Sofie Gråbøl interview: The queen of Nordic noir on her royal role at the Festival
sofie grabol

Sofie Gråbøl, star of The Killing, makes her UK stage debut in Edinburgh with a portrayal of a strong woman. But she’s left the jumpers at home

sofie grabol
[Sofie Gråbøl as Queen Margaret in James III]

Sofie Gråbøl has umpteen chunky knit jumpers stuffed in a drawer at home, from her seven years playing detective Sarah Lund in three series of the hit Danish crime drama, The Killing.

“I don’t know why I keep them, because obviously I’m never going to wear them again,” she says.

After such a long time inhabiting the mind of the intuitive detective, Gråbøl was keen to shrug off the Faroe Isles knitwear and move on to new things.

“It wasn’t all Sarah Lund, because I did other films and plays in between, but I’m glad it’s over. Because it’s over. It came to an end. It’s not a feeling of sadness, it’s just a feeling of something really good coming to an end. That was that journey, and we go home again, you know?”

Gråbøl might do well to pack one of her jumpers in preparation for the Scottish summer when the queen of Nordic noir comes to the capital to perform in one of the highlights of the Edinburgh International Festival, The James Plays trilogy. Written by Rona Munro and directed by Laurie Sansom, the plays cover three generations of Stewart kings who ruled Scotland in the 15th century and represent an unprecedented co-production by the National Theatre of Scotland, the Edinburgh International Festival and the National Theatre of Great Britain.

In Gråbøl’s first English language stage role she plays Margaret of Denmark, who married James III in 1469 and went on have a major influence on how Scotland was ruled, and the 45-year-old is deep in rehearsals when we catch up at the National Theatre in London.

“What makes Queen Margaret’s character so good is that she has an amazing journey, at a time when women were usually in the background,” says Gråbøl. “What is also important is that her story is really a quest for identity and for embracing her role in life and that journey is just beautifully written and very modern and understandable. It’s not like watching history, it could be today.”

As Gråbøl is aware, quests for identity are very much of the moment, with Scotland’s independence vote taking place within a month of the play finishing its Scottish run and heading for London, but she fields the referendum question and any relevance to The James Plays with a politic, “No comment”.

“Our story is about James and his relationship with Margaret, and it’s also all about choices. It’s about identity, and it’s also about national identity of course, and Rona plays a lot with the fact that Margaret is the foreigner, the Nordic queen that comes from another culture. But I also feel there are a lot of similarities between the Scots and the Danes, language similarities for example. In the rehearsal room, we have a kist and it’s the same word. There are many Nordic words that are similar to Scots.”

Gråbøl has been in the UK since January, filming the TV thriller Fortitude for Sky Atlantic, but since she began working on The James Plays she says she has discovered it’s not only vocabulary that the Scots and Danes have in common.

“With the English, I found that their way and their culture is very different from the Danish, and then I come into the Scottish group and I feel so … oh! This is the way we would do in Denmark! What confused me a bit about the English is that sometimes I thought that we agreed and then I discovered later that they were just being polite because they didn’t like the conflict. So, you know, they are polite and really nice – I don’t mean to say any bad about the English – but it was a cultural difference.

“And then when I came into this ensemble they received me like I would have been received in Denmark, which is warmly, but also, let’s wait and see. Rona has a line where Margaret says the Scots taught her that you can find friends wherever you share food and drink if you just wait and see how to join in the conversation. She says, ‘you let me be, you let me grow.’ And I see that is the way the Scottish people do, they say hello, and give you a warm welcome then it’s up to you to join in whenever you feel ready. There’s not so much polite forms, and that makes me feel at home.”

This year has been a time of new beginnings and challenges for Gråbøl who took the whole of last year off after being diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2012. After surgery and chemotherapy she spent the year recovering then started work again in January on Fortitude, created and written by Low Winter Sun’s Simon Donald. To be screened later this year it was filmed in the UK and Iceland and also stars Stanley Tucci, Richard Dormer, Christopher Eccleston and Michael Gambon.

“When this play came along, I really longed to look at myself in my life in a new way. You step out of life when you get ill like that. You’re suddenly stepping into a parallel world and I just felt when I returned to the real world and started working again, I couldn’t just continue like nothing had happened. Because it really has changed me in a profound way that I can’t really put simple words to. When this part was offered to me I felt now is the time in my life for me to take a challenge I might not have before I got ill. You get very conscious that you’re only on this planet for a short time so that makes you think, well, it’s not going to kill me to play theatre in Scotland and England.

It wasn’t only because Gråbøl wanted to get out and on with her life that she took the role. She was also impressed by Munro’s writing and the complexity of the character of Margaret.

“There were a lot of reasons why I took this play – it’s the ultimate challenge for me and she is a really interesting character, but honestly mainly it was because it is just massive good writing. This was a script that you just ate up. The story is fascinating and so are the relations between the characters and it’s written so playful and modern and funny. I mean – I don’t know if they’ll kill me for saying this – but some of it is comedy. You think when you’re dealing with a historic play that you start yawning, that it’s kings and queens in the old days and all spider webs and a dusty feeling, but Rona has made it so relevant and it really speaks to you. You get into the history but also realise that people were also people back then and relationships were just as difficult and finding your place in the world was just as difficult, whether or not you’re a king or queen.

Gråbøl was keen to work in the UK, but it had to be the right role because it means leaving behind her children Gudrun and Bror, “13 and almost ten”, from her marriage to film director Jacob Thuesen behind in Copenhagen. The couple divorced in 2006 and the children live with them both.

“Of course there are times when I can go home but it has a price. If you leave your home and family you want to feel there’s a reason. I thought it was one of those things where I can’t be lying on my death bed having turned this down because of fear, so yes, I really wanted to do it.”

