Norwegian actor Anders Danielsen Lie discusses playing the ‘Hitler of Norway’ in 22 July, its connection to his medical training, and his career as a whole.
“Every psychiatrist in the world must envy you right now,” says Anders Behring Breivik to the court psychiatrist visiting him in prison in Paul Greengrass’ 22 July. “Because I’m the monster, and you get to look inside my mind.” He’s referring to the Utoya terrorist attack of 2011, when he opened fire on hundreds of children, killing 69 people, as a misguided alt-right protest of immigration and left-wing politics. But as played by the gifted Norwegian actor Anders Danielsen Lie, Brevik is not a Hannibal Lecter type; he’s fascinating precisely because of how “frighteningly normal” he is, despite some delusions of grandeur.
“As a film actor, I’ve been trying to figure out how much you can get away with with subtle facial expressions,” Lie told me, and watching him play with that is the chief pleasure of 22 July. Consider a scene late in the film in court, when one of Breivik’s victims correctly diagnoses the killer’s situation: he’s alone in the world, nobody cares about him, and he’s about to rot away in prison. Lie’s Breivik is too obsessed with his own high reputation to get angry or display obvious hurt, but when the camera pushes in close on Lie, his subtle facial movements tell a different story. His eyes flit back and forth, his head turned down, and he gulps down air. It’s a moment of embarrassment that Breivik is trying desperately to keep unseen. Breivik shows no capacity for empathy or remorse, but Lie’s compelling screen presence draws us into wanting to understand Breivik without ever inviting us to sympathize with him. It’s tremendous work, and it’s not even the greatest tour de force of Lie’s career.
Lie first came to international prominence as the co-star in Joachim Trier’s directorial debut, Reprise (2006), as a talented twentysomething writer whose crippling depression took over his life. It wasn’t Lie’s first film role — he starred in the surprise Norwegian indie hit Herman when he was just 10 — but it was his first as an adult. Five years later, he wowed audiences with his incredibly emotionally intelligent and layered performance as Anders in Trier’s second feature, Oslo August 31st. Since then, he’s worked as a polyglot actor, making multiple films in French (Cleo and Paul, Night Eats the World, This Summer Feeling), taking small roles in English-language films (Approaching the Unknown, Personal Shopper), and making a few TV series in Norway (Nobel, Mammon).
Although Lie has had critical success and a film career in which he’s proven himself to be one of the best actors currently working, he’s still a relative unknown in North America. That’s partly by choice, because acting is essentially his side gig: Lie is a doctor with an active medical practice in Oslo But 22 July is his first major role in a mainstream American English-language film. And it’s the perfect role to let him mix his sensitivity as an actor with his background in medicine because understanding Anders Breivik means engaging with whether he’s clinically insane.
I talked to Lie about portraying the ‘Hitler of Norway’, how he leverages his medical background to research his characters, the differences between acting in his native Norwegian and his second languages English and French, and how working with Joachim Trier compares to working with Paul Greengrass.
7R: In 22 July, you’re playing somebody who is a real person, as well as a character in the film. Does that change your approach?
ADL: I think it changes my approach in the sense that I have to do a lot of research and constantly try to balance this huge amount of information with the dramatic limitations of a feature film. You only have a limited amount of screen time. The character is a complex one, and you want to show as much as possible. But you don’t have time for that so you have to be very specific and conscious about what you want to emphasize. In that sense, it was very different from all the other characters that I have played.
I also felt a big responsibility playing this character which is like the ‘Hitler of Norway’. There are a lot of emotions involved when you make a film like this. I wanted everything to be accurate and as close as possible to the truth. But when you’re making a feature film, that’s not always doable. Let’s say you wanted to show one of the interrogation scenes: a typical length of an interrogation was six to eight hours. You have to condense and boil things down. The moment you’re doing that, you’re in a process of fictionalizing.'I felt a big responsibility playing this character which is like the ‘Hitler of Norway’' - Anders Danielsen LieClick To Tweet
7R: How did you make those choices to figure out what to focus on?
ADL: Reading a written scene is almost like reading a transcript from the trial or the transcript of an interrogation: you will never get all the information. You don’t get exactly how people talk, how they phrase sentences. There are a lot of nuances there that get lost. I ended up watching a lot of interrogation footage, and there, I was able to find those things that I wanted to emphasize or show, mostly for Norwegians because I don’t think that Norwegians, in general, have a complete picture of how this man is.
