Interview: The Killing's Sofie Gråbøl

by Fiona Rae / 12 September, 2013
The Danish star on the darkness inside Sarah Lund, and the jumper that took over the show.
In season two's red jumper.

Kenneth Branagh may have seen the potential of Scandi-noir when he remade the Wallander stories in English, but it was Forbrydelsen, or The Killing, that became an unexpected hit in Britain and Europe. It kicked off a wave of interest in Scandinavia, and made Gråbøl and her Faroe Isle jumper-wearing detective household names. The second series of Forbrydelsen begins on Sky channel SoHo tomorrow night.

This character of Sara Lund has had quite a shelf life – you’re still talking about her six years after the first series screened in Denmark – has it been quite an unexpected journey for you?
It was totally unexpected. What made it good actually was that we made it for us, of course we were anxious about what the Danish audience would think, but I remember very clearly from the first season when we started out, which was actually seven years ago, that we were in a small bubble. Also, because the whole universe, the whole structure of the story, this very, very tight story with only one murder case in the first season, it was a very small universe to move around in for a year and a half and I remember when it went on the air in the Denmark I felt like a child who had been playing and suddenly somebody said, "It’s time for dinner", you know, that feeling. We were so absorbed in the project and I was totally absorbed with the character. We never lost our focus in speculations about what are the audience going to think, all that that can be quite disturbing and then actually when it became it a huge success in the UK and we went over there, we won a Bafta in the UK, and at point in the middle of shooting the second season, and it was really a challenge to keep our focus because there was such an attention drawn to the project, and with that attention comes all the fear of living up to a success. For us, it was just very important to be happy about the success that it had, but also trying to forget about it as soon as possible and stay focussed on our little dark world in Copenhagen.

Was it was a big hit in Denmark too?
It wasn’t, you know, a sensation, but people got obsessed with following the crime story. I had done television series before in Denmark, and very successful ones, so I was used to all the attention that you get in the streets and supermarkets when you have a series on air, but with The Killing, it was just amazing how much people wanted to discuss theories about whodunit and actually they became so obsessed with whodunit that at one point there was a betting site where you could bet money on who did it. And at that point when we started to air the first season we were still shooting it, we weren’t finished with the last episode, the actors – we didn’t know from episode to episode what was going to happen, so I didn’t know who the killer was either so, yeah, there was a big buzz about that first season.

There’s always a lot of talk about the particularly gloomy Scandinavian character – is that a fair assessment of the Danish character, or Scandinavia in general?
It’s dark, in the winter time, it’s really a long, dark half-year, so in that sense, due to our climate that might have some effect on our mind. But, no, Scandinavian countries are very, what you call it, open. The Killing is fortunately not representative of the Danish atmosphere. But of course, if you look at the Scandinavian tradition of drama we do have a proud tradition of digging deep into the human darkness, from Bergman and Strindberg, and Ibsen from Norway. So we do have a strong tradition of storytelling of the darkness of the human nature that we’re sort-of building on, I guess you could say that.

With Mikael Birkkjær.

The Killing has been described as part of a full-on Nordic invasion in Britain – do you find yourself having to explain and represent Scandinavia when you’re overseas?
Well, I’m not there a lot, but I have been asked about hosting several television programmes about different Scandinavian topics, so yes, of course, but I think it’s lovely actually. I think that the exchange of stories in drama is actually much more than just exchanging entertainment, like whodunit stories. There’s also underneath that a cultural exchange going on, and I think The Killing was a very beautiful example of that. At first the Brits were caught by the story and the character, but then suddenly it made them interested in the culture – what is it with the Danes and with their language and with their food and with their architecture and their furniture design? There’s a whole exchange of culture and really outlooks on life. Somebody told me from the BBC that when The Killing went on air it was the first time in the history of the BBC that they had shown a subtitled series, which to a Dane is totally unbelievable, because we’re used to reading subtitles, but they were not, so nobody expected anything of that little Danish crime story, and then suddenly the audience found that they could easily read the subtitles and they also got a look into Danish culture. And then came Borgen, and The Bridge, so it was like a whole wave started.

It does seem as if the programmers have been proved wrong on about subtitles.
I think the American audience won’t read subtitles and it’s a pity really, especially the Americans, if they started watching European series with subtitles, they would learn a lot about Europe, it’s like the bonus gift you get when you watch film and television from other countries you get somehow an understanding about their way of looking at life, even with a crime story.

