Who would have thought that Borgen, a show about Danish coalition politics, would have become essential viewing in Europe, drawing prime ministers and presidents into its fanbase? Certainly not its star, SIDSE BABETT KNUDSEN, who tells DAVID GRITTEN she was just as flummoxed as the rest of us…
Strange how the mind plays tricks and you find yourself confusing a real-life actress with the character who has become her defining role. I’m on a plane from Heathrow to Copenhagen, where I am to meet Sidse Babett Knudsen, the star of the astonishingly successful television series Borgen, in which she has played the fictional Danish prime minister Birgitte Nyborg with grace and genuine authority.
I’m weighing up how my meeting with Knudsen will play out, but in my imagination it is Birgitte I’ll be interviewing. She will receive me in the prime minister’s office, wearing an impeccably tailored grey power suit, with a crisp white shirt beneath it. From behind her imposing desk she will answer my questions non-committally, while remaining polite, diplomatic and maintaining eye contact.
Then, after ten minutes, an aide will pop their head around her door and murmur, “The foreign secretary is here, Prime Minister.” She will extend a firm hand across her desk and bestow a dazzling smile on me while wrinkling her nose. It is an adorable gesture that nevertheless means only one thing: my time is up, whether I like it or not.
That is how I foresee it. But of course it doesn’t turn out that way at all.
The one thing I got right is that I would meet her near the heart of the state of Denmark. Børsen, a bizarre building with a corkscrew spire of four entwined dragons’ tails, stands beside Christiansborg Palace, which houses the country’s parliament and supreme court (nicknamed ‘Borgen’ or ‘The Castle’ by Danes). This is Denmark’s stock exchange, and I find Knudsen in a jaw-droppingly grand hall with stained-glass windows; she’s slouched against a chocolate-brown pillar, posing for her photo.
Today, there’s something of the rock chick about Knudsen. Her hair is longer and wilder, and she is dressed all in black – jumper, jeans, high-heeled knee-length boots, all designed to hug her body. And there is an earthy quality to Knudsen that is immediately apparent: she roars with laughter and claps delightedly when I absent-mindedly walk into shot.
“There is an earthy quality to Knudsen that is immediately apparent: she roars with laughter and claps delightedly when I absent-mindedly walk into shot.”
When she has finished she picks up a pair of bright red gloves (her only non-black apparel) and we stroll across a bridge over a canal to a quiet cafe. Passers-by, being approached by one of the most famous actresses in their country, simply smile at her, almost shyly. Knudsen smiles right back at them. “I don’t get harassed here,” she says. “I ride around Copenhagen on my bike. The press are worse than they were ten years ago, but I don’t get paparazzi.”
That is nice for her, but there is an odd disconnect between the nonchalance with which Danes accept her moving among them and the extraordinary worldwide reception for Borgen. The series has been sold to more than seventy countries; audiences and critics from Sydney to Paris, New York to London, rave about it.
Knudsen won a Bafta and an Emmy nomination in 2012. Prominent politicians in several countries are avid fans: Hillary Clinton sent the producers a warm message, while the former French President François Hollande is an addict; in the UK Saturday nights are reportedly Borgen nights for Ed Miliband and Justine Thornton.
“It never occurred to me that this series would travel abroad,” Knudsen says. “I mean, it’s about Danish coalition politics.” She shrugs disbelievingly. But travel it did, and in Britain the twenty hours of its first two seasons have been eagerly devoured. Viewing figures grew and grew, finally rising above the one million mark – unheard of for its channel, BBC Four.
And for those who missed its original broadcasts, it has become a hot box-set item for binge-viewing in the manner of American series such as Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Wire.
And the reason for this astounding success? Knudsen thinks it must be the way Borgen blends the personal and the political. In the beginning, Birgitte Nyborg becomes the leader of the Centrist Moderate Party and a key player in the coalition government as a result of her common-sense niceness: she seems liberal, humane and decent, with a conciliatory manner and a lovely, handsome family. But on becoming prime minister, she must make irritating compromises with other parties to stay in power.
