Described as one of Norway’s biggest releases in 2016, The Lion Woman follows the story of Eva Arctander, a girl born with hair all over her body.
We attended the premiere of The Lion Woman and spoke to the cast and writer about this incredible story.
The Lion Woman is a film adaptation of a gripping story by Erik Fosnes Hansen, which won the Norwegian Literary Prize in 2006 and went on to become an international bestseller.
In a small wintery Norwegian town in 1912, while the Northern Lights glisten above, a young girl named Eva Actander is born. Her mother dies during childbirth and her father, Gustav (Rolf Lassgård), is left with a child who is unlike anything seen before, especially in this town. She is covered with long, blonde hair all over her body. Gustav doesn’t know how he will cope with this child, and is somewhat ashamed of her appearance. Eva is a child not even a father could love, and he keeps her locked in the house for several years. The father has a visible and important job in the small town, and is afraid of the judgment from the town so punishes the little girl by locking her inside a closet whenever she meets strangers.
Fortunately for Eva, there are so many people in the small town who are kind, and her nanny, Hanna (Kjersti Tveterås), fights her for right to be treated like everyone else. During her teenage years, Eva runs away to travel with a ‘freak show’, alongside other people who also suffer from rare diseases. She saves up the money to attend university and becomes a mathematical genius.
The Lion Woman has very universal themes including loneliness, otherness and cynicism. The film was at the forefront of the Norwegian International Film Festival and has also been promoted as the big release coming from the region in 2016.
We sat down with the films cast, as well as the novel’s author, to discuss The Lion Woman.
Which characters do you play in the film?
Rolf Lassgård: I am the father, who is a station master. During this period that the film is set in (1910’s), in Norway and Sweden the station master in a small society was a very well-off guy.
The story starts when his daughter is born and his wife passes away during the childbirth. In the beginning he resents the child, and it has much to do with the shame associated with it. This well off guy gave birth to a somewhat deformed child and the wife has passed away. That wouldn’t be easy for anyone.
My character is very complex because everyone has seen stories where something tragic happens and the character is no longer there. It’s sad during such a big tragedy. You keep it to yourself, you don’t tell anybody how you truly feel. That is very strange, and I think it has to do with the wife and some strange protection of the child to protect her against the world.
That’s what makes the father such a special character. When you see stories like this the father is only evil. Sure, my character hits the child and can be quite cruel, but we see the nicer side to him as well. He’s not a one-dimensional character.
Rolf Kristian Larsen: My part is fairly small. I work at the station and encounter Eva when she is a child. When I met with Vibeke Idsøe (the director) I was a bit concerned because it’s not that I wanted screen time, but I wanted to have an impact on the story. I talked to her about it and when I read the script and saw my character has an emotional impact on Eva I felt like it was something I could do.
My character is more like a positive force on the protagonist so I felt grateful for that. It was a good part to have because I felt like I could be a positive factor in her life.
Kjersti Tveterås: My character is the babysitter to Eva, and she is a really rare and good female role. We get to follow her over time and she has her own life while being strong yet gentle. She is going to war for this child. She has sacrificed her life in a way. You don’t know what happens to her in the end; she doesn’t get her own family. Women during this time expired a little bit earlier in their lives compared to now. I really like Hanna, I like her as a person. She fights for what she believes in, and is willing to make sacrifices for it.
Was it important to have this influential characters through Eva’s life?
RKL: Absolutely. She is influenced by everyone she meets throughout the story. Mine and Kjersti’s characters were the more positive forces. She meets a lot of negativity and I tried to be like the super uncle to her!
How did The Lion Woman come to be?
Erik Fosnes Hansen: Well, I was discussing with a relative of mine, my nephew, the object of desire. The objects that we feel we need to have in our lives in order to make ourselves complete. It might be the iPhone. It might be the iPad. A hundred years ago it would’ve been the piano. In the 50s it was a radio cabinet. All these things we just feel we have to have.
From there we started discussing what we desire in general, and encouraged the concept that we do desire different things from different mates. Some like their partners to be big, some like them tall, some like slim and some like brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes, curly hair, short, hair. There is someone out there for everyone. We discussed the idea that physical beauty changes throughout the centuries and just within the 20th century how much it changed. We went through all sorts of phases: curvy, slim, you have the Twiggy style from the 60s with absolutely no shape whatsoever.
