Borgen actress Sidse Babett Knudsen tells of her surprise at international success
BORGEN, translated from Danish, means ‘castle’. Edinburgh has a castle. An omen, perhaps, of the international success awaiting BBC 4’s imported Bafta-winning political drama of the same name.
Judging by the number of people who turned out to see actress Sidse Babett Knudsen at the Filmhouse last weekend, Borgen certainly appears to have captured imaginations.
That there’s an affinity between Scottish and Danish viewers should come as no surprise. Relations between the two countries hark back to the 15th century, when James III married Margaret of Denmark in 1469.
Ironically, the one person caught out by the success of the series was its star.
Resplendent in a designer tartan suit by Patrizia Pepe, the petite 44-year-old recalls: “When we were shooting the second season of Borgen, the first was just being aired in Denmark.
“We were working like maniacs, so I didn’t follow any papers or anything. I just asked the producer, ‘Is it going all right? People like it?’
“‘Yes they do.’
“‘So we should be proud.’
“‘Yes, you should.’
“So we just went to work. We didn’t think about any international interest. That was good, otherwise I think it would have been a bit overwhelming.”
In the series, Knudsen plays Birgitte Nyborg Christensen, Denmark’s first female prime minister, and charts her struggles to keep her government in power while simultaneously fighting to keep her family intact.
Comparisons have been drawn with the US drama the West Wing, in as much as it focuses on politicians with a vision of changing the world for the better, eschewing the cynicism more normally associated with political thrillers.
Recalling the moment she realised Borgen had become an international hit, Knudsen says: “That was definitely when we went to the Baftas. You see, you just never know. In Denmark, when you read in a paper that apparently people are watching in the UK ... well, it might be three people. Let’s be realistic. But then, when we went to London and won the BAFTA ...
“I did not think we would win. I thought they were being polite, but people are not polite in this business, that was when I realised that people really loved it.”
If ever evidence of that was required, you need look no further than the Filmhouse screenings that brought Knudsen to the Capital last Sunday.
Staged to promote the DVD release of the series, a spokesman for Arrow Film’s Nordic Noir label revealed how a single, low-key screening became the hot ticket of the weekend.
“Although upgraded to a larger cinema, the first screening sold out in six minutes. Another screening was added. This went on sale the next day and sold out just as quickly. Finally, a third screening was added and that, too, sold out.
“The original plan was to hold one screening in the small screen at the Filmhouse, we sold out three screenings in the large cinema, that almost 900 people – unbelievable stuff.” For Knudsen, best known in Denmark as a film and stage actress, the role also marked a change in direction. It was, she admits, an ‘unusual job’ for her to accept.
“What attracted me to Borgen was the fact that it is not an episode drama, where we are constant in our roles.
“It develops and is tailored and, of course, the uniqueness of that position, of being prime minister, the top of the pyramid in Danish politics, that was too good to say no to.”
Creating the character was a collaborative process Knudsen reflects. Giving an insight into how she approached such a challenging role, she says: “I did my research, but after that it was important to stay with the tale that is being told; to stay with the fiction of it. My imagination is very good and I preferred to create her from inside. I knew her journey and I knew I’d want to keep people interested in her, so I didn’t make much of a character to begin with.
“Instead, I tried to create something that could be moulded. That way she could be formed by her office, by how people treated her as Prime Minister, and by the lines I was saying.”
An ‘organic, physical and reactional process’, Knudsen is justifiably proud of being involved in the series at every level.
“They knew when they chose me for the part that I like to collaborate. Only two episodes had been written at that point. I had to say yes to a journey I hadn’t read. So we made a contract that I would be in meetings with the writers after the second draft and again after the fourth and the fifth and so on.”
Consequently, the Copenhagen-born star brought much of herself to Statsminister Birgitte Nyborg Christensen.
“Her whole dynamic is very much me, even the way she walks. You can’t really hear it, but she also has a slightly awkward way of talking – she’s a bit staccato.
“I love the complexity of her, and I love the flaws. I actually invented some flaws.
“They wanted her to be really populistic and very good at speaking, but I looked at all these politicians and not every one of them talks well. A lot of them are bad actors. So I said, ‘No, I want her to be a bad actor.’
“Keep her real and a bit flawed and you keep people interested in her.”
As her minority government tackles everything from terrorism to the recession, and wars in which Denmark has become embroiled, similarities with decisions being made everyday in our own parliament are very evident.
It’s the universal nature of the democratic political systems that has seen Borgen become such a popular series around the world, believes Knudsen
“I trained in France,” she says, “and we would discuss things like, what was universally funny.
“I am a big believer in these universal truths, and in Borgen, it is the humanity that runs through it that is universally recognisable.”
Unlike her character, who finds herself thrust into government, Knudsen never had any doubt that she would be an actor.
“I never ever, for a minute in my life, wanted to be the prime minister, that I can say for sure,” she says. “But I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be an actress. I don’t know where that came from, I was just always obsessed by good acting.”
Borgen Series 2 (15) is now available on DVD (£19.99) and Blu-Ray (£34.99)
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