Nordophiles will recognise Levin as TV1 news presenter Ulrik Mørch from Borgen, as well as starring in the recent Nordic drama Norskov. Courtesy of All4, UK audiences were treated to the slow-burning Scandi series, which has been compared to the likes of a Shakespearean tragedy.
Firstly, we needed to know if the esteemed actor is a true hockey fan and if he’s as good at the sport as his character is. “I’m extremely bad at hockey and I don’t play. Even though there is a scene between myself, Claus Riis Østergaard and Jakob Ulrik Lohmann. We did attend hockey practice. Claus and Jakob were quite good at it – but I sucked. When it came to the shoot, it didn’t look pretty I must say.” We didn’t notice – the suspension of disbelief was very strong. “I’m all in for research but hockey is said to be one of the top 3 most difficult sports to master. Mathias Käki Jørgensen is an extremely talented and graceful hockey player, which is how he was discovered for the role of Oliver. I looked like a moose that had eaten too many apples from a tree and was drunk. That’s why actors love editing.” I think we can agree there wasn’t the faintest hint of a moose in sight.
Thomas plays Tom Noack; a detective specialising in organised crime, who returns to his hometown of Norskov in Northern Jutland. He is tasked with helping childhood friend-turned mayor Martin (Østergaard) to combat the spiralling drug culture. Before joining the Norskov drug squad in the show, Thomas gained real-life experience prior to filming. “We were very fortunate to have a lot of preparation for season one. This helped us to realistically conceive police work on screen. The slow-burning pace of the series is very close to reality,” Thomas explains. “I had the privilege of meeting law enforcement officers and being in the car when they were responding to arrests – to observe and not get in the way! I saw how calm and balanced they were, which allowed me to get rid of any clichés I had. The police were more like social workers – extremely considerate and avoiding conflict at all costs.”
“After the first few times I joined them, I went home crying. It was devastating. You wouldn’t believe what these guys deal with. That’s just one of the gifts of being an actor. You tell yourself that you’re a police officer and you know what you’re doing. The research gives you confidence and details, instead of basing your character on what you’ve seen on television.” This is shown by the engaging characters and drama that draws the viewer in, rather than gratuitous action which can easily pull you back out. “One of the first season’s conceptual directors, Louise Friedberg, insisted on an unusual amount of rehearsals, including not only conversations about our character’s backstories, but quite a lot of improvisational work. It helped us to make choices about our characters and relationships with each other, based on some kind of organic exploration.”
Following the first season of Norskov, Thomas received a nomination for Best Actor at the 2016 Robert Prisen Awards. “It’s always nice to get appreciation for your work, especially when you’re nominated by your peers. I also hung out with my friends and colleagues, who all work in this wonderfully creative but small business in Denmark! [LAUGHS] I’m a very competitive person but I don’t want to see creativity as a competition,” admits Thomas. “I do a lot of sports and I do like to win. However, you reach a stage in your career when you realise sports and the arts are two different things. This is because there is no objective truth to anything. In sports, you’re either the fastest guy or you’re not.” Competitive and ambitious like Ulrik in Borgen? “I think most of us understand what it’s like to be ambitious without really having the skills! Plus, the sense of bitterness and unfairness that you experience when someone just walks in and gets what you want like that! [LAUGHS] That’s a lot of fun to play!”
Throughout the season, Tom Noack stands out as being very even-tempered and moral, in contrast to a typical Nordic Noir detective who gets embroiled in the plot. “As an actor, I didn’t see Tom reacting that way. It’s not what the writer Dunja Gry Jensen wanted. She created a man who was constantly suffering from his attempts not to lose it. But the suffering is very hidden. He doesn’t want to blame anyone for his emotions. As a result, Tom pays the ultimate price, which is loneliness,” adds Thomas. “The fight between Tom and Casper (Lohmann) was what I had been waiting for – to let some frustration out! [LAUGHS] Tom is quite a tough character to play because he is mainly observing and it can look like he’s not actually doing anything” There was a profound, wistful air of Don Draper from Mad Men which added to the Nordic Noir atmosphere. “I realised this type of character is the audience’s mirror. The name ‘Tom’ also means empty in Danish but I don’t know if the writer Dunja Gry meant anything by that!”
