Tall, handsome, stunningly blue-eyed, with a gravelly deep voice and wearing a distinctive hat and predominantly black clothes, Mikael Persbrandt more resembled a Swedish rock star than a star of TV action shows, movies and theatre when we met during the Berlin Film Festival in February. The 50-year-old actor was promoting his role as a rock star and recovering alcoholic in the Danish movie Someone You Love, directed by Pernille Fischer Christensen (A Family, A Soap). The film will screen at the 2014 Scandinavian Film Festival, which opens in Canberra tonight before launching in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Byron Bay.
The rock ’n’ roll lifestyle of his character is something Persbrandt seems to have personally lived. In April, Persbrandt, known here for his starring role in Susanne Bier’s Oscar-winning Danish movie In A Better World—as well as the burly Beorn from The Hobbit movies—was charged with possession of 12 grams of cocaine (which had been purchased with his mobile phone) in a drug bust that also involved less famous members of the music industry. Persbrandt was given a five-month jail sentence, which he has successfully appealed. At the end of last week he was granted parole and will do 75 days community service. This is, of course, good news as sales have been brisk for his upcoming play, Strindberg’s Dance of Death, which is being staged at the Maximteatern in Stockholm, “I bought a theatre to perform in,” he announces (he actually paid half).
"in this story I was more interested in cocaine and alcohol abuse as a general human condition. It’s how we all try to escape from pain"
Unsurprisingly, Persbrandt grants few interviews in Sweden where he has long been a tabloid staple, particularly when he was together with Swedish actress and his frequent co-star Maria Bonnevie from 1998 till 2003. (Day and Night is one of their prominent movies.) Since 2005, Persbrandt has been with journalist and TV presenter Sanna Lundell, the 35-year-old daughter of Swedish rocker Ulf Lundell (a former alcoholic), and they have two sons. Certainly the constantly working actor always tries to include his family in his busy work schedule. They accompanied him to Venice in 2011 when we first met for Stockholm East and enjoyed a New Zealand holiday during The Hobbit’s shoot.
Interestingly, on both occasions when we met, Persbrandt was about to start a cop show.
“I’ve been training with the Navy Seals. I have my six-pack in order,” he smiled in Venice, his tattoos (related to the women and children in his life, he says) pulsating in the blazing sun.
A bad boy like Sean Penn with the heft of Russell Crowe, Persbrandt, like other Scandinavian actors, also has an emotional side he is able to draw on. It was no coincidence that he ended up in a movie by Bier, a specialist of tearjerkers where strong men show their inner-most feelings.
“I think Mikael plays a modern hero,” Bier told me at the time of our In a Better World interview. “Apart from being sexy and good looking, the character’s also somebody who really wants to do the right thing, yet he has a hard time figuring out his own life. There’s a sense of him being wild and not particularly disciplined and I like that sexy cocktail of the bad boy being the good boy.”
Like Bier, Christensen is keenly aware that Persbrandt is a huge box office draw in Scandinavia. Persbrandt was so keen to again escape his hardman image that he agreed to make Someone You Love five hours after receiving the screenplay. One of the selling points was that he re-teamed with In a Better World’s Trine Dyrholm, who vouched for Christensen, her good friend.
“I received an email from Mikael, ‘I love you [for offering me this], I know this guy, when are we shooting?” the petite Christensen recalls emulating Persbrandt’s gruff voice. “So I was like, ‘Okay, let’s find out’. I told Mikael it was important to bring a femininity, a kind of inner sensuality to the role. He was very quiet on the phone because he’s like the Swedish James Bond and I think he had to spin it around in his head. ‘Oh, this is the way she sees me’. He said, ‘Okay, it’s true but I don’t show that very often. It’s like feeding pigs with pearls, okay fine. Let’s meet and find out if I’m a pig to you.’ We soon discovered we were talking same language.”
She acknowledges that Persbrandt, who was part of gangs when he grew up in a suburb of Stockholm in the ‘60s and ‘70s (his mother was 18 when she had him, his father was 19, his parents divorced when he was seven), knew a bit about substance abuse.
“We went together to rehab and talked to people and Mikael would help me, he’s very open with it, so it comes from a lot of places. Still, in this story I was more interested in cocaine and alcohol abuse as a general human condition. It’s how we all try to escape from pain.”
Personally different from the more mild mannered Danish actors Mads Mikkelsen, Nicolaj Lie Kaas and Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, who settled down early in long enduring marriages, Persbrandt is more old school and for many years lived a partying lifestyle. Even if some habits clearly die hard in recent times he has been far more settled as well.
