For the 10th anniversary of Joachim Trier‘s Oslo, August 31st, Anders Danielsen Lie reflects back on his work on the film and how it has influenced his approach to acting since.
This essay is the third article in our week-long celebration of Oslo, August 31st’s 10th anniversary. Click here to read all the articles.
Discover everything you could want to know about Joachim Trier’s films in our resource page on the filmmaker. Click here.
“I was concerned that people would be tired of watching my face for so long,” Anders Danielsen Lie told me about preparing to star in Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier, 2011). That concern of boring the audience with the story of a depressed man, also named Anders, who is on screen in every scene of a ninety-minute film was one shared by director Joachim Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt. Watching the film today, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could get tired of watching Lie’s face: you constantly feel like you’re watching somebody think, emote, and teeter on the edge of suicidal thoughts.
The performance and the film may seem effortlessly perfect now, but they were both risky endeavours and required skill and attention to detail from everyone involved. “I think we learned something from making that film,” Lie told me. “There was a very interesting dynamic between planning and writing; and just going on the floor with the material, as they say in the theatre. You explore, and you find something that you would never have found in the writing room. We tried to work in a similar fashion on The Worst Person in the World (2021).”
Oslo, August 31st marked the second collaboration between director Joachim Trier and actor Anders Danielsen Lie, who only re-teamed again recently, a decade later, to make The Worst Person in the World. Lie had already wowed audiences, and stole the film that he was ostensibly a supporting character in, with Reprise (Trier, 2006) for the same reasons he’s such a compelling presence in Oslo. But it was Oslo, August 31st that really got international audiences to take notice: the legend goes that Cate Blanchett saw his performance at Cannes and insisted her agent take him on.
In the intervening years, Lie has been working full time as a medical doctor, taking side gigs in acting in which he continues to give some of the best performances of any given year. He has starred in Mikhaël Hers’s This Summer Feeling (2015) about a man grieving his partner and looking for a new life. He has played the last man standing in the zombie film Night Eats the World (2018), in which he’s so lonely that he locks zombie Denis Levant in an elevator for the company. He talked to Kristen Stewart about ghosts in Personal Shopper (2016) and played the ‘Hitler of Norway’ in 22 July (2018) — the occasion of its release marked the first time I talked to Lie about his work.
What follows is an excerpt from my wide-ranging conversation with Lie about preparing to play recovering heroin addict Anders in Oslo, August 31st, collaborating with Joachim Trier, and his evolving approach to acting. An even more in-depth version of this conversation, which goes into details about more individual scenes, will be published in our forthcoming book on the films of Joachim Trier. You can sign up for updates on the book (including early excerpts!) here.
Seventh Row (7R): When I talked to co-writer Eskil Vogt and director Joachim Trier, they said that they wrote the part of Anders for you, and that writing for you and having you on board early was necessary to get the film done so quickly.
Anders Danielsen Lie: I think Joachim had a cold or influenza or something. He was waiting for Louder Than Bombs to go into production. The production was pushed, and he was just lying in bed. He thought, why don’t we make a film in Norway quickly? He called Eskil and me and [asked], can we make something really fast? They had this old idea to try to see what would happen if you took this story from this old French novel [Le Feu Follet by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle].
The idea was not actually to remake Louis Malle’s film [Le Feu Follet, 1963], but to go back to the novel and see if there was something to that story that could have been told in contemporary Oslo. What kind of story would that be? When we started out, we had the framework. We knew the basic elements of the story and the character’s addiction problem, and we knew how the story would end. It was interesting to try to fill that story with our experience in a contemporary Oslo.
That gave us the opportunity to work with the script, with casting, with rehearsal, simultaneously. We had an idea of what scenes we needed. Eskil could start writing those scenes, in collaboration with Joachim. But we could also test some of that material in casting and rehearsals, and we could go back to the writing room and rewrite based on rehearsals.
I think we learned something from making that film. There was a very interesting dynamic between planning and writing; and just going on the floor with the material, as they say in the theatre. You explore, and you find something that you would never have found in the writing room. We tried to work in a similar fashion on The Worst Person in the World.
7R: What were those rehearsals like?
