Before his smouldering turn as Dracula, CLAES BANG felt locked out of acting. Now he feels caged in with his wife, as he tells JANE MULKERRINS…
I always had the feeling that I had more to offer than I was allowed to do,” muses the Danish actor Claes Bang, fiddling with his luxuriant beard. “I always had the feeling that I was this racehorse, standing in that little box, thinking: ‘F, open the fing gates and let me get the f*** out of here; I’m ready to run now.’”After 25 years in his little box — a box that included a lot of Danish theatre and the odd job for German TV — the ‘f***ing gates’ were flung open three years ago with his role as a slick, womanising museum curator in the Palme d’Or-winning art world satire The Square.
Among other memorable scenes, he tussled post-coitally with his co-star Elisabeth Moss over the contents of a used condom. The tall, dark, knee-tremblingly handsome Bang, then 50, was catapulted to high-ranking crush status among international art-house cinema audiences, his euphemistic surname a delightful bonus. Then, this month, he became a bona fide global commercial lust object too, thanks to the three-part BBC/Netflix Dracula, in which he played an unusually sympathetic incarnation of Bram Stoker’s 400-year-old neck-nibbler. The widespread consensus was that if a love bite from Bang’s witty, charismatic, smoulderingly dishy Dracula proved deadly, well then, so be it. You only live once.
Given all that I’ve read about the apparently unfiltered Bang — a bawdy, sweary, wine-swilling straight-shooter — and my own appreciation for his, um, body of work, I am a little disappointed not to be meeting him in person. However, there’s a different intimacy that comes with beaming straight into his sunny, modern art-filled home, of which I get a constant tour as he flits between rooms and sofas, picking me up and putting me down; he’s not very good at sitting still, he admits.
Bang had an itinerant childhood; after his parents divorced when he was eight, he shuttled between his mother, a secretary, and his father, a salesman. His two younger sisters lived primarily with their mother, “but I moved and moved and grew up all over Denmark. I went to eight or nine primary schools. It was tough, but now I know this small country quite well.” In his teens he spent a couple of summers at English-language camps in Paignton and Brighton, which he credits for his barely discernible Danish accent; when he speaks English it is with a hard-to-place, almost estuary accent. Although he speaks five languages in total, ours, it seems, has claimed him almost entirely. “I’ve been working so much in English that I sometimes accidentally speak English with my wife now,” he says. “I’ve started having dreams in English, and I have this very stupid tendency to talk to myself a lot and that’s almost always in English as well now.”
He caught the acting bug at high school when he was reluctantly persuaded into taking part in the musical Hair “and I was, like, ‘Oh f***, this is good fun.’” He won a coveted place at the Danish National School of Performing Arts, and although he worked steadily for more than two decades, nothing ignited his career. “I used to think there’d been a party and the whole business was there and maybe I got really drunk,” he has said. “I thought, ‘Perhaps I did something that no one has ever forgiven me for. Did I try to sleep with the wives of the big bosses in Danish film and television?’ All those glorious years for Danish television and I spent them going, ‘Hello! I’m over here!’”
Were there times when he felt like packing it all in? “Oh yes. I’ve had spells where I wanted to kill myself and my family, and I’m a menace to everybody around me, but that’s just a normal acting career,” he says with a shrug. “I’m not very good at dealing with it. I get very depressed and I take it too personally. You’re the salesperson and the goods at the same time, and it’s really hard if there’s absolutely no one ever looking round your shop.”
After The Square, for which he won a European Film Award for best actor – the first Dane to do so — there was a “huge shift” in terms of offers. He filmed The Girl in the Spider’s Web alongside Claire Foy, The Burnt Orange Heresy with Elizabeth Debicki, a series of The Affair and, of course, Dracula. Created by Steven Moffatt and Mark Gattis, Bang’s Dracula, with his inclusive appetites, felt highly contemporary. “Yes, he’s got very broad tastes,” Bang agrees. And he’s not just after his victims to slake his blood lust, but is also interested in them as people. “What do you want?” they ask him. “What I always want. Someone to talk to and a nice meal.” That’s more relatable than ever right now, I observe. Adorably, his biggest crush is on a nun. “That’s life too, isn’t it?” Bang laughs. “It’s always the one you can just never f***ing get.”
He met his wife in 2006. “She was a make-up artist on a little summer theatre thing I did. I was in a relationship, and then that ended, and then a month later I was invited to her [41st] birthday party, and I never left. I was the present,” he deadpans down the camera at me. My laptop and I both spontaneously combust. How did he know that this one was different? “Well, I didn’t. I was just totally attracted to her.” He pauses, and gazes out of the window. “When I try to put it into words it always comes out smaller or lesser than what it is. I read it back and it sounds so stupid and silly and small. It’s so much bigger and it’s so much more.” Which is actually the most perfect description of love that I think I’ve ever heard. They married in September 2010, and Bang became stepfather to Jensen’s two children, now aged 33 and 22; he is now twice a stepgrandfather too. “I think if I had been with someone who had said, ‘So now it’s time to get the kids,’ I’d have been: ‘OK, sure.’ But nobody ever said that and I just never had the urge. And so far it’s not a regret,” he says. “It’s like I’ve got everything everybody has, but I’ve just got it in a slightly different way.”
As he warns me that his phone only has 2 per cent battery left and he is trying find a plug, I ask whether, given the rapid and recent rise in his recognisability, he’s become a little more guarded of late, nervous about making the sort of comments he has in the past? For example, slagging off the Oscars as “the most ugly place you’ve ever seen . . . the most boring show” or accidentally taking eight times the recommended dose of weed gummies at the Golden Globes, after which he said “I couldn’t stand. A publicist stuck me in a cab. The driver just pushed me out on to the sidewalk. I fell out right there, until someone from my hotel came and scooped me up and put me in bed.”
He says “with the British press I’m not allowed to approve my quotes — which I am with the Danish and German press — so I’m a little bit more cautious with you guys. Though I don’t think I have been today, actually. I already regret something that I’ve said.” I’m about to press him on what exactly when the screen goes black and I am left with a holding headshot of a seriously smouldering Bang. I really don’t think he was all that bothered about his regrets anyway
JANE MULKERRINS is a freelance writer based in New York.
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This article has also been published in The Times.