Babett Redux

Questions, questions

A couple of weeks ago I spoke to Sidse Babett Knudsen for this article in Diva. She was charming, lovely, engaging etc and said many fascinating, insightful things that didn’t make it to the final cut. It would be a shame to miss out on them. Here they are.

It’s been well discussed that Borgen was a surprise international hit. I’m curious to know if it was also a surprise hit in Denmark? 

It was a surprise that it was so well received. When we started, we came just after The Killing, which was a huge success in DK and crime has always been much more attractive than political drama, so everyone was prepared that it might not be a massive hit. So in that sense, yes, it was a surprise that so many people caught on.

How many years has it run for now? Four? 

We’ve just finished season three, which is showing now, so it’s getting finished.

In the UK, we very much concentrate on fact that it’s about a woman and they do that even more in France, where it’s Une Femme Au Pouvoir, so the fact that she’s a woman in very much the focus of what the programme is about. Was that the reaction in Denmark, or was it incidental that she was female?

It was definitely not as much as I feel that it has been taken in France, and in England as well. It was the story is that Birgitte Nyborg is the first female prime minister and there are certain episodes in the very beginning [where] it’s an important point andwe have a few episodes about gender, but the rest of the time it’s been received as political/private drama.

I think it’s as much a drama about being an adult, about grown-up compromises people have to make. I think you could put man in the role and not have to change too much. 

Exactly, that’s how I see it as well.

Some of it is quite Shakespearean. At the end of series 1, you have somebody who is stripped of everything until they are left with power but nothing else…

Exactly! I’m so happy you say that because that’s exactly how I see it.

We are getting towards the end of Series 2 in Britain and Birgitte is becoming more emotional.


Did that come from you? How much of a hand did you have in the direction the character would take?

It didn’t come from me. There was a “dramatic curve”, like the big story, the development. Her travel was always supposed to be in first season. She starts off being this idealistic, very soft human being who enters the political world and comes in power. Then the first season is about how, what does it cost the human being to have that position and does power eat you up or not?

Second season, the big headline was her getting back to who she really is, so I think it’s to do with that curve, that much emotion at the end. Maybe also because then we can afford it because we’re into the story and we know her as a political character. So now we can see on a deeper level what she’s also made of emotionally.

You said in previous interviews that you felt she was being taken in directions that were too emotional, too unrealistic. That you wanted her to be more steely.

Yes, it was more to do with certain clichés that was the female aspect of her that’s not really necessary. We don’t have to have empathy for her and sympathy, because she is a character we follow, but we can allow her to be more, unsympathetic and more … maybe ‘harder’ is not the thing, but showing her emotions less and being more professional. I sometimes thought ‘this isn’t very professional’, the way she behaved in series one.

Where do we go in Series 3?

Two-and-a-half years have gone by and everything has changed. All the main characters have changed, they’re not where we left them.

She’s got she’s got new glasses

They keep falling down my nose, yeah!

Are you going to miss her?

Erm [long pause] Hmmmmmmmm. I don’t think so. I think that the fact that we did the third season because it was not originally planned.  It was not part of the big storyline; they had to sort of invent the whole new story for the characters in the same sort of universe, so we get to play more things out about the character. I think she’s finished now. It’s a good time that we end it after season 3, but I don’t sit here with the character and think ‘I need to get this and that out of her.’ She’s finished. That’s why we did season 3. I thought after season 2, ‘that’s the story told, very happy about it and the way 2 ends’ but when they started talking about 3, there was some of birgitte in me that hadn’t been done.

What’s it like as an actress, playing character for such a long period? You play the character, go away, do something else, come back. Is that strange?

I feel that I’ve just been there for that whole period. We had six months between 2 and 3 and I didn’t do very much. I did a crazy comedy and it was just on the side, so I think I’ve been very concentrated on this for a little more than three years and to me it’s massive. I don’t understand how crazy it must be for people who’ve done the same part for 10 years or more. Three years is already massive. It’s so interesting because you get so familiar with the part and sort of brave on her account, even character traits that aren’t written in her you see developing in to this or that. It’s so special. Every episode we have a different director or cameraman, so I find that I’m the person on set who knows the most about the character, which I’m not used to, because from film, it’s the director or the writer who you go and ask ‘is she meant to be like this or that?’ Here it was very much my character.