While he brings a male brio to his roles, he is not the only one. Mikkelsen, who buffed up for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising and the Hollywood blockbuster Clash of the Titans, has appeared together with Persbrandt in numerous highly successful cop shows. “We are like brothers,” says Parsbrandt.” The actors even recently played brothers in the largely English-language movie The Salvation, which premiered in Cannes.
Incredibly, they started out as gay lovers in the 2002 short film Nu (Now). A kiss, which has been plucked out of the film and is on the internet, is highly amusing. Mikkelsen is all gentle and romantic, stroking Persbrandt’s cheek, then suddenly the burlier actor grabs him for a full-on pash.
Christensen says male Scandinavian actors are daring. “There’s very little they won’t do. They’re searching for something. They’re not protecting themselves from anything. They don’t care if they’re ugly or how they look. They just want to come through with the story and be authentic and true.”
Scandinavian men, in general, are sensitive, she adds. “They’re not afraid of their female side, they’re not afraid of taking care of the children or all the stuff that would be typically female. They’re not lesser men for that.”
Persbrandt first became known—and still is best known—for the Beck series of films that began in 1997. Based on 10 classic novels written during the ‘60s by Maj Sjöwall/Per Wahlöö, several films were made of them, including one in Hollywood with Walter Matthau as Chief Inspector Martin Beck. The series really took off when they started doing new films based on original stories. Persbrandt plays the other main role, Gunvald Larsson, a tough cop whose look on life as both a person and a cop is similar to Dirty Harry. The character has become much more popular than Martin Beck, played by Peter Haber, and Persbrandt became a household name.
His Swedish fans have been disappointed that he did not appear in the first Hobbit movie and hardly was in the second. Though, he should have more to do in the final instalment, The Battle of the Five Armies, which releases at Christmas. Peter Jackson constructed a huge set for Bearn’s house to make the hobbits looks small, so needed a big guy like Persbrandt to play Beorn.
Was The Hobbit too high-tech? Was it interesting?
It was interesting, of course. The crew tend to keep everything very familiar. I think Peter likes it that way. It’s a huge set, a fantastic big production apparatus, but it feels very familiar. I enjoyed it as an experience and I keep it somewhere near my heart. It’s a beautiful country. My God, it’s fantastic. It reminds me of Scandinavia.
These are your own tattoos so are you this rock star character in real life a bit?
(Smiles) No, no, no, I don’t think so. I’ve been living like that but I stopped. It’s good to be 50, you know. I know it’s downhill but I like it. You don’t have to work as hard. You can do what you want.
Your director says that Scandinavian men have this sensitive side and that she in part based the character on you. But I don’t think in real life you’re mean like the character?
No, that guy made some wrong choices in his life. He created his own prison and he can’t find a way out. He thinks it’s freedom but he’s actually in the prison he made for himself and is trying to get out from the drugs and stuff. I think if he went to more meetings he would find a way but now he finds a way through his daughter’s death and more importantly through the love of his grandkid.
Have you been through rehab yourself? Do you know what that was like?
Let me say it like this. When I was 20 I knew everything. Now I’m 50 and I can be proud saying I don’t know shit. But I do know some stuff and I do know what not to talk about, ha, ha, ha!
I believe it’s difficult for a lot of rock stars to play music without having drugs in their system. Acting isn’t quite like that, is it?
Well, there’s a big romantic thing about alcohol and actors as well, or there was, but it’s tended to disappear. The old actors, they drank and smoked. They drank themselves to death. They bought into the myth—and it’s really hard to get out from it—that you could behave like an asshole and excuse yourself because you were good on stage that night. The thing is to stop in time. That’s what I did. It’s not easy to be a young actor. There’s a lot of shit to go through and nowadays the marketplace is so big, and the media storm is so big, that they get swallowed up.
Sweden is a small country. Do you feel the media spotlight too much on you and did you ever consider going to America like your character?
Yeah, there have been occasions when I’ve felt the same urge to disappear. (Chuckles) But I’ve stayed around not only because I have kids now, but I don’t want to run away. Problems, they follow you wherever you go. It’s about staying and taking care of business.
Mads Mikkelsen and Stellan Skarsgard love their countries so much and feel so much a part of their culture that they are still based in Scandinavia.
Yeah, I do too. I tend not to like the winters there. There’s not that much charm about it, the rain, the gloom, the snow. A December day in Stockholm is all black and slippery and unfriendly. It’s like being in the North Pole. But it’s beautiful when you go out skiing and the summers are beautiful too.
I read you were a dancer like Mads.