Sarah Lund is a notably unemotional and a distant character, why did you think it was necessary to make her that way?
When we started, I don’t think the writer, Søren Sveistrup, and I certainly didn’t know where we were going to end. The Killing was was actually written from episode to episode, which is quite unique, because it leaves so little time for preparation and it leaves so much space for chaos and confusion, but it also leaves this wonderful opportunity for the story to move freely because you’re not locked in any way and that also goes for the characters. The writer  just had this idea, he knew he was going to have a female detective in the leading role, so I was invited to some brainstorm meetings where we just really totally freely expressed what we would like to do, and I remember that I had this great wish to create a female character who wasn’t able to communicate freely, which was easier said than done. I found it hard to play, but due to a lot of the characters I have been playing through the years I had this personal wish to try to play a character who was very much in self-isolation, not able to reach other people. So we started building this character, and actually when we started her off, she wasn’t half as closed up as she ended up to be and I remember at the wrap-up party, Søren said that he said that around episode 18, that’s when we made the character. So it actually took some time before we found her.

Do you have a good idea about why she is so distant and interior, or is it really because her job is so awful?
I have my own little home-knit theory that I use to understand her myself, but I think that’s one of the things that I love very much about this character, that you don’t really get the key to understanding her. It’s not like suddenly there’s a big story about her childhood or her traumas and why she’s behaving like she is. In a way, she is a riddle and she’s also a riddle to me. Actually, I think the reason why I could work with this character for almost seven years and honestly not be bored was that she kept on being a riddle to me. So I don’t actually know why she is so isolated, but in my mind, I think there’s this classical structure for a detective in the classical police or whodunit story, that the detective is somehow on a quest for justice, you know, the knight in armour to restore law and order and justice for the victim, and for the family of the victim. But I think with this character, she’s not on a quest for justice. I think she has so much darkness within herself, that her chasing the killer is almost her chasing her own darkness somehow. That’s the logic in my mind, and I think that’s how I understood her ability of totally losing track of the real world is that she was almost obsessed about finding that killer, she was almost drawn to him, she was more connected to him than to the victim.

Is that just her natural character?
As an actor, the main question is what drives a character and it made me stop to think, why would this woman Sarah Lund, or any detective, why would you spend your life dealing with the very darkest aspect of human nature? And in this character’s case, it’s not just a job, she loses track of her own personal life because she gets so involved with it, and in my mind there has to be some sort of hole inside of her, otherwise why would she do that? She should go home at 5 o’clock to her son, and maybe a boyfriend or a husband. So she must be chasing something missing in her own life. Honestly, to me the beauty of that character is that you don’t really know anything about her, and all these thoughts about why she does this and that, I really like that you don’t know anything about her, actually.

With Morten Suurballe and Mikael Birkkjær.

I guess there have been plenty of precedents for the taciturn, distant, emotionally-closed detective, but when a woman comes along, people think it’s a bit unusual.
That actually surprised me a lot, because I never considered this aspect of her being a woman in a typical masculine job, I just considered her as a person, really. People have reacted very strongly, especially in the UK, a lot of people have told me that she is like a role model, or some sort of feminist hero or something, but I never considered her that way. But I think you’re right, had she been a man, I don’t think people would have really focused so much on her being closed-up and not being able to have a relationship and being a bad parent, I don’t think there would that much focus on that.

Is she going to smile in season two maybe? A bit of a chuckle?
I think you are very, very demanding now. Totally out of line. No, I’m afraid not. That was one of the nice things about this project, it is really one story, the story of this character that goes through all these things and when we had finished the first season, and we started talking about the second season, it was obvious that it was not like Indiana Jones, or a character that you could just put on a new adventure, that you had to deal with where she left off. And we all agreed that where we had left her in the first season that somehow she had lost everything, so there’s not a lot to smile about for her. Maybe we took it too far, I don’t know, I do remember walking the streets of Copenhagen when the second season aired and every time I met someone in the street, or I smiled at someone or said hello, they all said, "oh, it’s so good to see you smiling, you’re so gloomy every Sunday night in my television", so maybe we took it took it too far. 

