sat 20/07/2024

theartsdesk Q&A: Actress Sofie Gråbøl | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Actress Sofie Gråbøl

theartsdesk Q&A: Actress Sofie Gråbøl

The face of Nordic noir on The Killing, cancer and playing a queen for two national theatres

Sofie Gråbøl: 'it’s so uncomfortable to have your picture taken because you know it’s going to be painful'The James Play photographs by Robert Day

Sofie Gråbøl as Danish royalty: it hardly stretches credulity. The face of Nordic noir has been a star in her home country ever since appearing in Bille August's Pelle the Conqueror in 1987, but is solely familiar on these shores as Sarah Lund, the jumpered Copenhagen detective from three unmissable series of The Killing.

This autumn the only thing that will be recognisable about Gråbøl will be those big blue eyes as she is spirited back to the late Middle Ages, bewigged, bejewelled and billowing, to play a queen of Scotland.

No, not that one. She is starring as Margaret, the very capable Danish princess who was betrothed to King James III at the age of 12. Her legacy is marked on the map of contemporary Scotland/Britain: it’s thanks to Margaret that the Shetlands and Orkney are no longer part of Scandinavia, as they came with her dowry.

The True Mirror is the third and last of The James Plays, a trilogy by Rona Munro. In a unique joint venture timed to mark the referendum, National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre of Great Britain have pooled resources to consider three kings of an independent Scotland. The plays opened at the Edinburgh Festival and by the time The True Mirror follows its stablemates down to London on 19 September the Scottish electorate will have made their choice. Next year she'll appear in Fortitude, a Sky drama set in the Arctic Circle.

Gråbøl's English is, as you expect of Danes, barely accented and largely flawless. The surprise for anyone who has spent 40 hours in the company of Sarah Lund are the smiles and the jokes. These come thick and fast, perhaps all the more so given that Gråbøl is back at work after a year away with breast cancer, which also accounts for the gamine crop. She talks to theartsdesk about The Killing and living to tell the tale of a Danish queen.

JASPER REES: Can I get an official pronunciation of your surname?

SOFIE GRÅBØL: Grobul [she swallows the first syllable].

How did they say your name in the rehearsal room?

Sofia they say. Honestly I’m just trying to focus on what they’re saying because they’re Scots, all of them. They have so many dialects. It’s a pained subject for me. I discovered at the first read-through. Obviously when I read the play it’s just in English until I sat at a table and we had the very first read-through and I heard all these Scottish voices. And I thought, oh my God, I should speak Scottish because Queen Margaret came from Denmark to Scotland when she was 12 so all of her adult life was in Scotland. So I felt the sweat running down my armpits and then my director said, “Don’t worry. Speak the English you speak.”

And the east coast of Scotland is quite Scandy. Your character when she marries into the Scottish royal family brings Shetland and the Orkneys with her.

Yes, what a great gift! They must still be grateful. Obviously they don’t know that because they don’t speak Danish but because I speak both languages so often I find that the words are the same. There definitely is. The trace of the Vikings is very visible in the language.

How many times have you acted in English before?

My very first role was in English. Pelle the Conqueror was in Danish. I was 17 years and I was cast in a role in a film about Paul Gauguin with Donald Sutherland. That was in English. I did a film in Poland once in English, but no that’s pretty much it. But since January I’ve done a TV series here in London and in Iceland in English. It’s for Sky.

It’s nice to think of you being in Iceland because that’s where Sarah Lund allegedly ended up.

I’m more aware that life is a gift than I ever was, but it has also emphasised the fear

Sometimes you feel these patterns and they may be coincidental but sometimes the patterns are so clear. I finished The Killing that I had been working on on and off for seven years. She was supposed to die, that was the writer’s [Søren Sveistrup] plan, but then halfway through the last season he changed his mind because he thought that was letting her off too easy, it’s easy to die, he wanted her to suffer. So he stripped her of everything and sent her off in a plane into the darkness, bound for Iceland. And obviously in my mind and his mind from there she would go for somewhere else because honestly you can’t hide in Iceland. There are 600,000 people there. We thought she’s going to continue from there but that’s where we left her. But a lot of people came to me and said, “Oh she’s in Iceland.” I was like, “Really?”

