The Killing: meet Sofie Gråbøl, star of the hit Danish crime thriller
Link to the original article in The Observer
Sitting in a small Copenhagen cafe, next to her apartment, the actress Sofie Gråbøl is trying to make sense of the cult status she has achieved in Britain thanks to BBC4's Danish thriller, The Killing. "It's amazing," she says. "I can't believe it."
She plays the lead character, Sarah Lund, in the show that has become the subject of feverish dinner party debates and whodunit Twitter speculation. Although The Killing's TV audience is relatively small, at around half a million, it is devoted and vocal.
Previous long-running series, such as The Sopranos and The Wire, which laid claim to a cognoscenti audience, benefited from a DVD box-set boost after broadcast. The Killing, which screens in two-episode blocks on Saturday night (episodes 15 and 16 of 20 played last night), has been able to access another kind of viewer, those who catch up by watching online on the BBC's iPlayer.
The action takes place in November in a Copenhagen that seems full of abandoned locations and is relentlessly dark. According to Gråbøl, the Danes were initially nonplussed by the crepuscular light, as many viewers struggled with their TV brightness settings.
Lund is a tenacious and enigmatic homicide detective investigating the sadistic rape and murder of a schoolgirl. As each line of inquiry has doubled back on itself, the audience has been drawn into an intricate web of political and social intrigue.
The series also explores the corrupting nature of power and unflinchingly examines the hidden fallout from murder – the pain and bereavement – in a way that is unprecedented in television. But the series does not come out of a vacuum. Danish television has benefited from the revolution in film-making that was popularised by the Dogma manifesto. Hierarchies have been broken down and the emphasis on the scriptwriting has increased, says Gråbøl.
"It's strange because I get these emails from London saying you are such a success but I'm so busy working on a stage version of Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, and my ex-husband is working in the Ukraine, so I'm alone with my two kids and I spend all my spare time fixing their lunchboxes and rushing to the supermarket."
At one time, Gråbøl could not visit a supermarket in Copenhagen without being drawn into elaborate discussions about Lund's love life and the identity of the killer.
The Killing (Forbrydelsen in Danish) was first broadcast in Denmark in 2007. A second series has been screened and a third, and apparently final, series is being prepared. "I loved it," she says of the public response. "It was so nice to have real conversations with people instead of 'You were great'; 'Oh thank you'. People would say 'I think it's him' but, as they began broadcasting before we finished filming the series, I didn't know the answer, so I could join in."
The creator and screenwriter, Søren Sveistrup, refused to let the actors know where the plot was going or who the murderer was. They would receive each script just before shooting an episode and right until the last they were left guessing, along with everyone else. Gråbøl knew only that her character, Lund, was not the killer.
One of the most appealing aspects of the series is its absorbing naturalism. There are no car chases, no high glamour and no unrealistic sexual dalliances. There are also three strong women who form the cornerstones of the story. While each is attractive, it's in a credible manner. Botox can claim no credit in this drama.
Lund is particularly downbeat in her style. She wears her hair tied back, dispenses with makeup and is almost always in jeans and flat shoes – and a woolly jumper.
A lot of thought went into Lund's wardrobe, says Gråbøl. She and the film-makers knew that they wanted to avoid the cliche of the woman in a suit in a man's world, but they didn't know what to avoid it with. "Then I saw the sweater and I knew," says Gråbøl. "Because to me it is so on the spot. It tells so many things to me about the character, which meant I didn't have to act them. It tells of a woman who has so much confidence in herself that she doesn't have to use her sex to get what she wants. She's herself.
"Also I was brought up in the 70s in a very left-wing politically active scene and I wore those sweaters. To me, a sweater like that tells of a person who deep down believes in soft values, togetherness. She works in a cynical world and she is cynical herself, but the sweater says that maybe deep down there's a longing to, I don't know, sit around a fire with a guitar!"
Gråbøl says that she has a history of playing emotionally demonstrative characters, quite unlike the cool and distant Lund. In person, the actress who began her career as a 17-year-old playing alongside Max von Sydow in Pelle the Conqueror couldn't be more different to the detective. Now 42, she looks like a warmer version of Jenny Agutter and she's animated, forthcoming and playful. All the things that Lund is not.
She says it was her choice to take Lund in an unsociable direction. She had worked with Sveistrup in a previous Danish TV series and he came to her early with the idea for The Killing. Originally it was going to take place in a small village.
"He said: 'We have a woman detective, a murder and the whole town should be involved. What do you think?' "I said I wanted to play an isolated person, unable to communicate and I'd like her to be at peace with that, so she's not even reaching out."
Lund is so focused on finding the killer that everyone else – her son, her mother, the boyfriend with whom she is supposed to build a new life in Sweden – is pushed away. There's a stillness to Gråbøl's acting that is compelling, but which gives little away about her inner life.
Yet when filming began, Gråbøl found it hard to act up, or down, to her ideal. Her instinct was to infuse every line with more emotional meaning. "I can't even say 'Pass me the sugar' in a neutral way," she jokes. "It's as if the underlying question is 'Do you love me?'"
Such was her frustration that she couldn't sleep – she knew what she wanted but didn't know how to get it. Finally she realised that the only people she knew like Lund were men.
"I hate to generalise about men and women, but now I will," she says, and goes on to outline her theory that when a woman gives a party she busies herself making sure that everyone else is all right – "Do you have enough salad?" – while men are good at giving themselves. She says she's been guilty of the same feminine impulse in her acting. "I've been running around the theatre making sure everyone has enough salad."
So she began acting like a man for a few days. Her character snapped into place. After that she forgot about being a man and allowed Lund to take shape. But she's had to defend her creation from possible deviations.
At one stage, she says, the scriptwriters hinted that she might have an affair with Troels Hartmann, the charismatic local politician caught up in the murder inquiry. "I rushed into the writers' office and said: 'You are not doing that. It's a sell-out.' I remember saying: 'I am Clint Eastwood! He doesn't have a girlfriend!'" The affair never happened.
Can it be assumed that Lund does not make it to Sweden in the coming series? "We don't want her to go to Sweden, do we?" she taunts. "What's she going to do there?"
The second series is apparently more complex and far-ranging than the first, taking in the war in Afghanistan and big-time politics. And it features none of the characters from the first, except for Lund and her boss.
When I go to pay the bill, the tape recorder is still running at the table. Later, when transcribing the tape, I come to the end and hear this: "Shall I now whisper who the killer is?"
There's a pause, a teasing giggle, then silence. If nothing else, Lund would appreciate the suspense.