Anders Danielsen Lie: I used those rehearsals not only to see if the dialogue played but also to get in and out of emotional states as fast as possible. I knew that I couldn’t be on set and spending ten minutes getting into a very expressive emotional state. I had to be very effective.
So much of the first part of the film is heavy dialogue between [the character of Anders] and his best friend, Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner). There’s so much subtext in the dialogue: the characters are being very honest with each other, and they tell each other things that you don’t normally do in real life. We were very concerned with whether that would play at all. Would people find that believable? Or would it seem too written and contrived? It was absolutely necessary to test it to see if it was possible to make that dialogue feel organic and spontaneous.
During the making of the film, I tried to develop a technique for getting, as fast as possible, into emotional states and moods — but also to exit them. I wanted to show a character that is very ambivalent. There’s a lot that still makes him want to live or be in the world. He has a lot of impulses that just come to him in a split second. I wanted to be able to go from a very sad place to something very light, almost a little bit too light. That’s something I spent [a lot of] time on; it was a purely technical thing.
I knew that I would be on screen for one and a half hours, and I was concerned that people would be tired of watching my face for so long — especially if I was supposed to be depressed all the time. He’s a drug addict with a suicidal depression, and you’re going to watch this guy for one hour and forty-five minutes; there has to be lighter moments. There has to be some kind of nuance. That’s also what makes people suicidal: they get impulses. They have to have initiative and impulse to be able to do something that radical. When people are too depressed, they don’t really have the effort to do something that dark.
The English title of the French film is The Fire Within. I had that title in my mind because I wanted the character to have some kind of intense focus. There was something burning inside of him, but also something burning out in the end, some kind of aggression that he’s turning on himself.
7R: What was your strategy for getting in and out of those different emotional states?
Anders Danielsen Lie: I knew that we had a lot of very important non-verbal scenes. In some of those scenes, I had a feeling that my character was observing the world with the film’s audience. It wasn’t just emotional states and moods, but it was also observing the world [in a] state of deep concentration.
The French filmmaker [Robert] Bresson has this theory about actors: he calls them models. He has a very non-psychological approach to acting. It’s like he perceives the actor as some kind of canvas that the audience can project their thoughts and feelings onto. That inspired me. I wanted the character to be a guide, taking the audience through Oslo on this day: more like being with the audience than showing.
But your question was, did I have a strategy? I guess my only strategy was to try to make, especially those silent scenes, look interesting, so that people would be interested.
Before we shot Oslo August 31st, I had just seen [La Passion de] Jeanne d’Arc by Carl [Theodor] Dreyer, a silent movie from 1928. It’s definitely one of my favourite films and one of my biggest sources of inspiration. This film was made in 1928, and there are no words. To me, it’s the first example of naturalism in film acting. I was so amazed by what [Maria Falconetti] was able to do with her face. There were subtle changes in her face. Since there weren’t words, she was able to communicate and express so [many] subtle nuances with so little. I was very inspired by that film, when we shot Oslo.
We were quite shameless. I remember all the important scenes were covered a lot. We shot so much. We tried out a bunch of things, and I sometimes wonder, what material was on those tapes? That was also part of the strategy: not to have any illusions of a perfect version of a scene. There is no such thing. But sometimes, as an actor, it feels like a trap that you can fall into: you get an idea of a perfect take, or a perfect version. But my experience with shooting is that you don’t know what you’re after.
What I’ve tried to explore with Joachim is to have as a method or a principle that we should never know in advance how a scene is supposed to end up. What is an interesting version of a scene? I think that’s very hard to know. I tried to stay very concentrated during that shoot. I think I’ve said before that that was the closest I’ve been to a method acting approach. In hindsight, maybe it was just forty days of deep concentration more than a method approach. I don’t know.
7R: What’s the process for trying to explore a scene? [Co-writer] Eskil [Vogt] said that when he and Joachim were writing the script, they were deliberately trying to leave space so that you and Joachim could explore things on set.
Anders Danielsen Lie: Yeah, and that’s definitely true for The Worst Person in the World. That’s something we learned when we made Oslo, August 31st. When Eskil and Joachim started out, when they made Reprise, they had written that script for five years or something. The first draft of the script was 300 pages, or something like that. It was absolutely an unshootable script. Then they boiled it down and ended up with a very distilled version, but I didn’t feel that there was as much room left [to explore the scenes]. We definitely did some improvisation on that film, as well, but it was much more scripted from the start.
