Borgen’s Pilou Asbaek on his Somalian pirate film

NOW a household name beyond his Danish homeland after appearing in political drama Borgen, Pilou Asbaek is swapping the corridors of power for the hardship of being held hostage by Somalian pirates
Pilou Asbaek with Borgen co-star Sidse Babett Knudsen. Picture: BBC/ DK1Pilou Asbaek with Borgen co-star Sidse Babett Knudsen. Picture: BBC/ DK1
Pilou Asbaek with Borgen co-star Sidse Babett Knudsen. Picture: BBC/ DK1

An appealing cross between Ewan McGregor and a labrador, Pilou Asbaek has a chirpy, puppyish insouciance and a terrifically expressive forehead. You can practically see the emotional tides ripple across it when an Asbaek character silently contemplates a spot of political expediency, conflicted loyalty or unplanned fatherhood.

This afternoon in sunny London, there’s not much quiet contemplation going on. After flying in alone from Denmark last night, the 31-year-old actor is now fizzing with the blithe bonhomie of a man who has had his first decent kip since the birth of his daughter Agnes four months ago. “I got eight hours straight last night,” he beams. “But I still can’t wait to go home tomorrow and change the first diaper of the day.” And since his forehead doesn’t flex or crease when he says this, it must be true.

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Asbaek speaks rapid English with a Nordic cadence and an Essex upswing, but can also throw in a smattering of Scots. “Hammagonnaepyook,” he offers. “It means, ‘I’m going to puke.’” He learned English watching American and British TV shows in Denmark without subtitles, but his Scots was learned during a formative school trip to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and “that guy in The Simpsons; I love Groundskeeper Willie.” He furrows his brow trying to think of common ground. “I have tried haggis,” he says. “Er. But that was not a great success.” Then his face clears. “I do enjoy the Scottish way of playing football,” he says.

What, losing? “Noooooh, in Denmark we love the ‘kick and rush’ you guys do. And you don’t lose so bad,” he says, kindly. “Celtic are in the Champions League – although Rangers went bankrupt, hahaha.”

I fear we may be gearing up to talk football all afternoon, with Asbaek rattling on happily about Copenhagen FC and me nodding at intervals, like a maiden aunt listening to her nephew describe deep techno, so it’s time to subtly and craftily change the subject. Of course, something else that Denmark and Scotland have in common is that we love the show Borgen. “People have told me this,” he cries. “And I’ve really thought about why that might be. And honestly, I have no idea why it is so popular. Everyone says it’s because of the strong female characters. Maybe the women are in charge of the remote controls in Scotland.”

Watching Borgen in preparation for this interview, it’s hard to pin the allure of Demark’s rain-drenched West Wing down to just one element. Maybe we covet the clean streets and luxe knitwear designs. Maybe there’s a sense of schadenfreude that a country with one of the most generous welfare systems in the world has a political system that moves with the speed of honey off a cold spoon. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Borgen’s parliamentarians are a lot easier on the eye than a Ukip party conference, or that, a year after the show began, it got a zeitgeisty boost when Helle Thorning-Schmidt followed Borgen’s Birgitte Nyborg and became Denmark’s first female prime minister in 2011.

Nyborg’s world is sometimes brutal and lonely, cushioned by red wine. And since the break-up of her marriage, it is shared only by the viewers and her right-hand-man, Kasper Juul, played by Asbaek. Asbaek’s media advisor is secretive, manipulative, repressed and pretty awful to girlfriends and one-night stands. On the other hand, he’s steadfastly devoted to Nyborg, handling her needs without asking difficult questions. And over the last two series he has had the show’s most intruiging arc of development, after being revealed as the survivor of a traumatic childhood who still totes the emotional baggage.

Squeezing tension out of healthcare reforms, and visits to Greenland to discuss Inuit unemployment, Borgen is watched by a third of Denmark, but also does decent business here, despite being tucked away on BBC4. It has also prompted people to ask why a country the same size as Denmark can’t make its own Borgen. “You can definitely make something as successful as Borgen,” says Asbaek, earnestly. “We just got the idea first. When I was a kid, the greatest actors alive came from here; Ian McKellen, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton – Burton’s one of my favourite actors.”

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No-one involved in Borgen thought they had a global hit on their hands, but Asbaek suggests it’s the programme’s assumption that politicians are human and vulnerable that is groundbreaking. “One of the things I’ve learned from Borgen is that it’s very easy to criticise people; ‘I hate this politician, I hate what they do.’ You are doing this right now with Margaret Thatcher, but sometimes it’s hard to be a politician. I’m not defending Margaret Thatcher, but we believe our statesmen are also human beings.”

It may also go some way towards explaining Borgen’s popularity with politicians. Nick Clegg is a fan, Nicola Sturgeon lobbied to interview Sidse Babett Knudsen in Edinburgh last year, and in January Alastair Campbell wangled an interview with Asbaek. The actor apparently told Campbell he was “honoured” to be interviewed by one of the top exponents of spin, alongside Karl Rove. “You may be surprised to know,” recorded Campbell, “that I took an instant liking to him.”

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At the end of their meeting, Asbaek and Campbell got down to the important business of discussing football, and Campbell presented him with a copy of his autobiography. “When I met him, he was just as smart and charming as I expected. You need to be that in politics,” says Asbaek now. Whatever you make of Campbell’s political dealings, his diaries give pretty unsparing accounts of control freakery, backstage pressures and attempts to manipulate, which often backfire.

Having read Campbell’s book, did Asbaek think Tony Blair’s media advisor was a safe pair of hands? The actor hesitates. “I don’t know, I’m not very good at judging people,” he tries, politely. “That’s why I create fictional characters – but I do think he has had a very interesting life.”

