As if she hasn’t done enough for the world with her forceful portrayal as the Prime Minister of Denmark in Borgen, Sidse Babett Knudsen is now the French Erin Brockovich, Irène Frachon, in Emmanuelle Bercot’s 150 Milligrams (La Fille de Brest) which screens as part of the French Film Festival. Though Frachon is a very different kind of woman, Knudsen says of the French pulmonologist who between 2009 and 2011 waged a one-woman war against Laboratories Servier, the makers of a seemingly life-threatening diabetes drug Mediator.
Knudsen was nominated this year for a best actress César for her portrayal, after winning last year for best supporting actress in her French-language debut, Courted, alongside Fabrice Luchini.
We spoke in Paris where the attractive, energetic 48-year-old was in an upbeat mood.
Q : Where did you learn to speak such fluent French?
A: I studied and lived here for six years, back in the day when I was young and my brain was still working and I could learn stuff! But I did some extra work for this.
Q: Your Danish accent is noticeable. Is the character meant to be French?
A: Irène Frachon is Parisian. She is not from Brest and is a foreigner to them. Taking it even further and putting a Danish immigrant in there makes the outsider aspect even stronger.
Q: In Borgen you were a driven woman. Are you like that yourself?
A: No. Hmmm. Maybe. Well, I’m not the Prime Minister and I’m definitely not Irène Frachon. But they’re bodies I like to be in. I admire them. When I met Irène for the first time I remember thinking I’m sitting opposite a real hero, like a Marvel hero. She’s larger than life; she’s fierce. She never gets tired of fighting for all these sick people. She’s also so light, so silly. She makes these bad silly jokes and falls over her own legs.
Q: You came to France to study acting and couldn't speak a word of French so that's pretty ballsy. Do you think or yourself that way?
A: Yeah, yeah I think I’m pretty, (hesitates) ballsy. But then there are so many things I’m terrified of. I haven’t written a word or phrase that could possibly change the world as have the women I’m playing. They do that and I don't dare to do that. So in that sense I’m not ballsy at all.
Q: After Borgen had been been successful around the world, did you expect that people would compare the character to real life female politicians, “Oh, she should be like the Prime Minister in Borgen”.
A: Not when we started of course. The Danish people knew it very clearly as fiction. But then during the series there was an election and we had our first female Prime Minister and we could see that journalists would like to compare it and get a good story out of it. I was probably surprised that foreigners take it much more for granted. They do think they know the Danish system a bit, like I think I know the White House after seeing The West Wing.
Q: When Croatia voted in their first female Prime Minister, she said after work she comes home and watches Borgen to relax! What do you think about that?
A: There’s something so nice about TV shows where it's a smaller world and the characters in them become family. It’s comforting. If it can work out in that little world maybe it can work out a little bit in our world as well.
Q: Was it different playing a real life character as opposed to a fictional one?
A: Yes. We said very quickly that we’re not going to imitate her, because it’s impossible and I think that was one of the reasons they went that far to get me. It’s clear it’s not imitation. But the events are chronological; it’s very realistic; she was at that place at that time and did that and said that. If Irène hadn’t been so supportive, saying, “I’m so happy you’re doing this film, it’s so exciting”, I think it would have felt like more of a responsibility. When she saw the film and she was clearly happy, I realised how much I’d actually been anxious, because I really wanted to honour her.
Q: Did you meet her as part of the research?
A: That was the first thing I did, I met her and was so crazy about her from the start. At that point there was no script and I told Emmanuelle I wanted to use what I saw. I love the fact that she’s a clown and that she cries when she speaks about a patient and she’s got her phone on all the time during meetings and there was this Minister calling. She’s on her mission all the time.
Watch the 150 Milligrams trailer:
Q: Why did Emmanuelle choose you?
A: She couldn't figure out who to cast in France. She was working with Catherine Deneuve at the time (on Standing Tall, also in FFF). They were having dinner and Catherine Deneuve had seen Borgen and she said, “You should look at this lady and she speaks French”. So the producers came to Copenhagen to meet with me for what they called the French Erin Brockovich. When they told me Madame Deneuve’s good idea, who am I to say no?
Q: This film is straightforward. What was it like making HBO’s Westworld, which seemed more like a puzzle?
A: The whole thing was ambitious and super clever. It started with a Skype conversation with Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy and they were talking for an hour. There were so many different elements, philosophical and scientific, and it was so inspiring. I thought this could be something new and creative and interesting. I was really turned on by the vast possibilities it presented. It was a whole new universe. It just seemed really ballsy (chuckles). There was an element of mystery in the workplace which was kind of fun.
Q: In Denmark you started out playing strong characters in comedies and won the major Bodil and Robert awards for Let's Get Lost (1996) and Susanne Bier’s The One and Only (1999). Would you like to do a comedy in English?
A: I’d really love that. But when I did Borgen and I started to be cast in these professional women roles I said, “No way am I bored with being a grown up. I’ve just started.” I think I’ve had much more interesting parts after that. It’s been really great for me because you reach a certain age and it’s incredible that people from foreign countries see you differently. That Peter Strickland wanted me for The Duke of Burgundy was great.
Q: How do you choose between international and Danish projects?
A: I choose according to the roles. Though I’d really like to work in Denmark. I don't think they've seen me in the new way that I want them to yet.
Q: Why did you go back to Denmark from France?
A: I couldn't get any jobs here. My friend had become a theatre director in Copenhagen and she called me to do Peer Gynt and they invited me to be part of the company. I stayed for a year then another year and its now 25 years that I’ve been living there.
Q: What would you like to do now internationally?
A: I’d like to be part of the films that I really really like myself, films like Arrival and A Monster Calls, which were fabulous.
Q: Some of the best series of the last decade have come out of Denmark, not to mention actors like Mads Mikkelsen and Nicolaj Coster-Waldau – and you all stay living in Copenhagen, when Australians often move to Los Angeles. What created this well of talent?
A: It’s so difficult to talk about it when you’re inside it, but when I did films in Denmark in the middle of the ‘90s something was going on. It wasn't just in one place; it was in the theatre as well. It was like, “We don't believe the old stuff any more, the old way of speaking, the old stories, the old clichés. We need something new and told in different ways.” With Dogme, something modern happened and in that process the actors were very much participants in the storytelling. And that’s how I grew up. I feel like I’m a storyteller, I feel like if I read a script and I see something and I think this could be important, I bring it to the table. Having that collaborative experience gave us actors a sense of responsibility and brought importance to the projects.
Q: Why didn't you end up working with Lars von Trier?
A: I didn’t – but I was Nicole Kidman for a week! I was just in the dummy to show the money people what Dogville looked like. We did a few scenes for the package. I was never meant to be in it. I wasn't hired.
Q: He never called you back for another film?
A: No, not yet
Q: Have you ever called him?
A: No. I could I suppose.
150 Milligrams is currently screening at the 2017 Alliance Française French Film Festival.