I think Oslo was the first film that we made together — Eskil, Joachim, and I, and the rest of Joachim’s team — where we understood that we could get the best of both worlds if we had a very clear idea of what the scene was about and where we were headed. There should also be [room] left for the great additions and ideas that you come up with during rehearsals. But also, that magic that can sometimes occur on the shooting day when everybody has adrenaline. If a scene is too closed from the screenwriter, that’s harder to achieve.
For example, in The Worst Person in the World, there are scenes where there’s an ongoing dialogue between the characters, and there’s a voiceover commenting on what’s going on. We had some synoptic direction and instructions about what the dialogue was about, and then, we improvised that stuff. Some of that dialogue we ended up using, and some of it was not so important.
I sometimes compare this with jazz improvisation. If you know what the chord progression is, if you know the chord changes, that’s when you are able to improvise. It’s much harder to improvise if you don’t have any sense of direction. In Joachim’s films, it’s not very common that we improvise from scratch. Usually, we are paraphrasing the original dialogue, or we just let the camera keep rolling after the scene is done, and then, we see what happens. On The Worst Person in the World, we had a lot of fun with that way of working.
Sometimes, as an actor, you learn your lines and the scenes, and you don’t really add that much. It’s not always a creative job. But when working with Joachim, I feel much more like a creative collaborator.
7R: How did you think about the character Anders’s arc throughout the film?
Anders Danielsen Lie: I trust the director most of the time, and I definitely trust Joachim, because he’s such a skilled director. I try not to worry so much about character development and character arcs. My job is to be as truthful and honest and organic as possible in my acting.
Sometimes, there’s a mysterious feeling that the scene knows where you’re going; the actor doesn’t know. But there’s some kind of logic within the scene when it is played, that will, ultimately, tell you what direction you’re headed. And if you dare to let that happen, you can absolutely not worry, for example, is this the right moment for this character to behave this way? You should be totally shameless and try to follow the internal logic of the scene.
That said, I remember that in Oslo, I had this concern that it would be boring to watch my depressed face for so long. I think I had some kind of dramaturgy for myself. For example, after all the heavy dialogue scenes, when he goes out in the night to get himself drunk and hopefully meet a girl, I wanted him to be lighter, especially in the dialogue scenes with the people at the party. I wanted to give him a break from the depressed mood and the depressive thoughts. I wanted him to be more observant again. I wanted him to be joking and laughing. I was concerned about giving him emotional dynamics.
7R: How much did you think through the character’s backstory for Oslo, August 31st?
Anders Danielsen Lie: The research was very important for that film, especially the part of the research that was relevant for the character’s psychology. It’s definitely the most psychological character I have done. It feels like everything that happens in that film is a direct result of his state of mind. I spent a lot of time researching the psychology of addiction. Joachim and I went to many clinics. We even ended up casting a therapist and a bunch of patients from one of those clinics for the group therapy scene. The therapist in that scene was also a consultant for us.
But it was not a film about drug addiction. We were using drug addiction as a metaphor for isolation and loneliness. Something we discovered through interviewing many drug addicts was that addiction, and especially drug addiction, will eventually lead to loneliness, because these people end up disappointing all the people around them, and in the end, they end up left by all of them. A lot of them were deeply lonely.
To us, the film was basically a study of loneliness and isolation more than about drug addiction. But it was important for us to get all of those addiction elements as authentic and real as possible. The most important thing with research is that when you show real life, you should try to be authentic. That’s important for me.
Joachim is a director who is very concerned about cultural specificity. He is concerned that places, interiors, and clothes [will] all tell something about the characters, their environments, and their backgrounds. And you should be very specific when you dress a character, for example, because all of that is visual storytelling.
The Oslo Trilogy [Reprise, Oslo, August 31st, and The Worst Person in the World] is about a specific milieu: a bunch of people whose identities are communicated through what they wear, what books they read, and what music they listen to. It’s quite important to be specific. So that’s a part of the research, too, not only for the production designer or the screenwriters. I think I have learned a lot from Joachim in that respect: how important it is to be specific.
