‘I’d be locked up if I didn’t have the opportunity to play the roles I’d like’
Ben Meagher meets Denmark’s star actor, Søren Malling, in Copenhagen for coffee and a discussion of clay pigeon shooting, Scandinavian drama and how he got Kenneth Branagh ‘shitting his fucking pants’ on the set of Wallander.
A short walk from the idyllic harbour of Nyhavn in the city of Copenhagen will take you to Café Holberg no 19. In a city riddled with cafés it’s difficult not to smirk at the irony of its numerical namesake. What makes this café different however is the tall, stubbled Dane sitting inside, wearing a high-collared fleece and smoking a thin, black pipe bearing more resemblance to liquorice than an electronic-cigarette. It’s jarring not to see Søren Malling shuffle out the red Marlboros that so many of his roles require. ‘I’m trying to stop’ he chuckles. ‘It works though. There’s nicotine, water, steam – nothing else. Even the queen of Denmark who’s a heavy smoker has started to use these!’
Aside from his maroon Puma jacket and the mirrored sunglasses propped on his forehead, Malling’s energy and enthusiasm hint at his vitality. ‘I’m addicted to physical things. It’s a very healthy way to be, right?’ To call him a keen tennis player would be an understatement. For twelve years strong, Malling’s personal trainer has been Kenneth Carlsen – the best tennis player in the country who’s also coach to the Crown Prince of Denmark. ‘My new gig is shooting clay pigeons’, he admits with a boyish snigger. ‘You don’t have to be fit to actually pull a trigger. But I think it’s very, very fun. I use it as a moment of being together with myself. I can go to the shooting range, turn a key into a machine and stay there for two and a half hours. For me it’s a moment of Zen – I don’t think about anything apart from shooting the fucking pigeons.’
Of course, today there’s a larger animal in the room, an elephant, and it’s one I worry is predictable and dull. Does Malling tire of being asked about his role in of the hugely-successful, much talked about Danish drama The Killing? His eyes light up and a wide grin stretches his cheeks. ‘Jan Meyer!’ he exclaims. Probably not then. ‘When we finished shooting the first season, we knew that we’d made a very good story. The chemistry between Sofie (Gråbøl) and I was amazing. I was supposed to be killed in episode ten, but the setup was so good and the writer, Søren Sveistrup, fell in love with my character. He came to me and said: “I’m not ready to kill you. Can you please sign another contract?” I thought “sure, why not?”’
An unprecedented success abroad, The Killing became synonymous with knitted jumpers and a renewed interest in Scandinavia. Subtitles on BBC 4 never looked so good. Denmark, too, lapped up its popularity. ‘When they started to broadcast it – Saturday night, eight o’clock, there wasn’t a fucking car on the road. Two million people watched it and out of five million people who live in Denmark that’s a lot. We knew we had done something very good but we were quite shocked – never before had a Danish TV series become such a success in and out of Denmark. I went to London recently and took the underground to Piccadilly Circus. In less than two minutes I was surrounded by hundreds of people. The guys who arranged my trip had hired bodyguards for me and they just grabbed me, pushed me into a café and stood in front of the door. I was like, “what the fuck? I’m just a silly person from Copenhagen!” I was completely unaware how big the show was in England.’
Despite the steep price of coffee, Denmark’s strong café culture and eased atmosphere nods towards a calmer capital that shrugs at the word ‘celebrity’. Does Malling have the same fan base in Copenhagen? ‘No, no, no’, he dismisses easily. ‘We have another mentality here. I can walk in the street and people will just be very polite. Of course, they confront me and want my autograph, but back in the UK all the girls will attack me and smack me on the ass – I was very surprised, but also thrilled about the idea that we could do something which actually becomes a great success in the UK.’
There’s an old idiom that reflects this Danish attitude: ‘expect nothing and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.’ Malling’s international success is a far cry from his original intentions. Training as a carpenter, plumber and bricklayer after leaving school, and becoming a father at the mere age of 20, Malling made a seemingly inconsequential decision after taking drama classes that altered his entire life. ‘I remember one Christmas Eve, my mum asked me about being an actor. Just before I went to bed I remember thinking that if I didn’t have the guts to apply to drama school I could become fifty and just hit myself.’
Despite the dark, brooding roles he’s well known for outside of Denmark, Malling is a well-known comedic actor who has starred in both theatre and film. Polle Fiction saw him playing a hilariously crude driving instructor. ‘It’s that old story of the clown in the circus. The clown can be funny, he can entertain, but when everybody leaves he takes off the mask and starts crying. So there’s this big child, a seriously hurt child in every clown. For me it’s the same story; I use the comedy to play around with myself, but I know for sure that I can swap in a split second and be the fucking killer. I’d be locked up if I didn’t have the opportunity to play the roles I’d like’.
