge robot shark, and my dad’s arm just gets bitten off. What kid … I mean, that’s so appealing. Because it’s like pretending, it’s what kids do. And grown-ups do it? They get paid to do it? They play different characters and pretend that they’re in different places? That’s what kids do. And so, the appeal was there very early on for me. That doesn’t mean that I necessarily understood what it was, but the appeal of it was. And then you know, I have yet to be eaten by a shark, but I started when I was nine and I’ve been doing it for a long time. Because a nine-year-old doesn’t really know what they’re doing, in terms of acting, it’s like, you don’t comprehend what it is and you’re just doing it and it’s a lot of fun, like, “Now, my name is Brad!” And that’s what kids do, that’s what I would do as well, I would dress up and be different characters at home. But then when I got older, I had more of an understanding. I’m starting to learn, I still don’t think I know what I’m doing, but I started to appreciate things that were a part of acting, creating a character, creating a story. Bringing that person that’s on the paper, that first it’s from someone’s mind, then it’s on the paper, and then you take it and you literally make that thing that’s on the paper come to life. It’s a really exhilarating thing. 

NH: I love what you said. I really hope that I never figure out what I’m doing when I’m acting. It’s kind of like falling in love. You understand it, but you don’t at the same time. It’s just a feeling, like, “What is this?” 

It goes back to that learning experience, that every movie can shape you in a different way. You’re never done. Speaking of which, is there anybody that you look at and say, “That’s the career I want. That’s the track that I would want to be on the next 20, 25 years"?

BS: It’s funny, I’ve never been a person who’s looked at fame like ... I've never idolized people. I admire a lot of people, but when I was younger I thought it was kind of a boring character-like a trait. Especially when you’re working on a character; I’m playing a character and the character sure as hell doesn’t have a poster on the wall because it says something about them. I admire so many people, but at the same time, you know what it is? It’s like my brothers and my dad, it’s like I can’t idolize them, I’m focused on me. I have my own goals for my career, but I don’t strive to emulate someone else’s. 

Have you mapped out what you want your career to be? 

NH: I am definitely choosing projects now so that I can work in 20 years. It’s the long run. I don’t care about money or fame, I just want to be a respected artist and do things that are fun and matter. 

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