Casting a spell on Danish TV
Danish casting director Anja Philip looks back on four key series she has worked on and breaks down how she built the casts of Borgen, Kamikaze, Skruk (Baby Fever) and Carmen Curlers.
Across more than 20 years, Anja Philip has worked on some of Denmark’s biggest TV series, from sitcom Klovn and comedy Lykke to family drama Avingerne (The Legacy) and Greyzone.
Most notably, she was the casting director on acclaimed political drama Borgen; Kamikaze, about an 18-year-old social media influencer’s descent into grief following the death of her family; fertility drama Skruk (Baby Fever); and this year’s hit Danish series Carmen Curlers, which is based on the true story of the man who invented electric hair curlers.
Here, Philip talks DQ through the key casting decisions behind all four series, how she finds new talent and the secrets to good screen chemistry.
The DR political series, which debuted in 2010, follows a politician rising to power while juggling the demands of her family. After a three-season run, it returned this year with Borgen: Power & Glory. Sidse Babett Knudsen stars as Birgitte Nyborg, with Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as journalist Katrine Fønsmark and Pilou Asbæk as political advisor Kasper Juul.
Philip: The concept director, Soren Kragh-Jacobsen, actually started without a casting director. Luckily for me, that was a problem. They had auditioned Sidse and a lot of other women for the part of Birgitte and they wanted to hear my opinion on that. Then they had difficulties finding Katrine and also Kasper, and they asked me if I wanted to take a look at that. I said, ‘Yes, of course.’
I saw Sidse’s audition and, at that point in Denmark, she was known as an actress who had done a lot of comedy and funny stuff. It was really a turning point to see her as the prime minister of Denmark. There was no doubt when I saw the work they’d done with her – it was wonderful and so convincing.
When I work, I always tell the production company or the director I don’t want to know their thoughts or ideas [on actors]. I just want to read the script and come up with my own ideas. If they tell me they have a person in mind, that will narrow my brainstorming. No one knew Birgitte [Hjort Sørensen] as she had only finished drama school 15 minutes ago, but I knew her and Pilou. He’d done a few things. But I read the script and – sometimes this happens – just got the feeling, ‘OK, this is Birgitte and this is Pilou.’ I auditioned them together and they were convincing and wonderful and they got the parts.
Despite coming from comedy, Knudsen was “fantastic from the beginning.”
Philip: First of all, Denmark is a really small country and she was young and comedy is not the same as in England or in the US, where if you’re known for comedy, there’s a lock on the actor doing anything else. I will never forget the first time I auditioned her – it was like, ‘Thank you so much for being an actor.’ She was magnificent. She’s really funny and she’s such a clever, brilliant actress.
In the series, Birgitte, Katrine and Kasper share a web of complicated relationships, from politician and advisor to politician and journalist, and there’s an evolving romantic relationship between Katrine and Kasper.
Chemistry is very important, but it’s also important in the salad we are making that not everything has the same flavour. That’s what makes the characters interesting. But it can also complicated things – if Sidse decided she didn’t want to do it, then maybe it would mean Birgitte [Hjort Sørensen] would be out too. It’s like a chain.
We were so lucky we got them for this. It’s a project that has been opening doors around the world for all of us, and that’s just wonderful. It gives me a nice feeling that this project has touched people, and I’m proud and happy to be on the show.
Ten years since the series last aired, Philip reunited with Knudsen and Sørensen for this year’s DR and Netflix coproduction Borgen: Power & Glory, which told a story involving an oil dispute in Greenland.
Philip: That was so much fun. I heard they were making Borgen again and you cross your fingers and hope it will still be as good as last time, because it’s always difficult to touch old gold. It was so beautiful, powerful, strong and interesting. [Showrunner] Adam Price is just a master of coming up with stories that are actually happening right now in the political scene in Denmark and in the world, so taking the Greenland oil story on was just fantastic – and it was great to go to [Greenland capital] Nuuk to cast Greenlandic actors.
Marie Reuther has won numerous awards for her role in this HBO Max series. She plays Julie, a fierce and charming 18-year-old social media influencer from a wealthy family who goes on a journey of self-discovery after losing her parents and brother in a plane crash.
