Marie Tourell Søderberg is one of Denmark’s up-and-coming actresses, having been one of the leading stars of the epic historical series, 1864. The series follows the Second Schleswig War that saw Denmark desperately outnumbered by the Germans, escalating into a deadly result.
Søderberg attended the Nordicana: Nordic Noir & Beyond 2015 festival at the weekend with her 1864 co-stars Sarah-Sofie Boussnina, Jens Sætter-Lassen, and Jakob Oftebro as they discussed their involvement with the latest Scandi series.
We got an inside look with Søderberg – who plays Inge in 1864 – as she revealed her experiences working on the show, her character’s secrets, and her acting icons.
Prior to starring in 1864, you appeared in television episodes and short films – what has it been like to be cast as a leading actress in Denmark’s biggest budgeted television drama?
Marie Tourell Søderberg: It’s like my biggest dream come true! That’s what I mostly dreamed about when I got into acting school. I’ve always been a fan of Danish drama series from Denmark Radio [DR, the national Danish television channel] because the quality was just so high. It was just like rolling your career out in front of you because you get such a great opportunity. At the same time, being a part of a TV series is such a different experience than just making a film. You go so much deeper with your character because you have so many episodes to be able to grow in depth. You also get a broader impression of the character by developing the character for eight hours. I was just overwhelmed!
1864 is such a cinematic series, even from the very beginning with the entrancing music swelling over the credits.
MTS: I felt that way even from just reading the thirty page treatment of the entire eight episodes. I was just so drawn to the story and the depth of it. It was crazy!
Were you surprised that not many people were aware of the battle of the Schleswig War in 1864?
MTS: Yes, I was and I was also surprised that this was such a big event. I, myself, didn’t know much about it either; it wasn’t in my history books. I loved going to school and I loved history class but I can’t remember anything about it. When I looked into it deeply and read a lot about the war, I was surprised I didn’t know more about it. Now, after the TV series has been made, every Dane knows about it and knows what a big influence it had for Danish people. As a culture, we were diminished from being this big country. In 1814, we lost Norway, and then in 1864, we lost such a big part of Denmark. The Schleswig parts took away approximately 1/3 of the Danish Kingdom. We were really diminished and now we are only 5 million people in a small country. It was a completely different time. We were so big once, so this series is historical for Denmark; for our feelings about our nationality.
Can you share your experience on what it was like studying at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York?
MTS: That is a really good question because I was actually not that impressed by it! Before I started studying acting, my natural approach was really method acting. I went into the part, I lived in the woods, and I had been doing that since I was only 15-years-old. That was what turned me on so much; just being it. At the same time, I had so much trouble getting out of the character again. I would get really lonely and isolated after productions were over. I just went too far so I really needed an education and needed to be brought up with rules and approaches. But the Lee Strasberg Institute was a school where people paid and I had saved money since I was 11-years-old. It was difficult to find a singing partner and I wasn’t fond of the Lee Strasberg method. I didn’t understand it much so I was so happy and lucky when I found out that I had gotten into the Danish state school. I felt that finally this was my approach and that this was what I really want to do. It’s one of the best educations in the world. Just coming back to Denmark, after being at Lee Strasberg, and experiencing the culture again was such a relief. I learnt so much and that really shaped me. I really thank my school and all of my teachers in Denmark. I still talk to my teachers and take lessons because I really get a lot out of it. As an actor, I think you have to keep developing and expanding your range. I was mostly drawn to a meditative approach where you’re just present; that’s the only thing you have to be. Just be in the situation and not think about so much that makes it difficult. That’s what I learnt from my teachers in Denmark. You have to just look into the other person’s eyes and be there, it’s so simple. If you are present in the situation and experiences then that’s where all my happiness hormones just start kicking in!
Congratulations on being nominated for Best Actress for 1864 at the 2015 Robert Awards. However, you sadly lost out to Trine Dyrholm…
MTS: Yes, but I’m not ashamed of that! I really, really, really admire her.
Did you get to meet her at Nordicana?
MTS: Yes. I have also followed her career since she was a child. She’s so powerful, beautiful, strong, and so interesting as a person. Denmark is such a small country so the Danish field of actors is so small, we are just colleagues. I could ask Trine anything and I was sure she would help me. We also have the same agent!
You share a similar energy with your co-stars Sarah-Sofie Boussnina, Jens Sætter-Lassen, and Jakob Oftebro off-screen as well as on, which was noticeable at Nordicana. Were you anxious about becoming part of an intimate ensemble cast when you first read the script?
MTS: Of course I was really anxious but I thought all of the feelings were naturally coming up when you are a new actor. When the first thing you do is the biggest Danish TV series and you are the leading character – of course you are anxious! I was acting with Pilou Asbæk on my first day on set and he said, ‘Hi Marie, how are you? Can I help you with anything? Come on, Ole, please point the camera at her first.’ He was so supportive and generous. I was thinking: ‘Is that what it is like to be on this kind of production?’ Apparently it was! Jens Sætter-Lassen and Jakob Oftebro are also nice and wonderful people. They are my friends. That’s one of the things I value a lot. It’s not just about acting; if they hadn’t been the people they are it would have been something completely different so I really thank my colleagues immensely. It really is just being there together because that’s where the scenes come from. It’s also just relaxing; if you’re too tense you can’t act out the scene. You really have to trust in each other, be there with each other and just experience the scene. I really value how it should be to work together. Sofie Gråbøl is the primary example of that, she is just lovely. I have never met her before, then she gives me the biggest hug and tells me if there is anything I need I should call her. The way she approaches her fans at the festival and her colleagues is so inspiring. That’s the actress I want to be and that means a lot to me. We’re playing face-to-face people and everyone around you is so important.
