Exclusive interview with Kristofer Hivju

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We talk with Beck’s new partner and the Wildling warrior north of the Wall.

He goes by many names: Tormund Giantsbane, Steinar Hovland, and the “Bearded Troll from Oslo” – as he has become affectionately known as in the latest season of Beck. His international debut in the prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing has led to a formidable recurring character in HBO’s fantasy franchise Game of Thrones. We are of course referring to the one and only Kristofer Hivju.

We caught up with the Norwegian star live from the road, “currently sitting in a car from Dublin to Belfast” – not long before his return to Wildling territory for a brand new season. After filming on location in his native Norway (and sharing a mutual appreciation for the country’s famed brown cheese), we got to know more from Kristofer Hivju on what it has been like to join the cast of Beck and taking the world by storm in both Nordic Noir and beyond.

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“I grew up with Beck. It is the longest-running franchise in Scandinavia. I believe they have made 34 films which is more than James Bond! [LAUGHS]” Hivju jokes, “I think Beck has been an anchor for Scandinavian crime and I think the reason why it has survived so long is because the narrative is not judgemental. The criminals are treated as humans. There is an understanding of the crimes and why they have done what they have done. That’s one of the main reasons I love the series. Of course, I love the characters of Gunvald and Beck as well. For me, it was a huge pleasure to join the cast.”

Get reacquainted with Steinar Hovland here.

In preparation for the role of Martin Beck’s new partner Steinar, we wondered if Hivju had collaborated with Mikael Persbrandt, before Gunvald Larsson’s emotional departure from the series. “I’ve never met Mikael Persbrandt. However, Gunvald and Steinar are very different characters. While Gunvald seems to despise the people around him, Steinar is empathetic; he loves them, kind of, and respects them,” Hivju states. “Gunvald is an ‘old-style’ cop prone to violence, whereas Steinar is almost a psychologist in a police uniform. There are similarities too. In the show there is a certain dynamic between the cop and the side-kick. With Steinar, we had to create a new dynamic with Beck that worked.” Just like Gunvald and Steinar, how do the likes of Steinar and Tormund compare to each other? “When I accepted the role after starring in Game of Thrones, people said that my options to star in other projects would be limited. Therefore, it was really nice to get to play someone that is different to Tormund and to try something else a bit more down-to-earth. I would best describe the characters as this: Tormund plays the double-bass, while Steinar plays the violin.”

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There are so many great scenes from the outset where we really get to know Steinar, including the many times that he opens up to his colleague Oskar and scenes with his family. “One of my favourite moments to film was the cake scene. It takes place between Steinar and his son. He tries to be his best friend but turns the situation around. To me, that’s the DNA of Steinar; he’s a good guy but he’s always playing two games at the same time. He also uses his psychological nature to get under the skin of his suspects. He is very ambitious.” Even before we meet Steinar, he has a mysterious presence that looms in the form of his name on an office door in the background. “Yes, and Beck doesn’t even recognise Steinar as a policeman when he first sees him. He thinks he is trespassing [LAUGHS] Because of the way he looks!”

As a Beck fan, the Norwegian star is also a fan of Nordic Noir genre.“I love The Bridge and the Danish crime series. There are also some great Norwegian shows coming up, such as Nobel – which I really enjoyed – and Mammon has already been a big hit. It’s very interesting to see how far Scandinavian shows have travelled. Plus Beck is big in Germany and throughout Europe.” Kristofer Hivju has also starred in the Nordic Noir film In Order of Disappearance with Stellan Skarsgård.“That was fun for me to do because it was a short amount of days to film. If you’re asked to act in a film starring opposite Stellan Skarsgård – you don’t ask what kind of part it is! [LAUGHS]”

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The brand of dark Scandinavian humour is also part of the Nordic Noir genre which appeals to UK viewers and their mutual taste for black comedy – something that is important to Hivju. “I always look for the humour in everything. I recently did Fast 8 and I remember Vin Diesel was very specific about when you should be funny and when audiences should feel these entertaining moments. When you are working in a dark universe like in Game of Thrones, there are times when you shine some light with a great line. People like that and respond to it. We are, after all, entertainers – we are here to entertain. If it gets too dark it can be portentous, you know?”

In addition to humour, there are many physical scenes in Game of Thrones that require rigorous practice and training before filming. We can definitely see a pattern of action roles in Hivju’s filmography to match his prominent stature. “When I work out, I try to exercise in a way that is specific to each task and challenge that I have. When I prepare for Game of Thrones, I eat a lot and focus on the muscle groups I need in order to fight. In Fast 8, I lost about ten kilos and worked on martial arts techniques instead,” explains Hivju. “This was the same for Beck. I wanted Steinar to have a strong, physical appearance because he has a past as a wrestler. I learned how wrestlers move and studied their gait. I can’t exercise just for the sake of exercising; it has to have a deeper meaning! [LAUGHS] It has to be a reason that will benefit and better the part I am playing. The type of character defines how I train.” Like method acting, but method exercising. “I’ve never heard that before. “Method exercising”? I like that!”

