Exclusive interview with Mikael Persbrandt

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Get to know the Swedish actor who needs no Nordic Noir introduction

While fans wait patiently for the sixth season of Beck to begin on BBC Four, we are also preparing for a bittersweet farewell to the brash, no-nonsense detective Gunvald Larsson. We spoke with Swedish star Mikael Persbrandt of long-running Scandi crime series Beck, who has set his charismatic, cobalt gaze upon a host of exciting new cinematic projects. Mikael Persbrandt is internationally known for his European Film Award nominated Best Actor role and Academy Award-winning film In a Better World, directed by Susanne Bier. Next up on the slate for Persbrandt are the forthcoming war-time features Jadotville, depicting the siege of an Irish UN battalion in 1961, opposite Jamie Dornan and Mark Strong. Plus Alone in Berlin, about a family who choose to oppose the Nazi regime in 1940s Germany, with Daniel Brühl, Emma Thompson, and Brendan Gleeson. Due to be released early next year, Persbrandt will also be at the Round Table in Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, studded with a global ensemble including Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, and Eric Bana. So we may be bidding a Beck goodbye but it won’t be cheerio for long…

Enter our competition to win a copy of Beck season five on DVD here!

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We may forget just how long Beck has been patrolling the Nordic beat. It is an established Scandi crime series that is almost 20-years-old and precedes the international sensation of The Killing. The critically acclaimed series joins the long-running and prestigious police procedural ranks of Wallander, with its own best-selling literary roots. “Sadly, I hadn’t read the books before I auditioned for the role. I read them later on but I didn’t grow up with them. After the screen tests for Beck I got the job, didn’t know what I was jumping into, and it became a huge success from the beginning. However, my colleagues in the theatre were not fans of the popular crime shows. The reception has really changed since then. Now, practically every actor in Scandinavia has appeared on-screen in a Beck movie. I would say it has become an institution.”

Read our feature that takes us beyond Beck with Mikael Persbrandt’s top 10 tough guys here.

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After playing Gunvald Larsson for almost two decades, season six is set to begin with Gunvald’s departure and Persbrandt’s last scenes playing the rebellious role. “It wasn’t a big fuss! I had been filming other things, including Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword in England. I have been playing the character of Gunvald for decades and he kept popping up. But now I think it’s for good, although you never know. There wasn’t a great feeling of loss, although I do appreciate the character that has been around for 30 episodes – that’s quite a lot of shooting. It has been a great job for me and I have been acting at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm in between. It’s something to do when you’re aged 25 to 40-years-old but after that, it’s too tiring. I say goodbye with humble respect to the Beck fans.”

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There are rumours circulating that Gunvald will return to the show and that there could be a spin-off series in the works. “There have been people pitching this idea but I’m taking some time out at the moment. I’m sitting on the couch for now! We will see, he might turn up in Europe to solve all of the problems that we have here! You never know what will happen but, for now, he is gone. If an opportunity arises, let’s believe in fate and see what happens.”

The character of Gunvald is endearing to audiences for his tough, yet morally centred demeanour brought to life as the former merchant marine officer from the crime fiction franchise, created by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. “I’ve always said that in plots like these “Character A” has to react with “Character B”: Martin Beck and Gunvald Larsson. They both have particular parameters that they can play around in; there isn’t a lot of room to develop the characters too much because they affect each other. Gunvald is the unconventional, choleric side-kick to Martin and that is the recipe for the show. That may be a hard thing for an actor to do when you shoot so many movies as the same character; you want to develop him but there isn’t enough space in the formula of the series. I can understand this, of course. As a young actor, I was really impulsive and I’ve played all of the young, angry characters in film and on stage. But I’m 52 now so I play them in a different way, although, Gunvald is still the impulsive, choleric, hard-guy-to-be-around. I think this was a reason for me to leave Beck. Every scene was challenging like I was wrestling with myself. However, when I’d be away from him for a while and return to play Gunvald, I had the urge to square up to someone [LAUGHS] Just like Gunvald would do!”

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With the latest seasons airing in the UK and older, feature-length episodes being broadcast on BBC Four, the popularity of Nordic Noir will surely prompt us to take a retrospective look back and catch up with the detectives from their very first cases. “Gunvald is really crazy at the beginning of the series – you have to watch it from the start. Season five and season six is the mature version of Gunvald. When we started filming in 1996, Gunvald didn’t really speak and he was more like a messed up Dirty Harry. We have been touching on themes from the real world in the Beck films from the beginning; there is a social commentary in the series. If we go back to the films from the 90s, there were a lot of young homeless people living in the subway and killings that are influenced by the real events. The historical context over the past twenty years is really interesting to me as an actor.”

