Anders Danielsen Lie is fall 2021’s primo European heartthrob, having appeared in two romantic movies that recently screened at the New York Film Festival: Bergman Island and The Worst Person in the World. But acting is merely Danielsen Lie’s side job, secondary to his work as a doctor. After shooting Worst Person last year, the 42-year-old Norwegian helped to establish a COVID-19 vaccine center in Oslo.
Danielsen Lie made his first movie, Herman, at age 10, then decided he would “never, ever become an actor.” Herman was a hit in Norway, and the attention he received was too daunting. “I wasn’t very comfortable with it,” he told the Cut while sipping sparkling water at a French restaurant in Manhattan. “When you work as a film actor, it’s sometimes hard to keep a distance from your professional persona.” Danielsen Lie was lured back to the big screen by director Joachim Trier, who cast him in 2005’s Reprise and 2011’s Oslo, August 31st. They reunited again for Worst Person, a breathtaking dramedy that follows an aimless 29-year-old (Renate Reinsve) as she navigates the intricacies of new relationships. (Worst Person does not yet have an American release date.)
Bergman Island (opening in theaters October 15) also positions Danielsen Lie as a tender love interest, this time opposite Mia Wasikowska. His character exists in a story-within-the-story that the movie’s protagonist (Vicky Krieps) tells to her somewhat distracted husband (Tim Roth) as they vacation in Sweden. Together, Bergman and Worst Person are poised to make Danielsen Lie one of the internet’s newest thirst objects, especially for anyone who appreciates art-house cinema. (His other credits include the Kristen Stewart psychodrama Personal Shopper and Netflix’s 22 July.)
Danielsen Lie talked to the Cut about how medicine informs his acting, why he’s resistant to commit to the latter profession full time, and his favorite ABBA song.
After making a movie as a kid, you didn’t act again for years and years. How did acting re-enter your life?
When I was asked to do an audition for Joachim’s first movie, Reprise, I had absolutely no plans to do any acting. I had one year left in med school, and I had planned to work at this mental facility for young adults with psychotic illnesses in Norway that summer. This was the spring of 2005, and I read that script. The role I was supposed to play was a young man with a psychotic illness, so I kind of felt that if I’m going to do something again, maybe this is the role for me to play.
Having not acted for so long, how did your name wind up on Joachim’s radar?
I was in all these casting archives, and Joachim did a very thorough casting for that film. He didn’t just contact professional actors — he took in people from the streets, literally. He also wanted to check out people who had been in films earlier in their life. I’ve always been very ambivalent about acting. Every now and then, I have to get out of it and do something else, then I return to it. I’ve tried to have it my way a little bit, to be based in Norway and work internationally, if it works with my life and my family.
It’s rare to find someone who moves between two such different worlds: the stark reality of medicine and the play-land of moviemaking. Does one feel like a reprieve from the other, or do you find that they come from a similar place within you?
You have no idea how many times I’ve tried to analyze this. It’s the least practical work combination you can have. They are both time-consuming. It’s just one big mess to coordinate. That said, if I step back and look at my life, it kind of makes sense to me. I have to have one foot in reality. Worst Person is about love, life, and death — all the major themes that are interesting to human beings. I feel that practicing as a doctor and meeting people in sometimes extreme, very emotional situations is a good place to be. It fills me with inspiration. So when I work as an actor, it’s a way of reflecting on my experience as a physician. I try to absorb what I see in all my experiences, and I try to create something from that.
Bergman Island and Worst Person both require a certain intimacy and emotional rawness. How did you and your co-stars prepare for that and allow yourselves to embrace such naturalism?
It’s important to invest in the relationship between actors. You have to really try to get to know each other. I remember when we did Reprise I had three weeks to get to know Espen Klouman Høiner, my co-star. We hung out constantly. That was the most important research that we could do for that film. When we were in Fårö [where Bergman is set], I tried to hang out with Mia Wasikowska as much as possible so it would be easier to create the illusion of an intimate relationship. And me and Renate really worked in the same fashion, trying to get to know each other in private. That was especially important for the lighter moments and the happier moments because they don’t have as much screen time. If you want the audience to get an emotional reaction, you have to invest in the relationship.
It’s kind of like that acting cliché “dying is easy, comedy is hard.” For whatever this says about humanity, going to a dark place feels more accessible than performing lightness.
That makes total sense. Some people might think it’s harder to do darker scenes, but not for me. When it comes to intimacy and all that stuff, you just have to have a plan for those scenes. It has to be choreographed. Personally, I think it’s boring to watch intimate scenes if their only function is to show romantic bliss. It’s much more interesting to show intimacy that is broken or intimacy that has some kind of melancholy associated with it.
In both Bergman and Worst Person, your characters are the one that got away. You’re filling a sort of heartthrob status. Are you conscious of that?
Quite often, it feels like it is my job in films to represent some kind of melancholy or tragedy. We joke about this, me and Joachim. Every time I appear in his movies, people know something’s not going to go well. It’s hard to get away from yourself as a film actor. You have certain qualities — you have a smile, there’s something about your face, how the light falls on your face.
There’s something about these two characters — they’re nice guys, thoughtful but brooding, introspective, attractive. I think you’re occupying a traditional rom-com-lead archetype, even if these aren’t straightforward rom-coms. Did you see similarities between them?
No, I didn’t really. I saw them as very different characters. Actually, the character in Bergman Island to me could be a figure in an old myth. I almost don’t see him as a character in a psychological sense. He’s an object of desire and a love interest, but I thought it was interesting to get at the character from a slightly different angle than I’m used to. Especially with Joachim’s roles, character psychology is usually the most important thing. Everything that happens in Oslo, August 31st is a direct consequence of what the character is going through. In The Worst Person in the World, I tried not to be so concerned with my character. I wanted him to emerge from the relationship with Renate’s character so that not only is he seen from her point of view but he’s representing a theme more than being a character. He’s representing the theme of melancholy over time passing.
Because there’s a great ABBA needle drop in Bergman Island, I can’t leave without asking what your favorite ABBA song is.
When we shot that scene, for the first time in my life, I could feel the melancholy of “The Winner Takes It All.” You tend to listen to ABBA as party music, but when Mia danced and we listened to the song, it was so emotional. I can never undo that now. When I listen to it, I can feel the melancholy. I guess maybe “Dancing Queen” is my favorite, but it has to do with the musicianship. I’m a musician, so it’s about the bass line. It’s just fabulous.