Special Agent

Special Agent

By Michael Pickard
July 21, 2023


Britannia actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas has made the move behind the camera to write and direct Danish comedy Agent. He joins stars Esben Smed, Julie Agnete Vang, Mathilde Arcel and Ulrich Thomsen to tell DQ about the show, which follows one agent struggling to keep his clients happy while his personal life falls apart.

With a father who was a television writer and a mother who was a novelist, perhaps it was just a matter of time before Danish actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas would become a screenwriter himself. But it was only when filming on the third season of historical drama Britannia was paused during the Covid pandemic that he found enough time to follow in his parents’ footsteps.

Kaas could have gone home during the hiatus, but quarantine rules at the time would have prevented him from returning should production have restarted. Instead, he stuck it out and started writing most of what would become his first series, Agent, which he also directs.

“I find it extremely fascinating to be writing,” he tells DQ. “The most fantastic thing about this whole project is that you come up with some idea, you write it down and you hope someone can relate to it. And then one day you’re sitting here and people are taking it seriously. I find that fascinating.”

Produced by Zentropa for Denmark’s TV2, the comedy series follows Joe, a man who is constantly trying to keep his head above water. Working as an agent in the entertainment industry, he always tries to make the dreams of his clients come true – but things often do not go to plan. Meanwhile, as he does everything to help his clients, he ends up neglecting his personal life and, in particular, his 10-year-old daughter who longs for his attention.

Esben Smed stars as Joe, with Julie Agnete Vang as Joe’s ex-wife Hannah, Mathilde Arcel as Joe’s assistant Line and Selma Sol Í Dali Pape as Joe’s daughter Tallulah. Notably, many real-life actors appear as heightened versions of themselves, with Ulrich Thomsen, Nikolaj and Nukâka Coster-Waldau, Dar Salim, Sidse Babett Knudsen and David Dencik among Joe’s roster of clients.

Actor turned writer and director Nikolaj Lie Kaas on the Agent set

While Kaas had numerous different projects bubbling away, Agent was always the one he would return to. It was also the easiest to write, he says, because there were so many stories from his own career that he wanted to inject into the series.

“Most of the time, you’re told you should never write about something you can’t relate to,” he says. “With Agent, I can relate to the realm, but I can’t relate to Joe. Joe is very far from me. I wanted to make a character you kind of disliked, a person who was hard to relate to. But the problem with that, as the broadcaster pointed out, is that if people don’t like him after the first episode, you have a problem. And they’re right about that, of course. So that has been a balance.”

Agent shares a foundation with shows such as France’s Dix pour cent (Call My Agent) and US series Entourage, which are also set within the world of entertainment agents. Where this eight-parter stands out, however, is in its comedy roots and the sometimes farcical lengths to which Joe will go to make his clients happy. However, he usually ends up as the master of his own downfall as he lurches from one bad decision to the next, with increasingly disastrous consequences.

Kaas says: “It’s just like when you watch reality shows – there are two sides. One is, ‘I wish that was me,’ and the other narrative is, ‘I’m glad it’s not me.’ And this is definitely ‘I’m glad it’s not me,’ where it’s clear to everyone that his choice is wrong, but he doesn’t hear those alarm bells. That is what fascinates me with a guy like Joe, because he doesn’t see [what happens] as a huge problem. He just sees potential [in what could happen].”

Agent marks the first leading comedy role for Smed, who is best known for dramatic series such as Lykke-Per (A Fortunate Man) and Bedrag (Follow the Money). He admits he was nervous about playing Joe, but he was impressed by the “hilarious” script and Kaas’s work on the project.

Kaas with Agent star Esben Smed, for whom the show is his first leading role in a comedy

“I thought it was interesting seeing a guy who was running around helping everybody extinguish fires, and then when he does that, he just keeps on getting into trouble,” Smed says. “And then when he’s out of trouble, he keeps on getting into more trouble.”

Smed also believes Joe is a good father, it’s just that he doesn’t always make himself available to Tallulah, as work often gets in the way. “Everybody wants him to do stuff and fix stuff, and he wants it himself, so he’s not there. But when he’s there, he’s the perfect dad. That’s what I think he has to face, because he has a daughter and she’s the one suffering from him running.”

While Joe goes from crisis to crisis, it’s often left to his assistant Line to pick up the pieces. “I’m just running around, fixing things,” jokes Arcel (Dansegarderoben), who plays her. “She has a more logical mind than him, so every time he speaks, I feel like my character is just thinking in the back of her head, ‘How can I solve that?’

“Line is the realistic one and is trying to make things work all the time. It’s a really interesting relationship they have because it’s very loving. He’s very good at his job and a great agent because he’s so good with people, good at making people feel good and having big dreams for everyone he represents. But at the same time, he’s so annoying, and this mixture is always fun.”

Meanwhile, Joe’s ex-wife Hannah might still have feelings for him, but Vang (Borgen) says there’s a reason she left him. “He’s the hero who continues to do the wrong things but he’s so charming, he’s so funny, he’s so sweet that you forgive him, and Hannah does the same,” the actor says. “She forgives him because he’s a good father when he’s there. And he was a good friend when he was there. That’s why Hannah is not a bitch to him.”

Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is among the series’ many guest stars

Vang worked with Kaas behind the scenes to ensure Hannah didn’t appear as the “angry ex-wife.” Instead, they wanted to portray a different kind of relationship between Hannah and Joe, who even though they aren’t together anymore can still get along for the sake of their daughter.

“There are those relationships where you know each other so well that you are annoyed by their faults, but you also forgive them because you know there’s a deeper reason why the person does what they do, why he’s such a mess. It’s not on purpose,” Vang says. “His heart is in the right place. He’s a dreamer. I also think Hannah fell in love with him because of his dreaming. He’s a good contrast to her.”

Kaas, who recently appeared in Lars von Trier’s revival of supernatural drama Riget (The Kingdom), says it was always his intention to write and direct Agent, though at one stage TV2 also wanted him to play Joe. However, that would have been “impossible,” he says, and instead he chose to focus his efforts behind the camera.

That involved working closely with DOP Philippe Kress to create a visual style for a show that would be shot with a wide frame to minimise the amount of camera movement in a shot.

“That was really key to a lot of things,” Kaas says. “And also doing the editing was interesting. There’s no rule to it. Either the joke works or, for some reason – and often there’s no reason – it doesn’t work. It’s like trial and error all the time.”

Trom star Ulrich Thomsen appears in episode two

Guest stars came and went from the project depending on their schedules, but Kaas says everyone who ended up in the series enjoyed the chance to joke around on set. “I’m so pleased that so many were ready to make a mock-up of themselves. That is what I think the strength of the show is – that people can make fun of themselves and play extreme versions of themselves,” he says.

Lining up alongside so many famous faces playing guest roles in each episode, Smed says he was like a “fanboy” running around on set. But he also praises the guest performers for having the courage to send themselves up on screen. “We tweaked all the stories to be insane compared to reality,” he adds.

“I think it’s fun to make fun of yourself a little bit and not take yourself too seriously,” says Thomsen (Trom), who appears in episode two. “On top of that, it’s the kind of show that hasn’t been done in Denmark. Call My Agent and Entourage have that same world, but I thought, ‘Sure.’ I read it and thought it was funny.”

Thomsen could also appreciate Kaas’s journey from actor to director, having previously made a couple of films of his own, In Embryo (2016) and Gutterbee (2019), the latter a comedy about two dreamers striving to open the ultimate German sausage restaurant. On the set of Agent, Thomsen convinced the costume designer to let him wear a T-shirt promoting the film.

“On my first movie I directed, I met Lars von Trier at Zentropa who told me, ‘Don’t listen to anyone.’ He doesn’t say anything just for fun, and I know what he means,” Thomsen says. “If you want to have any integrity, you’ve got to stay true to your vision, even though you’ll be alone against the whole world. I’ve no idea why I do it; it’s so much easier being an actor. It’s tiresome but there is something rewarding about it.”

Borgen’s Sidse Babett Knudsen also features among the roster of guest stars

Thanks to Kaas’s background as an actor, Smed says there was a different atmosphere on set, with a shorthand between him and the cast as he described to them the kinds of emotions or performances he would want in each scene.

“Like all great directors, he’s very good at helping you get to the point you need to be at and then also letting you be free in it,” Smed says. “For me, it’s a lot about being able to trust him. You have to trust your director because he or she is the one person who sees the work you’re doing. That’s been fantastic. He’s really good, and I’m amazed at how visual he is just because that wouldn’t be a default if you’re an actor.”

Arcel continues: “I really liked that I could gain so much from his experiences and from his way of working with the role and with the humour. It was really interesting to talk with him and spar with him in a way I’ve never done with a director.”

“He’s also very gentle and kind in his acting,” Vang adds. “He’s very good at making people feel, ‘I’m good, I’m chosen.’ That’s important because that makes an actor feel safe and brave and then they can go to places they wouldn’t normally go. He could say, ‘That’s not good,’ but in a very kind way. There was a good vibe on set.”

“The funny thing is I realised that I always take responsibility for anything I’m doing, and everybody’s interested in what your opinion is,” Kaas says about stepping into directing. “The way I talk with the actors is not that different. The most interesting thing is actually to keep your motivation for the project, because I lose it just as much as anyone else.

“I remember I was working on this show for three-and-a-half years and I was ready to burn the whole thing. And then someone said, ‘Now let’s shoot it.’ I was like, ‘For fuck’s sake, I don’t have the time, I don’t have the energy at all.’ So then I had to motivate myself and we started talking about it, and shooting was actually the easiest part. It became really fun to do.”

Distributed by TrustNordisk, Agent is now airing on TV2 and TV2Play, following its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year. Much like the exaggerated performances of its guest stars, Kaas hopes viewers enjoy a series that plays with the reality of the entertainment business.

“Joe makes such stupid choices all the time, but I’ve experienced that in my past with some agents in my life where I was like, ‘What did you expect would happen from this? You can’t turn things around now, you have started a train that is impossible to stop.’ I find that interesting. At least I’m turned on by stories like that.

“I hope people have a peek behind the curtain and see a world that is insane and not that far from reality.”

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