Has playing politician changed your view of them?

It’s expanded my view. I haven’t had the big ‘aha!’ experience, ‘now I see things completely different’, but I definitely know more. Spending so much time with these subjects, it’s become more nuanced and I understand many things better than I did before.

Would you vote for her? 

Oh yeah. Oh no, I don’t know actually, I’m not sure. But in Borgen I would, yeah, I would vote for her.

Helle Thorning-Schmidt wasn’t in power when you started filming Borgen, and then she came to power. Do you think that’s affected the length of the series, as something that was entirely fictional, entirely in the abstract, is now a commentary on something in real life.

Hmmmm No, I think the world’s a very… it’s two worlds apart. I think we would have done the series with or without her. I don’t think it would have made a difference and she would have been in power with or without us.

In this country, I think that we can’t make anything with a female prime minister because it would have to be a commentary on Thatcher because she’s cast such a shadow.

People are very keen to make comparisons, of course they are, but I don’t play Helle Thorning Schmidt and she hasn’t commented. We’ve kept on our own side. Of course, initially, the first time you saw the prime minister being a lady coming out – woaaah – the first prime minister who’s a woman in Denmark! Then you think about her, but Nyborg is nothing like Helle Thorning Schmidt. They are separate worlds.

Have you met her?

No I haven’t.

There’s a US version of Borgen coming out. How do you feel about that?

A bit astounded because we were so, or the writers and everyone else in Denmark was so inspired by the West Wing, so it seems very strange that they should reproduce what we’re doing and also the political systems are so very, very different. I don’t know how that will… do you know if it’s going to be in production? I don’t know anything more about that.

As an actress does it feel weirder to have a remake in another language, or to see yourself dubbed as they do in France?

The other voice is so odd! I’ve only seen two minutes and I went whooooa! It makes such a big difference. I’m so grateful you’re showing it in the original language, it makes an enormous difference. One of the first films I did was a romantic comedy in Denmark, it was called The One and Only and there was an English remake. I only saw one scene from it and it’s nothing like it, so I don’t think I would recognise my work in an American production.

We’re now seeing quite a lot of your work over here. Your back catalogue is being released on DVD:  Above the Street, Below the Water has just been released here. You seem to have the market in grown up women’s roles cornered. You are divorced or bereaved, or you’re in couples therapy.  

Well I’m happy you say that because in Denmark they still keep saying But you’re a comedian aren’t you? Isn’t it crazy for you to do something serious?’ And I keep saying, ‘I have done serious and adult parts,’ and remind them of the films that you just mentioned. Because they get lost in… I’ve done quite a lot of comedy and created comedy on stage and that’s most of what I’m known for in Denmark before Borgen. Right now, Brigitte has been most interesting part I’ve played in this time of my life, playing authority, somebody who… I’ve been playing very emotional characters before, see-through, searching-for-identity sort of characters and it’s been great to be playing a little more intellectual and having the words being important. That was definitely the direction I’d like to follow, if I have anything to say… (laughs)

You play a couple of lesbian characters.


They seem to have a hell of a lot more fun than the married women you play.


Can you tell me about them. Tell me about Lotte in Take the Trash…

Oh it’s just silly! I’ve got a bit silly in me. I went to drama school in Paris and it was all improvised. My acting comes from developing characters – not from text but from inventing characters, writing little dramas for it, clown and very physical stuff. So I’ve done that and when I entered theatre it was also with improvised work, very surrealistic text. It’s only in the late years that it’s become more naturalistic and realistic and adult. I’ve done this thing for four years in the summer, where I’ve played in variety with lots of little sketches and I’ve wrote my own little sketches and developed my own little characters, which I found funny for some reason. It’s a big part of me – comedy is really a big part of me.

If you are a well-known actress in this country who plays a lesbian, it would still be quite a story. Was it an issue in Denmark?

