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Thoughts on Film, Theatre and Norway: An Interview with Norwegian Actor Kingsford Siayor

The public got to know Kingsford Siayor as the teenage boy who played the main character of the Norwegian film Svidd neger (The Black Lapp) directed by Erik Smith Meyer. Since it has been nearly fifteen years the film was released, Cinema Scandinavia thought it was time to revisit it. Therefore, we sat down with Kingsford and asked him about the film first and foremost, but he was kind enough to share with us his journey to become and work as an actor in Norway. By learning about his career, we have a chance to take a closer look at the Norwegian theatre scene and film industry.

How did you get involved in the project back in the early 2000s?

– I was going to high school at the time, and I remember I got a phone call from someone who asked me if I wanted to be in a movie. To be honest, I thought it was a joke made by some of my friends, who were organising a surprise party or something for me. I said yes, just out of pure curiosity, and we found a time and date. When I arrived at the youth centre where the audition was supposed to take place, a person greeted me, but I was really wondering when my friends were going to show up. However, it turned out to be an actual audition. They asked some regular questions and I read a few lines, and then a couple of days later the director called me and said I got the part. I could hardly believe it because I just didn’t really understand what had happened. It wasn’t until I got the script that I understood it was real and I was actually going to be in a film. Later I heard from the director and the screenwriter that they saw me in a school play when I was younger – at the time as the latter was writing the script. So when they were looking for people all over Norway but couldn’t find anyone they were happy with, they contacted me.

What did you think about the script?

– I thought it was funny. It was a little bit on the nose, and quite provocative, if you didn’t understand what it was they wanted to express. At first, I was hesitating whether or not I wanted to even be in the film, but I read the script a couple of times, and then I understood this was just humour. They were just making fun of different types of prejudices.

It has been fifteen years the film came out. Do people still recognise you as the teenage boy from the film?

– This summer I was on a mountaintop with a friend of mine hiking, when someone approached me and asked me if I had played in the film. I had to say yes, of course, but it was so random and weird at the same time – especially because the film was released in 2003. I’m quite a private person, but it’s mostly nice that people liked that film so much and they still recognise me.

You graduated from theatre school nearly a decade ago, and now you are playing at the National Theatre in Oslo. What has the journey from graduation until today been like?

– Luckily, I got a job before graduation, but at the time I didn’t think I was actually going to get one. I was very much thinking about quitting as an actor. In our graduation show, I only got a very small role, and the audience couldn’t even see me, just hear my voice. It was supposed to put us on the theatre and film directors’ map. But I was thinking there’s no chance I’d get any offers because no one could even see me on stage. Fortunately enough, though, I got four job offers before graduating, and I said yes to two of them. So I was working with an avant-garde theatre for three months, and my contract started at the Trøndelag Teater located in Trondheim in January 2010. I stayed there for five years, and then I quit because I felt I needed some more experience in different settings; I needed to see other theatres and work at other places, with other actors. I could have stayed there probably as long as I wanted to, but I decided to move to Oslo. I didn’t have a job when I arrived, but by chance I got a part in a play called Helicopter, a play by Australian playwright Angela Betzien. In Norway, it was adapted and directed by Cecilie Mosli. It had its premiere at the National Theatre in Oslo in 2015, and I have been working with the National Theatre for two years now.

What other plays were/are you in?

– I was in a Sarah Kane play entitled Cleansed (Renset), the premiere of which was in September 2017. Kane was an English playwright, and she revolutionized how we should see theatre. She is brutally honest in her plays that are extremely violent. Cleansed is probably one of the lightest of all, even if it is also quite brutal. It’s about love, and I play the character of Carl, who is a gay man and in a relationship with the character named Rod. Carl has more like a romantic idealist view of the world, while Rod is brutally honest and realistic about their relationship. My character gets punished viciously in the play: his tongue gets cut out and his arms and feet eventually get cut off. So as I said it is quite violent, but I think it is good that people can see something like this. Hopefully, it makes them feel something at the theatre. They can think about society, and how society abuses minority groups: people who are gay or indeed different in any way from the norm. In addition to this play, I am in the Christmas play that premièred in October. So this autumn and winter I’m quite busy. I’m going to move in the theatre since I’m playing so much.

Different countries have different theatre traditions. I’m wondering what the Norwegian theatre is like.

Cleansed was actually directed by Lithuanian director Oskaras Koršunovas, and his way of directing is not Norwegian at all. I’d say in Norway it’s more like a democracy when it comes to putting up a play: actors and the director are equal and work together to find a solution. Norwegian actors talk more about the purpose of their characters with a director, ask more questions than in other countries maybe. This is my experience at least.

Would you say it was challenging to play in this play having a director from another country?

– I liked how Koršunovas directed, the way in which he worked with sound and light, even though it took an incredibly long time to go from one scene to the next. He didn’t talk too much to us about the reasons, rather telling us to stand at specific spots, do something, and asked us to say our lines differently. He really put us into a world where we had to find our freedom.

Was it easy to work with him language-wise?

