By Paul Risker.
There are those projects that stand out in stark contrast to what has gone before, which engulf the individuals involved. 1864 (2014) is one of those moments, and as the young Danish actress Marie Tourell Søderberg, who stars in the epic war drama, explains: “This is by far the most expensive TV series in Danish history, and on the first day I was on set I was surrounded by one thousand extras, and a crew of one hundred and fifty people. I had to do this very emotionally challenging scene in which I break down and faint out of sorrow in front of all these people. I am used to doing Scandinavian kitchen dramas with a crew of twenty people and maybe three actors in the room [laughs], so this was quite intense.”
No stranger to history, whether it is delving a half of a century (or a century and a half) into the past, 1864 offers Søderberg in her words: “The possibility of exploring the time from within a character.” As recently as last year, Søderberg stepped into the past when she played Iben Nagel Rasmussen in the 1960s set drama Steppeulven (2014), which tells the story of her character’s love affair with peace-activist-turned-lead-singer of Steppeulven, Eik Skaløe [Ola Rapace]. And in Sex, Drugs & Taxation (2013) Søderberg encountered a modern chapter in Danish history with her 1864 co-star, Pilou Asbaek. Therein her career helps the film to merge past with present, a subject upon which she reflected during the course of our interview.
In conversation with Film International Søderberg reflected on discovering her career at an early age, interacting with the UK audience at Nordicana 2015, and the golden age for actresses within television drama.
Why a career in acting? Was there that one inspirational or defining moment?
In the beginning I think it was actually acting that chose me. I remember when I was in first grade and I dressed up as a parrot in school just for the fun of it. I had this plan to stand in the middle of the schoolyard because I wanted to sing this famous Danish parrot song, and I wanted the whole school to listen to me. When I told my parents what I had done, they probably thought: Oh I think we might have to get that girl into some children’s theatre, or something like that. And when I started there, I just knew that I was in the right place.
A couple of years after I started doing film, I remember there was this one scene. I was in a car next to a guy who played my father, and he was crying. I just sat there watching him, and the awkwardness was at one time the awkwardness of me at eleven-years-old sitting beside some actor who was crying, and at the same time the awkwardness of this girl; the daughter of this father. I then realised: wow, the only thing I need to do is just to be here; to be present and feel what the character feels. And it was such a wonderful moment because everything inside you just stands still. You are more present than present, and I have been pursuing that feeling my entire life.
I have been so lucky to have known what I have wanted to do for such a long time. Sometimes I think it is a really hard career to be pursuing, but it is working out so well for me and I have just been so lucky. It has just been coming to me from an early age.
Behind every role there is the story of an actor’s rendezvous with the character. What is the story behind your rendezvous with 1864’s Inge Juel, and is there a defining moment of this encounter?
I graduated acting school three years ago, and it was during my last three months there that director Ole Bornedal called me and offered me this role in 1864. I could just feel this happiness around my body [during the scene when I had to break down and faint out of sorrow in front of over a thousand people] because it was my dream come true standing there in the middle of everything; standing on this big battlefield with all of these people.
You refer to the scale of 1864, but looking back what were your initial expectations heading into the experience?
I think I expected it to be huge because of the budget and the possibilities that this gave it in terms of a wonderful cinematographer and crew, the best of the best. So I was excited about it because it was like top of the pops and I of course read the script and found it fascinating, and to also work with Ole, who inspired me. So I had great expectations, but I also had high expectations that people would have a great experience watching it when it came out, because it is completely different to what we are used to in Denmark.
And in hindsight were your expectations realistic or did the experience yield the unexpected?
There is always a difference between expectations and reality. It was especially different being here in London because Nordicana has created more equality with my own expectations following the reception of the show. People here have been even more positive than I would have ever expected. They have been coming over to me crying and telling me how moved they were; how much it meant to them and their perspectives on life and such. It is very rewarding to be a participant of a film and then deliver it to an audience when those kinds of reactions come out. So here at Nordicana and following its airing on the BBC, it was even bigger than I could ever have imagined.