What initially attracted you to the role of Inge? How were you fascinated by her character and how layered she is?
MTS: Yes, there are so many layers to her, she is very deep. When I read the script, I was thinking that Inge is the best version of me. When I’m not in fear, when I’m not in doubt, when all of those things are gone and I’m just free and light and totally 100% myself. That’s Inge; she’s so courageous and she has the heart of a lion. She is a lioness when she goes out into that battlefield facing that terrible war to find the man she loves and his brother. Just going out there and being pregnant is the most vulnerable state I can ever fathom a woman being in. She’s going there because she believes in love and that is stronger than anything, stronger than war. That character trait is just amazing. Also, as a child in the first episode, the way she just approaches those boys and how she acts in the library. She just doesn’t care about anything. She’s just so strong from the beginning. Who wouldn’t want to be Inge? That’s the best part about playing the best female characters; a part of you becomes them afterwards.
How would you say the leading female characters of Inge and Claudia contrast with each other?
MTS: I think, to some extent, they are like day and night. Not because they are different, but because they are two aspects of the same thing. One is more in the dark and the other is more in the light. However, they both have the same heart; they are both courageous and really strong women. They mirror each other and face the same things. It’s not just Claudia and Inge; it’s universal and it’s about being a human being and experiencing loss. In the beginning, Claudia has difficulty believing in love and light but when she meets Severin they gain contact. It’s almost like she lightens up again; she finds someone and starts to believe in life again. On the contrary, Inge meets darkness marrying Pilou Asbæk’s character Didrich, but brightens up again as she insists on coming back to life again. So I think they are very alike; they go through many of the same things but at different times.
What was it like to be directed by Ole Bornedal?
MTS: He’s a very special man. He can look you in the eyes without saying anything and direct what he wants you to do. He said to me once, ‘Be Ophelia. Just lie there and I’ll kneel here and guide you through it.’ I’ve never experienced a director trying an approach like that but it’s like he just talks directly into your heart. In the difficult scenes, he can also rip your heart out, throw it back in to your face, and it’s really brutal. You have to be able to work with him that way and really see his vision. He wrote this wonderful script and has the complete vision for 1864, so I had so much confidence in the project. I really believed in Ole and would do anything he wanted me to. It was an incredible experience and really special because it was so different. Sometimes I’m just hypnotised by him because he has this power in his calmness. He knows exactly what he wants and being a part of his vision was very inspiring.
At the Nordicana Q&A, you mentioned you had to fly directly from the set of 1864 to your next shoot for Itsi Bitsi. Can you tell me more about you next film?
MTS: Itsi Bitsi is a film directed by Ole Christian Madsen, a Danish filmmaker who worked on this feature film for 27-years and now, finally, has the money to do it. I play this beautiful female character once again (I can’t even imagine my luck!) Iben Nagel Rasmussen. She is the daughter of a famous Danish writer. She is still alive so I called her up saying, ‘Hi Iben, I’m going to play you. Do you want to meet up?’ I went to visit her and she was just so open-minded. She gave me all of her diaries and letters and said, ‘I’ll tell you everything but remember one thing: you don’t have to become me. Find your own Iben.’ I spent so much time with her and she helped me so much with sculpting my character. It was a great, surreal experience playing someone so alive. It’s so unique to be in a period film when the character you are playing is still alive. We filmed in Croatia for six weeks and it went really well with the film which received great reviews. I had a wonderful co-star, Joachim Fjelstrup, who won the EFP Shooting Star award at the Berlin International Festival earlier this year. He plays the main character Eik Skaløe and is soulmates with my character Iben, so being able to act with a guy I’ve known for 14-years was also just a very special experience. The director was so wonderful and said, “Go! I have so much confidence in you. I believe in you so just do your thing.’ It was still very challenging, but it made everything so much easier.
Did this experience encourage your future career after leaving the set of 1864?
MTS: Yes, I didn’t really get to go to the goodbye party but a lot of the other actors also rushed onto other projects. I realised that’s how it is being an actor. You have a lot to do and I felt very privileged. Of course, it was a little strange, after being part of a crew for such a long time, to go onto something else but that’s the way it was. It has been so overwhelming meeting all the people who have been watching 1864 and the fans who came to Nordicana. I really didn’t imagine that it would interest people here so much as it is a Danish part of history. Yet, people have been so happy and overwhelmed by it. We have produced some wonderful films in Denmark over the years and the quality really improved with the Dogme95 wave in the 1990s. Now, the television series has gotten so much attention from the outside world. It’s so great that film and television can have such a greater audience because it can travel.
Which filmmakers and actors have really influenced your work?
MTS: My father is British so I grew up having watched many British films like Harry Potter. The way they make characters and humour has always been a mystery to me, I have been so intrigued by it. Actors like Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and Colin Firth. There are so many British actors who are intriguing to me. I am also really into creating characters, which makes me a great fan of Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis. They are, in my opinion, chameleons. They can just transform into anything and leave the ‘Meryl Streep’ behind and become someone completely different. They are my biggest heroes. I also watch a lot of theatre in Denmark so actors like Ulrich Thomsen, Trine Dyrholm, Sofie Gråbøl, and Nikolaj Lie Kaas. That’s the best education for an actor; to be inspired by so many wonderful actors around you.
Words and interview by Antony Smith
1864 is available to own on Blu-ray & DVD now – purchase your copy here.