Upward trajectory: An interview with Danish actor Pilou Asbæk
In A War, Pilou Asbæk is Ddanish soldier accused of war crimes.
The star of the Danish film A War is a latecomer to acting and still thinks of himself as a learner.
“He’s innocent,” says Pilou Asbæk. “I consider him innocent. I actually do.” We’re talking about a Danish soldier accused of a war crime involving the deaths of children, committed during a tour in Afghanistan. “I mean, I have to think that, or I couldn’t do my job”.
The details of the crime, if it was a crime, are complicated, full of hard-to-judge nuance, and also fictional: the soldier, Claus Pedersen, is Asbæk’s character in the Tobias Lindholm film A War.
“We wanted to shoot in Afghanistan.” This is a striking thing to hear someone say about a country currently sliding towards its second Taliban period. “The production company wouldn’t allow us; there was no way they would get insurance. Very disappointing. We moved to Turkey, on the border with Syria. Which was interesting, I’ll tell you that.”
The first half of A War, before the story switches to Pedersen’s trial in Denmark, looks for all the world as though it was shot in Afghanistan; compare it with recent Afghan war documentaries like Restrepo or Armadillo and the resemblance is palpable. The Syrian border offered similarities beyond the visual.
“We’re shooting this film about a war, and all of a sudden we see the consequences of war, you know? More or less a world war, because all the major players are there in Syria. It was a reality check. We have to deal with this in Europe now. This is part of our responsibility, not as a European country but as members of the human race.”
“Acting was apparently where I had my talent. I’d still rather write if I could; that’s why I’m married to a writer.”
A War is Asbæk’s third film with Lindholm. “Tobias is first of all a writer, and then a director.” (Lindholm is currently working on the screenplay for Paul Greengrass’s post-Jason Bourne project, about Cold War people-smuggling between East and West Berlin). “When he writes a script for someone else, it’s very detailed. When he writes a script for himself, he writes it knowing that on the first day of shooting it’s all going to change.
“He’s interested in creating dilemmas — he doesn’t think about emotions or feelings so much; that’s what I bring to the table. All the films he’s written so far that he’s directed himself, I’ve starred in them. So he’s more or less always written to what I can do as an actor. And of course we fight while we shoot. This is not a happy organic process. Up until the first day of shooting, and after, we’re great friends. Not while we’re working.”
Asbæk came late to screen acting, and even to stage acting. He grew up in the visual-art world; his parents own a gallery in Copenhagen. “I was the black sheep, I wanted to be a writer.” Instead, he became involved in children’s theatre — “acting was apparently where I had my talent. I’d still rather write if I could; that’s why I’m married to a writer.”
He only moved into film with R, his first movie for Lindholm. That led to a major role on Borgen, the hit Danish political TV drama. “Tobias persuaded the two other writers and the director to give me an audition. I owe Tobias at least a couple of pints.”
Asbæk’s current projects include the film adaptation of the popular anime series Ghost in the Shell, the remake of Ben-Hur (he’s Pontius Pilate), and Game of Thrones, in which he’s Euron Greyjoy, the brutal new king of the Ironborn. “One of my biggest skills in Danish is to be realistic with lines. It’s very difficult in English. But you know what, I’m 34. This is a work in progress. In 45 years, I can portray a character in English like I think it should be portrayed. Right now, it’s learning by doing. Just in front of an enormous audience all over the world.”
A War, Friday 22 July, 2.00pm, Event Cinemas Queen St; and Tuesday 26 July, 8.45pm SkyCity Theatre. nziff.co.nz