I think it’s pretty human to think that a person who has committed such an awful crime can’t be a human being, can’t be ordinary, can’t be normal. He must be a monster, or he must be insane. There must be something very off about him.'When I watched interrogation footage, I was very struck by how ordinary Breivik was in most situations even though he has certain pathological personality traits.' - Anders Danielsen LieClick To Tweet
But when I watched interrogation footage, I was very struck by how ordinary he was in most situations even though he has certain pathological personality traits. Most of the time, he’s completely casual and ordinary, and that was really frightening. When you know what he’s done, you don’t want him to be human. You don’t want him to be a part of humanity. That’s something I wanted to show, that he is frighteningly normal.'When you know what he’s done, you don’t want him to be human. You don’t want him to be a part of humanity. I wanted to show that he is frighteningly normal.' - Anders Danielsen LieClick To Tweet
7R: How do you approach that?
ADL: To me, being an actor is very technical work. I’ve never used a method approach or anything like that. The closest I’ve been to doing that is probably Oslo, August 31st by Joachim Trier. But even playing that role, I was trying to be technical, and when I say technical, I mean I tried to break down the task into different parts. For example, learning my lines and working with a script is one part, and then you can do research if that’s called for, or you can do more character work or working with character psychology which might give you some clues on how to play a scene. But I try not to do everything at the same time. For example, when I rehearse the scenes and learn my lines, I tried to separate that. I didn’t try to play the scenes when I was working with the dialogue.
Every time I’ve worked with Joachim, we’ve stayed pretty close to the written scenes, although we’ve sometimes used improvisation to refresh a scene. Sometimes, you have to explore; you have to approach a scene from a different angle to find something. You don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. You just know that there might be some magic here that it’s impossible to plan for. In order to find that magic, you have to be constantly searching.
For me, it’s not a very conscious… I can be very analytical working with a character, with scenes, and with a script. But when I’m performing, or when I’m in that situation of performing a scene with other actors, I don’t really know what’s going on, honestly. And that’s maybe what intrigues me about working as an actor. In much of the other things I do in life, I’m so analytical. I’m constantly intellectualizing way too much. I like to have some areas in life where I don’t really have control. That was a long messy answer.'For me, acting isn't very conscious. I can be very analytical with a script, but when I'm performing, I don't really know what's going on, honestly.' - Anders Danielsen LieClick To Tweet
7R: It’s interesting that you’re talking about the differences between this and Oslo, August 31st because I was thinking that in a lot of ways, Breivik in 22 July is the opposite of Anders in Oslo — not just because he’s a real person, and Anders was written for you, I think.
ADL: Yes, it was. Or that’s what they say… It was a fun movie to do because it felt like a very collective way of working where everything was happening at the same time. Joachim had to postpone his American movie [Louder Than Bombs], and he suddenly got this idea that why don’t we make this movie now! He called me and Eskil, and Eskil started writing the script. We were casting while the script was being written. It was a very fun way of working. I don’t think Eskil Vogt and Joachim Trier have worked like that before or after, because they always spend a lot of time writing their scripts, but this happened very fast. It felt like a stunt to everybody involved. I have very nice memories from that production.I’ve always thought that there’s something about that guy in Oslo, August 31st that I don’t like. It’s a character who desperately needs help, but he’s very hard to help... I’ve always been mad at that character.' - Anders Danielsen LieClick To Tweet
But I must say that that role is also very far from me, as a person. I consider both Anders in Oslo August 31st and Anders in 22 July — they have nothing to do with each other — to be not very sympathetic characters, but in very different ways, obviously. I’ve always thought that there’s something about that guy in Oslo, August 31st that I don’t like. I don’t know what that is. It’s a character who desperately needs help, but he’s very hard to help. He makes it almost impossible for other people to help him. He puts all of his closest friends and relatives in a very, very tricky situation. So I’ve always been mad at that character. I guess most people think that that’s the character that is closest to me, personally. But I would say that I feel that he is quite far from me.'I consider both Anders in Oslo August 31st and Anders in 22 July to be not very sympathetic characters, but in very different ways, obviously.' - Anders Danielsen LieClick To Tweet
7R: Both characters feel alienated. Anders turns into himself and is self-destructive; Breivik decides to hurt other people.
ADL: That’s a very good point. Actually, there was a Norwegian literary critic or journalist who wrote an essay about — because Oslo, August 31st came out in Norway right after the 22 July attack in 2011, and Oslo came out a month later. I thought that that was a bit contrived, at the time, but I’ve thought about it later, and I think maybe there’s a truth there.
These are two different expressions of masculine isolation or loneliness, or masculine aggression, but in Oslo, August 31st, he’s turning it all on himself, whereas in 22 July, he’s performing this revenge on society for having rejected him or isolated him. There might be some truth to that.'These are two different expressions of masculine isolation or aggression, but in Oslo, August 31st, he’s turning it all on himself, whereas in 22 July, he’s performing this revenge on society.' - Anders Danielsen LieClick To Tweet
7R: A lot of the roles that you’ve played have been someone who feels somewhat alienated. It’s interesting that you’re talking about masculine isolation. The extreme of that was Night Eats the World earlier this year [where Lie played one of the last men in a Paris overtaken by zombies], but the same is also true of Reprise (2006). Even in Nobel (2016), your character becomes somewhat alienated because of his injury. I’m wondering about how you get drawn to parts.