In the middle of this pleasant discussion I said to my nephew ‘The bearded ladies in the circus hundreds of years ago, you mustn’t for one minute think they were lacking in suitors who were standing outside the carriages or outside their wardrobe. With the little carnages, straw-hats waiting for a date. And then it occurred to me that for these ladies in particular it must have been a slight aftertaste or a slight second taste because they could never be in doubt as to why they were desired. Thus they could never doubt what had been, shall we say, what he saw first. At this point I fell silent. I started thinking what it would’ve been like to them? To be so aware that the first thing in the world around you is your outer appearance, the mask of yours.
And that is how the idea was born – it very quickly crossed with an idea that I had started sketching several years before and then put away. It was about a Station Master and his daughter, somewhere out in the sticks in Norway. It was a short story that I had written but never completed. I couldn’t find my original sketched but could remember the scenery, the station, the small town and the winter scene. The widowed father and the daughter were for some reason a constellation that I found interesting.
How did you decide on the particular disease that Eva would have?
EFH: Once I had the idea a long period of research followed. I was adamant that she should necessarily be a freak in the sense that she is too monsterish. I wanted to write about beauty, but a different kind of beauty. I could’ve made her more into a victim in the sense that she would be appalling but then it would be too close to The Elephant Man. I didn’t want that. I wanted her to be desirable. That was very important. So I made her desirable. And I didn’t want it to be a story about a freak show either. I wanted to tell the story about what happens before she is in the circus – how a child is brought up.
Once those premises were cleared, I knew what kind of syndrome she should have which is hypertrichosis lanuginosa congenita.
On these premises I started writing the book and it took a couple years. It was interesting because I, in the first draft, saw her too much from the outside. I saw what the others saw. So she became too much of a victim. She became noble in a sense. She became the noble idolised victim of some suffering. And that was wrong, but I didn’t see why it was wrong until I understood it better. I’m looking at her just the way the characters are looking at her in the book. So I started to write parts of the book in first person singular and that was interesting because she turned out to be quite a different girl than the one I had originally in my drafts. She turned out to be a bit impish and she was not necessarily nice. She could be ironic, she could be sardonic, she could be mischievous, funny, she could be everything but a victim. And after a while she would look upon the world as though there was nothing wrong with her.
Why should she adapt to the world? Why can’t the world adapt more to her? So that became her attitude, and she’s full of attitude. Perhaps more in the book than in the film. Then she became alive because she was a human being and not a sufferer. She was less of a victim and more of a great girl.
What was it like when you got the call saying they wanted to adapt the novel into a film?
EFH: The French writer Boris Vian, who wrote the film The Foam of the Days and the anti-war song Le Déserteur, was the concept of the very idea of coolness in Paris in the 1940’s and 50’s. When he saw one of this movies being adapted into a movie, I Spit on Your Graves, he actually died in the chair during the premiere screening because he was so angry that they, in a way, ruined his idea of the novel. So it’s a big movie, but we lost an author.
Different authors have different experiences with this, and most of them are positive. I happen to know the producer and the director personally. We’ve known each other for twenty years. We had no barriers to overcome and we didn’t have to use time and energy to establish a confidence.
So it was actually a remarkably undramatic process. We had very few, if any, conflicts about anything. We had to change or add another ending to the ending of the book because the book ends on a rather dark and sombre note. And that’s okay in the book, but the film functions on an entirely different visceral level. So it had to be a visual expression of the warmth and of the kindness and love between a father and a daughter.
It was important to find the right visual for that, and that took some time until I started wondering if I should have done that in the novel? Should I have put an epilogue to the book? Otherwise it was remarkably undramatic and a conflict-free process. I was trying to think about Vibeke’s needs more than my own, because I felt sure that she knew and saw the intention of the story. I felt very confident that she saw and understood what the focal points of the story were.
I mean that’s the visually appealing side of it but it’s also the relationship between the father and the daughter, and of the daughter and her surroundings. Diane Setterfield says in a preface to The Lion Woman that Eva is being observed but she also observes. So that was an important facet to it. I wanted Vibeke to feel that I was there and she could ask me about it.
