Interview: The Bridge’s Sofia Helin on Swedish noir and taboo films

Swedish actress Sofia Helin. Picture: Carolina Romare
Swedish actress Sofia Helin. Picture: Carolina Romare
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Sofia Helin tells Janet Christie why she loves playing the unorthodox TV detective who shows us the darker side of Sweden, but reveals her immersion into Nordic noir does not always come easily

Sofia Helin lounges on a squashy sofa, relaxed, legs stretched out in front of her in a private members’ club in London’s Soho, smiling as she considers a question. The star of the hit Scandi crime drama The Bridge has just told me she’s been in Scotland when she was filming the 2007 film Arn – The Knight Templar.

Kirsten Olesen and Sofia Helin in the Bridge. Picture: BBC/Carolina Romare

Kirsten Olesen and Sofia Helin in the Bridge. Picture: BBC/Carolina Romare

“I loved Edinburgh, it was beautiful,” she says.

What about the bridges over the Forth?

“I don’t think I saw them. This was before The Bridge, so I wasn’t much thinking about bridges,” she says. She picks up something off the table. “Would you like one?”

I look down. She’s offering me a posh chocolate from a cellophane bag. I say, “I’d love one but I won’t, thank you.”

“No? Well, I would love one!” she smiles and puts one in her mouth. “Mmmmm. These are sooooo good!”

This easy social interaction, sliding between subjects and negotiating niceties, recognising the cues that are part of the conversational dance between people, would be impossible for the character she plays, unorthodox Swedish detective Saga Noren. Noren is the socially awkward TV ‘tec who returns to BBC4 tonight in the third series of The Bridge.

Saga would have arched one eyebrow, fixed me with her unflinching stare and barked, “You said you’d love one, so why aren’t you having one?”, waiting for the answer like a dog poised for a stick to be thrown and retrieved, in order to add it to her memory bank of irrational human behaviour.

Sofia might have the same blonde hair and blue eyes as Saga, but that’s where the similarity ends. Where Saga holds herself rigid and has an almost robotic walk, Sofia moves with fluid movements, gesticulates, touches her up-do, fiddles with her dangly earrings and often flashes a smile that unlike Saga’s, reaches her eyes. But it’s the voice that is the biggest difference. Where Saga is blunt and to the point, her Swedish crunchy-textured, Sofia is softly-spoken, the consonants smoothed down to a burble as she talks about the show that has made her a star beyond her Swedish homeland.

A Swedish/Danish co-production, it was first broadcast in Scandinavia in 2011, coming to the UK in 2014. As the title suggests, the Oresund Bridge is everything to the series. Linking Malmo in Sweden and Copenhagen in Denmark, it is the conduit for homicide detectives who join forces when cases straddle the two countries. In series one the bridge was literally the crime scene too, when a body was found cut in half with head and torso in Sweden, legs in Denmark and Malmo investigator Saga Noren first teamed up with her opposite number in Copenhagen, detective Martin Rohde.

It’s never specified that Noren has Asperger’s, but she’s clearly on the spectrum, and what she has in attention to detail, she lacks in social skills. Throughout the first two series the more emotional Martin, played by Kim Bodnia, is her perfect foil and becomes her only friend as well as colleague. Now Saga is back after record BBC4 audiences saw her turn him in after he poisons the man who killed his son. Off-screen Bodnia has left the series too, so the question is, can she and the series itself survive without her side-kick?

“There is big pressure, and I’m standing all by my own,” says Helin, “but I’m a bit relieved because in Scandinavia [where it’s already airing] it’s even a bigger success than the other seasons. More people have been watching it and the reviews have been fantastic. But I still wonder what you guys will think,” she says.

If the reaction to the previous series is anything to go by, Helin doesn’t have anything to worry about. Scandi noir currently goes down like a plate of IKEA meatballs. Why does she think The Bridge is so popular?

“It’s a universe of its own, not really realistic. The characters are not really realistic either. They are a bit twisted and strange. Also it’s complicated so you have to be very observant. And it’s relieving for people to see Saga because she does things we wouldn’t dare and she says what she thinks.”

Series three sees a prominent Danish gender theorist found murdered in Malmo and Saga assigned new colleagues, including Thure Lindhardt as her new Danish buddy. She is also struggling with demons from her past.

“The theme is families. What is the family and who is your family, for real,” says Helin. “And yeah, Saga is on her own. She doesn’t have Martin any more and is more vulnerable than ever because she failed being a friend, and a girlfriend too. She feels like a big failure inside, but she pretends that everything is… [adopts loud, severe Saga voice] ‘Fine! No, I had to do what I did to Martin, and now I can’t hang out with him because he’s in prison. Yes! Nothing to talk about!’”

