Veronika Grønnegaard is the successful matriarch of an artistic family in Denmark. When she unexpectedly dies, it throws her children into bitter disputes over the ownership of her lucrative estate, who all want it for their own desires and aspirations. However, the emergence of a long forgotten sibling, named Signe, causes further problems and quarrels. The tribulations of the Grønnegaard family will be played out in the new Danish series The Legacy, which will premiere on Sky Arts on November 26.
Featuring an all-star Nordic cast including Trine Dyrholm, Carsten Bjørnlund and Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, the series, comes courtesy of the creators behind Borgen and The Killing. Writer Maya Ilsøe created The Legacy and we were lucky enough to chat with her and two of the lead stars (Trine Dyrholm who plays Gro and Carsten Bjørnlund who plays Frederick) about their new series and the various dynamics of their characters.
Nordic Noir: When were you first approached about the show?
Maya Ilsøe: I had worked with DR previously on a number of other projects and they asked me if I would like to spend 3 months working on a new idea. I knew immediately that I wanted to do something on family as I was newly divorced with kids and had grown up in a hippy community. When I began to look around at my friends and their family’s they all seemed to be asking ‘what is it to be a family today?’
Trine Dyrholm: I can’t quite remember now. I remember seeing (director) Pernilla August’s first film (Beyond, 2010) and I was really excited about the fact that she was going to be directing the series. Then I read the script for the first three episodes, and although a lot has changed since then, I realised instantly that Maya was very talented.
Carsten Bjørnlund: Actually at first, I was in place to play Emil about 4 or 5 years ago but then I didn’t hear anything for a long time.
MI: One of the things that happened with the casting is that we were doing it in a very traditional sense and casting roles one by one. When Pernilla August came onboard she felt we should do things differently and cast as a family, so that everyone was included in the decisions. We had an agreement that if someone couldn’t work in that group we would start the whole process again. For instance when we first saw Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, he was a young, upcoming actor but we knew instantly that he was Emil, so we had to rewrite the character, as he was originally a lot older.
NN: Having said that, did you begin to develop this family dynamic before filming?
CB: We did have some rehearsals, improvisations and character interviews beforehand. There was a lot more of that than what I’m usually used to but it was good. We even had a family dinner! The team feeling is really valuable to the process both in the writing and also in the shooting process. We definitely are a family.
MI: Pernilla wanted to take that route because we all wanted it to be as genuine and as true as possible. To make this family unit realistic and to have those familiarities among the characters was very much a vision from the beginning.
NN: Does that help you as a writer?
MI: I was on board all the time and that’s what it demands to work in this manner. This method was developed very early and even our production designers were involved from the start. We worked vey closely on all the aspects of the show, which is important for the director. The director is allowed to improvise in any scene but when you give them that privilege you have to make sure everyone else in working in that direction.
NN: In the first few episodes it becomes clear that Signe will be the main character that brings everyone together. Is that what you were aiming for?
MI: In many senses she is the one who introduces us to the family and also the house itself. Everything in the show, right down to the props have so much story behind them and a complete stranger who knows nothing about them is thrust into this situation and I shouldn’t reveal what happens but she becomes pivotal as to what happens with the house.
NN: What was it about your characters that got you both interested?
TD: She is complex and I like characters that are like that. Essentially she is the villain of the story, especially to Signe. That might be hard to comprehend but she does act the bad guy in many episodes. For me it was a great chance to play a modern, complicated woman.
CB: It was the chance to be able to unfold, what at first seems like a 2-dimensional character and turn him into a very 3-dimensional character. When you first meet him he comes across as a very hotheaded character but his mood changes as things develop in the story. That sort of progression with a character really appeals to me.
NN: Carsten, your character, Frederick, is constantly changing his mood and approach scene by scene. How do you work with a character like that?
CB: Like with any character you have to take one scene at a time and have a perspective drawn out in your mind. We’ve looked at the background of his life and I find things to cling onto and then I try to move on from there and see what I can work with. Sometimes those directions work because it can be a hard place to be for the character and I find that very interesting.
