Picking parts

Picking parts

July 14, 2020


Swedish actor Sofia Helin discusses choosing characters, preparing for a role and playing a princess in Norwegian drama Atlantic Crossing.

For viewers around the world, Swedish star Sofia Helin has become synonymous with Nordic noir, thanks to her leading role in acclaimed crime drama Bron/Broen (The Bridge). More recently, she has been seen on screen down under with a starring role in the second season of Mystery Road, while she will soon be playing royalty in Norwegian period drama Atlantic Crossing.

During the digital edition of French television festival Série Series, Helin spoke about her acting career, how she chooses her next character and her real-life role in Sweden’s #MeToo movement.

Helin has worked on stage and screen but, at the beginning of her career, she was just happy to be working…
Then I was lucky enough to have interesting parts early on. I choose a part if it awakens a question within me about their struggle or their motivation for doing what they’re doing. I always need to have those questions inside me to be able to do a part.

The role of Swedish cop Saga Norén in Danish/Swedish coproduction The Bridge has had a big influence on the actor…
Saga is a part I played for such a long time. She’s very different person from who I am, and the way she thinks is so different from my way of being and thinking. I’ve learned a lot from her and she’s shaped me more than I knew she would, but in a good way. I’m very grateful to her.

Sofia Helin as Saga Norén in The Bridge

Saying ‘yes’ to a script is not a rational decision…
It’s a feeling of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in my body and, of course, if I’m curious to work with a director or writer. It depends, but I know what makes me say no. I got a script from a very big show where there was a description of a woman going to a very fancy bar and seducing someone in a very sexy way. But the way the script was written didn’t describe the whole person. It described a vision of a person. I just thought that was not for me. I can’t do it, I don’t know how to. If it’s not written as a whole human being, I can’t do it.

The difference between theatre and film or TV is the rehearsal time…
With theatre, you rehearse. In Sweden we rehearse for eight weeks. On screen, sometimes you have time to dive into the part, but to understand a character or go into her world, it’s the same process but in another order. With theatre, you have so much more time to explore, and you have to build the character and a stage performance that can be played night after night. You have to make solid choices. When you shoot [for TV or film], you can shoot five different versions and experiment on set, but you still know that day that you have to deliver exactly the right take for the film or the series.

Playing royalty in Atlantic Crossing proved to be an unexpected challenge…
I just did a very long shoot playing Crown Princess Märtha of Norway, who travelled to America and was working together with President Roosevelt during the Second World War to make America join the war and help Europe. I didn’t expect it, but it became one of the hardest parts I’ve done because the more I learned about her, I realised she could perform [a role as] the perfect woman of that time. I didn’t expect it to be such a challenge to be in [that character] for so many months. I find it quite fascinating – royals live with a royal facade, but how and when does this crack?

In Atlantic Crossing, Helin plays Crown Princess Märtha of Norway

As an actor, Helin enjoys collaborating with directors and writers…
I’m an actress who loves to rehearse, meet, talk, analyse and get to know [the people I’m working with] to get rid of all limits and shyness and to be able to do the nearest portrayal of a woman you can achieve. You don’t hire me just to tell me what to do – I’m involved, I will discuss, ask questions. I like that, I can’t help it. I like to be involved as early as possible. If it’s a play, it’s different. It depends how much work has been done on the script.
With Atlantic Crossing, I joined while the script was being written so I could discuss it and have opinions and try to shape it. They were very open and we had many discussions about the script. With Bron, I had a wonderful cooperation with writer Hans Rosenfeldt. Over the seasons, we started working together to see where we wanted Saga to go. It was a lot of fun. We both knew Saga so well, so it was easy and fun to work on that together.
What I’m good at is taking a scene and helping out if I’m in the part. The part can speak through me. If a writer and director are open to that, I’m very happy to take part.

Working in television, Helin also watches a lot of TV…
I watch a lot. I just finished Normal People and it broke my heart. It was so beautiful, the way the camera worked with the actors and the actors worked with the camera and each other, and everything they never said. I loved that series. It was so beautiful, painful. I watch a lot because it’s my passion and my business. Sometimes I research by watching and sometimes I get drawn into things. It’s harder for me to get engaged because I’m probably watching in a different way.

There’s so much television being made around the world, but stories should have something to say…
Everybody wants and needs more TV series and content. It’s such an explosion but, still, there are both very good and very bad things. The challenge is whether to keep on making a series just because it’s a success. You have to take responsibility for the story and take responsibility for the audience. Do you have something to tell, or are you just continuing because [you can]? That’s the way I want to work. I want to work as long as I have a story to tell. Otherwise there’s no point in just going on.
We’re living in a fantastic time where so much is possible technically and resources are so big and the audiences are so huge. Especially as a woman of my age, the timing is brilliant because I feel the urge for new stories about women, about older women. I’m very grateful to live in this time. I want to be part of projects that include the female audience and include all women and all people. That’s what’s happening in the world right now.

The Swedish actor in season two of Australian drama Mystery Road

Helin was at the forefront of Sweden’s #MeToo movement, known as #Tystnadtagning, but doesn’t know how long its impact will last…
We had a very hard backlash in Sweden because of the way we did it. We shaped our #MeToo movement to not have to deal with the press or give families pain when their fathers, brothers or sons are in the newspapers. I don’t know what’s good about hanging out a bunch of men who have behaved badly. There’s no point, we figured, so we did it more structurally to tell our stories anonymously. We thought it was brilliant, and it was brilliant because it spread and we had calls from lawyers, sex workers, opera singers, doctors. Everyone joined, it was huge.
But in the end, what I now see is, even though we recommended who to hire or who to speak to before you hire them, I see that actually many people don’t give a shit as long as they can earn money. We put in so much effort and time to do it in a very broad, nice and dignified way. I don’t know if the result is good or not. I don’t know what to do with these stories. It’s a complex answer to a complex situation. It’s changed, but I don’t know how much.

Working in Australia with co-star Aaron Pedersen on Mystery Road 2 was a “fantastic experience…”
It’s a show I admire and the people who worked on that show are fantastic. Aaron Pedersen is one of the world’s greatest actors, he’s very good. That was a very challenging, interesting project to join. Now I’m negotiating over several new projects. I’ll say yes to what I want to do and we’ll see what happens.

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