Taking the reins

Taking the reins

By Michael Pickard
February 9, 2024


Dark Horse stars Josephine Højbjerg and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen join writer Sara Isabella Jønsson to tell DQ about this suspenseful Danish drama, in which a teenage girl attempts to break free from her dysfunctional relationship with her rootless, chaotic mother.

In just five years since she graduated from film school, Sara Isabella Jønsson has racked up a number of feature film credits and worked on Nicholas Winding Refn’s idiosyncratic Netflix thriller series Copenhagen Cowboy.

Dark Horse now marks the first major TV series from the screenwriter, who first conceived the idea six years ago while she was still studying. Broadcaster TV2 then got wind of the project, and once she graduated, Jønsson began developing it with co-writer Mie Skjoldemose.

Sara Isabella Jønsson

“It’s been a long ride,” she tells DQ. “I’ve had two kids in the meantime and have also done other films and a series. It just takes a long time to make a series, make it right and get the right team to do it. Hopefully I also matured a bit over the last six years, and I hope you can see that reflected in the show. If it had been the show I started developing in film school, it would have looked quite different.”

The foundations of the story lie in the dysfunctional, combustible relationship between 17-year-old Anna and her mother Eva, who in many ways acts more like a teenager than her daughter does. But while they can barely live with each other, can they stand to live without each other?

“It was my ambition to try and depict this codependency between two people,” Jønsson explains. “In the beginning, I was fascinated with a lot of different themes involving these characters, but I could see this was the emotional core of the story and I wanted to make this a coming-of-age story in two generations, with a mother and daughter who equally had to take responsibility and learn to stand on their own two feet, and also show the difficulty of that.”

As the series opens, Anna and Eva have left their home in China for as-yet-unrevealed reasons to return to Eva’s Danish hometown, where they move in with her brother Christian and his two children. Then while Eva throws herself into a new business adventure and a potential romance, Anna is drawn to a group of friends at high school, stealing ketamine from her uncle’s veterinary practice to take to parties.

“Anna is a very shy, insecure girl who’s used to living in the shadow of her mum, doing everything her mum says they should do. She’s very lonely, she’s rootless – and that’s a major theme in the show I tried to take to extremes by putting these two characters in a situation where they’ve never had a real home,” the writer says. “They’ve always moved around. Anna’s very much a pleaser, always trying to please her mum, and always a bit nervous her mum could have some crazy reaction to something or be in a difficult mood.

“Meanwhile, Eva is very dominant. She’s also very charming, so that’s her way of dealing with everything. She’s always used to charming people, and charming her way out of different difficult situations. I’ve always seen her as a restless soul, and that explains why she has put herself in so many stupid situations. She’s also developed this addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs, which is a way of dealing with this feeling inside her.”

Told largely from Anna’s perspective, the story follows the teenager as she attempts to find herself and break free from her reciprocal ‘addiction’ to her mother, while viewers will also witness the family dynamics between Eva and Christian that go some way toward explaining her behaviour.

Birgitte Hjort Sørensen (right) and Josephine Højbjerg play mother and daughter in Dark Horse

Jønsson says Dark Horse isn’t based on a personal story, though she admits she can see herself in both characters. During the show’s development, she spoke with a lot of young people and a youth research group to get a sense of the issues and challenges in their lives, while she was also inspired by what they had to say about their relationships with their own parents.

The more common responses relating to rootlessness, a longing for freedom and an inability to be oneself were then used to build both the central characters.

As Jønsson and film-school classmate Skjoldemose wrote the scripts, they would repeatedly discuss the characters and themes while building the structure of the series – which shrank from 10 to six episodes – while TV2 and producer Monolit Film supported their work with “great notes.” “They always believed in us,” she says. “That’s very important when you’re new and doing your first show, that you feel the executive producers believe you can bring something new to the table and they want to give you a chance. It was a positive feeling.”

Jønsson was also able to heighten the drama with Johan Carøe and Leslie Ming’s unique score, while Refn’s influence can be seen in the lighting and production design. “We were looking for a vibe that had an edge to it, to give it a little more heightened drama than you’re used to seeing in some Scandinavian YA series,” the writer notes. “It’s a little darker, a little more edgy and also more emotional. It’s also aesthetically interesting.”

Then when it came to casting, Dark Horse brought together Borgen star Birgitte Hjort Sørensen and rising talent Josephine Højbjerg, who is best known locally for her long-running role as Tinka in a number of TV2 Christmas series, beginning with Tinka’s Christmas Adventure in 2017.

Sørensen is Eva, a role that was written specifically for her

In fact, the role of Eva was written with Sørensen in mind, and Jønsson was thrilled when the producers agreed to approach the actor.

“Birgitte has so much star quality and elegance, and that was easy to get into the script and the character. [I knew] I could take her to these places and she’d have this darkness and nuances,” she says. “It was great to know Birgitte would play that.”

When she received the initial email about Dark Horse, a project from a pair of relatively unknown writers, Sørensen actually waited a couple of days before reading the script. When she did, however, “I thought, ‘This is incredibly well written. This is much better than most of the recent scripts I’ve read from more experienced writers.’

“There was this dissonance between how young and, to me, unknown these people were and how really good the material was. As an actor, when you’re presented with a really interesting character and a great setting, there’s not much to debate really, so it was a no-brainer once I actually read the email.”

