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A conversation with Icelandic actor Þorsteinn Bachmann

Cinema Scandinavia: Let’s start with your role in The Oath. What made you want to be part of this story?

Þorsteinn Bachmann: The story of The Oath is based on the first-hand experience of Baltasar’s co-writer Ólafur Egilsson, who for years tried to deal with drug dealers in the underworld of Reykjavik in an attempt to save his sister from addiction, only to find out that everything he and his family did only made things worse. I enjoy exploring social realism in film, and after reading the script, which I found quite gripping, I decided I wanted the part.

CS: Can you tell us about your character in The Oath, plus what it was like working with Kormakur?

ÞB: I play a small but significant part. Ragnar is a hard-boiled police detective, a cool and calculated man who may turn a blind eye to a crime if it ‘serves the greater good’. However, you don’t catch him doing that; he’s too smart for it. His partner in crime is played by Gudrun Sesselja Arnardottir, who is a lawyer by profession in real life. She’s worked a lot with the police and served as a public defender on a number of cases, and brought a lot of insight into the interrogation scenes in the film.

Baltasar is ambitious and creative at the same time. He’s a dynamic character; knowing what he wants and going after it makes him demanding, but at the same time he is open to creative input if it serves the story. I guess that’s why he was director, producer and lead actor in this film. It was quite interesting witnessing have a three-way mental conversation with himself on set when it came to decisions of reshooting or having extra days of shooting. But the decisions were always made quickly and in favour of the artistic purposes of the project. We’ve known each other since drama school, which was thirty years ago, and I’ve been in most of his projects in Iceland, including The Deep and Trapped, where I play the unfortunate harbourmaster Sigurdur.

CS: Next year Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson is releasing Under the Tree, which sounds like a rather typical Icelandic comedy. What can you tell us about it?

ÞB: I have a really good feeling about Under the Tree. It’s set to premiere sometime in the middle of next year, and it has a very strong and original script. We shot it over the summer and it went well, despite a lot of overtime, some extra days and literally blood, sweat and tears on location. The few scenes I have seen so far look promising.

The genre is rather difficult to determine, but I’d describe it as a drama with strong tragicomical over and undertones. I play Konrad, one of the leads. Konrad is a clean-cut dentist who practices gunning in his spare time in between trials to conceive a baby with his wife. Konrad gets into an argument with his neighbours over a tree in their garden, well rather the shadow of a tree. This film might surprise people in unexpected ways.

CS: In television, Iceland is releasing the series Case, directed by Baldvin Z. What’s your role in that series?

ÞB: Case is an independent follow-up to the first two series of an Icelandic law and order series called Réttur. There are new writers and a new director. Baldvin Z has teamed up with Andri Omarsson, who is a former lawyer, and they’ve created a new film company called Glass River with Arnbjorg Haflidadottir, who is the producer of Case.

My character is Hogni, a police detective. He’s down-to-each, uninteresting, even boring – at least when it comes to his work. We only get a small glimpse into his creative side through his hobby as a painter. His wife is some sort of new age hippy and she is clearly the dominant one at home. Hogni plays by the rules, is cautious and calculative by nature, even a bit of a slow thinker.

The part serves as a dynamic contrast to the bold, daring and driving lead of the series Gabriella, his partner, who is played by Steinunn Olina Thortsteinsdottir. When Baldvin asked me to play this character he said: “this part will be really difficult for you because I know your thrill for characterisation but this character is totally uninteresting.”

CS: You’ve worked with Baldvin Z on multiple projects. You must have a good working relationship!

ÞB: Baldvin and I are good friends and I’ve been fortunate enough to be on board every major project he has done in his career as a film-maker. This includes Jitters, Life in a Fishbowl, three episodes of Trapped and so much more. And there is more to come, I am set to be in his next feature For Magnea, which is going to be shot next year, and there is also a three season international television series he and a new production company are preparing.

Baldvin is really fun to work with. He is open and sincere. Our working relationship is based on total trust. We have this deal with each other where he’ll always tell me if things don’t work out, if I’m over or under acting and I can tell him about my doubts and fears regarding the project without feeling intimidated about it. This allows for a certain playfulness on set that opens creative channels for me. Things flow easily between us and at best we’re just like frogs splashing in magical waters.

CS: You have a part in the Finnish film Tom of Finland, which is one of the most anticipated releases for early 2017. What can you tell us about it?

ÞB: I only have one scene in Tom of Finland, but it’s a good one. I haven’t seen any clips yet but the producers tell me it will be fantastic. For me, it is easy to believe. From the stills I saw of Berlin, where my scene was shot, and meeting with Dome Karukoski and the main actor Pekka Strang I sensed there was a high level of artistic beauty in the making. It is a story of one of the most influential artists of modern gay culture and it will have a much broader audience appeal because it’s first and foremost a story of human dignity and striving for artistic and personal freedom

CS: It sounds like you play a very diverse group of characters. How much of yourself do you put into each role? 

ÞB: I like transformation and I like characterisation. I also enjoy it when people don’t recognise me in films. Yet, I always play myself. I don’t like to illustrate or simply inform the audience. Being in the moment is the main key on set. As for preparation, I use my imagination and some sort of channelling when creating roles. I like to think that I am in service of the project and I try to be inspired always. I want something bigger than my own ego to pass through me and I try to have fun while I’m at it.

CS: When approaching a new project, do you have a preference on genre or narrative?

ÞB: I like to know who’s on the job and I like to get a sense of the standard of it. Low budget films with first-timers don’t really appeal to me anymore. I like to meet the director and I like to read the script. Social realistic drama is my forte, but I enjoy comical roles as well. I do a lot of theatre and direct in theatre, and I also teach drama where I have the time. For me, it is more about the ensemble of the project; who I’m working with and if there’s trust between us. Working with a group of true artists is a holy ceremony in itself. So, I guess in that sense, film is my church.

CS: Since you have such a major role in the Icelandic film industry, what are your current thoughts on how its progressing both internationally and locally?

ÞB: The Icelandic film industry has been booming for quite some time, despite the domestic market being small and financial resources rather limited. In the last few years, the international market has started to open up for Icelandic material like never before. We’ve somehow managed to ride the Scandinavian wave of international success.

We are also rather blessed with a unique landscape, and we have learned a thing or two from working with foreign companies and crews in the local ground. We have 25% tax reimbursement programs which also helps. As a nation, we are competitive and hardworking which is fundamental in film-making.

But still, we can do better in many fields, especially in the preparatory stages. We can still make even better scripts, have more financing opportunities and improve the working facilities to far greater extents. In short, we could be better financed and more disciplined, but hopefully without losing the creative touch.

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.