MI: We’ve spoken a lot about Frederick being a hero and he is the one that is truly fighting for his family. For him a lot of Veronika’s craziness has affected him badly and he really wants to do the right thing. He wants to bring back order for everyone and his family. He’s working for the right things in life and true values and justice.
CB: He’s really into those qualities and for me that is the main part of his personality. He’s also very fragile and throughout his life he has had to close many doors and that has made him harder but on the inside I think he is really fragile.
NN: Trine, how did you develop Gro’s complexities?
TD: It’s a very difficult role which is developing all the time. We’ve now done 17 episodes now and I still don’t really know who she is. She is constantly changing her mood and perspective on things but most importantly she is a fighter who will go the whole distance in order to voice her opinion. She is also at a place in her life where she is bounded to Veronika and hasn’t really separated from her.
NN: Why was it important that Veronika was an artist and Gro was an exhibition curator?
MI: When I started to do some research and presented my idea to female artists they were very offended. The art scene at that point in the 1960s was very conservative, so no matter how talented you were there was no way you would have reached the level of success that Veronika had as a female, so I had to create a history for her and explain how she had got her support and success. In creating such a strong character in Veronika, it was interesting in the sense that she puts art and her ideas above everything and Gro has adopted that belief. In some families it can be religion or politics but in this family it is art and that is deeply rooted in Gro’s character.
TD: If Gro had been an artist as well they wouldn’t have been opposites. It would have been interesting to imagine that Veronika hadn’t have been that big a star if it wasn’t for Gro. She is structured, practical, very business minded and much more of an adult than Veronika. In a way Gro has been the mother of the family, way before she was ready for it.
NN: Why do you think family dynamics and turmoil are such frequent topics in Danish film and television?
MI: I’ve been asked that question quite a few times now but it has only just occurred to me that family structures are very shaken by modern society. Nowadays there are no rules about who you can live with or be in a relationship with. It has become a very liberal thing. The whole debate about the series has been about family life and it is very relevant because those traditions are dying in Denmark. In Britain you still have some of those traditional role models but in Denmark it is becoming a personal choice as to whether you want those people in your life.
NN: Why do you feel that there are so many strong female characters in Nordic television?
TD: It just feels like a natural thing for us but we also work hard to create these parts. It’s not easy to create these characters and we have to graft to bring them to life.
MI: This is always a reoccurring question and we discussed it on set. In my opinion the male/female dynamic is a lot closer connected than what we think. For instance, if females get more power then it is inevitably going to affect men and vice versa. The Legacy has been very interesting for both the men and the women. It has presented us with questions about both sexes. Just because a man can cry does that mean he is less of a male? It’s interesting to work with a character like Gro, who despite being a woman has very masculine qualities to her.
CB: In life the one thing doesn’t shut out the other. You can easily have a relationship with a strong man and a strong woman. In The Legacy we didn’t need to have opposites, we could all be equal.
MI: I was very surprised when I was met with this strong woman idea. Of course Veronika is a strong figure because she is a matriarch but for me Gro is very weak. She is very vulnerable and almost exists in her mothers shadow. At the same time though she is very strong and independent but on the other hand Frederik is very strong. He has his own ideals and is willing to fight for him and his family. At the same time though he lacks maturity and can often act in a negative way.
TD: If you think of international projects, it is still quite a big and unusual thing to have interesting female parts. There aren’t many to choose from, especially if they are over 40 but on the back of Borgen and The Killing there is a lot more to be proud about.
NN: There has been such a big influx and popularity in Danish film and television recently. How do you feel about that and where do you see it going in the future?
CB: I think it is only a good thing for us. It gives us a chance to make a show like this that allows everyone involved to be creative. As far as the future goes, I just hope it keeps the window open to world and continues to present the Danish vision.
The Legacy debuts on Sky Arts on November 26th.