It hasn’t been commented on. What was commented on was in Dolly, she is a terrible person, a sexist. What do you say? She’s got… almost sexually harassing the young woman that she fancies in that film and that’s a bit new. If we show lesbian characters they should be sympathetic because we’re being progressive here. But no… I’m trying to invent something, I’m trying to go in and make conflict. There wasn’t any. It was never mentioned ‘Oh my god, Sidse Babett Knudsen is playing a lesbian!’ I’ve never seen that, anyway.

Maybe you are a perfect, liberal country and we’ll all have to move there. 

Maybe yeah, maybe.

You have a very international background. Tell me a bit about that.

My parents met while sailing in South America. They were both big travellers and then we went to Tanzania for two-and-a-half years: they were both volunteers. Then we stayed in Denmark for school because it’s got a great school system… am I talking too much now?

No! Carry on, it’s great. 

So I had in my blood that whenever I finished school I would go out and travel and go and live somewhere else in the world. So I went to France. It was coincidental, not because I was a Francophile or I just love Baudelaire. I just thought it was a beautiful city. I’d been there once and I thought: ‘I could live here’.  I was only going to stay while I was at theatre school and one thing led to another and I ended up being there six years. Then I went back to Denmark to do a play, Peer Gynt. A friend of mine was directing that and the company I was playing with was just great and they asked me to do another play and another play and now, 20 years later, I find that I’m still in Denmark!

You’ve also lived in New York.

No I haven’t. That has ended up on Wikipedia and I don’t know how to take it off! I went to New York for a month when I was living in Paris and studying because in the middle of doing my theatre school, I thought: ‘It’s crazy I ended up in France,’ because I didn’t have any references to French films. I was raised on American films. So I thought, should I go to New York and try Method, so I went to New York for a month and did different courses, but it was more researching and checking out the different schools there. Then I went back to Paris and I was perfectly fine in Paris.

You are a citizen of world but you ended up working back in Denmark. Do you ever feel constrained by it and get the urge to work in other countries again?

Yes and every time I do, something in Denmark pulls me back every time I get the urge. I did actually go to New York again after a film; it was in 2003. I’d done some plays. I was a bit sick and tired of acting and I thought it was… I was a bit disillusioned by the fact, ‘we have to put on a play… what play can we put on, we’ll take this one.’ It didn’t come from the urge of wanting to tell this story and then we’ll put it on stage. It was just getting a little bit automatic. I felt that I was becoming a bad actress and I thought ‘I have to go completely away from it.’ I’ve always worked. When I was living in Paris, I worked in bars and changing money and I really missed that service, a job which is just a job and you just meet people because of the job and you go home and then you’re finished. I went to New York to become a waitress, which was very difficult because the irony was to go round bars and say ‘I’m really a waitress but I’ve been working as an actress for 10 years – but really I’m a waitress.’ It was not very convincing and just as things were falling in to place, I got a call from Denmark about a film by a director I always loved to work with and it sort of happens every time I think I’m bored, I should go elsewhere… then something turns up in Denmark.

 Would you like to work internationally now?

Yes, I’d really love to.

 Do you have anything in the pipeline?

Only the slightest little approaches, nothing real or concrete yet, no.

Where would it be? Where would you most like to work??

England – I love England. And France, yes.

Do you get recognised in this country?

Well last time in London I did, I was really surprised. I was recognised three times in a day: that was so nice, it was so sweet. The approaches were so sweet, so adorable. It was very nice.

You’ve become internationally famous in your 40s. What’s that like? Does it seem better as you’re more able to cope with it, or do you wish it had been earlier so you could have had more time? 

I got famous in Denmark when I was 30. I just made it before 30. Someone said it was super important to make something before you’re 30 or you can forget about it all, so I just made it. I became famous for that film, The One and Only, which was massive, really, a massive hit and I was recognised in the street. I played this lovely girl and I felt I had to be this lovely girl all the time, be extremely nice and sweet and no conflicts anywhere and dress more and more dull, so people wouldn’t recognise me, “excuse me, thank you, excuse me thank you.” I found it difficult, things like that. So, maybe half a year, then people forget about you. I’ve had that experience a few times: I do something that’s recognised as a scene and people recognise you for a while, then it sort of phases out again. It doesn’t scare me anymore and I can only be flattered if I get recognised in England, of course, because it’s very sweet for people to say ‘Oh I love your show.’ ‘Oh, I hate you, you coke dealer, you! Terrible film,’ wouldn’t be such a nice experience I’m sure

You were easy to recognise at the Baftas. You couldn’t miss you in that dress.