Did you use the novel as a source for your character?
RL: Absolutely. First I started with the script. We immediately started to talk about my character. How do you play a man who doesn’t show anything? That would be fairly boring after a while. I got one chapter from the novel, the night after the wife passes away when he’s sitting and thinking about sorrow. He goes down to see some animals and seems to show no reaction at all.
That’s how we started the discussion of how to work with this character. I think the solution was to try and show his different sides. He would always said no at first, but then would allow certain things as long as they were what he wanted.
Sometimes the script is one thing, and the novel is another. These are, of course, very different art forms, but you can use it to have a lot of material in your mind. You get so much material, which is great to use during filming.
RKL: When something is adapted from a book there is a great source for research. So I read it to try and understand the story. What we are going to tell. And what part do I have in telling that story? Even though my role is small in regards of the screen time, I feel that I have a very large impact on her story.
KT: I really liked Hanna. The fact that its build on the book means that I feel like I really know her. I understand who she is. You get a better perspective on who that person is. I had an idea about who she was and then I think I got further inspiration from the book. But when I act in a situation I feel that it’s me instead of Hanna who gets upset with Gustav about the way he treats Eva. So in a way I could’ve been Hanna.
Why was the film set during a historical period?
EFH: If I had done it today or even after 1925, there would’ve been a culture of visibility and visuality, which would have been much more emphasised in this story because the press photography didn’t technically break through until the late 1920’s. That’s when it became technically possible to have more photos in the press. I didn’t want that. I wanted her to exist in this pre-visual world. Where you could see sketches in the newspapers and not photos.
I wanted her to be described, not depicted. For that reason I wanted this to be a commentary on our highly visual culture. Today we have seen absolutely everything, not only do we know what the Prime Minister of Norway and her husband look like, one hundred years ago most people lived their whole lives without knowing details like that. These days we’ve seen science, we’ve seen galaxies, we’ve seen the conception of a human being. We’ve seen it all. It’s interesting today that we’ve so many varieties of the human body. That the spectre of tolerance that most of us have towards the anomalies is actually narrower now than perhaps one hundred years ago.
So it is a commentary on the paradoxical side of the culture we live in. 1912 seemed like a good year for her to be born.
RL: It’s also important for my character because it’s at a time when the mother took good care of the children, it wasn’t like today where both parents are taking care of their children. But for a father to be left alone with a child like this, it’s very different.
It seems as though Gustav was very protective of Eva, despite not showing it.
RL: I think he was afraid to leave her alone. He didn’t trust the outside world. He was insecure in a way, not wanting to leave Eva in a situation he can’t control.
Why didn’t he reveal the drawings in the end? It was such a sad ending.
RL: Maybe it is easier to think that when she moved out of home he drew them. But I personally like to believe that he’s been drawing some of them when she was at home. He doesn’t want to seem weak.
What was it like to work with the effects of converting the actress into Eva?
RKL: I don’t do too much CGI. I’ve done one film where it was just green screen and that was quite hard. So for this film there were some blue screens and green screens around, but I always had a human there to interact with and who I could relate to, so I just focused on that.
KT: I didn’t have to interact much with it. They had the animated baby and it was quite strange to work with that. I find it more strange to act against a piece of tape when the actors aren’t standing there!
Do you believe this could be an internationally popular film?
RL: This is a Norwegian film that has an international touch. The story is growing and its showing, but I think you get more of a personal touch that makes it a Norwegian film and a Norwegian story. I can’t see the station master in Buenos Aires or something.
RKL: I think it will have international appeal; it does have a big production value and you can tell for sure.
KT: I think the story could’ve happened anywhere in the world. The aesthetics are from a small Norwegian town, but the issues we deal with are universal.
What’s the next project for everyone?
KT: I work a lot in theatre in Oslo, so I’ll be doing more stage plays.
RKL: I have a lot coming out. I have four premieres this year, so this is a busy year. I did Last Summer with Henrik Martin Dahlsbakken, and next month I have a part in The King’s Choice, which will premiere. Also I had a small role in the upcoming series Nobel, which is also about to premiere in NRK.
RL: I have just started an American movie which was shot a little bit here in Norway, between Toronto and Lofoten. It’s called Downsizing and is directed by Alexander Payne.