But then straight after we had finished airing that, I got ill, I had cancer so all of last year was like just a very dark place and then I started working, I had my last operation last December and in January I started working on Fortitude. So it was a very massive edit, you know - cut. We shot interiors in London in a studio, and exteriors in Iceland. It takes place in the Arctic. So my return to my work life was in Iceland and I didn’t think of it before the plane was about to land on Iceland. This is just the weirdest thing that I left off flying into the darkness, I’ve been there for a year - that’s how I felt - and now I’m landing again, at least in work life but maybe also in life.

Are you OK now?

I hope so.

How did it feel to get back to work?

Frightening, honestly. Frightening and wonderful.

Why frightening?

Yes, why frightening? I haven’t really formulated for myself what has really happened last year with me. I just feel that something profound has changed but I guess if you ask me in five years I will be more, “Oh so that was…” But I still feel like I’m taking my first steps after, because there definitely is a before and after with an experience like that. I don’t know. I have the feeling that it’s a massive loss of identity and solid ground, it’s a massive loss of all the things that you think are solid. Your life as it is is suddenly not as you know it at all. So it’s somehow a huge identity change. So I definitely have the feeling that I am a new person... Obviously I’m the same but it has stripped me of a lot of the routines or the way I thought or looked at life. So it’s like it has emphasised the joy of life. I’m more aware that life is a gift than I ever was, but it has also emphasised the fear. That’s the thing. It’s not just halleluiah. There’s this myth about this disease. A lot of people come and say, “Oh you’ve had cancer but don’t you really feel then that now you value life?” There’s this halleluiah thing that you expect to come out of it and yes there’s halleluia but there’s also, oh my God, an abyss of fear. So it’s just strengthened everything.

Has it changed you as an actress?

Yes I think it might have. But obviously the thing is that I had a strong feeling of something down in my base being changed. I couldn’t see myself just getting out of the patient bed and continuing where I left. So when I got offered these roles here, I felt like yes, now is the time for lots of reasons but one of the reasons is I want to go away … you don’t call it year zero. The beginning of a new… When Christ was born. Year zero we call it. Beginning to count anew. That’s why I find it hard to differentiate. Am I different in my work life or is it just because I have put myself in a place where everything is different? I mean I don’t know anyone here. Nobody knows me. This great feeling of freedom in the sense that nobody is reminding you of who you are, remember you’re like this, remember you’re that person. Because they don’t know, because you’re this stranger.

Clearly it’s a compliment to be asked to act with two national theatres rather than just one but you must have had many offers.

Not many. I’ve had some.  But the timing hasn’t been right. When The Killing became such a huge success in England I was still shooting it, so I didn’t have time to do anything here.

How long did it take to shoot 10 episodes?

A year. With writing breaks because he had to write. And then I did a film straight in Denmark and then I did a play in the Royal Theatre. And then I got ill straight after, actually three days after my last working day. So I haven’t been able to go here and I have been offered things. So finally I was able to come here but also I must say I read the play The True Mirror and I was just, “Phhh, I think it’s amazing, I think she’s really amazing.”

Often actors will privately admit that they wanted to do a play for one scene or speech.

Well then this is a rare case of several, because there are so many good scenes and there are so many good characters. I mean Margaret is an amazing character. So that’s one reason. Honestly I think reading plays and scripts can be really boring. Or it’s a very dry way of reading. But I just couldn’t put it down, honestly. And then also the timing of it obviously. I’ve always been very scared about going away from Denmark to work and I’ve used my children as an excuse a lot of times. They’ve also been a reason of course.

How old are they?