Philip: Marie was at the drama school 500 metres from my office. I’m fortunate enough to teach at drama schools in Denmark, so I meet [young actors] and teach them about casting or working in front of a camera. I knew Marie from before she came into acting school because we had an open call for a movie many years ago and she came along.
We started asking people to send a short presentation on a video [for Kamikaze], and she did. She’s full of charisma, she’s so likeable and she’s really good, so that [decision] was not that difficult. Annette K Olesen – the director, who worked on this project for seven years up to production – and I cast the whole thing and she fell in love with Marie completely.
In the series, the story is split between Julie’s life before and after she is involved in a plane crash and left stranded in the middle of a vast desert, seemingly searching for a way to love life again or end it all.
Philip: The part of Marie being ‘rough Julie’ with a bald head in the plane crash, we were convinced that wasn’t a problem. But because Marie was quite old for the role – in the beginning of the series, Julie is 18 – we had to test that with her. Playing the emotional part of being Julie, losing her family, she convinced us so quickly. During the first audition, we had goosebumps all over. It was so touching and fantastic.
Skruk (Baby Fever)
The Netflix comedy-drama stars Josephine Park as Nana, a fertility doctor who longs for a baby of her own and drunkenly inseminates herself with her ex-boyfriend’s semen sample, leading to a host of personal and professional dilemmas.
Philip: We auditioned a lot of wonderful actresses for the part of Nana, but quite quickly [after meeting Park] we thought, ‘There she is.’ Josephine was not a big star but a wonderful upcoming actress. It’s always about the tone or the musicality in the material. No matter what it is, if it’s comedy, if it’s dead serious, is the actor’s charisma somehow combined with the character? Does it give us goosebumps because it fits perfectly, like it’s written for her? We had that feeling with her.
Skruk is comedy, but it’s also serious because there are so many people [in real life] fighting with this problem of not being able to get pregnant. We had to work with this with a lot of respect. Josephine has that wonderful seriousness and she is so clever, and we trusted her, but she’s also fun and loveable. She had all the different aspects of the character.
That’s the interesting part of a casting session and why I have the best job in the world – when actors come in and we have to investigate whether they’re able to do both [drama and comedy] or just one. Do they dare to invest themselves in the subject, or do they keep a distance? Does it feel sincere and do you believe in it? It’s as simple as that. On this project, there were so many people who had been through this process of trying to get pregnant, so it was a hard thing for all of them. It’s really common; a lot of people are struggling with this in their lives, and that’s what makes the whole show very serious and important, but it’s also nice to be able to laugh about it. That balance is important.
Launching earlier this autumn, fact-based drama Carmen Curlers is set in the 1960s, when the invention of the electric hair curler changed the fortunes of one man and thousands of women. Morten Hee Andersen plays entrepreneur Axel, while Maria Rossing is Birthe, a farmer’s wife who rises up to become Axel’s business partner.
Philip: Carmen Curlers has been very popular, and it’s what we need with the awful things going on with Ukraine, Covid and rising prices. Everything is so tough. This was a show we really needed. It’s not just light, it’s a historically important show about women getting into work.
Axel’s a crazy dude. It’s a wonderful story about a guy who just keeps fighting for what he wants. It’s a mix of Mad Men and some Danish TV shows. Everyone has been talking about it and it’s a big success in Denmark, so that’s so wonderful.
Philip had previously worked with both writer Mette Heeno and broadcaster DR, so jumped at the chance to cast the series.
Philip: I’ve been working with Mette for 15 years and cast almost everything she’s done, so of course I wanted to do this. Everything regarding Carmen Curlers was, ‘Yes please, thank you so much.’
Also, it’s always fun to cast something period. This is the 60s – how much more delicious can it get? It’s always interesting to dive into different universes. That could be Borgen, where it’s really important to find actors who can be believable as politicians, because the worst thing is to have a politician who looks like an actor trying to act like a politician. Of course, we don’t want that in Borgen and it was the same in Carmen Curlers.
Maria and Morten are the two leads, and we did it during Covid. I’ve cast Maria for several projects Mette has written. There’s something about Maria and Mette that’s a wonderful mix. We only auditioned her with Morten. We saw a lot of self-tapes and then we just decided to begin with Morten and Maria in a physical audition at DR. We tested for Covid and kept our distance, and it was just those two quite quickly. Then the fact Morten looks like the real guy [he’s playing] was an extra bonus.