With such a small population, it’s an opportunity that presents itself more frequently in Denmark and, as a result, many familiar faces crop up in a variety of productions. ‘I read an article that tracked Mikael Birkkjær, Sarah Lunds partner in the second season of The Killing, back to me on the set of Borgen. We’re all there. The truth is there are very few actors in Denmark so we have to do comedy, farce, Shakespeare – the whole thing, all at the same time.’
But the Danes are no strangers to success outside of television, and are perhaps most noted for the pan-European film movement, ‘Dogma’, they instigated in 1995. With a manifesto that called for the erasure of artificiality and a focus on narrative, Dogma inspired filmmakers across the world to make compelling stories – with little or no money. ‘I think it was a boost for Danish movies. I mean, the Danish movie industry was asleep for a period and then the Dogma movement came, inspired by Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. It was about rethinking the concept of filmmaking, but I don’t think the movies themselves were particularly good.’
In accordance with the Dogma rules, films were devoid of any lighting or costume. ‘It seemed like the actors were more honest on screen, just normal human beings put into a scenario. Instead of putting on a lot of fittings, make-up, it showed that you don’t need all that. You can just tell a fucking story.’ From his experience acting in Søren Carl Jacobsen’s Dogma film, Mifune, Malling weighs up the pros and cons of working with such strict rules. ‘I was not allowed to talk to the director. I had to smoke on set, but the pay was shitty as hell and I had to buy my own cigarettes. You just had to read the script and show up on set and do whatever you wanted. That was also the first time I discovered you don’t need to feel safe to act, you should just do what comes to you. As an actor you’re allowed to take your space, do what you want with it – instead of waiting for the director to tell you what to do, just go ahead and give it a shot.’
Malling’s radical training seems to have been critical to his success, particularly with his most recent film A Hijacking, directed and written by the co-writer of Borgen, Tobias Lindholm. Accoladed from Goteborg to Tokyo, A Hijacking’s numerous awards confirm Denmark’s talent for filmmaking. ‘I think that’s the biggest experience I’ve had so far. When Tobias came to me on the set of Borgen two years ago, he was very humble. He said: “I have this idea and I haven’t written it down yet, but I’d like you to play the main character. He’s the CEO of a shipping company – I can’t tell you anything else about it. Would you like to join me?” Sometime later I was sitting in a cab in Prague – we were actually shooting A Royal Affair there – I had Tobias’ script with me in the car and I read it in an hour and started crying. I had to call him there and then and tell him that I knew what he wanted. I’d do it.’
With the spotlight shining so bright on the Danish screen, I wonder if the Danes ever look across the water toBritish drama? ‘What’s the one with the butler and the basement?’ he asks. Downton Abbey? Upstairs Downstairs? ‘Right’, he nods. ‘That’s the one. Of course, we love that one with Helen Mirren… I forget the name of it now… – that’s it! Prime Suspect.’ Fleeting but cherished moments. ‘But now we can watch television from the whole world, we don’t have any from the UK that are particularly the best’, he adds. ‘I have Netflix and my kids love it, we are totally addicted. Sometimes I don’t speak to my wife for days.’
Yet Malling can also lays claim to being part of Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander, a British remake of a Swedish series that see’s Malling pop up as a Latvian Detective. It’s all rather disorientating. ‘It’s a bit weird watching an Englishman in Sweden driving a Swedish police car, but talking English. It was shot right over there’, he points, looking out of the window and across the bridge to Ystad as if it’s just across the street. How was the experience of working with Branagh? ‘He’s so sweet, very polite. But when I act I like to improvise and he was a bit irritated by that. We talked a lot and he was very honest and told me that he was a little afraid of improvising. I challenged him to just be in the situation: told him to cut the crap, throw it away. He was shitting his fucking pants. He didn’t exactly say thank you when I left – what he did say was that it was a great experience.’
His latest movie, I Lossens Time, reunites him with Sofie Gråbøl, his partner from The Killing. Is it easier to act alongside her, having built a working relationship over an entire series? ‘Not easier, but I never found it was difficult.’ He pauses for the first time. ‘There’s a lot of circling around each other. She likes to be totally in control: what to say, how to sit, where to go. I act by intuition, so she’s provoking me and I know I’m provoking her and we laugh about that and accept it, and really respect it. She would never stand up and say “Søren don’t do that”, and I will never tell her what to do – never.’ He slows down and becomes sombre, perhaps a bit melancholic, with professional respect and admiration. Then his surrendering smile comes slowly back to him. ‘We’re back in business you could say!’