It's a good time to be Pilou Asbæk. After his role as Kasper Juul in hugely successful political drama Borgen made him recognisable around the world, the Danish actor has been working non-stop on progressively bigger projects, which have seen him star in HBO's Game of Thrones, and the upcoming Ben Hur, where he'll play Pontius Pilate, to name just a few.
Talking to SBS from "windy Wellington" ("sounds like a porn actress," he quips), where he is currently shooting the live-action film Ghost in the Shell with Scarlett Johansson, Asbæk talks about the impact the cult Japanese manga had on him as a teenager:
"I thought it was super, super, super cool. I didn’t understand it because it’s very difficult, and it’s very philosophical. Now I've had the chance to read the manga many times, and see the anime many times, and it’s still very difficult to understand."
The film has attracted controversy and accusations of "whitewashing" over the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the lead role. When asked about it, Asbæk says that he sees nothing evil in making a great story into a live–action film, and hopes it will help bring in a new audience for the original manga and anime:
"People can feel free to criticise all they want, my knowledge is that you have to give something a chance, and it’s always, always easier to criticise than being positive, it’s the easiest emotion in the world."
Amongst his many current projects is the morally complex A War, screening this month as part of the 2016 Sydney Film Festival, in which he plays an army commander stationed in Afghanistan, who stands accused of unlawful killing of local civillians.
A War is the third collaboration between Asbæk and director Tobias Lindholm after R (2010) and A Hijacking (2012) (both available at SBS On Demand). The collaboration between the two friends has gone from strength to strength, culminating in Lindholm landing an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film this year for A War.
Asbæk says their partnership overcame bumpy beginnings ("We had a lot of arguments on R"), which he puts down to mutual inexperience. Now, he says, they're pretty much a well-oiled machine: "We actually hardly spoke while shooting it [A War], because we were so in tune with each other."
"I love working with him. First of all he’s a writer, and secondly he's a director, so his notes are often in the script – he’s very, very precise with his scripts."
Lindholm is highly regarded for the realism of his films, in which he often casts non-professional actors, such as ex-cons and guards in the prison-set R. This is the case again for A War, in which Asbæk worked alongside former Danish soldiers and Afghan refugees who had experienced the war firsthand.
"Of course it changed something, because all of a sudden, you just can’t say 'I’m an actor and this is how it should be'. When you work with guys who have done this between 15 and 20 years, they know exactly how a leader would be. They would be super critical, because they’ve done it, they’re professional soldiers, they’ve seen chiefs in command, and many different people leading them."
"So now I had to take control of the situation and to get respect from these guys, and you don’t get respect, you take respect. And that was a big fight, that was tough. I’m not an authority, I like working for myself by myself in a corner when no one is looking, but all of a sudden I had to be in charge of these people. That was a big challenge."
Spending time, talking with these soldiers, and trying to understand them on a personal level, helped him change his perspective on war and the people fighting it:
"I can tell you, I wasn’t a big fan of war, I’m still not a big fan of war, but I know that war is not black and white now, I know that war is very grey and full of nuances, and you just can’t say 'I don’t like war'. You know what, war is part of our life, it’s part of our generation, we have to deal to with it, we have to accept it, we have to do something about it."
Asbæk can also be seen in the war drama currently screening on SBS, 1864: Denmark's War, about the bloody war against Prussia and Austria. Once again Asbæk plays a soldier, but he's very different from the conflicted commander he portrays in A War. His character Didrich is the son of a landowner, whose privileged status gives him direct access to commanding roles, despite his lack of skills:
"Didrich is a guy who just wants love. He just wants a father figure who would actually love and be with him. And sadly enough, he doesn’t get that love he needs and so he tries to find love somewhere else." [i.e. with the very young daughter of the estate manager.]
One of the roles that has widened Asbæk's fanbase even further this year is Euron Greyjoy of HBO's epic fantasy series Game of Thrones (of which he considers himself the biggest fan). The Twittersphere has lit up with hot takes about this brash and aggressive new character, going as far as comparing him to US presidential candidate Donald Trump.
"I loved it, I think it was fun, I think he [Euron Greyjoy] is a fun character. We’ve just started out, so we don’t know which way he’s gonna go. Right now, he’s trying to gain power, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t get more and more interesting. You need scenes to portray a character, you can’t read it a whole character within just one or two scenes."
The often dark and serious characters we've been used to seeing him play offer a stark contrast to Asbæk's warm and happy real-life disposition, and himself can't quite explain what draws him to these characters:
"People cast me in those roles... I just want to do comedies! I don’t know why people keep casting me to be a molester or killer or evil or whatever, or a guy who kills innocent children in the war. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because I am a happy guy and happy-go-lucky, I’m not very dark and secretive in [my] personal life."
"That’s why I did Eurovision [Asbæk hosted the 2014 edition in Copenhagen]. I did it because I wanted to do something else. I felt I was tired of being evil, always [playing] very demanding characters, emotionally." Talking of Eurovision, Pilou was a big fan of our representative at the 2016 Eurovision, Dami Im: "I thought Australia was great! I would have loved it if Australia won."
Watch A War Trailer:
'A War' screens at the Sydney Film Festival, 8-19 June 2016.
The series 1864: Denmark’s War screens Tuesdays, 10:30pm on SBS from 7 June, but you can already binge on the entire series on SBS On Demand.