Bringing Lust to life
Swedish stars Sofia Helin, Anja Lundqvist, Julia Dufvenius and Elin Klinga and the team behind HBO Max comedy Lust tell DQ how they collaborated off-screen to tell the story of four women confronting issues of sex and intimacy in middle age.
For crime thriller Heder (Honour), Swedish actors Julia Dufvenius, Sofia Helin, Anja Lundqvist and Alexandra Rapaport teamed up to create a story about a female-led law firm that works to give a voice to the victims of sexual abuse.
Helin (Bron/Broen) ultimately didn’t appear on screen in that series, but she has now reunited with Lundqvist (Gåsmamman) and Dufvenius (Fartblinda) to create and star in Lust, a new comedy commissioned by HBO Max that serves up an often outrageous and funny yet painfully honest story about four middle-aged women in Stockholm struggling to keep their libidos alive in a sexually frustrating world.
Anette (Helin), Nadia (Lundqvist), Ellen (Dufvenius) and Martina (Elin Klinga) have all been friends since school. When they find out that Anette is conducting a government survey dubiously dubbed ‘Make Sweden Sexy Again,’ they are forced to confront their own sex lives, which range from one-night stands and committed relationships to career-affected sex schedules and sleeping with an ex.
Written by Frans Milisic Wiklund (Alex) and created in collaboration with actor and director Åsa Kalmér (Lyckoviken), the show borrowed from its stars’ own lives to help shape the characters and the often absurd situations they find themselves in.
“Frans is a brilliant writer. He listened to us and our stories about sex. We were brainstorming so much with him and it was a perfect match,” Lundqvist tells DQ. “He embraced our own stories and the story we wanted to tell.”
“We have had a lot of discussions with him about the female way of viewing things, and the male way of viewing things,” says Dufvenius. “We have been sharing so many things about ourselves, which you can see in the series.”
Helin adds: “That’s what the series is; it’s about our conversations on this subject but then it’s all mixed up. We are not playing who we really are, but it’s all in there in the mixture.”
The project dates as far back as 2015, when the actors first shared conversations about creating and starring in a series that would deal with the fact that man people don’t talk about sex, and how women in their 40s handle the topic.
“It came from a lust to work together,” Lundqvist says, “and we suddenly realised we talk about everything, but we don’t talk about sex. We really talked about all these series, such as Girls, that are about sex, and I didn’t recognise myself in them. For me, sex is much more vulnerable. I was longing for something that was more sensitive, clumsy… Maybe it’s true we are not free in our sexuality and that we lack energy because we are so repressed and just work and work. In Sweden, working is almost like a religion. The first thing you ask someone in Sweden is, ‘What do you do?’”
“There’s the expression, ‘You laugh or you cry,’ and that’s basically what this series is,” Helin says. “It’s so painful and vulnerable. We are just so fragile when it comes to this subject. But you can laugh about that together, that’s our goal.”
Stage and screen actor Klinga, who appeared in several plays by the late Ingmar Bergman, then joined the production to complete the central cast. When she first read the script, she didn’t know where it was from or who was involved, but found it “really funny and intelligently written.”
“I didn’t see it as a feminist play. It was just full of situations that are very common in real life, but we never see them in movies or on television,” she says. “It’s so much about human beings and what happens between us in the bedroom and how funny and absurd that is. It’s so strange and funny to be naked with another person. So many things can go wrong.”
“We wanted to get naked, not nude, but undress ourselves and share this clumsiness and these untold stories, especially about women getting older and still having lust,” Dufvenius says. “There aren’t a lot of role models for us to watch in films, theatre and series, so we wanted to change that – and we wanted to entertain, of course.”
When the series begins, Anette (Helin) is conducting a study into the sex lives of middle-aged women yet struggling with her own “non-existent” sex life , while Nadia (Lundqvist) has a schedule to ensure she and her husband can find the time to have sex when they’re not working or looking after their children. Ellen (Dufvenius) is committed to no-strings-attached relationships and Martina (Klinga) wants to meet someone new while she is stuck living with her ex and his new girlfriend.
“Of course, I recognise so much in Martina, but I recognise something in everybody, and both women and men can recognise themselves or their partners, daughters, mothers or fathers in the series, because it’s so honestly done and with a touch of humour and the absurdity that life is,” Klinga says.
Behind the scenes, Miso Film producer Sandra Harms originally played matchmaker in 2017 to bring together the stars, Kalmér and Wiklund to collaborate on the series with herself and fellow producer Karl Fredrik Ulfung.
“It started with their idea to make something about female sexuality. It was a bit vague, but it was more from their perspective as actresses about the kinds of parts they don’t get to play and what themes we don’t tell stories about,” she says. “They had a sketchy idea of what to make. Me and Frans know each other from film school, so when I heard this pitch, it had Frans’s name written all over it.”