Now they’re 10 and 13. It’s frightening, it’s very frightening. I feel I’m in deep waters. But I needed that. I really needed to put myself in a new place. There’s also this other aspect that might sound halleluiah cancer-wise, but when you suddenly realise you’re going to die – I didn't really understand that: we’re all going to die – it was like I thought I cannot lie on my deathbed – I don’t know when that’s going to be – having turned down this beautiful play because I was frightened. Because it is frightening. And the size of the stage apart from the aura of the National. Actually I’ve never been to the National before and all the actors I’ve met on Fortitude said, “Are you going to do a play here after this?” I said, “Yes I’m going to do a play.” “Where?” “At the National Theatre, both in Scotland and in England.” “Oh, which stage at the National?” And I said, “I think it’s called the Olivier.” “OOOH.” And every time people said that I was like, “What is that place?”

How big is the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen?

Approximately half as many seats but also it has a smaller feeling. So the first time I went for a fitting here I said, “You have to show me this Olivier because I feel a big fear building up in me.”

What happened?

Interview continued overleaf


Well it actually wasn’t as frightening because in my mind it had become a stadium, like the Wembley or something. So I was like, “Oh well, it also feels intimate.” But of course it’s massive. But you know to feel as scared as I do and as I will be is also proof that you’re alive somehow.

Is the stage more your home than a film set?

No. I mean I’ve done a lot of plays but it doesn’t feel like home. There is no place I get as insecure as an actor as onstage during the rehearsal room. Because you’re so exposed. Your inadequacy is so exposed when you do a film you have these little bits and even though it’s horrible what you do and it doesn’t work at all because you only deal with little bits you think well when it’s put together it might work, or whatever but when you are in a rehearsal room it’s just you on that floor. It’s so bare and awful really. But also probably because of that, I think is where I surprise myself the most and I’m being pushed out to places where I didn’t think I could come. Because you have the time and somebody is insisting. You don’t just say, "Well, we have to move onto the next scene. It has to work somehow."

You are playing the woman who show her younger love rival in the play what she really looks like in the true mirror of the title (pictured, Gråbøl with Fiona Wood). What would you see if you looked?

I don’t want to talk about my illness the whole time but actually that is a bit of the feeling. But it’s such a beautiful scene, it’s such a beautiful metaphor. She is so brilliant to pick a mirror which was actually as I understand it invented at that time so it must have been to people from looking in a silver cup and seeing a strange image to suddenly see yourself…

I was asking more about this face that we’re all so familiar with from all 40 hours of it.

You make it sound like it was a sacrifice. Actually I don’t get recognised in London. It’s wonderful.

It’s the hair.

I think so, and I’m not wearing the jumper.

For the record, you mentioned the jumper, not me.

But I’m not actually. It’s happened very few times.

What do you see physically in the mirror? Margaret says, “I’m much less ugly and old than I thought I was.” Your face is very much part of your toolkit, especially as Sarah Lund who never smiles.

It’s a tricky question. You mean physically how I feel looking at myself? I think like most people I hate it. I think most of us do, don’t we? That’s why it’s so uncomfortable to have your picture taken because you know it’s going to be painful, and that’s also one of the reason why it’s nice to be an actor. It think it’s that banal. It’s an escape. But actually it’s interesting when we rehearse the mirror scene, everyone who has to stand in front of the mirror it’s so embarrassing to be looking in a mirror at yourself in front of other people. You get embarrassed. Even if it’s a scene.

Do you watch yourself on screen?

Less and less.

Did you sit down with half of Denmark and watch The Killing?

No I didn’t. It’s not that I didn’t want to but it aired at Sunday at eight o’clock and that’s when I read bedroom stories to my kids. They gave me discs. I haven’t watch it really systematically.

I know you didn’t know who the killer was. Did you at any point guess?

Yes I guessed wrong every time. The first time I thought it was Brix my boss, the tall guy. I was absolutely sure. I had worked extremely complicated theories out and I was actually very disappointed when I found out.

Did you tell him?


What did he say?

That was a possibility for him too. The guy playing the killer didn’t know.

Someone told me who the killer was in the second series.