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On Game of Thrones, not only has Tormund Giantsbane survived the purge to remain as a regular star of the show, there is also a number of Nordic actors featured in the series. Borgen’s Pilou Asbæk and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, not to mention Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. “You can die at any moment but that’s just like in life so enjoy it while you can! I can’t tell you if I get to collaborate with them in this season – you’ll have to wait and see. I haven’t seen most of the Nordic actors on screen but we can certainly meet up and speak in our mother tongues! [LAUGHS]” remarks Hivju. “It’s fantastic. Swedish and Danish actors have travelled internationally for ages. Scandinavians are everywhere. There’s always a Scandinavian in every production. That makes us proud! Because of the popularity of Nordic Noir and the New Scandinavian Wave, there are so many quality productions being made in Scandinavia. That’s why Scandinavian actors in the US will always come home because there are great parts waiting for them.”

Meet the Scandi stars of Game of Thrones here.

Hivju further contemplates the global Nordic impact: “What is Nordic Noir? What is the fascination with Scandinavia? There’s something real there that you won’t find in a lot of American shows. I think people can really connect with that. The characters are real human beings; the acting is not just people posing! [LAUGHS]”

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Having worked in a variety of Nordic film and television series to date, Hivju compares his experiences from Nordic productions to bigger, international projects.“In Sweden, the film industry has risen from Ingmar Bergman films in terms of producing quality at a high level early on. In Norway, the last ten years has been the best somehow. We have fantastic directors like Hans Petter Moland, who directed In Order of Disappearance and part of the Danish Department Q franchise, A Conspiracy of Faith,” cites Hivju. “In comparison to bigger, international productions, the goals are the same but it is quicker, easier, flexible, and more open to improvisation in Scandinavia. In Game of Thrones, we never change our lines because it is so well written there is no point in doing it. Bigger productions look great whatever you do! [LAUGHS]”

With the series as popular as ever, we wondered what it has been like to work on a high-rated TV franchise and bringing the character of Tormund Giantsbane to life – especially with such high expectations from die-hard fans.“When I got the part, I didn’t start with the books – I started with the fans. I went online and discovered how Tormund was perceived as a character; what people liked about him and what they thought was funny about him,” Hivju muses. “I found lots of drawings of Tormund and how the fans thought he would look, all those kind of things. That was my first impression of him from the fans themselves. Then, of course, I read the books. From the scripts as well, I got an image of Tormund from many perspectives. In the books, Tormund Giantsbane is 50-years-old, so he is different on screen but the core of him is the same. The creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss take very good care of Tormund. When it comes to my own responsibility, I have to enjoy being Tormund and do my best so we are all on the same page [LAUGHS]”

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It has recently been reported that Game of Thrones producers have planned to film in Norway for the upcoming season after Sweden and Iceland were highly publicised choices for new Nordic set locations. It’s not hard to see why.“The west coast is beautiful. I love Vestlandet where you have the sea and the mountains – it’s a beautiful area. Everyone should really enjoy the Norwegian nature and visit the North of Norway as well to see the Northern Lights.”

As well as acting, Hivju is a screenwriter, with short film Flax (a comedy about two hitmen and a Lottery ticket) and the documentary Bit Ballerina Bulldog under his belt and more to come.“I am always writing. I’m actually writing on a big TV show now and I’m looking forward to show everyone soon. When I’m not acting, I am writing so that has always been my thing. I’m developing a lot of projects and I’m helping as a ‘script doctor’ for other writers and directors. That’s my second craft.” Hivju has also won the prestigious Guldbagge Best Supporting Actor award playing Mats in Force Majeure (‘Turist’). “It’s funny because Force Majeure was perceived and sold as a comedy but we never thought that it would be funny when we made it. We took it as a hard-core drama! It was a fantastic film to make and I’m looking forward to the next Ruben Östlund film, The Square.

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Naturally, when speaking with Kristofer Hivju, we couldn’t resist complimenting him further on a signature part of his striking on-screen presence – his awesome beard. We look forward to seeing the acclaimed actor back on our screens very soon.

Kristofer Hivju is represented by Panorama Agency Aps

Words and interview by Antony Smith

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Beck: The Series – Vol.2 is released through Nordic Noir & Beyond. Buy your copy on DVD from the Amazon store here.