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Sofie Gråbøl – a Scandinavian heroine

Fri, May 20, 2011

Cover, Features

By Linnéa Mitchell | Photo: Tine Harden

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She hardly needs an introduction anymore: the lead actress of Danish TV crime series The Killing, Sofie Gråbøl, has captivated the British BBC audience on Saturday nights this entire spring in her role as the murder investigator Sarah Lund. With a second series promised this autumn, Scan Magazine thought the time was right to get to know the woman with the sweater a little better.

Knowing the murderer of The Killing was like keeping a national secret for Gråbøl, as the nation became completely obsessed with finding out who the killer was. Not knowing herself until the very end (the writer refused to give out anything in advance throughout the filming), she enjoyed wild conversations with strangers in Copenhagen cafés and supermarkets.

The first series screened in Denmark in 2007. It has since been shown in other European countries, but nowhere has the success been as big as in Britain. Not that it had record viewing figures, but the audience that did follow the 20-episode murder investigation was religiously attached. “I don’t know what it hit with the British people but it’s such a joy,” says Gråbøl, as Scan Magazine catches her for a conversation during a busy theatre commitment. “Maybe we are related more than we know.”

The fluke beginning

Gråbøl’s character Sarah Lund is the latest heroine of the ongoing Scandinavian crime wave: an emotionally closed police investigator, unable to communicate, who puts her family second due to an obsession with finding the murderer. In Denmark, Gråbøl has been a national icon for 25 years, since her breakthrough role in Barndommens Ga­de (Early Spring) in 1986. She has never been to theatre school and nobody in her family works in the film industry. Since 1986, it has pretty much been non-stop. Gråbøl never sat down and decided that this was what she wanted to do. “I’ve always been very, very privileged and have been able to move freely between stage work, film and TV series, and also in so many different genres. I’ve done everything from comedy to Shakespeare,” she says.

It started very coincidentally when her mother suggested that she should go to an audition for the French/British/Danish production Gauguin (after worryingly noticing her daughter’s lack of interest in doing anything but sleeping until midday and working in a hotel since finishing school). She got a small part and it took off from there.

The creation of a heroine

The scriptwriter Søren Sveistrup had a very clear idea about The Killing: one murder, 20 episodes and a female detective. But it did not stop him from listening to other ideas. Knowing Gråbøl well from their last collaboration Nikolaj og Julie (another success on Danish television, which won an Emmy), he invited her to brainstorm with him at an early stage. Gråbøl, like all creative people looking for a challenge, remembers saying that she wanted to play a character who was isolated, but at peace with that. “He knows what he wants, but he’s always interested in having a dialogue,” says Gråbøl. The character Sarah Lund took shape (with the famous woollen jumper, symbolising softness and avoiding the typical woman-in-suit in a man’s world), although, once settled, it was not easy to get into at first. “I think it’s because it was so much in my bones to put emotions in every line, and I actually found it very hard not to.” All the people she could think of who acted that way were men so she decided to try to act like a man. “And that worked for me,” she says with a smile. But she does not necessarily think of Lund as a masculine character. “To me she’s a very feminine character; she’s just focused,” says Gråbøl. What was new to her this time was to work from the outside in. “I normally work from the inside out. You can catch the character by adding external things and work your way in, or you can go from the inside out, and I think I normally do that,” she says.

Once at ease with the role, she found that she had a lot more in common with Sarah Lund than she thought. “With work there definitely are similarities between me and her because I’m also very engaged in my work. If I get involved in projects, I like to get married to them,” she says.

The clichés

One of the things The Killing has been credited with by almost every critic (almost touchingly, since it is the British press, after all) is its realism and absence of clichés, which Gråbøl does not completely agree with. “What I think is interesting is what the writer does with the genre,” she says. “Because when you are dealing with the crime genre, then you are dealing with clichés. But I think that what he (Sveistrup) does with the genre is showing that it can be used for so much more.”

Consistently describing Sveistrup as a ‘very brave man’ she says: “There is this notion among TV workers that you are always only a click on the remote away from the audience disappearing, and the danger of that is that this fear of boring the audience can make TV… I mean you throw in so many car chases, love stories, shootings out of fear of boring the audience, and I think that the success of The Killing proves that people want to go deeper, and they want to be challenged. They (the audience) want some more solid food. And I think that… yeah, we should give them that,” says Gråbøl.

But, in all fairness, it is not exactly the first realistic and high-quality production by the Danish broadcast industry. From a Scandinavian perspective there seems to be this notion of surprise as to why there has been so much attention paid to Scandinavian crime stories, from Stieg Larsson to Jo Nesbø. The Scandinavian ‘noir’ genre is not new either, so what is it? “I don’t know… But it might be something about the Scandinavian soul. We have Ibsen, Strindberg and Bergman, and a fine tradition of drama that explores the darkness of the human mind. We feel at home with that.”

The future

It is hard to understand how a person who gets ‘married’ to every project she works on can fit it all in (especially since her ex-husband is working in the Ukraine, and she takes care of their two children alone – forget about nannies!). Even so, she is currently working in the theatre doing Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny og Alexander, and come autumn, it is time to film season three of The Killing. Plans for the long-term future do not really seem to have crossed her mind. “I’m a happy person in the sense that the character that I’m currently working on is always my biggest love,” she says. Reflecting on the past, however, she says: “The older I get, I find that I’m much more fascinated by the questions than the answers. When I was a young actor, I would always try to find all the answers for a character, but the older I get, and I think that goes for every human being, the more complex life seems in a way, and the more I actually allow it to be complex. There’s a beauty in that.”

Will we see her in Britain sometime soon? “I just didn’t have the time this time around. Maybe this autumn it would be possible… I really should put on my sweater and walk down the street!” she laughs. Something tells me she would be very welcome.

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