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The relationship between Martin Beck, as played by Peter Haber, and Gunvald is very touching at times and positions their partnership as a sweet but alternative duo. “Peter Haber is a highly professional actor and I know him very well. It has been a pleasure working with him. Martin and Gunvald’s relationship can be hard and can look like they despise and hate each other. Although, Peter and I agree that there is a mutual friendship and respect between them. They are both lonely guys who live for the work and aim to keep the justice. They share the same views on society and politics.” In between the earlier seasons, there are lapses of three to five years between filming, which must be hard to get back into the character mindset. “We shoot about eight movies at a time which is very intense. I would go off to the theatre and then we’d meet up again to film more episodes. We were always surprised that we were getting to make another season because at the end of each season we would say: “This is the last one!” Then, after a couple of years, they approach us with pleas and money and we say “OK!” [LAUGHS]”

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As well as the emotional aspect of the show, there are some physically challenging scenes to match Gunvald’s aggression. “I’ve done more violent movies but there are some stunts and physical scenes, just not in every episode. The harder stuff for us, as the films are shot in a certain way, is the analysis and investigation that takes place at the police station. We often shoot two, maybe three movies at the same time against the same whiteboard! There are a lot of lines to learn while we switch to film scenes from the different movies. You’d stop, change your shirt and your tie to jump from episode 20 to 21! We had the best continuity people and we needed them very badly! That’s much harder than the physical stuff. Running with a pistol or a gun is much easier than gathering all of the case evidence together.”

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As well as starring in the upcoming King Arthur epic, Persbrandt has been seen in Peter Jackson’s Hollywood blockbuster sequels The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. We wanted to know what it is like to work on international productions compared to working in native Sweden. “It’s very hush-hush when you work with big studios like Warner Bros. The main difference is that you are having lunch with 700 people on the set of The Hobbit, whereas there are 25 people at lunch when you shoot the Beck movies. But when you’re in front of the camera, for me, it doesn’t matter how many people there are. It’s just a much bigger industry and a much bigger cake to bake. Maybe I prefer the smaller cakes [LAUGHS] Small, good cakes are my gig. With The Hobbit, I was in make-up for four hours and I was up at 3.30am. Also, it made it a lot harder for me to improvise without acting in my native language which was hard but I enjoyed it. I was also in the UK filming King Arthur last spring – Guy Ritchie is a lovely man. I admire the way he works and the movies he has made. I had a really good time there and I hope to meet him again. All of the actors and the crew were fantastic.”

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Another recent film, Kristian Levring’s The Salvation which was released last year, blends Nordic with international cinema in a stylish western genre. In the film, Persbrandt stars as Mads Mikkelsen’s brother, set in post-Second Schleswig War time, as depicted in 1864. “I love Mads, he’s an old friend of mine and Kristian Levring is a great guy as well. For me, the film is a celebration of the Sam Peckinpah movies without the irony – just a simple story about revenge. It is beautifully shot and I had a good time working on it. What more could you ask for? A big gun, a Bowie knife, a horse, and a hat! [LAUGHS] I would love to do another western movie. It’s a lot of fun.” As well as Levring, Persbrandt has been directed by another Dogme95 filmmaker, Susanne Bier, for the award-winning In a Better World, opposite Trine Dyrholm. “It’s a very good story with a very important subject. We won an Oscar and a European Film Award for Best Foreign Language film. We won everything! It was amazing.”

Find out more from The Salvation in our interview with director Kristian Levring here.

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As we are fascinated with Nordic culture and the Swedish landscape, Persbrandt shared with us more reasons why ‘Nordophiles’ should visit Scandinavia? “In Sweden, we have many amazing places, including one of the most beautiful archipelagos in the world, which I enjoy exploring whilst on a speedboat in the summer. I live on a beautiful horse farm where I can see the fields and the forests. Sweden is a really amazing place in the summer but it’s really hard in the winter. It can get very dark and depressing. I have a lot of favourite places to go to: it can be a small spot by a lake or simply sat under a tree. You can go further north and see the harsh beauty of the mountains as well. I like the countryside and the city of Stockholm. One of my favourite passions is to race. I regularly race on tracks in a fast, fast Ferrari.”

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What has it been like for the actor to leave behind Sweden and travel to the UK to meet British fans? “I’ve been at a hotel, I’ve been driven to the Warner Bros. studios, stepped out of the limousine, met Jude Law, stepped back in the limousine, and been taken back to my hotel – so I haven’t met any English fans! In Scandinavia and Germany, there are fans but I haven’t experienced it in England. Do I have any UK fans? [LAUGHS] That’s amazing. Maybe I’ll go back there and start waving to people on the streets! [LAUGHS]”

We look forward to welcoming back Mikael Persbrandt in Beck, which is destined for BBC Four this autumn.

Mikael Persbrandt is represented by Indio Group Talent Management in Sweden. You can follow Mikael on his official Facebook page here.

 

Words and interview by Antony Smith