Denmark’s most wanted: An interview with Nicolaj Kopernikus

Cinema Scandinavia: Last year The Reunion II was the second biggest film in Denmark (only beaten by The Absent One). Can you explain what it is about?

Nicolaj Kopernikus: The Reunion is a comedy about three guys who are middle aged and are encountering all the problems men have when they are getting older. It became a big success in Denmark, and the sequel has the same three guys and became an even bigger success. I think men and women can relate to these problems. And women like to laugh at men having problems with getting older and they think in a certain way they can get behind-the-scenes – they see things they have [only] heard about.”

CS: You’ve played completely different roles in The Killing and The Reunion. Do you have a preference?

NK: It’s like asking ‘what do you like best – theatre or movies?’ To be honest I don’t think you will become a good actor if you only make television. Theatre is the basic platform for being a good actor. And it’s a long run – you work with your character in a certain way in the theatre that you don’t do in television and movies. I like working with television and movies and sometimes I like to get back to theatre and work deeper and sometimes make things that will last longer than life. And the same question is comedy/drama – it’s the same nice thing about flexibility. Because the comedy thing is in my opinion more difficult – it’s very difficult to get people to laugh. I think the best thing about comedy is when there is a serious curtain behind. Charlie Chaplin is a very good example. He is very funny but in a way he is also very sad. And I think there has to be a real person behind the comedy. Otherwise it is just mad. It is very difficult to make people laugh because everyone finds different things.

CS: What was it like playing the bad guy in The Killing, arguably the biggest crime series in Denmark and then abroad?

NK: It was crazy – I remember after two weeks working the director came to be and said ‘there is a letter and it says somebody very close to the Birk Larsen family is the killer’ so I didn’t know. He actually told me that I could be the killer. He told me in such a way that it could be me. The next day he came and I told me that I had never heard about this letter and I should just erase everything. He sounded panicked, and then the leader of DR [Denmark’s public service television] said that nobody will ever be able to know who the killer was and even the writers didn’t know it yet. The directors didn’t know. Nobody did. And people [the actors] were very mad – because how are you able to act if you are the killer?

But I understand why they did it now. The day came when the last two episodes were to be shot and we found out it was my character who was the bad guy. It was kind of a shock, but due to the director telling me about the letter I had an idea that it could be me. When I was shooting – for instance, in the funeral scene where we are having Nanna Birk Larsen’s funeral – I was sitting there and thinking ‘if I am the killer, what kind of attitude do I have? Who should I play?’ I decided when we were shooting one of these very important scenes I would play different characters so they could edit it the right way. So I made one shot where I was crying, one shot where I was stone faced. So I just gave them the opportunity – I never told anybody about it. It was my own little secret. When we got to the last two episodes and we shot a scene with Nanna’s little brothers, I had to talk to them about a dog and it was so difficult to play because I knew I had killed their sister. I wasn’t able to play it because am I supposed to look mean? These [last two] episodes were very difficult to play because it was much easier to not know. So I realized that it was a very big gift to us – a present to us from the writers – that we didn’t know who the killer was.

CS: And what was it like when the series was airing in Denmark?

NK: Everybody talked about it. It was like ‘Who Killed Laura Palmer?’ We weren’t able to know how big it was; every single person in Copenhagen and Denmark was talking about it. They all had their own ideas about it. It was crazy – but I found out a very fun thing. They kept asking me ‘Who killed Nanna Birk Larsen?’ And I found that if I said ‘Oh I know it – do you really want to know?’ they’d say ‘no no no no don’t do it’ – it became a good way to avoid all these questions.

When the last episode finished airing in Denmark, within five minutes there were two or three television companies outside my door and they wanted to have interviews. The next week we [the cast] did a lot of interviews and I was afraid that people couldn’t understand that I wasn’t Vagn. I was scared that somebody would beat me up and say ‘why did you do that?’ but instead people came and hugged me and thanked me for making a very good television program.

CS: After such a large success in Denmark, The Killing was remade in the United States. What do you think about remakes?

NK: I can understand why people want to do their own way of the same story. Sometimes I wish they just bought the original one. Like, for instance, The Killing – I think the remake is not half as good as the real one. But I mean, of course, people want remakes because they are afraid that their country and their people don’t understand the atmosphere and they want to change that. We are luckily very different people on this Earth so I don’t really have any thought about remakes – I like the original ones.

CS: Nordic Noir became huge in the United Kingdom. Do you have an opinion on why do you think it’s become so big?

NK: It’s hard – 1864 had a totally different production value and a different way of doing it. I think it’s the way we work. We don’t have a lot of money in Denmark. We are producing things in different ways and the character work and the way of shooting it stays on a tradition where we don’t have a lot of ways to do it. Some of the earlier television series used handhold cameras because it takes less time to shoot. I also believe it’s related to the economy and the way of producing. We don’t have a lot of choices so we pick some and take chances. For instance, we have these Dogme movies with Lars von Trier and those were movies where they were thinking that the acting is the most important thing so they made these rules about no lights and no make up – really realistic. Nordic Noir is inspired by that. The most important thing is the acting and the relation between the characters and of course you have a lot of production values and a lot of ways to make things scary, but the focus is the acting and the actors.

The truth is that we have been inspired by the UK and the USA. We don’t think that we are at a certain level. We go to work and we are shooting but of course if you get some very realistic things in the camera then you get the character and the acting, and the story is what makes a very good backbone. Now you can sell everything at the moment because everybody is loving television from Denmark!

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.