ADL: I don’t see that theme so much in Nobel, but I agree with everything else you said. I think that it also has a lot to do with how films are being cast. If directors have seen you do one thing, in one film, they will ask you to do more of the same. I have been trying to avoid playing depressed writers for a decade now, but for some reason, I can’t get away from that. Nobel was something else, but it was a young man going through a crisis. I’ve done that a couple of times, or many times. Whenever there are directors who want me for that kind of part now, I try to be selective because I think I know my limitations by now, and you can’t really play that role in a lot of different ways — or at least I can’t.'I have been trying to avoid playing depressed writers for a decade now, but for some reason, I can’t get away from that.' - Anders Danielsen LieClick To Tweet
That said, of course it’s a theme that interests me. In many ways, it’s been a privilege to try to add nuance to the stereotypes we have about masculinity and how our men are being portrayed in films. I think that men have a lot of different sensibilities, and some of them are not so often portrayed in film history. I think it’s important to show that there are many ways of being a man, and you can be proud of that.'It’s been a privilege to try to add nuance to the stereotypes we have about masculinity and how our men are being portrayed in films.' - Anders Danielsen Lie Click To Tweet
But I must say that I’ve been trying lately to find material that is somewhat different from what I’ve done because I don’t want to repeat myself. I think it’s boring. I’ve always thought that comedy is the most difficult thing that you can try to do, both as a writer and as an actor. I would love to do more than that. But every time I say that, people laugh at me. I watch all kinds of films, and I think I have a sense of humour. I love to laugh watching films. I would love to contribute to that myself, as an actor, someday, hopefully!
7R: Are you still practicing medicine?
ADL: I am. That’s getting more and more important for me, to practice regularly. There’s not everything about the film industry that I like. I really need to have a foot in reality and do something else. I like to go to the office and meet patients, and feel that I’m connecting with the real world.
7R: Do you find working as a doctor has in any way impacted you as an actor or vice versa?
ADL: Oh yeah, absolutely. No doubt about it. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to use my education, my training, and my experience as a physician to create the roles or do research for the roles I’ve played. It’s been helpful many times from Nobel to Reprise and also in Paul Greengrass’ film.
For example, when you read the forensic psychiatric reports, the language is very technical. It’s a medical language that I’m used to. I can approach these specialists and have conversations with them, and we’re working in the same field. I’m used to the challenges in finding the right diagnosis in psychiatry. Even though I’m not a specialist myself, there’s a lot of psychiatric problems in general practice.
So this is something I feel that I know and was a huge advantage to have that confidence. I think it helped me be sure that I was the right person doing the role. It also affected me that people I met who were either survivors or families of some of the people who died, that they said that they felt that I would create a responsible portrait, that I would never be speculative or do something controversial, that I would stay as close as possible to the truth.
The biggest controversy we had in Norway during the trial was whether he was accountable and whether he was insane in the forensic, psychiatric sense of the word. That was a huge discussion in the whole country and the medical community. I felt it was much easier to deal with those kinds of questions with my background.'The biggest controversy in Norway during the trial was whether he was accountable and whether he was insane in the forensic, psychiatric sense of the word.' - Anders Danielsen LieClick To Tweet
7R: I understand you did your first play last year. I’m wondering how you found that experience compared to working in cinema.
ADL: That was a mixed experience for me because I’ve never considered myself a stage actor. I’ve never done this before. I don’t have any training. It requires techniques that I just don’t have. You have to have a voice. You have to amplify every facial expression.
I love having the camera right in my face because I feel very secure in that environment. As a film actor, I’ve been trying to figure out how much you can get away with with subtle facial expressions.'I love having the camera right in my face because I feel very secure in that environment. As a film actor, I’ve been trying to figure out how much you can get away with with subtle facial expressions.' - Anders Danielsen LieClick To Tweet
When you’re on the stage, it’s the total opposite. It felt like everything I knew was suddenly useless, or I had to recalibrate everything. But I learned a lot. I’m not sure if I’m going to do it again.
But I knew that I had to try at some point. My mother [Tone Danielsen] is a stage actress. She’s done movies, as well [and even appears in 22 July!], but she’s been mostly a stage actress. I was curious. But I also knew that, for me, film has always been the big obsession. I haven’t been that much into theatre. But it’s frightening. It’s a biological, psychological experience, just standing in front of a big audience. You can feel people breathe. You can feel the presence of a lot of people. That is scary.'Doing live theatre is frightening. It’s a biological, psychological experience, just standing in front of a big audience. You can feel people breathe.' - Anders Danielsen LieClick To Tweet
7R: You’ve worked in film in a bunch of different languages — Norwegian, English, and French. Is it different for you to work in a second language?
