An Audience with the Queen of Nordic Noir


The pretenders to her throne are queuing up, but for the time being – and judging by the reception she received when she walked on to the stage at Nordicana – Sofie GråbøI’s status as the original queen of Nordic Noir is assured.

As an actor, she has long since moved on from Sarah Lund, most recently playing the enigmatic Hildur Odegard in the Arctic mystery saga Fortitude and spending a large part of  2014 on the British stage as Margaret of Denmark in The James Plays.  But she readily acknowledges the debt she owes to the success of The Killing and its impact on the work opportunities that have come her way in its wake.

The Killing kind of started this love affair between Danish drama and the British – and that’s really a good metaphor,” she says. “We felt like somebody fell in love with us, and it was flattering and thrilling. Of course we were proud of our work and thought we had made something good, and it had some success in other European countries. But we didn’t expect this wider success at all, and when the British people opened their arms to us it was overwhelming.

“That’s the great thing about this industry, though. The momentum that comes when you have the right series, at the right time, for the right audience, and it just hits home. Even more amazing and moving, the interest is still there. In fact, it’s expanded. So it wasn’t just a fling. It is love!”

Gråbøl thinks the initial appeal of The Killing lay in its exoticism: the combination of an unusual language which provoked curiosity about what was being said, and the famous Scandinavian style which lent a certain fascination to the settings. Today, she suggests that has given way to an exchange of story-telling which has genuine cultural significance.

“Of course drama like The Killing reveals a lot about Danish society,” she says. “All drama is a mirror of the culture it comes out of. How can it be anything else? Let’s not get too serious but this is the whole strength and necessity  of drama: the need for human beings to tell their stories, to recognise themselves in those stories, and to tell them across borders.”

Gråbøl jokes that a small country like Denmark can only be self-sufficient when it comes to butter and bacon, and has to draw in wider cultural references for its drama. She says she grew up watching British television, which has given her a broader understanding of different attitudes to gender and politics. She also acknowledges TV viewers’ general aversion to sub-titles – something she hopes The Killing has helped to break down a little.

But Gråbøl also alludes to the strong tradition of Danish TV drama, established long before Sarah Lund entered the picture: programmes like Matador, the saga of provincial life in the years leading up to and including the Second World War, which is ‘holy stuff’ at home and has survived largely because it was so well written to begin with.

“The big difference The Killing has made is the range of offers I get from outside Denmark,” she says. “But that said, I have been working for 30 years, so it hasn’t actually changed my life. That’s the lesson of success – and the current success of Danish drama. We didn’t make these series with the intention of getting a big audience, then making a lot of series to capitalise on that. If you’re true to your own process and story, it can suddenly have meaning to someone on the other side of the globe.

“I think in the Nordic countries, we have a tradition of telling the small story. Elsewhere, you have TV series that have been on for 50 years! We would never do that. That’s the strength of DR. You don’t produce more just because you have a hit. You don’t let success make you feel you have to deliver or satisfy someone.”

Gråbøl says she chooses projects for a myriad different reasons – the script, the role itself, the colleagues she will get to work with. She said yes to Fortitude because Stanley Tucci and Michael Gambon were already on board. She’s been a Gambon fan since she was very young. But there are practical considerations too. With two children at a crucial stage in their education, she can’t drop everything just for a role.

“The good thing about Fortitude was that I could come and go during filming, and the producers made it easy for me to do that,” she says. “Margaret in The James Plays was a part that I just had to say thanks for – so well written that I wouldn’t want to die without having played it!  But it was tough being away from my children for so long.

“I’ve just finished working again with Søren Sveistrup [writer of The Killing] on a mini-series about an orphanage in 1960s Denmark, and it was brilliant to be back with his writing, like coming home. But right now, I’m just looking forward to enjoying summer at home with my kids!”

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.