Then we’re back with Sofia and the voice drops… “But inside, she feels like a big failure. Saga had done what she had to do because it’s her job but she also has feelings and it’s even harder for her since people don’t think she has emotions. So she starts in a hard place and things just get worse when her mother shows up...”

As well as Saga missing her partner, Helin too was feeling the absence of Bodnia, the person she bounced off in the socially-stiff role.

“To begin with I really missed Kim because he gave so much in the acting. Saga has to cope with other people and I’m there in that situation too. It was terrifying, and sad, to begin with, because we worked very closely together. But he had very different ideas about the character and what would happen in the series, and he didn’t want to be in it.

“Nothing against Kim, but for the series it has been the best thing because it got so much new energy into it. We had to restart, go up on our toes. I had to step forward and take all that space by myself and that was a possibility, so a big, good challenge!” She smiles a broad smile.

Series three goes into Saga’s backstory more and earlier hints that her mother had Munchausen by Proxy are explored. Is that why Saga is the way she is?

“No, I think she is the way she was born, but then when you don’t have a secure childhood, then it gets worse. It’s a wonder that she can work at all, I think.”

It might be a wonder, but at the same time detective work is an ideal job for Saga, her powers of logic and reasoning making her an intelligent and efficient detective.

“Yeah, a policeman said to me, her skills are exactly what I look for. But, he said, I would want them to be socially competent too.”

They might be chalk and cheese but Helin empathises with Saga’s passion for work. “That’s the only thing we share. But I can also understand her feeling of loneliness, although I’m not alone at all.”

One other thing they both have in common is the scar on her face caused by a cycling accident when she was 24, today almost invisible.

“I was sad when I got it then I embraced it. It’s a good thing for my work. I avoided many pretty girl parts with this scar. It’s more me with it, than without.”

Helin, 43, has two children, Ossian, 12 and Nike, 6 with husband Daniel Götschenhjelm, an actor turned priest, who she lives with in Stockholm’s old town. Away from home filming for six to eight months at a time, she manages to juggle work and home life.

“It’s hard. I arrange it by working four days away from home, and three days at home with the family, so I work four long days rather than five shorter. But it’s hard because everything is on hold. We have to restore the family life during the weekends. And then my husband works every second weekend, sermons on Sunday, baptising on Saturdays, weddings. When the show finishes filming I really need to be home for a while afterwards. But I think my children are OK, I hope so anyway.”

Helin knows Saga inside out, having walked in her boots through three series now. The same boots. And the same brown H&M coat, brown leather jeans and a couple of T-shirts, three identical sets of each to be worn in rotation, a marked difference from Helin’s black wedge boots, grey and black marl top and skirt and furry wrap outfit today.

“When I pull on the leather trousers and drive the Porche, I’m her. It helps me get into her with the clothes. And in my mind I get disciplined, I tighten my thoughts.”

The role of Saga has grown with the series as she learns how to behave in different situations. Although she can’t be intelligent socially, she is deeply emotional behind the façade.

“It’s developed constantly. That’s the amazing thing about it. I had one scene this last season where I did something I won’t reveal what, but suddenly the body was doing something new and I thought ‘oh, that must be a memory of hers from that situation. It’s like when authors say, suddenly it writes itself. That happens when you’re in a character like this for such a long time.”

She also can find herself unconsciously behaving like Saga off-set.

“Especially when I’m shooting, I’m noticing I’m being her a little bit, and in between series too. But it’s useful because I’m a very emotional, sensitive person so it’s good to use her skills sometimes. We tend to be responsible for others’ feelings all the time and that’s not always good. You can do it with great calm, you don’t have to be rude.”

So being Saga has its good sides, not least because dressing is easy, however it also takes its toll.

“It’s not a good feeling being her. I don’t walk around feeling good. I feel frustrated and too intense. She’s a very exhausting character to be in. So when I’ve been her for eight or nine months I’m totally empty and very, very tired. Because I have used my brain in another way for so long I still struggle to get down to me again.

“This time it was even harder because it was a combination of being her and going down to my deepest, most vulnerable, darkest place to show where she is. So I was actually in a dark place for a while there.”

Helin has her own dark places to visit, after her grandmother and brother were killed in a car accident when she was six years old.

“Of course, I use those kind of feelings,” she says.

Part of the deal with broadcasters for the programme makers is that the drama must cover contemporary issues and The Bridge doesn’t hold back on this, as well as showing us the darker side of the country that gave us blonde wood and Abba.