It's incredible that Søren Sveistrup wrote The Killing from episode to episode ...
The years of The Killing were extremely challenging and wonderful and demanding and for a single mum, they were really hell sometimes. It’s nice to have some time now to take the kids to school and not be totally stressed out. Every night going to bed I had these 10 pages of text that I just prayed that I could remember in the morning, and that aspect I don’t miss. It’s nice to have time with the kids without having my mind on lines for tomorrow.

Was that the same for all three series?
Yeah, it was, it was crazy, it was wonderful because it gave such a rare possibility as an actor to actually influence the writer. It is 100% the story of Søren Sveistrup, it’s his story, it’s his script, everything is his, but he has always been very generous, in the sense that he doesn’t feel threatened about other people’s opinions and he always invited the actors to give their view on the character and on the story, and you could just throw ideas on the table and he would grab the ideas that he though had any value and leave the ones he thought didn't. So for me as an actor it was really, really inspiring to be able to work that closely with him on the character and the story. That I miss.

Would you work with him again, even though the scripts turn up in the evening?
Any day. Yes, it’s stressful, but it’s totally outweighed by the fact that you can work that close in forming the story, and that you would never been able to had there been a nice stack of scripts when we started, then there wouldn’t be this close collaboration, and I really, really enjoyed that. I have an immense respect for that writer, because I think it’s a very, very brave way to work and to put yourself under that kind of pressure that he did in order to be able to let the story move that freely, I thought was just awesome.

The jumper that Sarah Lund wore became almost as famous as the character  – why do think people have focused so much on the jumper?
That was really one of the huge surprises about the series is that the jumper, it took over almost at a point, at least that’s what I felt, because people got obsessed with that jumper. Of course, then I had to start reflecting about what is it about that jumper, because I thought it was beautiful and perfect as a costume, but I never imagined it to be that big a thing. For one thing, it’s beautiful. In my mind, it really is, it’s graphically very pure somehow, it’s from the Faroe Islands and you can actually feel the origins of that jumper, so that’s one thing. And also I think for the character it was perfect, because it showed a woman who was so self-confident that she didn’t have to wear a suit to gain respect, and I think people liked that. But really honestly I don’t know why it became that big, I guess it’s because of the character, you’re split between thinking "I wish I was her" and "Thank God I’m not her". There’s so much to look up to an admire – her integrity and her very, very uncompromised way of living and working and I think maybe the jumper just became synonymous with that. But it was a huge surprise that it was so big in the UK, the jumper – that, I never understood. It was really weird, I think.

Doesn’t it have its own Twitter account?
I don’t know, that’s ridiculous! I don’t believe it!

You gave one to the Duchess of Cornwall  …
Yes, she got a cardigan version of the jumper. She loved the show, it was very sweet actually.

That's better.

Is it true that the character originally wore a poncho, but that it turned out to be completely impractical and you chose the jumper instead?
I do remember the poncho, I remember it as the director’s choice, it might have been the writer’s also. I remember that they insisted that I should wear that poncho and I think it was because they had seen an old Clint Eastwood film, you remember that one where he wears the poncho? To me it was just ridiculous because you can’t be a modern working police person in a poncho. You can’t move around and you can’t wear bullet-proof vest or anything.

Or pull your gun …
Yeah, you would get totally tangled up in wool.

You would have been the first fictional police officer in a poncho.
Yeah! I fell in love with the jumper because it expressed what it was supposed to, and it was still a realistic thing to wear. I wear a lot of jumpers, Nordic people do, it’s not that big a thing. But what I wanted to tell you was that when we were going to do the second season, we were all agreed that I couldn’t wear that same jumper again, that would be almost a joke, but it would be wrong to put her in a shirt, it was like she couldn’t wear anything but a jumper, and I really, really wanted to escape that jumper, because I felt it had totally taken over and I felt that there was more discussion about the jumper than about anything else, so I actually felt it was stealing the show. I said, "I’m not going to wear that jumper", so we had a red jumper knitted, in order to have some catchy colour – and it never worked, and after I don’t know, five episodes or something, I remember crawling into the producer’s office and saying, I really really need my old jumper back. So it is coming back, it was stronger than me.

FORBRYDELSEN (THE KILLING), SoHo, Sky 010, from Friday September 13.
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