1864 is not the first time you have stepped into the past, recently playing the role of Iben Nagel Rasmussen in Steppeulven. Is the exploration of the past something that interests you?
Yes, I definitely have an interest, and when I worked on 1864 I loved how I had nearly a year to just prepare myself. I read history books and I also read about the literature, the music and the arts…all kinds of things. So it really interests me, and it is a completely different aspect than just being an actor and acting it out. It stimulates my intellect and the love of going to school. So it is my own school when doing something that is set in the past. This adds something really special to it, but at the same time it is not only the past, it is also about things that could also be happening in our present. It concerns universal themes, such as love and hate. The circumstances are universal in that sense and in Itsi Bitsi, which is the international title of Steppeulven, I had the great experience of meeting the character I was playing. We became very close friends and she is sixty-eight now and lives in western Denmark. She told me: “Marie, you can ask ask me everything, and you can have all my letters and all my notes. You can have my diary… You can have everything. But you just need to know one thing. You don’t have to play my Iben; you have to find your own Iben, and it doesn’t matter if she’s a bit crazy.” Then she gave everything over to me and that was a process of going into the past, but then at the same time finding the present in the past. And just meeting this wonderful character was one of the biggest moments in my career so far, and at the same time having the possibility to act her out.
How do you view the way in which TV, film and, more broadly, storytelling through entertainment have shaped our cultural understanding of the past?
Exactly, and when you make something set in the past then the one thing to be aware of is whether it is relevant to people today. Does it drag on universal themes that people can actually have access to and learn from, or mirror themselves in any way? I think this is by far the most interesting aspect of working with and approaching the character, and if it doesn’t have that universality to it then I don’t think it is interesting to watch today. What attracted me the most to 1864 was the aspect of time: the back of time and lost time; just becoming aware of time. My character starts young with all these possibilities and expectations in front of her. She is a young woman and she thinks everything is possible; she is a woman now. Times have changed and she can do anything she wants to do, but suddenly the war comes and just experiencing it, how she can lose the people she loves gives her entire life a new perspective. I have just started my life now and they’ve died; they will not be able to come back.
When I dug into that I felt the same because I have lost people in my own life, and this shaped me as a person, and I think that’s the same for all people throughout time. Everyone in the entire world knows that feeling of losing someone who will never come back. And finding that perspective of time as eternal by seeing it as something that was going on and then going on for another 150 years. But time is not only eternal. It is something in which you can lose people and your life just like that, which then puts your present life into a completely different context. I think that’s also the same thing in Steppeulven where you have two people who want everything out of life, who want to live so, so, so intensely, and the main character Eik [Skaløe] is like this. He lives so intensely that in the end, he dies. But that intensity really inspired me to look up on my own life as if tomorrow could be my last day.
With Scandinavian television drama offering actresses some of the most compelling characters of recent times, is this an exciting time to be an actress in Denmark and Scandinavia?
You are right on point, and I think this is what is most thrilling and most intriguing right now. I have played two wonderful female characters, and I also see what you see in these Scandinavian dramas. Sarah Lund, the character Sofie Gråbøl plays in The Killing (Forbrydelsen, 2007-12) is such a strong character. The delicacy of the character is there, and also Sidse Babett Knudsen’s character in Borgen (2010-13). These female characters are so interesting, and I have never seen anything like it. But I don’t think it is only Scandinavian dramas right now. I also watch House of Cards (2013-) and the character of Zoe Barnes [Kate Mara] and Claire Underwood [Robin Wright] are so interesting because of the way in which they use their female qualities to become as strong as they are, and they are also so inspiring. I hope that we will see much more of this in the future because it is inspiring to watch and this is the reaction I have received from the audience over here in the UK. They are so inspired by these female characters that they can look up to and that mirror themselves. They are kind of their new super female heroes, and I think that is wonderful.
1864 is available to own on Arrow Films’ Nordic label.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.