ADL: It is different, but I would say that it’s most different in the beginning. When you start shooting, it always takes me a while to know my character and to get a sense of what this particular project is about or what am I trying to do here in this film. That’s not so dependent on the language. When I’m playing in French, I’m being pushed to my limits. For example, if I’m asked to improvise, I wouldn’t have as much freedom as in Norwegian or English. But I think that after a week or two of shooting, it doesn’t affect me that much. It’s like the rules of the game: French is a rule for this film.
When I’m playing in French, I get challenged to try to find other ways of playing that don’t include words. And I think that’s always a very helpful exercise for an actor, to try to not use the words or the lines as a tool. I’ve had a couple of interesting experiences playing in French, for example, where I have really gotten to this point where I don’t think so much about what language it’s in. It has to be something that I understand, but I don’t have to be totally fluent.
Truth in acting has nothing to do with language, if you really get down to the basics. I often experience playing in Norwegian that I’m being too dependent on words, or using words as a tool when I don’t really know what to do in a scene. That’s not what you want. The dialogue and lines should be the last thing that you add to a scene. That’s probably one of the things I agree with Robert McKee in; ideally, you should be able to do anything without words.'I often experience playing in Norwegian that I’m being too dependent on words, or using words as a tool when I don’t really know what to do in a scene.' - Anders Danielsen LieClick To Tweet
But there are exceptions to this. I remember when we shot the scene in Oslo, August 31st where I’m telling my friend that I’m considering suicide. We had almost half an hour of written dialogue where all the subtext is in the text. We were basically breaking all the rules for good screenwriting. But for some reason, after we had done some takes, it started to work because we were thinking that these two guys — that’s how their friendship is: they are constantly talking. Everything is words for them. Everything is text. This is like their way of understanding the world so it made sense for them to talk like that. But I don’t think it would work for any other relationship.
I don’t remember your question. I’m getting lost in thoughts…
7R: I was just asking about the difference between working in different languages…
ADL: I think the conclusion is that actors, and I include myself, we have a tendency to be too obsessed with our lines and the words, whereas, in principle, that’s supposed to be arbitrary. Well, it couldn’t have been anything. But you want to get to that place where you feel free with the words and you could easily rephrase them yourself quickly and say almost the same thing — [you want] to do that, to find a way of working where the words are not so important.
7R: I understand with Night Eats the World, you shot a version in English and one in French.
ADL: And that’s not something I would recommend to anyone else. It’s very time consuming and also impossible not to prioritize one language. It depends on the production, but it’s time consuming, so it’s expensive. This was a French film, and we prioritized the French dialogue. When we felt that we had a scene, it was like, “OK, let’s do one final take in English.”
That’s not an ideal way of working. It’s almost like making two different films. Honestly, I haven’t really seen the English version of that film so I don’t know how different they are. I say that language and words are not important, but I think I have to admit that it changes the character when you switch to another language. It feels like you’re playing two characters, basically, and it’s time consuming and exhausting.'I say that language and words are not important, but I think I have to admit that it changes the character when you switch to another language.' - Anders Danielsen LieClick To Tweet
7R: We’ve talked a bit about Oslo, August 31st by Joachim Trier. What are the differences in your experiences of working with Paul Greengrass and Joachim?
ADL: As directors, from the actor’s perspective, they are very different. Joachim is very involving. He likes to direct a lot. There is almost no other director I could discuss psychological issues in depth with on set because it’s just not so productive. You have to find solutions. But with Joachim, it’s just the way that we like to work together. He’s also not afraid of being very analytical and very honest about almost everything. You can go really deep between two takes.
Paul is very different. He gives you a lot of freedom. He doesn’t direct you a lot. He doesn’t say very much. He has this very messy mise en scene with a lot of angles and this documentary style. I think it’s a lot of fun working like that. But if you’re a control freak, and if you want everything to be very meticulously planned, you would probably have challenges working with Paul because you have to love that chaos that he’s creating consciously.'If you’re a control freak, and you want everything to be very meticulously planned, you'd probably have challenges working with Paul because you have to love that chaos that he’s creating consciously.' - Anders Danielsen LieClick To Tweet
7R: What kind of things would they tell you? Would it be a technical note like, “do it faster; do it slower.”
ADL: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, totally. Paul is often like that, and also Joachim. But Joachim has a tendency to go deeper into character psychology. He’s more often trying to find a new angle or a new way of doing the scene based on where this character is in the film or what the psychological conditions surrounding the scene are.
I think [Joachim] believes that the more complexity, the better. Most of the time, with other directors, I don’t always think that that’s a good idea, to aim for more complexity or ambivalence. But with him, it works because he’s also a very good psychologist on set. He knows when it’s the right time to step back, as a director, when he knows that an actor is searching for something, and he might find what he’s searching for — maybe not in this take, probably not in the next, but in the take after that.