Interview with ‘Heartless’ star Julie Zangenberg

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Go behind-the-scenes and discover more mysterious goings-on with a new Danish Nordic anti-heroine

Heartless is a new Danish thriller centred around twins Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen) and Sofie Nielsen (Julie Zangenberg) who possess a dark and insidious secret. Forced to hide an insatiable appetite that can only be quenched by feeding on the souls of human, the pair seeks answers to their turbulent past. The journey leads them to the prestigious boarding school, Ottmannsgaard, which holds the key to their existence as well as their fate.

Julie Zangenberg may be a rising star on our Nordic radar, however, the actress has established a career from a very young age. At 14-years-old, Zangenberg featured in family adventure films Catch That Girl (2002), followed by The Fakir (2004), opposite Sidse Babett Knudsen. Her recent credits include the Bodil and Robert Prisen award-nominee Sommeren ’92 (2015), starring Ulrich Thomsen (Festen, 1998), Mikkel Boe Følsgaard (The Legacy, 2014- ), Birgitte Hjort Sørensen (Borgen, 2010-2013) and Follow the Money’s Esben Smed Jensen.

We caught up with Zangenberg in between performances of Hairspray: The Musical. While the actress’s musical debut on stage in Copenhagen is far from treading the floorboards of Ottmannsgaard, we got to the heart of Sofie Nielsen and the supernatural energy coming from the Danish new-look Noir.

Watch the Nordic Noir & Beyond trailer here.

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From the beginning, the style of the show offers a very ominous mood with its intoxicating theme song ‘Don’t Believe in Demons’ by Roxy Jules. The ambience is also reminiscent of the Nordic Noir genre we have come to love. Zangenberg discusses what it has been like filming Heartless and seizing that alluring Scandi look. “The series was very tough to shoot. A lot of it was filmed outside in the cold and the crew wanted to get those very beautiful “Scandinavian shots”. But if you want to capture them you have to film during the coldest months of the year and close to water!” recalls Zangenberg. “I loved to do a lot of the scenes, however, there was a love-hate relationship. I did all of the stunt work myself which I enjoy, even though you don’t always enjoy it in the moment!”

Zangenberg’s character Sofie initially seems like the stronger sibling in control, especially in the opening of the first episode. Yet, Sofie is rebellious, volatile, and distinctly more morally ambiguous than her brother as the series progresses. “I loved playing a female role with a lot of power. Sofie is very strong and asexual when we meet her. She uses her sexuality to win men over but she doesn’t feel anything from it. We see this develop through her relationship with Emilie,” Zangenberg explains. “In comedy and commercial productions, it often becomes one-dimensional. You play the bimbo, the bitch, or the sweet girl. Normal human beings are not like that. We are complex. There are so many layers to Sofie and every actor wants to take on a role that is as complex and challenging as this. It makes you proud to play them. What attracted me to Sofie was that she has a lot of history to her. She also has so much strength but she is vulnerable at the same time.”

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There are many Nordic heroines with blonde hair, such as Sofia Helin’s Saga Norén and Moa Gammel’s Eva Thörnblad. However, as a natural blonde herself, Zangenberg chose a darker, Gothic look to play Sofie as a brunette. “I dyed it and grew it longer for Heartless. I wanted Sofie to have this lion’s mane around her. When we first meet her, I wanted Sofie to closely resemble an animal, more than a person. As an actress, it’s funny to feel this shift in your body when you drastically change your look. This transformation can be very powerful and it really helped me to bring the character of Sofie out.”

Heartless takes a more Gothic, supernatural direction, away from the popular Nordic Noir crime series, whilst incorporating themes of the crime genre: the ‘locked door’ mystery narrative with a mystic twist, sombre atmosphere, and dark muted lighting. “I feel that the series looks to both genres. It was a smart decision from the director and the producers that we shouldn’t just milk the success of Scandinavian crime dramas and just be that,” notes Zangenberg. “The Killing (2007-2012) and The Bridge (2011- ) are amazing but Heartless wanted to be something else as well. We wanted to evolve from that and take the show to another place. Heartless also looks to Hollywood and the popular American Gothic style so it is a kind of mix that I love. Heartless is a great drama for young people that also works for adults on a lot of levels.”

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The international appeal can also be seen in the comparisons to vampire popular culture. The supernatural lineage of Sofie and Sebastian paints the pair as vampire-like creatures; sucking people’s essence, as opposed to sucking blood which is a great contemporary twist. “One of the biggest differences is the lack of teeth and blood. Sebastian and Sofie don’t have the same history as vampires. They have no problems with things like sunlight or garlic!” Zangenberg compares. “Obviously, it is something about feeding off of other people. The “Black Eyes” – the name given to Sebastian and Sofie’s kind – need to feed on the energy of people in order survive. In the same way that vampires have problems sucking blood from people, “Black Eyes” have problems stopping at the right moment. They can kill people and make them combust! These are the main similarities and differences that define them.”

