Recognise this face? You ought to; he's an SBS regular, having starred in Scandi thrillers and the final season of The Killing. Get to know Danish actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas as his latest film, The Keeper of Lost Causes screens around Australia.
10 Jul 2014 - 4:00 PM  UPDATED 10 Oct 2016 - 11:34 AM

I’m perennially fascinated by how famous international actors are viewed back home, because to many Australians, they are simply part of the cast in a 'foreign' film. While we all know the ins and outs of a George Clooney or a Brad Pitt, over the years it’s been interesting to shed light on the likes of Lior Ashkenazi (Israel), Rodrigo Santoro (Brazil), Carice van Houten (Holland) and Martina Gedeck (Germany).
This week I have turned my focus to Scandinavian men, which is not a hard thing to do! While in the past I have written about Mads Mikkelsen, Sweden’s Alexander Skarsgård and his dad Stellan (one of the funniest men ever—don’t miss his Fargo-style vigilante turn in Hans Petter Molland’s In Order of Disappearance), this week my focus is on Nicolaj Lie Kaas (Denmark) and Mikael Persbrandt (Sweden). Both had films in the Scandinavian Film Festival. Kaas stars in The Keeper of Lost Causes (Danish title: The Woman in the Cage), the inaugural film to be co-distributed in cinemas by SBS and Madman Entertainment. 


The Word From Denmark    

Nicolaj Lie Kaas is sort of a wunderkind of Danish film (and theatre). He debuted with panache in The Boys from St. Petri at the age of 17 and has been a mainstay in Danish film ever since.  Mostly leading parts. Where Mads Mikkelsen is a more classical ‘male' lead, NLK is softer and has played quite a lot of comedy for which he has his very own touch. Where Mads is methodical, Nikolaj is a more intuitive actor. His real potential first came to light in Lars von Trier’s Idioterne (The Idiots) in 1998. He has received numerous Danish Bodil awards for his work. Currently he plays the lead as a scruffy (to put it mildly) detective in a film series based on Danish crime-writer phenomenon Jussi Adler-Olsen’s internationally successful crime series. The first film, The Woman in the Cage, was a huge success in Danish cinemas and the second one will probably do the same, when it opens later this year.
Kim Skotte
Film critic, Politiken


The Aussie Connection 

Nicolaj Lie Kaas and his stylist wife Anne Lankilde (with whom he has two young daughters) are good friends with Princess Mary and Prince Frederik, yet you are not about to see the happy couples featuring in the Danish tabloids. It’s like most things Kaas, a self-confessed introvert, does. The 41-year-old son of the late comic actor Preben Kaas and model/actor Anne Marie Lie flies under the radar.   

“They have to have friends as well,” the good-natured Kaas told me when we met three years ago for A Funny Man, a film based on Dirch Passer, a famous comedian friend of his father’s. “The first time I met Mary was at a film premiere. We never meet at the Palace. It’s always in another context with a friend or something. We go out.”

When we spoke last Monday, he’d only seen “Mary” a week earlier. “She’s nice, she’s doing great and everything is perfect. But I have no intention of bragging about it or anything. It’s the kind of relationship I have with everyone. When you are a celebrity and you have celebrity friends you have to keep it private, otherwise there are going to be huge problems. So I don’t think you’ll see any kind of relationship I have with almost anyone in the tabloids.”


Open Hearts or Dogme #28  

I’d first come to appreciate Kaas as he lay in a hospital bed, newly diagnosed as a tetraplegic in Susanne Bier’s Open Hearts (2002; pictured below). It was hard to hold back the tears, the idea of this sweet lovable young man being consigned to such a cruel fate and then being dumped by his fiancé (Sonja Richter, the victim in The Keeper of Lost Causes) for Mads Mikkelsen’s doctor.
Mikkelsen and Kaas have since emerged as Denmark’s biggest stars, even if Game of Thrones’ Nicolaj Coster-Waldau (who recently filmed Gods of Egypt in Sydney) has been giving them a run for their money of late. And yes, they’re all friends too, and in long-term stable marriages with kids.

“In this business it’s important to have a base, a place you come from and that you have a family,” Kaas says. “Those guys you mention are people I care about and see privately and that is also part of how we relate to each other.” Still, his actor buddies with whom he has just made separate high profile movies by Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen are very different.

“Nicolaj is a very caring guy, he’s very funny and he’s actually also introverted. But Mads isn’t [introverted],” he chuckles. “It was good to work with Mads again because he’s been so much away and he’s a really good guy as well.”

Incredibly casting all vanity aside, the pair play inbred brothers with hair lips in Jenson’s Men and Chicken, while in Bier’s A Second Chance (written by Jensen and co-starring Coster-Waldau), Kaas is a drug addict.


The Keeper of Lost Causes

After playing hardly the most likable cop and love interest for Sarah Lund in the third and final season of The Killing, (“I was just the friend,” he says dismissively), Kaas joins the force again in Mikkel Nørgaard’s The Keeper of Lost Causes, playing Carl Morck, a gruff though very clever homicide detective not unlike Matthew McConaughey’s character in True Detective. Interestingly, while Kaas had never seen Borgen (Nørgaard directed a number of episodes), he had seen some of the American HBO series and concedes a comparison.

[ Watch Trailer/Scene Clips: The Keeper of Lost Causes ]

“I love the fact that Carl Morck is obsessed with his work and that he’s doing it for himself with no aspirations of recognition, and that’s similar to Matthew McConaughey in True Detective. Their job is their identity, their religion, even if it’s the most horrible thing you could imagine. They have a professional commitment to their job and no love life, and that is both sad and fascinating at the same time.”