Yeah, I went to dancing school for two years but I started out in painting school. I did sketches with opera ballet students and I fell in love with a prima ballerina from a distance. I thought if I was going to have her I had to start dancing. Then I was picked up by Ingmar Bergman’s assistant choreographer and ended up on stage in King Lear for Bergman. That’s when I fell in love with the stage. (He was also greatly supported by The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo author Stig Larsson after that.)
What happened with the ballerina?
I met her a few years later. I could have done without that.
The moment had passed.
Some things you should let be and just keep it in here (points to head).
Léa Seydoux came to acting because of falling in love with someone.
Oh, many actors choose this business because of the girls. I did not. I used to say you can dance for half and hour and tell someone you love them or you can just say it. I just love the stage. So I’m going to go back in September, Strindberg’s Dance of Death; it’s gonna be good. I bought myself a stage to do it on. I own 50 percent if it. Maximteatern. (He’s co-starring with Lena Endre (The Master) and Krister Henriksson from the Kurt Wallander TV series).
Are you going to do any more English language movies?
I don’t know. I’m so happy to be home this spring, shooting at home because I was abroad too much, 160 days last year. I have small kids and it’s going to be nice to pick them up from school and stuff.
You’ve filmed The Salvation in Africa as well.
It’s in English mostly but there’s some Danish. I was home four days from Someone You Love and went down to shoot that amazing adventure with Eric Cantona, too. It was like a kid’s dream, arriving with your Winchester and your knife saving Mads’s ass and being the big brother.
Are you and Mads friends?
Oh yeah, I love him. We’re like brothers. When we meet we’re like kids.
You’ve done a lot of cop things together.
We have such a good time. He’s a nice guy.
You’re a stronger personality and he’s softer?
I would not say anything like that. It’s up to you.
Did you have tough experiences growing up that led you to have your kind of personality and a desire to act?
You’re not telling me? Were you a bad boy at school?
No, I was a really sensitive guy at school. All the bad boys are sensitive guys from the beginning. I really tried to cope with the situation.
What are your current feelings about acting?
When it’s good, it’s beautiful. It’s quite rare to meet directors who have their own universe and you can just enjoy the ride. This movie was a fabulous trip. It was really easy to do these kinds of movies with a good script and good story and a part you can understand.
This year you won for best actor at the Swedish Oscars, the Guldbagges (Golden Bugs), playing an alcoholic father in Mig äger ingen (Nobody Owns Me). (Persbrandt plays a working class guy who attempts to take care of his five-year-old daughter when his wife leaves the family. It's based on a famous Swedish novel and Persbrandt’s character is a communist who hates all capitalists including, of course, the one who owns the factory where he's working.)
There are similarities with the two movies and I’m really happy with both of them. In that one I thought more about the men in my background, in my family, and around me. This one is more like me. They’re both about what happens between people, not the explosions in the background. I like that.
You became famous with Beck and are still making the movies.
They skipped the movies this time. It’s for the German and Scandinavian [television] market.
After all the action roles you must really cherish the dramatic roles even if you play fairly destructive people.
Yes. But playing a destructive part can be a big joy if you’re comfortable with it, if you’re not bathing in the problem yourself.
In Someone You Love, you’re singing for the first time and the whole of Sweden was wondering how you’d approach it?
It was a scary experience; it’s not my form of expression. I’m not a guy who gives a huge speech and has a big party for turning 50 or anything, because I feel shy. But I had good people around me when I started to shoot and I got used to the idea. I’ve sung once in a Brecht play at The Royal Dramatic Theatre.
Obviously your sound in the film is very Leonard Cohen, though Pernille said Nick Cave was a big influence, too. Are you a fan of theirs?
Of course, also Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash—all the singer-songwriters who have their own stories to tell were the inspiration.
Where does the deep voice come from?
My father has a voice like this.
It’s testosterone too, isn’t it?
Oh yeah, thankyou my dear. (Wry, very funny) Yeah, there’s a lot of that too. So when it starts to escape I talk like this (goes all light in voice) Ha ha ha!
Mads hasn’t got such a deep voice.
Well, I will call him and tell him—he’s less a man!
Well, he was a ballet dancer! You weren’t a ballet dancer?
No, I was in modern dance.
So what is it about Stellan and Alexander Skarsgård and Peter Stormare—all these strong hulking Swedish guys with sensitive sides underneath? Does it come from your Viking heritage?
Let’s just call it that. Sounds good. It’s the Viking in us.
The 2014 Scandinavian Film Festival runs in Canberra (July 8-20), Sydney (July 9-27), Melbourne (July 10-27), Brisbane (July 11-20), Adelaide (July 23-31), Perth (July 24-30) and Byron Bay (July 25-30). For more information, visit the official website.