The Ottmangaard boarding school harks back to a traditional period sanctifying the past, with the storylines straddling time between 1666 and present day. With films like Let the Right One In (2008), Trollhunter (2010)and Thale (2012), as well as the TV series Jordskott (2015- ), mythology is another Nordic tradition that seems to be making more of an appearance on the Scandinavian screen. “I love that Scandinavia is known for mythology in movies and television, as well as showing a social reality. We get to see people acting raw in complex roles with really good writing,” expresses Zangenberg. “At the same time as Scandi crime, we have mythology, traditions and a lot of history with the Vikings. I love the Hollywood supernatural genre with CGI that we are moving towards while applying very good stories to a universe of social realism. We have a balance between something real and the fantasy. I really like that there is magic in a very dark, raw place. I love that combination.”

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An element of rawness and naturalism is reflected by the cinematography of Heartless. Many scenes are filmed in shadows and lit by streams of natural daylight. While there are some CGI sequences, the style of the show is predominantly grounded in reality. “We felt something for the script in that it was something that hadn’t been done before in Denmark,” Zangenberg mentions. “Denmark is quite wary when it comes to touching things that need CGI and special effects because we are not as good at this compared to other countries with higher budgets. We felt that if we do this, then we have to go all in otherwise it will look like ‘amateur hour’ and we can’t do that! With Heartless, there was a low budget and not a long period of time to film it. We had very high aspirations and expectations which were probably a bit too artistic for the budget. We had a lot of good people working on the series who normally work for a higher pay too! [LAUGHS] Everyone was totally committed to the project. Heartless was very heartfelt, you can say!”

With the show’s low budget in mind, there are a lot of physically demanding scenes with stunts involving water that were not digitally enhanced. “They were very uncomfortable to do so the reactions of my character were very close to my own!” exclaims Zangenberg. “Of course, there were stunt people there ready to jump in if it went really wrong. When you are doing scenes of this nature, the actor playing the bad guy is often the person feeling guilty about having to do this to you! [LAUGHS] But everybody is very aware and they look out for you. That was definitely challenging. We had to really be thrown into the lake just as Sofie was. It was winter and it was insanely cold and dirty. Those things give a special feel to a shoot and translate to the screen when you have people who are willing to go that extra mile. It paid off when you watch it, I think!”

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As well as starring opposite Sebastian Jessen, who plays Sebastian Neilsen in the show, Julie Zangenberg acts alongside him in another school-based show Hedensted High (2015- ). “Sebastian is amazing. He is very talented and he is very calm. He has also been acting since he was a child. He is very professional and extremely nice to work with on a show like Heartless,” praises Zangenberg. “I have a short temper [LAUGHS] I’m also very decisive and I speak my mind maybe a little too loud and a little too often! Sebastian was great because when we were pushed to our limit during filming, it was great to have the guy next to you keeping it together, calming you down and helping you focus.” One might say like a natural twin. “Yes, there was definitely a sibling thing going on!”

In addition to Heartless, Zangenberg has recently starred in the multi-award nominated sporting drama Sommeren ’92 with an incredible cast of Danish stars. “It was great! The funny thing is that a lot of us young actors, who started acting at the age of 12 or 13-years-old, have always been playing the son, the daughter, the brother, the sister, or the teenage love story in movies.” Zangenberg admits. “Now, we can see that we are playing the male or female lead in the production. I didn’t spend a lot of time shooting on the set of Sommeren ’92, but it felt like coming home every time I went there because I knew everyone in the cast so well.”

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With the global appeal of Nordic Noir series and Scandinavian cinema continuing to make an impact in Hollywood today, Zangenberg shares her views on the Nordic phenomenon, from both a national and international perspective. “We had very good shows before The Killing but the series really took Danish television to an international scale. That paved the way for the rest of us. I also enjoy Scandinavian filmmaking – not just Danish but Swedish and Norwegian films too,” reflects Zangenberg. “I really like the feel of the movies made from where I come from; they are honest and very modern. I think we have so many talented filmmakers from Denmark who have been working overseas for many years; from Lars von Trier to Susanne Bier, Lone Scherfig, and Pernilla August. I’m very proud to be Danish. I’m also very excited about the things I am doing which are crossing the Danish border and allowing me to interact with fans all over the world.”

Following the first season of Heartless, Zangenberg is keeping busy with television and theatre performances, including Hairspray: The Musical. “I’m playing the super-bitch! I’m singing and dancing and smiling. I’m very blonde and skinny and glamorous – the complete opposite of Sofie! Well, she has maybe a little attitude problem as well but she is a nicer person than Amber von Tussle! [LAUGHS]” Zangenberg muses. “I’m touring with the musical until July and my cookery show is airing now. I will be working on another television series and then I will be producing a second season of the cooking show at the end of the year.” Hopefully, there will be a second season of Heartless for fans to look forward to. “I would love that! I know the producers are working on this so we shall see…”

Words and interview by Antony Smith

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Heartless is released on DVD Monday 18th April through Arrow Films and Nordic Noir & Beyond. Pre-order your copy on DVD now!