– We had an interpreter working with us, which made it challenging for us to ask questions. So we only approached him, when we absolutely needed to know something. Otherwise, we just figured it out on our own, and he would say whether he liked it or not. Of course, he knew the play and the lines we were saying, even if he didn’t understand Norwegian, and he could see our body language without hindrance. He understood how we played, and that confirmed to me that body language is much more expressive than words.

You described the play as brutal, and your character suffers a lot in it, so I’m wondering what kind of actor you are. Are you staying in character even at home or do you leave your job at the theatre?

– I never take my characters home. But one really has to work on this. You have to do things that make you happy to find a balance in your life. You have to find a way to let it go, and don’t let it take over and make you sad, for example.

You have played in a few motion pictures, such as films, TV shows, music videos, but played more in the theatre. Do you enjoy playing on stage more than in films?

– I think this is mostly just a coincidence really. I mean I started as a professional actor in film in 2002, but after theatre school it seemed like a natural step to take a job in a theatre and pay my dues, learn my trade and gain more experience. Also, you can only say yes to the offers that are in front of you and they were all in theatre back in 2009, so it was a no-brainer really.

Working in the theatre is also perhaps the perfect blend of having a bit of job security, but at the same time plenty of variety in the roles and plays you’re involved in. I’ve been fortunate to have periods playing at Hordaland Theatre in Bergen, Nordland Theater in Mo i Rana, Circa theatre in Trondheim and The Norwegian touring theatre (Riksteatret), which has also helped mix it up a bit over the last 8 years. But, of course, when you’re under contract at a theatre, it can feel a bit limiting after a while, and I’ve noticed, especially in the last couple of years, that I’m having to say no to more and more film & TV work because I simply don’t have the time with the schedule we have at the National Theatre. With that in mind, I’ve decided that from January 2018, I’m going to take a break from the theatre and have much more focus on screen work. Let’s hope that someone wants to hire me!

But seriously, I’ve always felt really at home in front of the camera and love that experience on being on set and the spontaneity of it all. It’s a very interesting time for the Norwegian film & TV industry as bigger and more expensive productions are being made, and more and more things are getting noticed internationally, and, of course, I very much see the opportunities inherent in that. There are maybe some limitations for me with not looking like a typical ethnic Norwegian, but I chose to look at the positives and when I go to auditions, I’m not yet another blonde, long-haired, bearded Viking type. I also think it’s exciting that in Norwegian children’s television you can see that the actors have all the colours of the rainbow, so for the younger generation of actors and audiences, it’s getting more and more normal to see faces from lots of different backgrounds and ethnicities, which more accurately reflects the society we live in. That can only bode well for the future.

Good luck with all that! Do you think it is important for a person to be in Oslo to make it as an actor?

– If you want to be in films, you need to be in Oslo, because the production companies are located there. However, if you want to do theatre, it doesn’t really matter where you are, because there is a theatre in all the major cities. You could also make your own theatre. It depends on what you want. For example, I have friends who launched their own company and focus on children’s theatre.

Do you have any dream job in terms of playing a character either on screen or in theatre?

– As long as the character is three-dimensional, well-written, and challenges me as an actor, it doesn’t really matter what kind of character it is. But I do have a couple of childhood dreams. First of all, I want to play some more villains, some quintessential bad guys. I often get given the hero parts, and as a person I’m also nice, at least I try to be, so I’d love to play someone who is a bit darker. It interests me how a character with bad intentions gets built up and expressed. As an actor you learn about how human beings are, so I want to get a better understanding of how a person who is considered to be ‘evil’. I might already have an idea, but this can surely change while playing a character everyone fears. At the absolutely other end of the spectrum, I’d love to play a superhero, just like every other kid dreams of.

What is ahead of you in the upcoming months?

– Well, as I mentioned, I’m taking a break from the theatre starting from January, and that’s a bit scary but also very exciting. I guess the big news right now is that I’ll be appearing in season two of the Icelandic TV show Trapped produced by RVK Studios which also made Everest with Jake Gyllenhaal, and the legendary film 101 Reykjavík to mention just a couple. Season one was the most expensive television series ever made in Iceland and became a pretty big international success so I’m really happy to be a part of the next season. I’m not allowed to say too much about the role itself, but we’ve already started filming and I think it’ll be out at the end of 2018 sometime.

Apart from that, I have a couple of smaller roles in Norwegian TV series, which have already been filmed and should be coming out pretty soon. One of them is called Heimebane, and is a big production from NRK/Motlys about the first female trainer for a professional men’s football team starring the fantastic Ane Dahl Torp. The other is this quirky and hilarious kid’s show called Zombie Lars about a kid called Lars who’s, you guessed it, a zombie – and also interestingly uses humour to poke at some prejudices in a somewhat similar way we did with The Black Lapp. Apart from that, I’m keen to do more work outside of Norway, and although I’ve never had an agent before, it seems like it might be time to do something about that.

Barbara Majsa

Barbara is a journalist, editor and film critic. She usually does interviews with film-makers, artists, designers, and writes about cinema, design and books.