During the premiere of The Bridge III in Malmö, Nordic Noir & Beyond spoke with the iconic star of Scandi crime.
Following her special guest appearance at this year’s Nordicana in London, we spoke with Sofia Helin during the unveiling of the new season of Saga on her own turf. Find out what to expect from Saga as she picks up the pieces and moves on with her life, without her only friend to guide and support her. We get up-close-and-personal with the Swedish star as she reveals more on the emotional journey Saga faces, what it is like to play such a complicated character, as well as Helin’s own, real-life passions and beliefs.
* Warning: May contain series spoilers *
The creator of The Bridge, Hans Rosenfeldt, initially intended for Kim Bodnia to reprise his role as Martin Rohde and they had maybe four episodes already planned out. Did this transition cause you, as an actress, anxiety due to the sudden change?
Sofia Helin: Of course it was a painful process. When it was done they had different ideas about the character of Martin. When they had decided they would go in Hans’ way and Kim wasn’t with us any more then it was painful because we really liked working together, but it was also a gift as an actor. That put Saga in a really vulnerable place when she really lost him that moment. So when we start this season she has lost her maybe only friend she’s ever had in that sense, She has her boss but he’s not a friend in that sense and then the other thing is she’s failed completely with her love life again so she’s in a vulnerable place and as an actor that’s a gift so I just use it.
You’ve been given some great material to work with this season: the loss of Martin, finding out more concerning her sister’s death, the possibly Saga has lost her boss, as well as being forced to re-engage with her mother. Your character has some heavy crises to deal with as Saga is sent on a dark journey this time. Was that a lot harder for you or were you excited about getting this material?
SH: That’s what I wanted. I wanted it to be like that. Although I wanted it, it was very hard and very heavy.
Can you tell us why you wanted it that way?
SH: Now why do I want that? I don’t know? It’s just like you can’t get control over your ideas and it’s also as an actor you always want to reveal secrets within that person and see what’s in the dark corners. That’s what drives me to discover and see what the characters are hiding.
In this season it’s the first time we really see Saga agitated to that extent and we see new elements to her. Do you think it’s important for the character that we see her develop in this way?
SH: Yes. I also asked Hans in the second season, “Please don’t reveal too much”. He revealed quite a lot about her background and I said, “Please save it until next season so that we can use that”. That’s what’s so fantastic about this work that we have been able to do to work so close together. He’s very open minded. It’s like we’re really working close together.
In the third season are you becoming Saga more and more? Now the series is into its third season is it affecting you in a greater sense?
SH: I’ve been affected very much each time but this time in a very dark way. I was really down and by May time I was quite down.
Would you say playing Saga affects your personal life?
All parts they do; I can’t separate that. You can say as an actor that, “Oh no, it doesn’t affect me at all”, but I don’t understand how.
How do you bring yourself back from that place as a person?
SH: I have methods to do that. I know what I have to do in order to get in balance again. I need to be with friends and family, I need to exercise, eat well, rest, read books. Just do good things and think good thoughts again.
That makes sense: to create a balance. Does it help when you see the good reactions that your work generates from people who watch the show?
SH: Of course. That’s why I’m doing it so it’s a joy.
In the UK there are some anxieties about the casting. Having seen the first two episodes that will go away very quickly. What would you say to people?
SH: Don’t worry!
Thure Lindhardt’s character, Henrik Sabroe, gets interesting very quickly. You don’t have to wait for that relationship to happen; it was almost instantaneous and a very good decision.
SH: Yes it was. Also, there is a temptation to go the same way as when Saga got to know Martin. However, you have to try and move on, so it was actually good for the series.
What we call a blessing in disguise. As well as playing the character, would you say you actually like Saga?
SH: Yes I do. I care for her but wouldn’t want to hang out with her.
Saga does seem to have endearing qualities. It’s difficult to pinpoint what they are but there is something about the whole of her which is endearing. The audience has an empathy towards her.
SH: Maybe. Two things that I decided quite early on: her need to be loved that’s she’s not aware of, but I had in mind, and also not try to make her appear trendy because it’s so uninteresting to see cool people. That doesn’t interest me at all.
When you started to play Saga did you study adults with learning disabilities or does the show have an adviser? It’s a really honest portrayal of people on the autistic spectrum.