Really, what a bastard! I was told in the second by the end but I had stopped guessing, because I was so wrong the first time and I thought, well. The thing is if you have that much time to think about it then you develop these really wild theories and you can only get disappointed really when they present you with the killer.

You must have had many conversations about plot spoilers.

I’m amazed. When it aired in England I have sensed that there was also a great buzz about whodunit but nobody went on the net and just clicked. It would be very easy to just go for the end scene on YouTube but nobody did that and I thought that was beautiful. It’s like why would we tell each other what we’re getting for Christmas? We don’t want to spoil the whole…

What did you make of your cameo in the American Killing?

You know what, it was really weird actually. We were so busy doing the last season in Denmark. And everybody asked, they’re doing a remake in America, how do you feel about it? And I was like, I don’t have a feeling about. Whatever. I think it’s a pity that they don’t read subtitles. It’s a pity that they’re not interested in another culture but otherwise I don’t care. I don’t feel threatened like they’re taking anything from me or from us. And then the producer from their show called. She was obsessed with our original version. And because the audience of The Killing was very nerdy – it was wonderful, it meant they watched episodes several times and tried to solve the riddle and were very much into details. So she said, "I think it would be wonderful if you came over." Obviously the American audience didn’t know who I was because they’d never seen the Danish version. But she said, "For those who watch both, and there are quite a few, it will be just a wonderful salute to them." I thought, what the hell? I’ll just take a small trip over to Canada.

So I flew for a day and a half for one day’s work. And everything was so busy and crazy. I just go two or three days off from our show to do that, so I didn’t really think. I stood there. I had a scene in a parking lot. As Sarah Lund I’ve been playing hundreds of scenes with one-day actors coming in with little briefcases, giving me information to help me solve the case. And suddenly I was assigned a briefcase and some high heels and a suit and I was standing in a parking basement lot and this Sarah Linden, as they called her, walks up to me with her ponytail and her jumper and we’re playing the scene and I was surprised that I just felt this four-year-old child in me going, “What the fuck are you doing with my jumper? That’s my jumper! Give me my fucking…” I felt so threatened and offended. But I laughed at myself because it’s ridiculous.

What did you say to her? (Mireille Enos as Sarah Linden pictured below)

I lied. I said, “It’s like meeting a sister, bla bla bla.” [Laughs]. And honestly I hadn’t watched any of it. I watched two or three episodes before. I thought I have to know before I go there so I know who is who and don’t make a complete fool of myself. So I sat and watched a couple of episodes and I thought it was interesting to have that feeling confirmed that I always had that you have a good script. You have good actors, you have good actors, but what is it that gives it soul? It’s that strange thing called chemistry. You put some people together and something… the music comes. What is it? Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. You can put up Hamlet with great actors and sometimes it’s just not... And the play is brilliant and they’re brilliant. Why is that? To me it was The Killing but it just proved you can’t follow a recipe like a cookbook and make a dish. And that’s the beauty of it. If we knew what made things brilliant then we would also be doing that. It’s the search. You never know what baby is going to come out of this.

Did you get treated like royalty on set in Canada?

No. No I didn’t.

Did you watch the breast cancer storyline in Borgen?

No somebody told me. Actually I don’t watch TV, honestly. It’s embarrassing but I’m so behind. That’s because I’m a single mother, I’ve worked a lot. When do you sit and watch TV? I know because people came and told me. Actually my friends came and said, because a lot of them were in Borgen, “Don’t watch it on Sunday.” And I was like, “Why?” “Because she gets breast cancer.” And I was really like, “Who cares? It’s a fictional character. I don’t give a flying…” Really I didn’t. So even if I had watched it, it’s fiction. I’m just talking about The Killing and cancer.

You changed the subject.

Really? Then I’m changing it back.

How well known is Margaret of Denmark in Denmark?

Not at all. Like, not at all. I’d never heard of her. Obviously I don’t know a lot about history. But she wasn’t a queen of Denmark. And she left. But I don’t think that Scottish people are familiar with her, are they?