Given that Gråbøl has just faced down breast cancer, and is an actress who is instantly recognised on the street – even with her shorter post-chemotherapy hair and dressed down in jeans and a blue T-shirt – with almost 30 years in the business, what was she afraid of?

“Many things. It is frightening to throw yourself out into deep unknown waters, and this is definitely unknown waters because I don’t know anyone here, so that feeling of being the stranger, away from your safe zone, not just geographically but also personally. You look at life and yourself in a different way when you are out of your comfort zone and I’m definitely out of that. It’s not pleasant, but it’s fun and it’s challenging and I’m really feeling embraced by the people I’m working with. But it’s still frightening.”

“I’ve always loved a challenge and the minute I start feeling too safe I put myself in situations that I hate, basically. But I hate the feeling of being stuck more. It forces you to open your senses and challenge your way of doing things.”

Gråbøl is able to channel her fears and feelings of being the outsider into her role as Margaret, who was 12 years old when she came to Scotland to marry the king, bringing with her Orkney and Shetland as part of her dowry. A popular queen, she grew into a force to be reckoned with in her adopted country.

“She doesn’t know anyone or anything, it’s the same feeling. Rona has written one of my lines, and every time I say it I know exactly how that feels, where Margaret says ‘I was 12 years old, I didn’t know anyone, I was frightened, I was lonely, I didn’t understand what anyone was saying…’ Obviously I understand what they’re saying, but still it takes an effort, because they don’t speak English like I speak English, they speak Scottish!”

Gråbøl’s English sounds fine to me, much better than my Danish – three series of The Killing subtitles and all I can manage is “tak” or thank you and let’s not even attempt Forbrydelsen [The Killing] – but she confesses to worrying about the language of the play. It’s a long way from the cameo appearance she made in the 2011 Absolutely Fabulous Christmas Special.

“That’s another thing to be frightened of, speaking in English all the time. It’s one thing to do a TV series in English, because you can have another take, but in theatre, you can’t. And at the first read through it dawned on me, my God they’re speaking Scottish! Because when I read it, it’s just English, right, so I didn’t really imagine that it would be so Scottish! I was like, Oh my god, that means I should speak Scottish because Margaret lived there from the age of 12. Phew! So I said to Laurie [Sansom], aaaahhhh… I can never do that, and he said, don’t worry, I don’t think you should even try. That was such a relief!

“That’s where we have to claim artistic freedom because if I spend all my energy on being really good at Scottish, firstly I would never be able to, and also it would steal my focus. So I’m hoping I will get away with speaking the English I speak in the midst of the poetry and music of the others around me. The Scottish language waters are so deep I’m not even going out there. I would just drown.”

Gråbøl’s first role at 17 was playing an artist model in the 1986 Paul Gauguin biopic starring Donald Sutherland and Max von Sydow, which she auditioned for at her mother’s prompting and with no formal training.

“The way I entered acting was so co-incidental. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t have an aim. It was just really out of boredom and maybe it would be fun to try to make a film and then do something else afterwards obviously, but then another role came and then a third and suddenly that was my work. It took me some years to embrace that,” she says.

With only ten years of school because she left early to pursue acting, she’s rarely considered doing anything else.
“I couldn’t. I don’t even have a school leaving certificate. There was a time when I thought maybe a teacher, but that’s not a question you ever really ask yourself. Only in really, deep, deep crisis have I thought what am I doing in my life? Who am I? Why am I? Why do I have the work I have? Should I be doing something else? But that’s out of crisis, deep personal crisis.”

Was last year when she was ill and felt she had stepped out of life, such a time?

“No, I mean earlier crises in my life. When you get that ill, it’s… I couldn’t even imagine going back to work. It boiled things down to being alive or not. And being there for your children or not. And nothing else really matters.”

Speaking of children reminds me I have a couple of questions from my 11-year-old daughter, who was intrigued I was interviewing an actress playing a queen. The first being, “What would you do if you were queen?”

“What would she do?” fires back Gråbøl.

“Buy clothes and go and see One Direction.”

“Ha! I did it! I went to see One Direction at Wembley with my daughter. So I already live like a queen!” She laughs. “For me the main attraction was the look on the face of my daughter,” she says.

And the second question: Is it hard looking after your children and doing your job?

“Ah yes. But the good thing is my children have two parents and are used to living two places. They are used to me being away. This time it’s longer than a week but I think they can cope. It was important to me to do this and I am sure they will be fine.”

Back to my own questions and the chatty Gråbøl begins to channel a little of the more taciturn Detective Inspector Sarah Lund.

Is she in a relationship now?

“No.”

I wait for her to elucidate. She doesn’t. Instead she smiles, blue eyes twinkling. I try again, does she like being on her own and being able to please herself?

“It’s more complex really isn’t it?” she says.

Is it?

She smiles again, lips sealed.

This is going nowhere. It’s time to hand over the haggis I’ve brought to give her a foretaste of Scottish cuisine, since up till now she’s only spent two days in the country in 2011 promoting The Killing.

“Is it a haggis?! Oooh, what do I do with this? I think in the frying pan? I have tried it before, I thought it was lovely! I will go down now in the rehearsal room like this (she holds the haggis aloft) and they will all be so envious. Ha! Yes, I have a haggis!”

James III: The True Mirror, with Sofie Gråbøl, is the third of The James Plays, along with James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock and James II: Day of the Innocents, at Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 10-22 August, tickets £12-£35, (www.eif.co.uk) and the National Theatre, London, 10 September-29 October (www.nationaltheatre.org.uk), more info

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Originally published in The Scotsman

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