Norskov can be seen as a Nordic Noir, without obvious violence in the narrative. “The crime plot is something that connects everything together. It doesn’t have the immediate brutality of other Nordic Noir shows, like The Bridge,” Thomas compares. “It has a different agenda by portraying a nuanced city on the outskirts which is lost. The people are trying to install a sense of pride and a future which is at the heart of the narrative.” Is the city based on a real place? “Norskov is a fictional name but everything was shot on location in Frederikshavn, on the northeast coast of the Jutland. Hockey is an important sport in that city, which connects the community. There is also a big industrial port which is trying to keep up with globalisation. The town was heavily involved in the production of the show, either as extras, assistants and also financially.”
What attracted you to the script? “The complexity of the main character, the setting, the fellow actors and the director.” There are many emotional and physical scenes involving Tom, despite his self-effacing nature. “I remember when we filmed Diana’s car crash scene. It was the beginning of the shoot; the weather was crazy and we were in the woods. It was pretty chaotic and exciting. What looks like a tough scene to the audience may not be as challenging to the actor. Underneath what is happening to the character there is a joy that an actor feels of letting himself go through an emotional rollercoaster. I was looking forward to that final scene with Casper on one of the last days of shooting. He’s a very good friend of mine and it was wonderful to express some emotion. Fighting on the ice was physically challenging.”
The earlier scenes with Tom and Casper play fighting when they reconnected took a darker turn. “Exactly. All the ethical and moral conflicts arise in the character because he cannot manage his friendship and police work at the same time. As painful as it may be, Tom knows he’s doing the right thing.”
As Norskov was filmed in 2015, the second season is currently airing on Danish screens. Following the incendiary finale, what can we expect from the season two? “It’s very different but I can’t say anything about it!” We do know that the episodes are named after each character, so we can expect a fresh format. “Some characters who didn’t have much space to develop in season one are very prominent in season two. My character is a less obvious protagonist too.”
In addition to acting, Thomas has been a theatrical playwright for almost 12 years. “I’ve won the equivalent of an Olivier Award in Denmark and I used to be the artistic director of a successful theatre company. Recently, I’ve been writing for film. I’ve just finished making a 30-minute short called Walter and Alma, with Kim Bodnia who is one of my closest friends. I call it a ‘fragile comedy’ and it’s getting award recognition which is very nice! Directing is a completely different process from being an actor. There’s a lot of responsibility but it’s very satisfying at the same time.”
Thomas has nothing but great things to say about Nordic Noir favourite Kim Bodnia. “I think he is one of the greatest actors in the world! I’m biased on a high level because I truly love him! [LAUGHS] It was a privilege to direct him and, besides being close friends, we have acted together on stage and screen too.” We love Kim for his funny and often scary on-screen presence. “He is very funny and I think he’s scary because he has a lot of energy and power. However, he has a sensitivity and frailty which adds other dimensions to his characters. He’s extremely gifted and a wonderful inspiration. I just can’t stop looking at him.”
We had to ask about Thomas’ favourite memories from working alongside Birgitte Hjort Sørenson, Søren Malling, Pilou Asbæk and Sidse Babett Knudsen on the ground-breaking Nordic drama Borgen, which spearheaded Scandi drama amidst the international wave of Nordic Noir crime shows like The Killing and The Bridge. “I enjoyed the televised debates for the election in season one and grilling Birgitte Nyborg in her live interview. It’s been so long but I remember that – having that agenda to just tear her apart but not knowing what she was going through.” Ulrik was certainly cutthroat in that memorable scene. “I enjoyed that! It was fun to be a presenter. You walk into the TV1 studio and you enter into a real world. I researched a lot beforehand and spoke to presenters which was fun. I worked with so many wonderful actors and colleagues, especially with Birgitte Hjort Sørenson and Søren Malling. I really like Pilou but I didn’t get to work with him a lot. It was great to be part of something which was an unexpected international success, especially when you think about how specifically Danish everyone thought it was.”
Words and interview by Antony Smith
Norskov – The Complete Season One is available to watch via All 4 now!