Has there been a sense in the rehearsal room that you are making a cultural contribution to his big decision that Scotland has to make this year?

Of course I’m aware that that’s an aspect but we’re just sweating blood to make it to the opening. So obviously our focus is making the plays work. But I think personally I always felt that to me drama and art, any form of art, should actually mirror life and not tell people what to do. So I think what Rona has written is a play about identity, personal identity, finding your own personal role in life, but it’s also about national identity and obviously in that respect it’s very useful to have a foreigner in the story because when you meet something that’s not you and is different from you it defines who you are. And not until you meet something different from you do you define who you are. The way she uses Margaret being a Dane is lovely, because it’s funny and she uses it to make fun of both Scots and Danes but basically she uses it to define what is Scottish and what is Danish. So again it’s a mirror effect.

And what is Danish?

I have lines like “I am Danish, I come from a rational nation with reasonable people.” And actually yes I think that’s quite spot on. I don’t know what you are. Maybe you are rational and reasonable as well. Maybe every culture has that notion of themselves. But we’re not passionate, we don’t get carried away, we are rational and reasonable and so is Margaret. Whereas King James is everything but (pictured above, Gråbøl with James Sives as James III). But I don’t think we are here to tell the Scottish people what to do, and I don’t think we can. It’s a bit offending to think that you can tell a nation what to do when it comes to as serious a topic as independence, but hopefully we can be a mirror.

How much fun was your cameo as Sarah Lund on AbFab (see poor-quality video below)?

So much. I thought it was brilliant. Obviously I was in and out but I used to watch them in Denmark a lot and I love them and I thought the idea of having such opposite worlds meet, because The Killing is just the most held back thing you can ever find, I mean nobody expresses anything, and then their universe is so far out, over the top. It was just a lovely meeting.

Imagine a fantasy in which Sarah Lund ended up in the Faroe Isles.

Where the jumper comes from?

She would have been welcome there.

And no one would notice her, because they all wear jumpers there obviously. So she could hide. The perfect place to hide! Just go into a herd of sheep and just hide.

Have you been there?

Only as a child four years old and I got attacked by a ram.

Is it fun wearing different stuff in this?

Oh yes the costumes are amazing. The beauty of this play as well. I personally whenever I have to go and watch especially in theatre but also in film something historic you just feel like yawning instantly even before it’s begun. You feel all the spider webs and the dust and people talk funny and it’s all very stiff, like visiting a museum. I think Rona does the opposite with it. And so with the costumes. It’s true to the period but it’s not a museum.

Do you think you’re going to have to answer questions about The Killing for the rest of your life?

I wouldn’t mind, honestly. I was never sick of it at all. I was a bit sick of the jumper at one point. But it fills me with pride, that project. It’s like a child you made that makes you proud. I would never be tired of it.

What is Fortitude about?

It’s a thriller, takes places in the Arctic. Fortitude is an island and I play the governor. So it’s interesting for me actually that because that’s also an issue about coming to a strange place where you don’t drag hour past with you. I have played Lady Macbeth but that’s the only queen I’ve played. I don’t normally play queens and governors. I normally play the little person against the system. I don’t play the person in power. But I do now. It’s a new world in many ways for me.

Why is that?

Maybe it’s age, that finally you are ready. I don’t know. But maybe it’s also that you’ve only seen The Killing over here, which is wonderful for me. You think, oh this is a woman with authority, this is a gun, she has a jumper and a gun.

  • The James Plays at the National Theatre from 10 September to 29 October


What a wonderful, truthful woman (how could she not be?) I laughed out loud at the jumper bit. And I find it very moving that her character in the James Plays represents the point at which fears - at least from the leading women's perspective - are banished, and yet here is the actress talking about the difficulty of the conquest of fear. She also crystallises for me what that great speech towards the end is all about: 'when you meet something that’s not you and is different from you it defines who you are'. Perfect.

"Only as a child four years old and I got attacked by a ram." Sofie Graaboel gives the best interviews.

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