Based on Jussi Adler-Olson’s Department Q novels and scripted by Nikolaj Arcel (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, A Royal Affair, which he also directed), The Keeper of Lost Causes plays like a TV series pilot, and indeed three more instalments are coming. It follows Morck, who after being blamed for a fatal shooting with fellow cops, is relegated to the cold case department in the bowels of the station with an Arab co-worker, Assad (frequent Hollywood actor Sares Sares from Safe House and Zero Dark Thirty), who is grateful to have any job. A kind of buddy cop drama, the pair form a bond as they defiantly investigate a missing politician (Richter) Morck insists is alive.  
HB: You didn't flinch at the film’s grim and dark circumstances?
“There’s always a darkness to how people see me as an actor and also the work I do. I find it more fun when it’s complicated. A lot of people have prejudgements on how you should portray this character because the books are so popular, especially in Denmark and Germany. Mikkel, the director, was trying to figure out which way to go with Marck because in the books he’s pushing 60 and I think for a year he was only looking at 60-year-old actors. So that is definitely different from the books. Initially, people were negative about the fact that I was playing Carl Marck because I was too young and I was too much of a happy face in their view. So that was something that people had to accept, that I had to accept.”

So you had to deliberately look and play sad?

“Well, it’s not like playing sad, it’s like finding that place in yourself. As I said many times, I think Carl Marck has a lot of similarities with me actually.”


“I’d say that, I’d definitely say that.”

In what way?

“If we had to be honest, if everybody had to be honest about themselves and not kind of showing others you’re there for them and you’re comfortable to be around and that you put on a face, you would be Carl Marck. So I think a lot of people can relate to that guy.”
The film is set in a monochromatic universe, like we see in so much Scandi-noir.
“Yes, but I think it’s very common in Scandinavia. We’ve always lived in this dark, sentimental, melancholic place. But to be honest, I don’t think people have embraced it until now, because they haven’t been so proud about it. I remember Björn Ulvaeus from ABBA once said that we have a very big thing called melancholia, that it’s not depressive, but we’re definitely dark in some way and that we have to embrace that because that is our advantage in terms of art, or anything. It’s funny that it actually comes from ABBA!”
The mixed-race duo in The Keeper of Lost Causes recalls Dany Boon and Kad Merad in Welcome to the Sticks and François Cluzet and Omar Sy in The Intouchables.
“It’s a classic combination you could say, but it’s not as humorous. The books kind of dictated that. The whole feeling when we started to work on it was that it had to be subtle all the time and to keep it dark.

“There was definitely more humour in the books, but there was this racist thing going on with Marck all the time towards Assad. He was kind of sarcastic about his background and everything but we toned that down and emphasised the relationship a bit more.”

You didn’t want it to become a discussion on racism and be more a cop story? Assad’s nationality is Syrian in the novels, but it’s not mentioned in the movie.

“We definitely spoke a lot about that before we started because Fares Fares hates that discussion.” (Fares, who is of Assyrian origin, was born in Beirut and first moved to Sweden with his family in 1987.)

He hates that his race is mentioned and just wants to be an actor?

“Exactly, it actually made the books a bit old fashioned,” Kaas says of the four tomes, the first of which was published in 2011. “The discussion of racism in the book was only how friends of my parents would talk about it now.”

The second movie has already been filmed.

“We get into a dilemma that we have to fight off, but I think the third movie is definitely where we have to focus more on Assad. You get more of Assad in the third book than the second.”


A Funny Man    

It’s not hard to see where Kaas’s knowledge of the dark side might come from, given what he told me in 2011 about the late Dirch Passer and his dad.

“My father died the year after Dirch. He was 51. They drank themselves to death. They came from the same circle; they were buddies and they lived hard and partied hard and they worked a lot. Dirch worked his ass off, sometimes working simultaneously on five projects a day—two variety shows and two movies. It’s impossible for anyone to do that without breaking at some point. I have great memories of him and what he did but I also know he sort of sacrificed his family.”

What Kaas did not tell me was that his dad actually committed suicide, when he was seven. His mother also suicided when he was 15. No wonder the actor so much relishes a family of his own and is not so hell-bent on fame and success.


Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen   

Kaas has made three movies with Bier: Open Hearts, Brothers (remade by Jim Sheridan with Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire) and now A Second Chance. Anders Thomas Jensen wrote all three, though only the story in the case of Brothers (pictured below). He directed Kaas in The Green Butchers, Adam's Apples and now Men and Chicken. Kaas says he has a “profound relationship with Jensen," who is a great friend.

“It was obvious we had to do some more movies together, we like to work with each other. The movie with Susanne just came out of the blue and it was nice to work with her again. Her stories are much more real, contemporary and socially-oriented, and she has a completely different way of working. Her films are much more improvised, while with Anders we hardly even do improv and follow his screenplay almost to the letter.”


Men and Chicken (just wrapped)

“It’s a fairy tale. Anders always likes these stories about small communities that are completely deranged, with no interference from anyone else. In this situation it’s about two brothers who find out their dad isn’t their real dad and that he’s living on a Danish island and they go there to visit him. The two brothers have hair lips, and when they arrive on the island, they find other brothers they didn’t know about and they all have hair lips too. They discover they are part of this inbred community who have their own special rules.  It’s like a world that is taken out of a Grimm story.


The Keeper of Lost Causes screens at the 2014 Scandinavian Film Festival and is released nationally in cinemas on July 31. Visit the official website for more information.