I. ALEXANDER SKARSGÅRD

Three weeks before Alexander Skarsgård was scheduled to leave his native Stockholm, Sweden, for acting school in New York, he met a girl and fell in love. He went overseas anyway, promising to sustain the relationship from 4,000 miles away. This was back in 1997, before Skype and ubiquitous e-mail, and Skarsgård was broke. He couldn't afford to talk to his girlfriend for more than a few minutes at a time, much less bring her over for a visit, and he was too proud to ask his dad—who just happens to be the film star Stellan Skarsgård—for money. He loved his acting program at Marymount Manhattan College, but he found the city lonely and exhausting. He lived in a student-housing building with a permanently broken elevator, which forced him to walk nine flights up to his room. When he couldn't take that anymore, he moved into a "tiny closet" in Times Square that he calls "the worst possible location to live in New York City." In the meantime, the girlfriend across the Atlantic started making noises about going back to her old boyfriend.

"So I was like, 'Fuck it—I'm going back to Sweden,'" Skarsgård, now 33, recounts. "I quit school and went back, and it was like I had created her in my mind. We hung out for two weeks and we didn't get along at all."

Skarsgård is both self-deprecating and unapologetic as he tells the story. Sure, the girl was still in high school and living at home. Sure, it would be another seven years before he'd manage to move back to the States. Sure, he should have known better than to derail his American acting career before it began. But even Eric Northman, the 1,000-year-old Viking vampire Skarsgård plays on True Blood, was young once. And Skarsgård, imposing and statuesque at six feet four, is far more human than his appearance—and certainly his onscreen persona—suggests.

That's not to say he's not participating fully in the Hollywood mélange. Previously romantically linked to his second-season True Blood costar Evan Rachel Wood, he is reportedly dating Kate Bosworth, with whom he appears in the upcoming remake of the Peckinpah classic Straw Dogs. And there he is playing Lady Gaga's paramour—with smoldering, chiaroscuric mystery (he wears an eye patch)—in the music video for "Paparazzi." Then, of course, there's the fact that he's the son of a movie star; the elder Skarsgård has starred in art-house classics like Breaking the Waves and blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean and Mamma Mia!

But let's put that in perspective. Until the younger Skarsgård was in his late teens, his dad was famous only in Sweden. "Being a star in Sweden is like being a star in Omaha," he says, adding that there are no paparazzi or big paychecks there (though there's enough of a media machine to have gotten Alexander voted Sweden's Sexiest Man five times). And while it's true Stellan's son was a child star in Sweden in the 1980s, he hated being a preteen heartthrob.

"He didn't like it at all," Stellan recalls. "At the age of 12, he had girls standing outside the house. They would ask his younger brother Gustaf to let them in, and sometimes it worked."

Alexander wanted to be a regular kid who hung out and played soccer. "My father was totally supportive of my quitting acting," he says. "He said, 'If you feel like there's any other option for you, I recommend that option.'"

That turned out to be studying English at Leeds Metropolitan University in England, followed by a 15-month stint in the Swedish marines. "Sweden is probably one of the three countries least likely to get in a war, so the military's pretty safe," he concedes. The flip side of that is that many missions were downright stultifying. Imagine conducting round-the-clock surveillance of a radio antenna for four days.

"You couldn't talk or move," Skarsgård recalls. "You had to piss in a bottle. It gave me a lot of time to think about things. I realized I missed being onstage and on a set."

"I ROOMED IN THIS VERY FLAMBOYANT FILIPINO DESIGNER'S APARTMENT. HE HAD THREE GUYS STAYING WITH HIM—ALL 20-YEAR-OLD GUYS. [LAUGHS] WE HAD A VERY INTERESTING RELATIONSHIP. I THINK HE WANTED TO BE MORE THAN FRIENDS. HE KNEW I HAD A GIRLFRIEND, BUT MAYBE HE FIGURED HE WAS IRRESISTIBLE."—SKARSGÅRD

Eventually, after his aborted attempt at acting school, he began finding his way into Swedish films and the occasional Hollywood movie, such as Zoolander, in which he had a small role as one of Ben Stiller's male-model roommates. But Skarsgård's real break came with the acclaimed 2008 HBO miniseries Generation Kill, in which he played Sergeant Brad "Iceman" Colbert. Just before leaving for Africa to shoot that project, he heard the network was developing True Blood.

"I thought, 'Oh, vampires—I don't know,'" he admits. "But then they said Alan Ball was behind it, and I was a huge fan of Six Feet Under and American Beauty. I auditioned on tape from my hotel room in Mozambique."

The audition was actually for the part of Bill Compton, which went to Stephen Moyer. "Alex wasn't quite right for Bill," recalls Ball, "but I remember that he was giant and also beautiful. So when it came time to cast Eric, I thought of him. He's got the most amazing eyes. Because of their color—they're an amazing greenish blue—he's able to do this thing with them where he loses focus but remains totally focused."

It's a technique Skarsgård picked up from assiduously studying Bela Lugosi's Dracula and Murnau's and Herzog's versions of Nosferatu and even The Lost Boys. But that look—and the inscrutability and coiled tension he gives Eric—is also something he learned from hours spent watching nature documentaries.

"It's, like, you see this big male lion, and he's chilling in the sun, and he sits up and he looks at something, and you don't know if he's going to pounce or if he's just going to go back to sleep," Skarsgård says, his steely gaze unwavering, looking like he could easily break into a yawn. "You never know if he's bored or he's frustrated or what."

Next Page: True Blood's Ryan Kwanten