Later, he says he has learned to be wary when invited to tangle with real politics: one of the hazards of playing Juul is that politicians keep trying out their own spin on him. “All the Danish political parties have called me at some point during Borgen, inviting me to do speeches, talks and TV to discuss being a spin doctor and my view of politics.” He has turned them all down. “But it’s funny that when I met politicians at dinner parties – and these were like top, top politicians in Denmark – they would all say the same thing: ‘Pilou, you did a marvellous job as a spin doctor. Juul is a cynical bastard, He’s not like my spin doctor, but he is like the other party’s spin doctor.’”

Airing here in the autumn, the third series of Borgen is also the final one, where chickens come home to roost, including Juul’s fear of fatherhood with his journalist girlfriend Katrine (Birgotte Hjort Sorensen). “It’s a secret, but you can write this,” he says, conspiratorially, that Juul is barely around for large chunks of the upcoming season, partly because Asbaek agreed to do a play during the shoot. It’s not the first time Borgen’s writers have had to get creative around Asbaek: when a football injury put him on crutches, they had to invent a skiing accident rather than write him out of the series completely.

Asbaek says he’s open to doing another series, but creator Adam Price recently said he felt Borgen had run its course. “If he changes his mind I’m there,” says Asbaek, but already his commitment to Borgen has been bumping up against other work. Officially still on a paternity break, he’s currently rocking wraparound whiskers that makes him look like Prince Albert, grown for a new Danish period drama called 1864, which has been shooting in Prague.

He has also been testing the water elsewhere, popping up as a murderous Italian nobleman in Neil Jordan’s sexed-up version of The Borgias. It’s a logical next step: in Borgen the battle to stay in office can be as ruthless as any Borgia power struggle. Asbaek doesn’t get as many scenes with Pope Jeremy Irons as he would like, but he gets to glower a lot under a straggly wig. “The role is nothing to write home about,” he shrugs. “They could easily do the show without me but I get to play in English, have fun and work in a big Hollywood production.”

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He doesn’t take offence when it’s suggested that he has had rather a charmed life compared to many actors, but mildly points out that when Philip Johann (Pilou was his French-Moroccan mother’s nickname for him, the French equivalent of Pip) came home from boarding school and announced that he wanted to act, they were less than delighted. “I was the first person in the family to be an actor,” he says.

Asbaek is the youngest son of what he casually describes as a family of gallery owners. In fact they are enormously successful and influential dealers throughout Europe, who include Danish royalty in their social circle, and loaned Borgen some of their most valuable art pieces for Birgitte’s office.

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Straight after graduating from the Danish National School of Theatre in 2008, he made his screen debut with Niels Arden Oplev’s much-praised feature Worlds Apart, and appeared as a crippled Iraq vet in the second series of that other beloved Dane drama, The Killing. It marked the start of an ongoing collaborative friendship between Asbaek and writer-director Tobias Lindholm, who gave him the lead in his Scum-style prison movie R.

Asbaek had his hair bleached and cropped for the role, and was thrown into a mix of professional actors and real ex-cons, Ken Loach-style. “There was a scene where I flicked a lit cigarette at one of them, as part of my character,” he recalls. “They started to beat the crap out of me because they couldn’t separate acting from their survival instincts.”

He’s back with Lindholm for their second feature film, A Hijacking, where he plays a ship’s cook who is taken hostage along with the rest of the crew when his ship is hijacked off the coast of Somalia. The story is fictional, but it feels almost like a documentary, with its hand-held camera work. The negotiator brought in to bargain with the Somali pirates is the real thing; a corporate security manager for Clipper Group shipping company, in to advise on the production, then offered the role by Lindholm.

Made for less than £2 million, A Hijacking also filmed in pirate-filled waters in the Indian Ocean, on a freighter that had been involved in a hijacking. “When I read the script. I called Tobias straight away and I said I was going all in, I was going to go crazy actor guy.” He started by bulking up his weight to 96kg. “I wanted to be like a teddy bear,” he says. “Fat. And hairy.”

“I drank chocolate milk, ate pizza every day and sweets in the morning and put on 18kg. I had just finished Borgen, and hadn’t told anyone about the film, so people thought I was falling apart and comfort-eating. I became kind of depressed. It sounds masochistic, but losing the weight was more fun.”

He says he’s a method actor, so when they filmed in Africa, he turned down the chance to take his fiancée along so he could experience the same kind of anxious isolation as his character. Asbaek’s fiancée Anna Bro, sounds pretty understanding. “Well, she is a playwright, and the rest of her family are actors, so she knows what the life is like. Anna is very, very nice.”

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They have talked about him acting in one of her plays, and have been tossing around the idea of a monologue about strong women, delivered by Asbaek. “I might wear a dress for it,” he suggests. “I wouldn’t mind being a transvestite.”

In London, Asbaek can look forward to being able to wander around unrecognised. That’s not the case in Denmark any more, where he is a cover boy for magazines. “People are proud of Borgen, so usually when they come up to you, it’s a compliment. It’s not like I am a star. Mads Mikkelsen (the villain in Casino Royale), he is a true star.”

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Maybe, but Asbaek has risen quickly from early jobs such as a stint as a funfair clown, where he was pelted with popcorn and beer cans, to become an actor pegged by the Berlin Film Festival as a rising star. “People ask if it is easy to be normal,” he anticipates. “But I don’t dream of going to work in Hollywood. I want us to be able to tell stories from Denmark about how we see the world. I want to work with people like Tobias as part of our little band. Coming from a gallery family, I’ve seen artists come and go, and I know success can be fleeting. I’ve seen some of the biggest talents blow it because of drugs or a stupid life. So I try to stay focused on why I am here.”

• A Hijacking is on general release

Twitter: @SiobhanSynnot