There were thorny work-life balance problems: her gentle, understanding husband, Philip (Mikael Birkkjær), grew tired of her absences from home and long working hours and gradually drifted apart from her into an affair; her teenage daughter, Laura (Freja Riemann), felt neglected and fell victim to anxiety and depression. And all the while Birgitte was keeping the coalition afloat against the odds.
To keep all these plates spinning at home and in her workplace, she had to change and assume the mantle of her considerable power. She started to wear her hair back in a bun; her body language became more rigid.
“To keep all these plates spinning at home and in her workplace, she had to change and assume the mantle of her considerable power. She started to wear her hair back in a bun; her body language became more rigid.”
“I imagined her wearing a corset and tightening it a little,” Knudsen says. “I wanted her to lose weight and be less fluffy, have a more defined contour.”
So did she lose weight? “Yes. Seven kilos.” That’s very disciplined. “I was going for twenty!” she says, laughing and slapping the table with her palm.Indeed, playing Birgitte Nyborg has come as a revelation to her. Knudsen, who turned forty five this week, has said in the past that before Borgen she often played “girlie women trying to find themselves. My image was romantic comedies. I haven’t played that many grown-ups.”
Well, that has certainly changed, I tell her. “And about time,” she says. “This has been a long engagement and it didn’t resemble any of the work I’d been doing before. It made me feel like I’m still an actress, but I’ve been much closer to the producers and writers than I’d normally be. It was a collaboration.”
Knudsen was born into a creative Copenhagen family, with a photographer father and schoolteacher mother. On leaving school she took herself off to Paris, “Just for a year, to be bohemian. I thought I’d reinvent myself.” While there she was accepted into a theatre school. “I had no plans to become a French actress,” she says. “But thought I might as well have the experience.” She stayed in Paris for six years, landing small parts. “But I struggled professionally.” She took odd jobs to survive, working at one point in a bureau de change.
She regards her French adventure as crucial to her career. “I’m grateful for that detour. There was something healthy about being a foreigner. People think you’re odd, but I could blame it all on being Danish.” On returning home, where her acting peers found her odd, she shrugged and said she had trained in France. Still, she stood out.
Knudsen took theatre roles in Denmark, and made her film debut at the age of twenty eight in a comedy called Let’s Get Lost. “It was completely improvised, so I had to create my own character and dialogue,” she recalls. To widespread surprise, it became a big hit and she won two domestic acting awards. Her career was launched.
Denmark’s leading film directors took an interest and she appeared in two films by Susanne Bier, the second of which, After the Wedding (2006), was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film. Knudsen also shot an experimental video short for Lars von Trier, Dogville: The Pilot, acted out on a bare stage marked out by chalk lines. She took the lead role, which went to Nicole Kidman when von Trier expanded the story to feature film length.
Then, in 2010, came the prospect of Borgen. Knudsen had largely left television work behind in favour of films. “There was a snobbery about television, a feeling it wasn’t much good,’ she says now. But the Danish state broadcaster Danmarks Radio (DR) changed that perception at a stroke, having created an internationally acclaimed series, The Killing, three years earlier. Knudsen admired it and noted that her actress friend Sofie Gråbøl had flourished in the lead role as the police detective Sarah Lund.
Word soon spread around Copenhagen’s acting community that Borgen’s Birgitte Nyborg was the next plum role. Adam Price, the creator and writer of Borgen, confirms, “She needed to be played by an established actress around the age of forty, and we went through all the best actresses in Denmark in that range.”
“Sidse was primarily a film actress, best known for comedy,”, he says, “In the end she got the part because she can play Birgitte as competent and strong, but there’s also a fragile edge about her. That made her a spectacular choice for us. We wanted a Birgitte who viewers would be afraid for: as prime minister, would she succeed or fail?”
“She got the part because she can play Birgitte as competent and strong, but there’s also a fragile edge about her.”
