Nobel: An interview with lead actor Aksel Hennie

Life changes you no matter what. You will be formed, as you would be in a every day life – if you got divorced, had a child, or if you lived in a small rural town where nothing happened for six years. Everyone will change. If you are in the middle of a war and next to people being shot, next to people shooting or in an environment that is in war then of course you would be affected by it.

Nobel is Norwegian pubcaster NRK’s big premiere for the autumn period. The series is a realistic political conspiracy drama from the creators of The Heavy Water War, and stars one of Norway’s biggest actors, Aksel Hennie.

Nobel revolves around Erling Risser (Hennie), a Norwegian soldier in the Special Forces (FSK). He and his platoon are in action in Afghanistan and are given orders by NATO and the Norwegian Foreign Office. The series opens with an incident in which Erling is told to shoot and kill a child wearing a suicide vest. The opening sequence is incredibly tense and dramatic, before fast-forwarding several months to Erling and his co-workers returning home to Oslo. Within 24 hours of Erling arriving home, he receives a text message from an acquaintance from Afghanistan who is in Oslo – a message that says a woman is about to be killed. Erling flees an event being held by his wife, who works in the Norwegian Foreign Office. The woman about to be killed is Wasima Zamani, who has been picked up by her husband, Sharif Zamani, a powerful landowner. Erling arrives as she is being attacked and has to react immediately – does he wait until he gets confirmation that this is what he was told to stop, or does he act on instinct and prevent a murder?

The days that follow are hectic. While a murder is prevented, another one is committed. Who sent the message to Erling? What does the mission in Afghanistan have to do with it? What does Erling’s wife really know? Erling becomes a pawn in a big political power came and many of those involved only want peace in Afghanistan, but how far are they willing to go?

Nobel takes us into the reality of soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, but the series really questions peace-loving Norway. The series seems to want to reflect on how the authorities in foreign policy and how the Nobel committee actions have consequences for international politics as well as the individual soldier. A mixture of A War by Tobias Lindholm and the Borgen television series, Nobel is sure to travel through Europe and to the English-speaking countries as it is definitely one of the best Nordic series in 2016.

We sat down with the star of the series, Aksel Hennie, to talk about the important themes the series brings up.

What’s Nobel about?

Nobel is about Erling Riiser. He’s a husband, a father, and a Norwegian special force soldier, who returns from deployment in Afghanistan. It’s a story about what happens when a foreign war suddenly is closer than usual.

The series is very political. Did you find anything in Norway that is similar to the themes the series brings up?

We haven’t had a tradition of talking about our missions abroad. We speak of ourselves as a peacekeeping nation. When a country participates in warefare society needs to be open in the sense they debate and discuss what war is and how it works. Everybody knows that we strive to achieve peace, but we also know that we don’t have control of it. There was a report made recently, it’s titled ‘A Good Ally: Norway in Afghanistan 2001-2014’. The report was made after Norway had been participating in the Afghani war and highlights that what we have achieved isn’t that good. It really doesn’t tell that much about our good intentions engaging in war, but after that report, and Nobel, hopefully, will raise the discussion once again.

Our soldiers are definitely trying to make peace, as are many soldiers who are in war, but they are soldiers and they engage in war and weapons. It’s a fine line as we know, and I think it’s about time we start talking about our daily engagement in war and short missions in other countries, and having a more open debate about it in our society.

There have been a string of series/films coming from Scandinavia over the last 12-24 months that have themes of war (often taking place during WWII or Afghanistan). Looking at Norway, how do you think the theme will be received by audiences and in what was is it an important talking point?

Everything I do as an actor/writer/director I want people to be interested in. I want people to be engaged and feel something about about the stories I tell. It can create a discussion or a debate or an open conversation in our society and that’s absolutely something you strive for as an artist.

In the first episode Erling mentions he is unaffected by his time in Afghanistan, but it is implied especially towards the end that he is in fact rather affected. How much does that play a role in the series?

For me it’s impossible to think that you’re not in some way changed after spending any time in a war zone. Life changes you no matter what. You will be formed, as you would be in a every day life – if you got divorced, had a child, or if you lived in a small rural town where nothing happened for six years. Everyone will change. If you are in the middle of a war and next to people being shot, next to people shooting or in an environment that is in war then of course you would be affected by it. It’s like something people say to themselves to make them feel better about it. However, you were affected, you were deployed for two years in Afghanistan and you can’t say you weren’t affected. I was pretty much safe in Oslo during the time of that war and I was hugely affected by just personal, normal stuff.

These new modern wars are new in our mental health history, we don’t really know how it will affect the soldiers, or us as a nation. Any place you are and anything you do will affect you. People will tell you that it hasn’t affected them in a negative way, but we don’t know that yet. You haven’t lived your life through. And if you’re cynical, non-emotional and appear unaffected by it, then that’s you being affected by it. These are my personal opinions and this is what I feel. I don’t know if it’s right, but it’s also how I want the world to be in a way. I don’t believe in cynicism.

As you play a soldier, what kind of preparation did you have to do?

We prepare in all sorts of ways, as you do for every project you are in. We did a lot of physical training to be in the shape that these guys are. But also interviewing and talking to people from the environment and being in the space that these guys are when they’re home. I read all the books I could and watched all the movies I could, but for me, most of the research was talking to people who had experienced both the action of war and to come home ending their deployment. I try to get as much information as possible when it comes to understanding who these people are. They’re obviously a bunch of individuals, and meeting one or two or three is not enough.

After working on some international productions, was it nice to come back and make something local?

For me it’s liberating. It’s my home, it’s my language, it’s my culture and I know a lot about it. This is what I know and this is what I can do. It just feels freer, to me. And to tell a story about this topic in my country, meant a lot to me.

So you did this series to bring the issue to light in your country?

Absolutely! That’s one of the reasons. With that said, I want to tell stories. If this is the best story to tell in Norway, then I want to tell that story in Norway. It all has to do with scripts I read and what opportunities I’m getting.

This is your first major television series as you tend to work more in film. What was the change like and have you been wanting to move into television?

Like everybody else I’ve been watching a lot of television series and there’s been so many shows on right now that have been really, really good. The first time I thought about it was when I saw The Sopranos. I thought that it would be amazing to be with a character for that long of a period. Just to really dive into one character for that period of time and feel all those situations and that process which is obviously bigger. Nobel is eight times forty-five minutes and it’s a lot compared to a movie. It’s not a transition that I figured I’d do “oh, I’ve been in movies before now I’ll do TV!” I just want to do different stuff and television series is intriguing to me. Suddenly the script was there that I really wanted to do. And also Per-Olav (the director) is one of my best friends so that was also one of the reasons I wanted to do it.

Where can we see you next?

I’ve just wrapped a movie called The God Particle, a new movie produced by J.J. Abrams in Hollywood. I came home three days ago and now I’m reading other stuff and trying to decide what to do next, but first it’s all about Nobel.

Upcoming releases

Nobel will premiere on NRK on the 25th of September. No international premieres have been announced.

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.