The latest Nordic series Øyevitne (Eyewitness, 2014) adds to the UK audience’s seemingly insatiable demand for foreign language crime drama, particularly from the Nordic sphere. With yet another strong female character whose strength emerges through less her physical prowess and more her cerebral and spirited personality, Øyevitne’s Helen Sikkeland (Anneke Von Der Lippe) in the words of Odin Waage, “brings to the table a strong, smart and fearless character… An idol for women.” But offsetting the strong female presence are the two young make adolescents Henning (Odin Waage) and Philip (Axel Bøyum) who bring to the crime story a human layer in which the truth has deeply personal ramifications.
In conversation with Film International, Waage and Bøyum discussed the inspirational or defining moment that set them on the career acting path, their feelings towards contributing to the Nordic phenomenon as Øyevitne steps out onto the international stage. The two lead actors also reflected on their individual processes for lifting their characters off the pages of the script and Waage took a moment to consider the participation of the strong female presence as the continent continues to embrace the female detective.
Why a career in acting? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Odin Waage (OW): I’ve always been somewhat of a sports idiot, wanting to be a professional football player since I took my first steps. But when I was twelve my buddies and I were at a summer school with dance and acting where we performed Fame. I starred as Leroy and when my mom saw the show she was – to my surprise – so impressed with my performance. She read about an audition for a Norwegian film Sammen (2009). I went to the audition and expected nothing. After many rounds of auditions I got the part as the lead character. I think my defining moment was sometime in the process of shooting the film and the response of people watching the movie. During the shooting of the film I got to dig deep into myself, which gave me a wider perspective and a deeper understanding of my feelings. And since then acting has become my true passion.
Axel Bøyum (AB): I have always been fascinated by human emotions, either making people laugh, smile, cry or become angry. So being in a career where I can now invoke these emotions in the audience is what triggers me. Also I have always been eager to find great stories that I love, and if can be a part of something that can bring people in front of the screen, or to go to the cinema and forget all the horrible things in this world and just be entertained for an hour, then I am grateful for that.
With the recent success of the Nordic Noir phenomenon, did you feel any pressure in Øyevitne moving out onto the international stage to continue this trend?
OW: Yes and no. I was more excited about how Øyevitne would be received by an international audience. I guess I felt some pressure concerning whether they would appreciate and believe in my character Henning. Mostly I was glad that the series turned out the way that it did.
AB: To be honest, no. I knew we had a great story to tell and a great thriller/crime series to show, and so I did not feel too much pressure. But I’m glad it was well received.
When I speak with Scandinavian filmmakers and actors I sometimes sense a little frustration at the disconnect of foreign audiences to the crime and thriller heritage that has existed for a long time prior to the international discovery of Nordic Noir. From your own perspective how do you view the place of crime and thrillers within Norwegian narrative fiction?
OW: From my point of view I´m very glad that Nordic Noir has reached out to a bigger audience and that Norwegian film has come this far. I feel that Nordic film is being appreciated by a wider audience than ever before and as the Norwegian film industry grows and the films and series’ being produced have a higher standard, then they are more transferable for an international audience. I´m also thinking about how the interest in film evolves – what people look for and what they are interested to see in films. Maybe the expression Norwegian film presents and offers viewers is a good fit with what the world wants to see.
AB: I think we’re about to find our mark here in Norway. We deliver good dramas and some great comedies such as Lilyhammer (2012- ).
The spatial setting is intrinsically linked to the feel of any drama. Alongside the spatial setting, language or accent will also inevitably play a part in creating a certain sense of feeling. When you look abroad to foreign dramas and then return to dramas in your native language, do you see space and language as something that creates a distinct sense of feeling?
OW: At first I think it plays a part in how I relate to the drama and the characters, but eventually I think it could be more exciting to relate to situations through another language or accent, because it´s new and you get used to the difference in language. I feel you can see familiar situations and conflicts through new cultural filters.
When you first read the script for Øyevitne what was the appeal of both the character and the story?
