Borgen star Sidse Babett Knudsen on acting, waiting and The West Wing

Borgen star Sidse Babett Knudsen. Picture: TSPL
Borgen star Sidse Babett Knudsen. Picture: TSPL
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SHE’S one of the most popular actors on British television, but Sidse Babett Knudsen, the star of Danish political drama Borgen, had to be persuaded to act on TV. Lee Randall caught up with Knudsen on a visit to Edinburgh

EDINBURGH is no stranger to fame. We’re a festival city, and locals have perfected their deadpan stance when confronted by Oscar winners in John Lewis, or “him off the telly” in a coffee house queue. But detachment deserted many of us when the star of Borgen, Sidse Babett Knudsen, made a flying visit to The Filmhouse.

Cinema One seats nearly 300, yet the first screening of the final episodes of the Danish TV drama’s second series, announced for 11am on Sunday, sold out in minutes. Followed by a second screening. And a third. All for a show that any licence payer could have seen from the comfort of home the previous evening. Ah, but Sidse doesn’t make house calls.

She did not disappoint. As seasoned, savvy and charismatic as her TV alter ego – the Danish prime minister Birgitte Nyborg – Sidse rocked up in a skintight red tartan suit, and if that wasn’t endearing enough, dazzled audiences with her impeccable English and twinkling, nose-crinkling smile.

Holed up in a little room at the top of the building, with a precious 45 minutes, it’s a challenge to cover as much ground as possible, so I start by wondering why she chose acting.

“I really love old films, Tennessee Williams, all these women cracking up – Vivien Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor. I thought that these were the most generous people that I’d ever seen, so good that they were up there with the superheroes and the magicians. I was in awe. I don’t remember deciding that I wanted to be an actor, but I don’t remember not [wanting] to be one.

“When I was at school I was very serious and protective of my dream. I was conscious, because of the women I’ve told you about, that there was this riff of becoming insane and alcoholic and dying much too early. I was really, really looking to see if I could find any role models who were happy in their lives. I couldn’t really find any when I was a kid, and I knew it was difficult job. But then I met this painter who said, ‘If you have a safety net, you will fall into it. If you really want to do it, don’t have a safety net.’”

Eighteen and fresh out of school, she fancied taking a year to “become grown-up and strong. I went to Paris, because I thought it was exciting, not because I had any reference points to French theatre or acting as such. I did not speak any French. So I did what you do: I was an au pair for a month, and worked in bars. Then I thought ‘this is a waste’, because I spent all of my time working to have money to be in Paris. I decided to audition for theatre school.”

With a conspiratorial laugh, she says, “I thought what a great place to be told, ‘You don’t have any talent, darling, and we don’t like your face.’ To be rejected in another country – you can come home and say, ‘Oh, everything went well.’ But I got into the first school I tried, and that was not the plan!”

Her audition was a text she’d memorised phonetically, and she faked her way through the first months’ lessons by nodding whenever the teacher addressed her. “What a great way to start [as an actor], not knowing the language. I had to develop all sorts of other ways of communicating.” She wound up staying for six years.

In addition to her theatrical work, Sidse always had an outside job, most notably in a money exchange. “It was one of the greatest jobs in the world, by myself in the booth. I could play so many parts. Sometimes [this cashier] was French and could not be bothered, sometimes she was like a secretary filing her nails – ‘I’ll just get back to you’ – and sometimes she was drunk. It was so much fun. I was 18 when I went to Paris and reinvented myself. You find out, ‘What can I get away with here?’ And ask, ‘Does it resemble me? Is it something I can take home and keep?’”

A sea-change occurred during an audition for a student film. She was tentative, describing herself as a wannabe who hoped that maybe somehow, she could one day gain acceptance as an actress. The film’s director was annoyed. “She didn’t like that. ‘Well, are you or are you not an actress?’ She forced me to say ‘I am an actress’, and it was a bit like saying, ‘I am a grown up. I will take responsibility for being this.’”

That’s intriguing, because in the final episode of season two, it’s the female psychiatrist treating the prime minister’s daughter, Laura, who urges Birgitte to go back to work.

