Interview: Sofie Gråbøl talks Liberty, reinventing Scandi drama and wanting to do more comedy
James R | On 03, Mar 2019
Sofie Gråbøl is one of the most iconic actors on the small screen, a status that’s almost entirely due to her portrait of Sarah Lund, everyone’s favourite jumper-wearing detective from The Killing. Her latest drama, Liberty, couldn’t be further from that crime mystery, both in terms of character and subject matter.
Based on the novel by Jakob Ejersbo, the family drama takes place in 1980s Tanzania, where two expat families from Scandinavia have big ideas for change, but in practice, their good intentions to help improve life in Africa come with serious consequences, including corruption, immorality and sacrifice. The five-part series, produced by DR (the Danish Broadcasting Corporation – Denmark’s answer to the BBC) premieres on Walter Presents this weekend as a full box set to stream and download, and it joins a number of other Danish dramas, including Ride Upon the Storm and Greyzone, that are breaking away from the conventions and international stereotypes of Nordic noir. We sat down with Sofie to listen to her talk about working in other countries, reinventing Scandi TV and wanting to do more comedy.
Some of the questions have been edited for brevity and clarity.
This is a brutally honest series about foreign aid and colonialism. What drew you to it?
First of all, the author of this trilogy, he was extremely talented. He was a very powerful writer, born in 68, like myself, and he passed away from cancer, sadly, when he was 40. And his life’s work was this massive trilogy about Africa… what makes this story, and this trilogy, and this book so powerful to me is that it’s not just about… it’s about identity and identity being white or black or European, African. Also, I was born in the same year as this writer, and the amazing thing about being young in the 80s is that this is a very harsh, strong portrait of my parents’ generation, who have been praised and praised and praised – and they deserve praise, my God what a generation, how much they achieved! I find the interesting thing is that it takes some distance in time to actually look at a generation and see what happened, but I think now, we have distanced ourselves enough to be able to look at this generation and this is also very much a portrait of… do you call them 68-ers? Baby boomers? Meaning the generation who gave us women’s rights, the hippies… but it’s also a portrait, a very personal portrait from the author, who grew up in Africa, what it was like to be a child of this generation. Because this generation was so fascinating, so brilliant and so self-centred, which I mean as a positive thing, because that was the drive that made them able to achieve what they achieved. But it’s also the generation with that self-centredness that made them reject everything that went before them, every authority, tradition, every, you know, this was a year zero somehow, which made them able to achieve so much, but also made them… The setting is obviously they go out and leave their own society, their own culture and traditions, with all that morality and norm set, and create their own very idealistic world where they are going to help these people… and all the perceptions of being the doers of good are suddenly faced with… they’re disillusioned. Sorry if I get off track!
How is that reflected in your character and her journey?
That’s also the same story, really. She’s a nurse, and a mother of two, and a very good person, a good mother, a doer of good, and she wants to go to Africa to help, so the tragedy is that in all of these good intentions, she actually, in all her eagerness to help, she actually neglects her own children. You can discuss how responsible she is but to me, it’s a dramatic way of telling that she really is not able to do what’s best for her own children in all her eagerness to be this brilliant doer of good. And also, I think, not that it’s about me, but really good stories, you feel that it’s about you, and I really relate to this, being a child of this star generation, they were like rock stars, and the wonderful thing about being a child of them was the inspiration and freedom and respect – you can do whatever you want to do, you’re not being repressed. But right on the other side of that very fine line is, or was, the feeling of being neglected, not seen, because they were so busy saving the world and liberating themselves and their sexuality and their political ideals. It’s also a story about being the generation after that generation.
How were your parents trying to save the world?
Politically. My mother was very much into the Chinese Revolution and Maoism, so she went to China, we had a lot of Chinese food, Chinese clothes, and she was politically active. I remember putting up posters with my mum. I think it was very much of the time, she was not radical in any way, but it was very much an normal thing in the 70s and 80s. I grew up with my mum. I also had a step-dad – this is really a sidetrack! – who built the first windmill in the 70s. And everyone laughed, and now, the windmill industry is very strong in Denmark. But they lived in one big collective and I remember visiting there and we were going to bed and there was just a big bowl of toothbrushes. And you just picked one! That was how collective it was! So some of it is laughable, some of it, well, today, nobody laughs at the thought of green energy… yeah.
Why do you think Jakob’s books have been so popular?