Sørensen says she can count on one hand the number of times people have told her a part was written especially for her, but on this occasion, she was more excited by the prospect of playing a very complex character.

“We still had an auditioning process because they wanted to make sure the chemistry between Josephine and I was the right one. But we dived right into the creative process because the director, Karoline, was there too, so we had multiple sessions where we really dived into the scenes. That became our initial prep. The whole project from the start has been carried by this deep desire to really serve the material and understand these characters. It’s been a real pleasure to do.”

Højbjerg is 17-year-old Anna, who has a codependent relationship with her mother

Eva, she says, is not a pleasant character. But although she is quite nasty, “I felt like I understood where she was coming from in a way. I could see why it made sense in her head.

“I was really excited the writers and producers dared to go into this quite dark place and show a woman and a mother who was struggling so much and taking it out on her daughter, which is quite a common phenomenon but isn’t something we show a lot.”

Struggling with mental health issues, Eva self-medicates with alcohol and pills, though she never considers herself to have any problems.

“She’s really immature in a way,” Sørensen adds. “She’s never learned to control her own feelings and take responsibility for them. She in many ways becomes the child in the relationship, especially now Anna is so big. But I understood her, even though she acts horribly. I understood the turmoil going on inside her head.”

Having recently appeared as a “bit of a psychopath” in action-drama Oxen, coupled now with Eva, Sørensen has been picking up parts that stand apart from her most famous role, as journalist Katrine Fønsmark in political drama Borgen.

But regardless of the character she is playing – Sørensen also appeared in Game of Thrones – she approaches them in the same way. “Because we establish she has this disorder, I investigate that and talked to people who are bipolar and read material about what it is like to go through life with this.

Dark Horse is produced by Monolit Film for Danish broadcaster TV2

“Then I also enjoy trying to find inspiration from people I know or see, or other fictional characters. For this I actually tried to steal as much as I could from Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, because she has some of the same frailty but in a very domineering way. I find it sometimes a good way to get away from your own physicality, because sometimes there is a risk in film and TV that you end up playing yourself. If you borrow physicality or a way of speaking from somebody else, it can unlock something else.”

She also enjoys listening to playlists she specifically curates for a character, with Pink’s All I Know So Far becoming Eva’s signature song. “Pink has some of the same energy in that doesn’t want to be boxed in, which I’m quite sure is some of the key to Eva’s discomfort in life,” Sørensen says. “She feels like she’s being restricted because she thinks a bit differently.”

As for Højbjerg, Dark Horse is her biggest role to date, and one which Jønsson says allows her to “show she’s more than a child actress.”

“I think that was exciting for her. She had already proven herself before this show, but hopefully this shows her range is big. She can play a lot of different feelings and complex scenes as well,” the writer adds.

Højbjerg began acting when she was eight or nine years old and has become used to playing younger characters on screen. Dark Horse then presented her with an opportunity to challenge herself and show that she could take on a role that required more from her.

“I hope to act for the rest of my life, so it was really important for me to show that I could play adult roles,” she says. “The show and the role of Anna were everything I had been dreaming of for a long time. I went to a lot of castings and met the directors and loved everything about it. I was so happy that the role showed me from a more mature side.”

Jønsson says she can see herself in both of the main characters

She describes the bond between Anna and Eva as “not a classic mother-daughter relationship,” noting how Anna often has to put her own needs aside to appease or placate her mother.

“Anna is used to suppressing her own feelings and needs. She is used to standing on the sidelines and following her mother’s life, and as the story unfolds, she feels a need to show that she can stand on her own feet, much like myself,” the actor explains.

Working with Sørensen was “an honour,” she adds, with the leading duo partnering before shooting started to create scenarios and stories that could have been part of Anna and Eva’s lives, helping to inform their performances.

“When I act, I always draw experience from my own life, both from work and my personal life – that was difficult to do here,” Højbjerg says. “I’ve been happy before, I’ve been sad before, but when it came to the whole part about drugs, I was really at a loss, as I knew nothing about it. I googled a lot and found all kinds of YouTube clips that showed what it was like to be under the influence. But when I watch the show today, I still don’t even know if it looks real when I play it, because I have nothing to compare it to.”

As the story plays out, Anna goes through a dramatic transformation when she starts to prioritise herself and her own needs, rather than those of her mother.

“Of course, Anna’s story shows the extreme consequences, but I feel it portrays how you need to experience difficult things to find yourself,” the actor adds. “Anna has a strong need to break away from her mother and to feel that she is worth something among others. I think that’s why she ends up on the wrong path, because she wants to prove something and find her own place of importance. She gets to know who she really is and her worth.”

Jønsson hopes the series – which debuted locally last month and is directed by Karoline Lyngbye and Katrine Brocks – chimes with a younger audience who may share Anna’s feelings of loneliness and longing to break free from destructive relationships.

“We’re dealing with some quite universal themes, so I hope it will resonate with people and they will relate to the story, even though we’ve taken this mother-daughter relationship to the extreme,” she says. “I also hope it feels psychologically realistic in some way. I hope a lot of people will relate to this feeling of being in a codependent relationship and the inability to be yourself. “

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