Nodding, Sidse says, “Basically, she gave me forgiveness. The take that’s been used is the only one where I don’t crack up. All the other takes – I can’t even say it now without starting to cry.” Ah, in English, crack up means laughter.

“No, sorry, crack down, maybe? When [the psychiatrist] tells Birgitte ‘Laura didn’t become ill because you’re the prime minister’ – my God, you can feel the guilt in every part of [Birgitte’s] body.

“And that moment that I’m talking about, saying, ‘Yes, I’m an actress,’ is also me saying, ‘Yes I am courageous. Yes I will make a fool of myself in public, and live with it.’” Which is a bigger deal than it seems, because the Danes, like the British, value self-effacement. “You’re not supposed to show off.”

Sidse is keen to set the record straight about her time in New York. She did not, as one source insists, spend years there studying Method acting. “I was in Paris working with these French guys and I didn’t understand what makes them tick. I was brought up on American films, so [I thought] maybe I’ve missed the whole point? I went to New York, thinking maybe that’s how you’re supposed to do it.

“I was a guinea pig and earned money by eating diabetes pills that you had to take with the Pill – they needed somebody who’d never had fake hormones in her life. So I was a very pure little guinea pig. I donated my body to science for a while, and I got money to spend a month in New York. I checked out all the schools and courses, just to see if I was missing anything essential. But I did not study Method acting there.” Yet she loved it enough to return ten years ago when acting lost its shine.

“I was a bit tired of acting. I thought it was pointless and boring. You go and fake some emotions. What was the point? And I really, really missed real work. The human contact. I think Fay Weldon said you have to be in the service business if you want to do anything artistic, and I think that’s so true. You have to know what it’s like to be on the other side. When I’m waiting on tables, I’m studying myself pretending to be someone else, while also studying the customers.”

She did the rounds of bars and restaurants trying to convince them that despite being an actress with awards to her credit, at heart, she was really a waitress. Which must have amused them, because tell a New Yorker that you’re an actor and the automatic response is a sardonic, “Really? Which restaurant?”

No-one hired her to wait tables, but New York did provide the jolt she needed to go home and get back to acting. “You can’t help getting woken up in New York, something will happen – that colour with this person, and this kind of vehicle, and this word in that tone? It’s so wonderful because it’s all just packed into this one place. There’s a buzz.”

In Denmark as in Britain, there’s a snobbishness among actors, and a belief – she says in her funniest haute-thespian tones – that “nothing is finer than theatre. It is the only place you’ll ever learn to be a good actor. TV has been looked down upon for a long time, but that’s changed a lot.”

Nevertheless she wasn’t very keen to work in TV until a director she greatly respects sat her down with a batch of boxed sets featuring the best of American telly. “I could see yes, there’s really something quite unique about television. It’s like your family. The last one I saw was West Wing – all in one go. It’s amazing. The intellectual level is so high, and it is incredibly written and oh – CJ Cregg, I love CJ Cregg! I had just finished that when they called to ask if I’d audition for Borgen. I was almost 40, and it was a good time to try and do it. I would have said no if I’d just started [acting], because I think you can get a lot of bad acting habits by doing television.”

Though you can pick up a few things by watching telly, she discovered. If you’ve ever noticed that Birgitte Nyborg never opens a door if there’s a minion on hand to do it, you can thank French and Saunders. Standing up to demonstrate, she explains, “I can’t remember which one it was, in a show called something like Let Them Eat Cake, but she goes to the door and stares at it. She doesn’t know what to do with a closed door! I loved that so much, and that’s what Birgitte Nyborg would do all the time: she gets to a door and goes, ‘Huh, why isn’t it open? Somebody must open the door for me.’”

Which is a fitting place to end, because even though Sidse Knudsen has long been a household name in her native Denmark, playing Nyborg has definitely opened doors. Professionally speaking, it’s a safe bet that as of now, the world is Sidse’s oyster.

• The Borgen Season 2 box set is out now from Arrow Films’ Nordic Noir label, a combined Season 1&2 box set is also available. For more information, visit