7R: How did you collaborate with the director of photography (DoP) Jakob Ihre?
For me, the most important collaborator on set, in addition to Joachim, of course, and my fellow actors, is the DoP. The DoP is in the combat zone with you. Film acting is not about forgetting the camera. For me, it’s the opposite. I always try to have a sense of where the camera is. The camera is my audience. It’s the eye of the audience. I don’t want to play for the camera, but I want to know where it is.
There’s a scene in Oslo, August 31 right after I’ve told Thomas that I’m suicidal. We had a little moment where something happened; there was an emotional dynamic that was interesting. I’ve met people who were impressed by the scene, and they’ve told me that they feel they know what I’m thinking in that moment. But I know what I was thinking. I was thinking I have to lean to my right because then I will get some light on my face and that might be good for the camera. I was thinking about where the camera was and to just get myself in a good position for the camera.
In the beginning, when you’re shooting and working as a film actor, you can be very frightened by the camera. It’s like this huge weapon on somebody’s shoulder, constantly watching you. But the camera is your friend, and you should always know where it is. When we’re shooting with Joachim, we’re always shooting on 35 mm. I always like that humming sound that the camera makes.
7R: In Oslo, August 31, there’s the Anders that we directly meet, which is who he is today. But his behaviour also shows us flashes of who he used to be in the past. As an actor, how do you think about how to play those two things? When he has that conversation with Mirjam on the terrace, you see this almost younger, more playful, flirtatious version of Anders, and that tells you instantly that this guy used to be really great with women.
Anders Danielsen Lie: When I played that scene, I didn’t think so much about him in the past or that this is the old version of him from the glory days. I was thinking more that, now, he doesn’t care; I have nothing to lose.
This is a discussion we’ve had many times: where, what, when during that day, does he make the final decision, “I’m going to OD today.” When does that happen? People have very different opinions. Our goal was to make it as ambivalent as possible. We wanted there to be big, big ambivalence surrounding his death wish. One of the ways we could do that was to make him playful and joking, having a good time in certain scenes. But it could also mean that now, he doesn’t care anymore. The decision is made.
It’s quite common among people who are suicidal that they can seem lighter when the decision is made. It wasn’t supposed to be a textbook portrait of a suicidal person, but for me, it was very important to show these sides of him. It would be harder for the audience to lose him, in a way. It’s like, if you want people to feel something when a couple breaks up, you have to show that they had some nice days together. You have to show that they were in love.
Oslo, August 31st is a tragedy, in many ways. If you want a film to have some kind of impact, it must hurt to lose the main character. He’s kind of unsympathetic, as a person. I have never liked him. He’s putting a lot of people around him in difficult situations, especially Thomas and his family. So he must have some kind of charming side, or as you say, that we have to have a sense of a past where he has meant something to other people.
As a doctor, and in hospitals and elsewhere, I have met people who were suicidal. I was amazed by how much variation there was in their moods. They could joke and be playful. They could have conversations about random topics. And then, the next day, they could commit suicide. That was totally believable.
I’ve been interested in trying to give more nuanced portraits of characters that might be stereotyped or portrayed in a very cliched fashion on film: people with different kinds of mental illnesses in particular. I don’t know if this is a myth or not, but I think that some people would think that if you are suicidal, you are really, really depressed, and you have to stay depressed, and it’s not possible for a character like that to have a good life. But I’ve seen that.
It was a very hard shoot. I felt like I was staying in concentration for the entire shoot. To be able to do lighter scenes was like finding water in the desert.
7R: Have you watched the film again since it was finished?
Anders Danielsen Lie: It’s been many years now. I have a rule for myself: I try not to watch films that I’ve acted in more than three times. That will usually be the first premiere, the Norwegian premiere, and maybe one other festival where I can’t really leave the room. And that’s enough. I haven’t seen the film in its entirety for many, many years.
I know that that film has some kind of emotional impact on some people. I’ve watched Reprise many times, but it’s been many years since I watched that. I guess there has to be some kind of special occasion. It’s ten years now since it came out in Oslo so there’s going to be an anniversary on August 31. But I won’t see it. It’s too soon.