By Signe Hansen | Photo: Bjarne Bergius Hermansen, DR
A West End musical, a hit TV drama and an upcoming film by double Palme D’or-winning director Bille August: just four years after graduating, 30-year-old Birgitte Hjort Sørensen has managed to land leading roles in all of them. No wonder the pretty Dane sounds a little out of breath when Scan Magazine catches up with her.
Ready for the sell-out musical Chicago to commence at the packed Cambridge Theatre, the unmistakably Danish name of one of the actresses caught my eye. It was 2008, and fresh out of drama school, the then just 26-year-old Birgitte Hjort Sørensen dazzled as the sly, sexy Roxie – one of the play’s two leads. Still, I am a little surprised when, four years later, I realise that my interviewee is the very same Birgitte. Today, she is best known for her role as Katrine Fønsmark in the internationally acclaimed drama series Borgen and has just finished filming for her title role in Bille August’s upcoming film Marie Krøyer.
When I get Birgitte on the phone, she has just jumped off her bike outside her flat in Copenhagen’s bohemian Vesterbro neighbourhood. “I just need to lock it, then I will be there,” she says slightly out of breath. I have been lucky enough to catch the multifaceted actress on a short break before she starts filming the third season of DR’s drama Borgen. The Danish series, which recently finished its first season on BBC Four, has been sold to more than ten countries and, a bit unexpectedly, brought its cast to fame in and outside Denmark. “It was a big surprise. I don’t think that any of us ever imagined that people outside of Denmark would want to watch something in Danish,” she laughs. “But we are thrilled, proud and amazed that people have taken to it.”
In the series, Birgitte plays a dedicated and successful journalist struggling with conflicts between her personal and professional life. “The problems that we bring up in Borgen are somewhat universal; it is about what power does to people and how you combine your personal life with a highly demanding public life,” explains the actress, who has, although single and obviously not involved in the same scale of drama as her character, experienced a bit of turmoil herself. “I don’t think I struggle as much as she does,” she stresses. “But I can definitely feel a difference from when we started shooting and nobody knew who I was. Now a lot of people recognise me; it is not a problem, but I am a bit more aware of people.”
A comforting hug from a legend
The conflict between ambition and personal life was also a major cause of trouble in the life of the painter Marie Krøyer, whom Birgitte portrays in Bille August’s upcoming film of the same name. The film will be the first one filmed in Denmark by the director in 25 years, and, although performing in front of London’s demanding West End audience just six months after graduating from drama school did not break the young actress’s nerves, Birgitte admits she did feel the adrenalin pumping when she first auditioned for probably Denmark’s most celebrated director. “The first time I met him was six months before we started shooting, and I was really nervous about the whole thing, because he is so legendary,” she recalls. “But the moment he saw me, he gave me a big hug and thanked me for coming to the audition, and I thought, wow, this is a great way to start. He is very sweet, and he treats everybody, not just the actors but the entire crew, with a lot of respect.”
The challenge of having a nervous breakdown in three minutes
Marie Krøyer depicts the title character’s struggle to combine her own artistic career with a troublesome marriage to one of Denmark’s most talented painters, P.S. Krøyer, around the beginning of the last century. Staying true to the time and history without alienating a modern audience was, says Birgitte, one of the greatest challenges in her career, and the difficulty in capturing the light and colours recognisable in the artists’ paintings on film did not ease the process. “There was this one scene which we needed to shoot at the break of dawn; I had to have a complete breakdown, and it all had to happen within like three minutes – that sort of added some pressure.”
But adapting and changing roles has never seemed to be a problem for the versatile actress, who first gained recognition in the role of Roxie Hart in the immensely successful Danish adaption of Chicago at Det Ny Teater in Copenhagen. Her performance also landed her the same role in London, but although the actress says playing Roxie in the West End was “a dream come true” and that she “enjoyed every second of it”, she never meant or trained to become a musical actress. “I just always enjoyed singing and dancing, and Chicago was one of maybe three or four musicals that I really wanted to do,” she says, and with a small dry laugh adds: “I think of myself as a dramatic actress; when I was in drama school, I always thought I would do a lot of Shakespeare – but not that many roles come around.”
Following Denmark’s hot men abroad
Among the many parts Birgitte has played is the role of the quick-witted secretary Beate in the Danish film At World’s End. In the film, she plays alongside two of Denmark’s biggest (and handsomest) stars, Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau; an experience which she laughingly calls “a treat”. “I was almost just out of drama school when we did it, and I was scared out of my wits being with these two super actors – very handsome as well. But they were so sweet, it was like they took care of me and showed me the ropes.” Nikolaj Coster-Waldau has since gained international success in his role as Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones, something which, Birgitte believes, confirms that good acting skills can transcend borders. “The last five or ten years, more and more Danish actors have tried to make it abroad; earlier you did not really think about having a career outside of Denmark, because it seemed impossible, but more and more are starting to break down that barrier and, of course, if one does it, it makes it easier for the next.”
Regarding her own dreams and plans, the young actress is just as open-minded as one would expect from someone who has already been as far about as she has. “I really enjoy travelling with my work; it is so fascinating to meet people from the other side of the world and just be able to work together instantly, and obviously there are new challenges to be found abroad,” she says.
Whether we will next see her again in a musical in London, a Scandinavian TV series or a Hollywood drama remains to be seen; I for one would not be surprised by anything.