Danish star Sofie Gråbøl tells DQ about her latest role, as a midwife in drama The Shift, and reflects on her time starring in Forbrydelsen (The Killing) on the 15th anniversary of the crime drama’s debut.
As a mother of two, Danish actor Sofie Gråbøl is no stranger to a maternity ward. But she found herself experiencing birth from a very different viewpoint when she helped to deliver a baby during her preparation for her latest television project, The Shift.
“I started in the corner on a chair with that feeling of awe,” she tells DQ from her home in Copenhagen. “But this birth had a lot of stages and some of them at the end were quite dramatic, so I ended up holding one of the mother’s legs and helping physically.
“I started off sitting on that chair and thinking, ‘I’m going to watch the midwife and just soak in the way she acts and the whole atmosphere around her work.’ But very quickly I completely focused on the woman giving birth. I totally forgot about the midwife. I was just extremely moved and fascinated. It was a really huge experience I have carried with me.”
That moment stood Gråbøl in good stead for The Shift, in which she plays Ella, the head midwife of a busy hospital maternity ward. The show was created by filmmaker and head writer Lone Scherfig (An Education), who wrote the role specifically for Gråbøl. The actor then signed up for the series based purely on its setting.
“Lone phoned me just around the time when Covid happened, the first lockdown, and said that when she writes, she prefers to have an actor in mind,” Gråbøl says of her first call with Scherfig. “That was how it started. I didn’t really know what it was. I just knew I was attracted to the whole idea of a maternity ward. It’s a very mysterious place to me and probably other people as well because it’s such a closed set. And the people who devote their lives to this kind of work, when you look at their salary and their working conditions, it’s actually heroic.”
With several real-life midwives on set as advisors and extras, the actor admits she was “quite shocked” to learn that they are paid less than other nurses and teachers in Denmark.
“You shouldn’t compare them, because all those roles are necessary for society. But do you know how much responsibility midwives have? It’s about life-and-death decisions,” Gråbøl continues. “You’re dealing with people who are extremely capable and extremely bright, yet they are treated quite poorly.
“One of the reasons may be that it’s traditionally a women’s profession. Another thing is also maybe when you need a midwife, you’re in and out so quickly that you tend to forget about them because we move on, don’t we? So even though they are part of something extremely important and significant in both society and in people’s lives, we tend to forget that. I thought it was an important contribution to tell the story of the lives of these people and maybe point to the quite poor conditions they work under.”
In the eight-part series, which is produced by Creative Alliance and distributed by Beta Film, Ella delivers babies while secretly wishing for her own family and struggling to form close relationships. Other staff working on the ward include paediatrician Jerry (Pål Sverre Hagen), whose marriage is falling apart, something his religious community is not supposed to know.
Due to air on Denmark’s TV2 this spring, the ‘Nordic light’ series balances workplace and relationship drama, while each episode introduces new characters and dilemmas for the staff to deal with.
“It was her profession that attracted me to the show,” Gråbøl says of playing Ella. “We never get out of the ward. We don’t go home with the characters. We don’t see who they live with or what their private life is like, which is obviously a challenging way of telling a drama because you can’t show the audience how characters may really feel when they’re just at work, and everyone is wearing the same costume.”
As the head of the ward, Ella’s shoulders hang heavy under the pressure of responsibility her job entails, while Gråbøl says the character’s private life is almost non-existent. She doesn’t have a family or children, and both her mother and her lover work at the hospital.
“She’s a woman who likes to be in control. She’s extremely capable, she’s very bright, she’s very tough, she’s very direct, but maybe her emotional life is under-lived,” Gråbøl says. “She becomes pregnant very early in the story. It’s something she didn’t plan and, obviously with me being 53 in real life, I would also be pretty shocked if I were pregnant. There’s a lot of mess in her otherwise very controlled way of living, but she also has the perspective of suddenly being personally involved in her job.”
Working on the set of a hospital ward, the actor also enjoyed playing the role of a midwife, not least because of the numerous props that were always on hand.
“I enjoyed it every time there was a scene where I could use any instrument, put on gloves or pull out the oxygen mask, because I’ve always admired people who are skilled,” she says. “Drama is always fictional, it’s always pretend and make-believe, but it can be very powerful even though it’s fiction. However, when you have real babies [on set] and you’re doing birth scenes that involve little human beings down to 11 days old, there are some lines that are crossed between fiction and reality because it is an actual little baby.
“I really enjoyed working on those birth scenes. For one, it’s a challenge, professionally, to make them realistic. When the real baby would come onto set, there was something awe-striking about it. We all made an effort to make it credible and believable.”
Gråbøl has been a screen presence in Denmark since the mid-1980s, starring in films such as Early Spring and Pelle the Conqueror before breaking into television with 1999 series Taxa and 2002’s Nikolaj og Julie. More recently, she has appeared in Liberty and Vår tid är nu (The Restaurant), as well as British and US series such as Fortitude, Us, Gentleman Jack and The Undoing.
But it was her lead role as Detective Inspector Sarah Lund in seminal Danish crime drama Forbrydelsen (The Killing) that made Gråbøl an international star. The series, which debuted 15 years ago today on DR1, follows Lund as she investigates the murder of a young girl, in a story that uniquely spanned 20 hour-long episodes. Two further seasons featuring Lund tackling new cases aired in 2009 and 2011.
“That’s a little shocking. Where did the time go?” she jokes. “It’s very moving that it’s been 15 years and it’s not really been forgotten. It’s a total wonder. I knew it was good because I thought the scripts were amazing and I loved everything about it as we shot it. It did very well in Denmark when it came out, but it wasn’t ground-breaking in any way. It was just received very well, so we were all taken aback by the way it was received outside of Denmark and especially in the UK. We weren’t prepared for that at all.
“The Killing stood on the shoulders of a long tradition of very strong Danish drama. Whenever I think of that show and that character, for me personally and professionally, it’s an extremely heart-warming feeling.”
The Killing inspired a love of Nordic knitwear thanks to the now-iconic clothing sported by Sarah Lund, who Gråbøl says fits the well-established mould of a detective whose personal life pays the price for their devotion to their job and solving the case. She also credits series creator Søren Sveistrup with putting greater focus on character – not just Lund but her fellow officers, the victim’s family members and potential suspects – than many other crime dramas.
“Then there’s the fact the first season spent 20 hours of drama on one murder case. That was, to me, the big difference. That was the key,” she says. “You have to trust the audience to go with you for 20 hours, which means you get to know the characters very well because, even though the plot is driving the story, which it always is in crime, it also becomes a character-based drama, which is maybe not how you characterise crime stories in general.
“It was the characters and the writing of Søren. Sarah Lund was also not a traditional investigator. The way we described her was not through her being a woman.”
The actor is now plotting her next move, but while she will continue to be based in Copenhagen, she is looking forward to a potential return to the UK in the future.
“I’ve always been very privileged in Denmark that I get to play so many different things, in so many different genres,” she says. “Obviously what The Killing changed for me was I got the opportunity to sometimes play abroad, and I miss working in the UK. I even miss going to the UK just to hang out. I hope I get the chance to do something there again.”