“Sandra asked me if I was interested in maybe writing a show with these four actresses about female sexuality. I was intrigued, of course. I thought it was exciting,” Wiklund says. “I was really nervous the first time I met them, but we clicked pretty early on. It’s been a great collaborative process.”
Anette’s survey, which is based on a real survey conducted in Sweden, offered Wiklund a way into the story, which could then delve deeper into the sex lives of the four main characters. Some of the women Anette interviews also appear in small vignettes during the series, speaking directly to the camera.
“That way, we make it a show about every woman, not just these four characters, and also it’s a way to separate it a bit from shows like Sex & the City or Girls,” he says. “After that, I just started diving into these four characters and creating them from scratch. I wrote a lot in the beginning, doing different versions. We had meetings, I went home, I wrote, they read it, we had meetings. It was a long process. It was always fun, but it was tough.”
Directing the eight-part series is Ella Lemhagen, who describes Lust’s cast as “dream team” and one she couldn’t turn down. She was also intrigued by the subject matter and the way the “hilarious” script finds truth in the characters and the situations in which they find themselves.
“But what was most difficult for me and the actresses in the beginning was how to do these sex scenes,” she says. “We discussed a lot how to not make it uncomfortable and make sure it was never too graphic or cheesy. It was very important for me to stay in this comedy box. We always go for the laugh, never for sexiness, and still say something true about women in their 40s and sexuality.”
Used to joining a project early in its development and helping to shape the script, Lemhagen says boarding Lust was like “coming to a table that was already set for dinner,” with the scripts and the cast already in place.
“I knew how much Frans had worked on it and, from the first time I read it, I was laughing so much, feeling a bit touched by it and connected to the characters,” she says. “I didn’t have to go through all the suffering you experience when you’re developing things yourself. It was more about finding a tune with the material but building this world with the actors and making everybody a family.”
For a long time, the actors didn’t know which characters they would play, which meant they all had a hand in shaping them in the writers room. Then when it came to filming, it was important they put their creator roles to one side to focus on acting.
“We talked a lot about that. We almost had to set a date when they shifted from being creators to just actresses because they needed to be able to take directions from the director, who was not in the writers room,” Harms says. “It would have been such a mess if all of them were wearing their creator hats on set.”
Lemhagen continues: “It’s a lot about trust, of course, which is what you always need as a director on set.If you can trust the actors and they can trust you, they can do all those things they were afraid or anxious over.”
That sense of trust continued on set, where an intimacy coordinator was on hand to help with the numerous sex scenes that feature through the series. But having worked for many years in Sweden’s close-knit acting community, the actors found they already knew many of their male co-stars, while some of their husbands were also involved.
Lundqvist recalls the freedom and satisfaction she felt to reveal her fears and concerns about filming intimate scenes, such as when Nadia strips off in front of her personal trainer Diesel (Björn Bengtsson).
“It was so satisfying to tell our director and our coordinator what I was afraid of. I didn’t want him to see me [naked], so I had patches on and I felt really secure even though I was standing there in front of him,” she says. “Then when we did the sex scenes, because I know Björn so well, those were not difficult. You’re so vulnerable with your 50-year-old body on set. That was really what was worrying me, and it felt very satisfying to feel so secure.”
“In my first sex scene, it’s with some guy Ellen has sex with,” Dufvenius says. “Elin’s worked with my husband before – he’s also an actor – and she said, ‘Can’t he do this part?’ I was calling him, saying, ‘Can you please do this sex scene with me?’ He was like, ‘OK’. The second person I have sex scenes with is a very good friend of mine, so I also felt secure with him. Of course, it is a big thing but, as Anja says, we were taken care of.”
Klinga also acted opposite her husband in one scene, and says she is “grateful and lucky” to be working on a project created by her co-stars. “They have so much experience, and I hope there can be more people doing their own projects. Also, with this series, I hope people have more sex and dare to be themselves more and do it in their personal way, rather than trying to do what they think sex should be.”
Lust had its world premiere last month at Berlinale Series, part of the Berlin International Film Festival, and is now set to debut on HBO Max in all territories on March 18. Meanwhile, Wiklund is already plotting ideas for a potential second season.
“I hope the series will stand out because I always like to work with subjects that scare me a little bit,” Harms says. “This is a comedy, but we try to go into those spaces where the actors and I get a little bit nervous. We wanted to push the boundaries a little bit. I just hope we made something that is both funny and smart.
“It’s not political but it’s talking about all these subjects we as a society are always talking about – sex, feminism, gender – and trying to portray them in as funny a way as possible while still connecting with these characters. I wouldn’t say there’s a lot of nudity because there isn’t, or it’s so crazy because it’s not that crazy either. I just hope it stands out because it’s genuine and good.”
Helin adds: “It will be interesting to see if this is radical or not. In Scandinavia, I don’t think it’s very radical, but it might be elsewhere.”