OW: When I first read the script I was immediately drawn to the Henning character because he was kind of a rough farmer boy. But also because of his relationship with his father and his having these feelings for the Philip character. I found it interesting the way he chose to deal with all the things that were coming his way and I wanted to feel the pressure and the heavy load he carried, and all of the secrets he had in his daily life. I also found the story and plot very appealing – how it all starts and how the story evolves with the killer being revealed within the first minutes, and how it still keeps the tension and excitement all the way through.
AB: What I found most appealing was the insensitivity and the inner-fear my character had through all of the episodes. The director and I worked a lot on how to carry these emotions through each episode. Together we found my inner-fear as Axel, and brought it out as a ground wall for the Philip character.
OW: To understand and build my character I tried to draw his situation into my own life. I tried to understand and build his actions and choices based on his background as an athletic and farmer boy. Also I used similar situations from my own life to understand his feelings.
To pick up on your point Odin about sustaining the suspense there is the old adage of the importance of first impressions. The first episode is an energetic opening in which the chaos of all the various interpersonal relationships and connections that will be forged between characters in the series are feverishly established. How important do you view the opening episode of a television series to be in engaging an audience, and can it be a make or break moment with the audience?
OW: I think it´s important to get the audience hooked on something early on. It can be many things: the mood of the show, drastic actions or interesting characters for example. You want to leave the audience wanting more and it really can be a make or break moment. In my opinion the audience has to be intrigued and hooked.
The audience are fundamentally your collaborators, and the crime drama is fertile ground for this collaborative relationship to flourish. The genre is built upon a game of cat and mouse in which questions are asked and things are revealed amidst acts of concealment. But one of the powerful themes in Øyevitne is not only the fear of guilt through the revelation of a secret, but the fear of how one will be perceived once the truth is revealed. Philip and Henning’s story adds a compelling human layer to the drama.
OW: I think it´s a good thing to add a human layer to the drama. There is this cat and mouse hunt between the police and the bad-guy, but we also have the relationship between Henning and Philip – young love, which I think almost everyone can relate to through the difficulties that comes with it.
AB: At first I did not know they’d had a gay relationship. It was in the last audition round that we got the message that these two best friends that we had auditioned for had a relationship – they were boyfriends. At first it was a shock because I had not seen that coming. But in the end as an actor I just saw it as a challenge and for me it was no big challenge at all because you just put the feelings that you normally have for a girl over to a boy. They told us to watch Brokeback Mountain (2005), but Odin and I just trusted each other and we had great chemistry, which I think is clear in the series.
I’d be curious to gauge your thoughts on a specific point. Recent Nordic Noir has shown a willingness to place the shows upon the shoulders of the lead female character, which is somewhat of a contrast to British and American crime dramas. Are the female characters such as Sofie Gråbøl’s Sarah Lund, Sidse Babett Knudsen’s Birgitte Nyborg and Sofia Hekin’s Saga Norén intrinsic to the strength of the recent Nordic Noir and Scandinavian television dramas?
OW: I think it is. A film or series sitting on the shoulders of female characters is a refreshing view for the audience. Anneke Von Der Lippe as Helen Sikkeland, the main character in Øyevitne carried the series in an impressive way. I remember I saw her reading the script and preparing for a scene, and I still think about that when I´m working with a script.
What do you think Anneke Von Der Lippe’s character Helen Sikkeland contributes to this cast of powerful women who have drawn the attention of the international audience?
O: I think she brings to the table a strong, smart and fearless character. Helen Sikkeland is an idol for women in general, in the way that she handles her family life and her dangerous and demanding work; how she goes her own way and how she trusts her instincts.
How do you both look back on the experience of making Øyevitne, and how has it informed or influenced you in moving forward within your careers?
OW: For me, the experience with Øyevitne has given me the privilege to work with many professional people in the business, and has also given me some good friends. I felt I grew as an actor and as a person during the shooting and after Øyevitne I got a part in a play with the Akershus Theatre.
AB: After the series I played in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time here in Norway, which got great reviews. I’m now working in the biggest theatre in Norway and shooting a TV series in Helsinki. The series was a great breakthrough for me and it’s great to see the series receive attention internationally. I’ve received fan letters and followers on Instagram from all over Europe and so it makes me pleased that people outside of Norway also like it.
Eyewitness (Øyevitne) is out on DVD September 14th courtesy of Simply Media.
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.