I think that’s the essence… is that a Nordic thing? Don’t we all love stories that are… nobody wants stories that are painless or harmonic, we want stories that mirror our lives, and that goes, I think, for all Scandinavian drama. When I was presented with this project, I thought it was very bold to produce this. It takes place in the 80s, some people go to Africa, there are lots of actors we don’t know, and it’s definitely not a sure-hit story. But the story is so great, the characters are so great. What I think is bold is that DR keeps challenging themselves and their audiences – that’s one of the things that I really cherish about DR. They never talk down to their audience. It’s the same in a creative person’s life: once you do something successful, you’re tempted to do it again, because once I’ve found the recipe, now I know how to cook this dish people like, but that’s just sure death, because you are finished, creatively.
There seems to be a wave of shows currently pushing the boundaries of what Denmark drama is
We have a great love of traditions, but it’s nothing like the English love of tradition. That’s almost neurotic! You have theatre plays that have been playing since… The Mousetrap? I remember my agent called, just at the start of The Killing, and said ‘There’s a show called Doctor Who, it’s a TV show that’s being going since the 50s’!, but when we came here since The Killing, I met so many people who said ‘What? Where’s the rational thinking in stopping something good?’ We had the notion that we [couldn’t top it]… once you have that feeling, you go somewhere else and climb a new mountain. I think that’s very much in the essence of the way we do drama in Denmark, we’re constantly looking for a challenge, a new constellation, something that makes it hard – and sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail, obviously, but you risk finding something you didn’t know you were searching for.
How do you go about keeping an audience’s sympathy when a character does questionable things?
Well, hmmm, to me, the base is writing. I can’t act something that’s not written. I can add and I can enhance, but if it’s not in the script, I find it extremely hard to show either good side or… but I think the fastest way to identification is weakness, is flaws, is vulnerability. So I think as an actor, I instinctively always look for that first – where are the weak points? Where are the not so clever, not so charming… something that makes them human. But how do you sustain it? I’m never hoping for the audience to like me, but I’m hoping for them to identify. If there isn’t identification, then we’ve all failed, the director, the writer… it’s not really drama, is it? It’s like a fairytale with good and evil. I think any actor would tell you that what makes us very happy and fulfilled is misery, speaking on behalf of our character. We all want to play the uncomfortable, stupid, vulnerable… all the flaws, that, to me, is the first door that I enter into a character. And I’ve always had the feeling that it’s same the door the audience enters, because there’s not a door in the wall if it’s perfect. I find that with The Killing, a lot of people came up to me and said ‘It’s so wonderful that you’re not beautiful!’ And I know what they meant! They meant that we portrayed real people, that they actually believed were real people.
You were in The James Plays at the National Theatre. Would you come back to do more?
I would absolutely love to come back! It was a huge, wonderful and terrifying experience to stand on that stage. I actually, speaking of challenges, I really love to come here and work, and one thing is the language. Which really is challenging. It’s very interesting, you discover how many layers you have in your own language that you don’t even have to think about, because very word in your mother tongue has so many associations and depths and nuances that you don’t even have in a foreign language, so in theatre, I have to really struggle to make those lines lived, that was extremely interesting, I found. Denmark is very small country and we all know each other, or work together, at some point, you will meet everyone in your business, so it’s also really inspiring to go somewhere where nobody knows you. We all find that when we travel, don’t we? So I would love to come back and do more theatre in the UK.
What was it like filming Liberty overseas?
It was extremely pleasant. We shot in South Africa, even though the story takes place in Tanzania. There’s a lot of film production in South Africa, so it was easy for us to come there, because there’s so much infrastructure, and it was extremely pleasant to work with our South African team and actors. You know, the cultural shock I got when I went from Denmark to the UK to work shows that it’s not a necessarily African/European [difference], we just have our ways of working in each country, and we think everyone else is the same. I had a shock when I came to the UK and you really work in a different way. I had the same feeling in South Africa and I think you will have that feeling in any country. Especially in Denmark – we all know each other and we all work in pretty much the same way.
Is there a particular genre you’d like to work in next?
I’ve always been very privileged in meaning that I’ve been allowed to play comedy, classical plays, modern drama, film. theatre and TV, and to me, that’s the greatest privilege as an actor, to be able to move freely. I don’t have any prejudice towards genres, as long as they’re well written. I miss doing comedy. I just finished a film in Denmark that opened this Christmas that did very well that had a strong comical feel to it, I loved that. It had been a while.
What about musicals?
I can’t sing. I wish! That, to me, would be, oh…. It seems like the shortest distance from heart to heart is through music. I have to take the long one!
Liberty is available now on Walter Presents.