SH: Oh thank you, I’m really happy to hear that. I studied that. I talked to them but most of all I tried to be her going out on the street and see how people react with someone who doesn’t give anything back.
Is that challenging because, as an actor, you are used to expressing emotion and here you are having to restrain emotion?
SH: That was hard. I felt I had to excuse myself from the other actors and say, “I see you and everything but this is just a character so don’t be offended”.
Anyone who is on the autistic spectrum in any way, whether it’s autism or Asperger’s, they are all different so there is no one way of portraying that.
SH: That’s exactly what I figured out. Some people are really outgoing but they can’t do other things.
That must allow you the scope to make your character completely unique and critics cannot say someone would not behave like that because you simply cannot assume that.
SH: I mean, I don’t know if she could ever be a police officer in real life. This is entertainment.
Saga is also very open and direct and honest. Do you think that this is interesting for your own life to be open and direct like Saga is – did it help you?
SH: Sometimes. Sometimes not. It’s also a very big problem if you’re too honest all the time. Personally, I get very tired when I feel there is a liar in the room. I get very tried and I really don’t like that at all.
After The Bridge is over, do you think people, maybe mainly internationally, will still see you as Saga because it’s such a big part of your career?
SH: It’s a big part but I’m doing two other things right now, including a German-British series. People who’ve seen The Bridge will think of me in that respect.
The Bridge is your international breakthrough. Do people recognise you on the streets in the UK? Do they approach you and say, “Hey, Saga”?
SH: Yes. They just want to take a photo. “Is it you? Yes it’s you. OK can I have a photo? My brother has Asperger’s”, or “my sister has Asperger’s”, or so on. Something that also makes me happy is that not so many people recognise me at first, since I have another expression in my face.
Do you think it’s strange that The Bridge is so prevalent internationally; in the UK, Netherlands or Germany? Do you understand its popularity?
SH: Not any more but I was surprised at first of course. I wasn’t prepared for that. I think the UK had some series before and then The Bridge is another kind of a universe on its own. I think people get interested in that and they are already used to subtitles.
The timing was perfect in the UK because BBC Four had aired the French series Spiral (2005- ), Wallander (2005-2013), The Killing (2007-2012), Borgen (2010-2013) and then The Bridge came. It was perfect. If none of those things had been shown before I’m not sure The Bridge would have come to the UK. Before that it was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) which started the whole interest in Scandinavian crime. It’s timing. The Bridge is also the most popular of all those series because I think it has a certain cinematic quality to it that creates complex story-lines and sub-plots to make it that more interesting. Will there be a fourth season?
SH: I don’t have any idea about that yet, which I had with the other seasons. If I or Hans come up with a story that I feel I really need to tell, then maybe!
There’s more to Saga’s character that can be told. Of all the series this one could continue because it’s still developing.
SH: We don’t know. We’ll see! Right now I am very much occupied with the refugee situation. I am very concerned and upset.
Are you involved in any initiatives or organisations to give aid to the refugees?
SH: Yes. I went down to Hungary last week with a Swedish aid organisation. I met one man and I tried to explain to him that we are trying to collect money from the people so he can try and build a new life. He just said, “I don’t need money. I need you to go and get my family, my children and wife. Go get them please.” Now I just read outside that Europe is closing its border even more and I’m so ashamed. I don’t know what to do. I even wrote a plea on Facebook to reach out to our government to send them planes, cars, boats, anything. Imagine: I just saw a picture of a man carrying his handicapped daughter over the border. Nowadays you can go to prison for three years for illegally entering a country. It’s insane. We should be ashamed of ourselves.
Sweden is doing more than most country to help the refugees.
SH: Yes, but we are part of the EU so we can’t say we are doing our part. We have to do more. So many refugees are coming to us. It’s not much. We can afford it. We have so much. Since I went there myself and since I looked into this man’s eyes and saw his desperation. I’ve been very unstable ever since because I feel I can’t live with myself if I don’t try to do anything.
From what you are doing and, as an actor, you can help raise awareness because you have a platform and a voice.
SH: That’s what I try to do. That’s why I start talking about it. All of us should think about how we will feel about this in the future. “We didn’t want to welcome you so we closed the border. Sorry you died.” It’s not a way to go.
Interview by Jon Sadler, Andy Lawrence and Kristel van Teeffelen.
The Bridge III returns to BBC Four with a double episode UK premiere this Saturday from 9pm