That’s exactly what I’m wearing now! Well not exactly: it’s in yellow.

We’re in Love with Scandinavian drama at the moment in the UK.  

That’s crazy, yeah.

Do you think we have a mutual love affair, and Denmark is also in love with UK drama?

Oh absolutely! But you’ve been our idols, actor-wise, it’s always been ‘the Brits are the best’. Their language, Shakespeare theatre and the classics. I think […]  your class system allows your dramas to have those differences, the hierarchies, which works with drama. I think we’re a little bit envious of [that] in Denmark because from high to low is much shorter and it’s more… we couldn’t do Upstairs, Downstairs, which was big when I was a kid. Really, really big. I loved that! A little bit of American as well, but mostly humour programmes from England, Monty Python and what have you, so there’s much love for the English in Denmark.

We think that Danish TV is wall-to-wall Borgen, Killing etc. But I’ve been there a couple of times and about 90% is imports.

When we see American TV shows, we think America does great TV now. HBO, they’re so daring and edgy and inventive but we see one per cent and the rest is same old, same old, shaky unoriginal TV. I suppose so.

You said in an interview you’ve never watched tTe Killing. Have you managed to see it yet?

No, I haven’t seen it because they promised to give it to me! I specifically said to them the day I finished, ‘Where are my DVDs? and they said ‘well ypou’ll have to buy them!’  So I’ll have to buy them because I want to see them all.

You should watch it. I recommend it. It’s very good.

I’ve seen little bits and pieces, I’ve seen enough to know that Sofie is absolutely perfect in it.

What UK drama what would you like to be in?

Don’t know what’s going on right now. What was the last one I saw? I mean when I think of England, I think it would be fantastic, fantastic to do something, be part of something that starts, not… I loved Sherlock

People obsess over that programme too.

Oh, I can imagine because that’s so inventive and original and still super respective of the story, that’s really well done, something like that and something new, but anything period, I’d love that, any Jane Austen-ish, I’d love that. Yeah, I’ll play the woman who can’t speak, on a horse, in a beautiful hat. I’d love that.

You’re coming to Scotland on Sunday to do THREE Q&A sessions. What will that be like?

I imagine you sort of get in to it. When I’m at festivals, the more time you spend talking about the same project, the more crazy you get about the project: I’m gonna love Borgen by the end of the day! [laughs]

Scotland is crazy about Borgen, I heard. Why do you think that is?

From what I’ve heard, it’s the same size and the political system sort of also resembles a little bit. Yeah, maybe there’s a resemblance there. I like Scottish people as well – I’ve met them abroad but I’ve never been to Scotland before, I’m excited about it. How far away is nature?

Not far.

“Where can I go and find some nature please?” (laughs). I’ve been to Ireland quite a lot, I love Ireland.

What do you have planned for the future?

Nothing that concrete yet. I think I’m going to do a small part in a big period thing about Danish history, a historical piece. I haven’t signed yet, but I think that’s going to be the next big thing then I’m looking at some projects. It would be nice to have a goo  ,interesting, something challenging. After Birgitte Nyborg, something challenging and interesting.

Are you going to have a well-deserved rest?

I will, yes.

And now some quick questions: Nyborg’s scarves. Do you tie them yourself?

I don’t . I get assistance and they have to put in sound. Sound loves my scarf. When we put on a scarf, we want the sound department to applaud.

Who would win in a fight? Nyborg or Lund? 


Yes, physical

Yeah, I’d win.

Who’d win in a fight? Nyborg or Hillary Clinton?

If it was in words, she’d win. Definitely.

If you could work with any director in the world, who would it be?

Oh there are so many and they are all going for first place, I can’t choose one.

Michael Haneke. Ang Lee. Wong Kar Wei. David Lynch. The Irish [director]… In the name of the father, what’s his name? [Jim Sheridan]

You’ve got all four corners of the world covered.


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