“It’s not the elks, red houses and everyone skipping along,” says producer Anders Landström, “It’s not Pippi Longstocking. It’s another side of us.

“Shooting in Sweden in the winter it’s dark and grey, so we went with that,” he says. “We don’t like anything cute or picturesque and most of the architecture is functionalist, glass, concrete, to make a cold world around the characters. Visually it’s very harsh and gloomy – in a good way. The emotion comes from the characters.”

Helin agrees that her homeland has a dark side, and that the show deals with serious issues that are part of a contemporary Sweden.

“Yeah, actually Sweden is getting darker,” she says. “We are taking very many refugees, 100,000 and we are nine million. I’m very proud of Sweden. I think we have to share it more between all of us in Europe. But in Sweden we have a growing party that has a past as Nazis and there is a big problem with the places where the refugees live being burned.”

This summer Helin travelled to Hungary to a refugee transit camp to make a film for a Swedish TV appeal.

“I thought, what will we say to our children in 15 years when we have all of the facts about IS and what they have done if we say no, we don’t welcome you? So I went to meet with the refugees and got drawn into that. We have to deal with the situation in a welcoming and aware way.

“Then I had lunch with my cousin who works for WaterAid and she said yes, it’s a catastrophe. And another catastrophe is that every day 1,400 children die from poisoned water, so now I’m an ambassador for WaterAid. Maybe that’s something that can make a bigger difference. But both issues are very important, very difficult. In Malmo there’s so much crime. So the times are darker.

“When I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s there were no beggars and people living on the street. Now it’s every corner. If you choose to go to Sweden and sit, maybe 12 hours a day outside in minus ten degrees, what kind of life must you have you run from? When this right wing party put up signs apologising to tourists for having so many migrants, people ran out and torn them down.

“So Sweden is not as innocent as it used to be. If it was ever innocent anyway.”

Home of free love and cheap childcare, where the genders were perhaps more equal than in other countries, Sweden has been perceived as a place where liberal values made for a less hung-up, easier lifestyle.

“It is better for women, but on the other hand we have very high numbers of people who can’t work because they are burned out. Often women about the age of 43.”

Exactly Helin’s age. She better watch out.

“Ha! It’s interesting. We have everything, but because we have too much we put too much pressure on ourselves. It’s something we need to let go of. Try to be good enough, rather than perfect.”

So how does she avoid burnout, particularly since playing Saga isn’t a laugh a minute, despite the detective providing humour with her blunt take on life?

“I try to plan calm pauses where I don’t do much. I think I’m quite a serious person, but I meet with friends and we laugh. For instance me and two friends, actors my age, are talking about making a film about old, horny women. That’s a taboo subject, so we are developing that. Old and horny, maybe that’s what it will be called.”

Born in 1972 to a salesman father and nurse mother in small town Sweden, Helin loved drama at school, but went on to Lund University to study philosophy. After graduation she took the plunge and enrolled in a theatre school in Stockholm, landing a role in a hit TV drama Rederiet in 1996. A degree at Stockholm Theatre Academy followed and since then film credits include At Point Blank, Arn: The Knight Templar, Metropia, Dalecarlians and Nina Frisk, on which she met her husband. It was The Bridge in 2011 that was her international breakthrough and has seen her offered roles outside Sweden, in Danish film Fang Rung and in German TV’s Berlin der Geteilte Himmel.

“I never thought I could be an actor. I’m still surprised,” she says.

When she started playing Saga she had no idea the series would be so successful or the role long term.

“No idea. And that was good otherwise maybe I wouldn’t dare to take it so far as I did. I was in a special mood, as you are when you just have a child, thinking happy thoughts, and I remember being at home with her, thinking nothing is important with that business [acting], I’ll do what I think is fine. We initially thought Saga wouldn’t be liked. But she is.

“I love her, I care for her ... and I can’t stand her at the same time,” she says.

Our time is up but I can’t let Helin go without being a pest and asking her to do the Saga ‘look’. The PR hedges, it’s been a very long couple of days…

Has she been doing The Look a lot, I ask, apologetic.

“No. No one’s asked,” says Helin, sounding disappointed, and immediately sits up straight on the sofa, turns 90 degrees to face me and looks right at me. It’s Saga. One eyebrow slightly raised, face erased of surface emotion, the full stare focused. On me. It’s unsettling, fascinating and brilliant all at once. If I’d chopped up anyone recently, I’d be worried.

She laughs and the spell is broken.

Did she have to go to a deep place to do that?

“No, I think it’s just a muscle memory now.”

Saga is under her skin.