Having landed the role, Knudsen played her part in shaping Birgitte’s character. “Each script for a Borgen episode goes through six, seven, eight drafts,” Price says. “I would show Sidse the third draft, which wasn’t fixed, to get her opinion. She didn’t interfere with the main plot and she trusted the writers to get the politics right. But she fought to defend Birgitte to the very end to get her right.”
In discussing Birgitte with Price and his co-writers, Knudsen says, ‘I wanted her professionalism emphasised, and also her complexity. I didn’t want her moping around because she felt overwhelmed. This is a career politician. Also, I wanted Birgitte to have faults. Traditionally, while we can accept that a male character can be flawed, we prefer a heroine to be more straightforward.
“But she’s human. I think it’s interesting with a female character like this that you have to risk the fact that she’ll go places where people might not like her. But we have to see those things, or we won’t believe in her.”
Similarly, there are different levels to Knudsen herself. Socially adept, a good listener and engaging company, she’s also very funny.
When we discuss her Danish identity, she launches into a routine about how the Swedes present themselves to the world more skilfully. “We Danes have an inferiority complex about them. They have [her voice goes up a register to convey enthusiasm] Björn Borg. And ABBA. And Ikea. They even have the Swedish chef on The Muppet Show! Everyone loves them! And then there’s us…” [her voice drops into a doleful drone] “We’re Danes. We don’t care if you like us.”
Yet she’s a proud Dane and just because she is good fun it doesn’t make her a pushover. She draws the line at intrusions on her privacy. “I did my first interview in 1995 and was asked about my private life. I said, ‘Why would I tell you? I don’t see the logic in anyone knowing that about me. For whose sake? Nobody wins.'”
It has been reported that she has a son now aged about ten, but will not confirm that, nor even whether she has a partner. “You can ask me but I won’t answer,” she says coolly. One sees where the steely side of Birgitte comes from.
Borgen could easily have ended after its second season, having achieved success beyond its creators’ wildest dreams. Those two series constituted a perfect rise-and-fall story arc in Birgitte Nyborg’s life, and included other incidental pleasures, such as the off-on romance between the PM’s spin doctor, Kasper (Pilou Asbæk), and the television presenter, Katrine (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen).
In this country, it was a high-water mark in our surprising fascination with all things Danish. The series could even claim to be ahead of the curve in real-life terms: Helle Thorning-Schmidt became Denmark’s first woman prime minister in 2011, after the fictional Birgitte Nyborg had been sworn in. (Knudsen deliberately avoided studying Thorning-Schmidt’s body language on television, just as she has always refused to air her own political opinions.)
“The plans are for no fourth series,” Knudsen confirms. “I look on the third as a kind of ‘bonus round’. The writers were told they could do anything they wanted, so it was just too good a chance not to jump on it.” Things move on in series three : Katrine and Kasper now have a baby, though they are no longer a couple. Birgitte has been travelling the world, lecturing to business groups, sitting on boards. And she has a new love interest: Jeremy Welsh, an English architect played by the Scottish actor Alastair Mackenzie, who was the young laird Archie MacDonald in Monarch of the Glen. “Very sweet and a gentleman,” Knudsen says of him.
“‘The plans are for no fourth series,’ Knudsen confirms. ‘I look on the third as a kind of ‘bonus round”. The writers were told they could do anything they wanted, so it was just too good a chance not to jump on it.
Post-Borgen, Knudsen is keeping an open mind. She has completed her first English-language film, The Duke of Burgundy, for the British director Peter Strickland. It was shot in Hungary, and she loved working there. “You feel all new again.” The plot is under wraps, but it seems to be largely a two-hander with her and the UK-based actress Chiara D’Anna. “A dark melodrama,” Knudsen calls it, with perhaps deliberate vagueness.
At this point, one imagines she could easily forge an impressive international acting career on the back of her success with Borgen. She smiles and shrugs and says nothing. “But it was also nice to play a character for three years,” she says finally. “I wouldn’t mind doing that again. Especially if it’s a character who really develops.”
And she picks up her red gloves from the table and heads off towards her bike.
DAVID GRITTEN is a film critic.
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This article has also been published in The Telegraph.