Renate Reinsve, the Cannes Best Actress-winning star of The Worst Person in the World, opens up about her breakout role.
This is an excerpt from a longer interview, one of the most in-depth Reinsve has done on the film, which will be published in our forthcoming 2022 ebook Existential detours: Joachim Trier’s cinema of indecisions and revisions. Click here to download the full interview with Reinsve. The full interview will appear in the ebook due out later this year.
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Renate Reinsve first worked with Joachim Trier on Oslo, August 31st in 2011. She had one line in the film: “Let’s go to the party.” Almost a decade later, she worked with him again on The Worst Person in the World in a lead role written specifically for her. Reinsve’s stunning, subtle performance as Julie won her the best actress prize at Cannes in 2021, along with increased media attention. In an interview with Vulture that took place a few days after the film premiered, she said, “One day I woke up and puked.”
Reinsve told me that one good thing about living and working in Norway is that she’s just seen as a normal person there. Being humble is part of their culture and something that I immediately noticed when talking to Reinsve. She was very quick to credit all of the on-set collaborators and emphasized how much she loved the collective experience of working on a Trier film. Instead of feeling a ton of pressure in her first starring film role, she said that “everyone felt equally important and that we were really all together on this.”
As Julie, Reinsve communicates volumes without even speaking. Many scenes show her thinking in silence, something that could be boring but is consistently compelling. Julie is a quiet character, but she’s far from stupid or uninteresting. Even when she’s quiet, the viewer always gets the sense that her mind is running wild. In the opening scene of the film, she stands in profile, smoking a cigarette on a balcony with the city of Oslo behind her. Occasionally, she turns to face the camera, the city, or to look at her phone. Despite the beautiful locale and her elegant ensemble, Julie looks withdrawn, like she’s in the midst of calmly contemplating a problem without an answer. Immediately, the viewer wants to know more about her. Without Reinsve’s expressiveness, this scene wouldn’t work at all. It hinges on her creating intrigue around the character, something that isn’t easily accomplished with body language and facial expressions alone.
Later in the film, we return back to the locale from the opening scene with additional context. Julie is at Aksel’s comic book release party, feeling shitty because everyone in attendance is treating her like a vapid trophy wife. As she walks away from the party, blinking back tears, she stops to look out at the city, again in profile, with eyes that convey some kind of revelation. When I first saw this scene, I knew that a breakup between her and Aksel was on the horizon. At first, Julie seems shocked and saddened by whatever thought has crossed her mind. As she walks toward the camera, her mouth is upturned in a bemused almost smile that quickly turns sombre. We don’t know exactly what she’s thinking, but the range of emotions that pass across her face tell us that she’s experiencing some kind of internal turmoil. When I asked Reinsve about this scene, she said, “It’s a roller coaster… you can be here, and then suddenly, you’re somewhere else emotionally. The character has no control over what she’s feeling, and she gets surprised by her own feelings.” This, of course, is easier said than portrayed, but Reinsve makes it look effortless in her performance.
When we spoke over Zoom, she had just gotten back from the 59th New York Film Festival and through severe jet lag, talked to me about her trajectory as an actor and the strategies she used to get inside Julie’s head. She said that she knew the character was a good one when she felt moved by her but unable to understand her completely. Julie is the type of character that we don’t see enough of in film. She’s not a manic pixie dream girl, brought to life to save or serve a man, and she’s not quirkiness personified, but a quiet, complex woman trying to figure out what she wants. She only verbally expresses a small percentage of her thoughts and desires, but there’s never any doubt that she experiences more than what is vocalised. Reinsve adeptly portrays Julie’s rich inner life. Even when she’s completely silent, the viewer can see that Julie is constantly mulling over things in her head. It’s hard to imagine another actor bringing this level of understanding to the role and executing on it with such ease.
This is an excerpt from a longer interview with Renate Reinsve on The Worst Person in the World. The full interview will be published later this year in our upcoming ebook on Joachim Trier’s films. Sign up for updates on the ebook.
Seventh Row (7R): How did you get into acting? Did you always know that you wanted to be an actor?
Renate Reinsve: I had a childhood that wasn’t so good. I grew up in a very, very small place, and I didn’t have any art, books, music, or films. Where I grew up, there was nothing. There were a lot of farms and like… emotionally underdeveloped people. People [acting like] bullies were normal. It was like any small place where you don’t really get liberal opinions. Anyone who sees that and doesn’t fit in kind of wants to leave.
I had a family who was very much in conflict. When my grandmother got me [involved in] this children’s theatre group, I found that I could talk about stuff that happened at home. I could talk about what happened in my society. I could actually explore things that I only felt a little bit. I was [only] nine years old, but I [realised that this place helped me to] actually understand stuff [in my life]. That’s what I loved about it. That love for it never stopped, it just grew and evolved. I did mostly theatre my whole life. I’m now thirty three, and I did theatre every day, every year until Joachim got me this role.
7R: How did you begin working with Joachim?
Renate Reinsve: I did a few TV [shows] and films. I had a small part in Oslo, August 31st where I had one line which was, “Let’s go to the party.” In TV and film, I would always get cast in humourous stuff and be the funny, charming girl or the weird, funny girl. In theatre, I would have big, heavy, dramatic parts, so I got to evolve both of those [skill sets] in different platforms. Joachim knew that. He also knew me a little bit from Oslo, August 31st. We would meet here and there, and we would talk about all these big questions, like, “Why is love so chaotic?” [When we talked about] our [respective] relationships, we [found that we] were aligned on what the confusion was. I think that all of this combined made him [consider me] when he wrote the script.
In Oslo, August 31st, I had to have a lot of energy, and I think Joachim saw that I was fun to have on set. He said it back then, too… that he wanted to work with me again. Even though it was just one line, I had to be there for nine days because he wanted this perfect lighting that passed so quickly [so it had to be shot over several days]. He’s a perfectionist.
He did many rounds of casting for my small part [in Oslo, August 31st]. He’s very thorough in casting, which is one of his greatest talents. The way he sees people is exceptional, which you can tell by his characters. They’re so complex, and he doesn’t judge anyone, so they’re very freeing to see. He’s very good with psychology and is reflective and wise and educated. It’s remarkable to be in his project. And I think that goes for everyone. Everyone feels very safe and seen.
7R: One of the best things about getting older is understanding yourself a lot better because you have enough distance and experience to see things from a less critical perspective. It feels like that’s a big part of Worst Person. Julie is trying to understand herself as an independent person instead of letting the men (or work) in her life define her. Do you remember what you thought about Julie when you first read the script?
Renate Reinsve: I felt very moved. And I felt very close to the character. But at the same time, I didn’t really understand who she was. And I also understood that I was never going to understand her fully, just like I couldn’t understand myself or other people fully. That was how I knew it was a very, very good role. And I thought, I’ll just go with that, [I’ll just accept that] I am never going to decide who she is. Joachim was very open to that idea.
We did a lot of rehearsals on the actual scenes to analyse from one beat to another. He talks a lot about beats. It’s kind of musical, but it’s also how to drive the scene from one place to another, the twists and the turns. If it [didn’t feel] natural, Joachim would tell me to be loose or lose control. No one’s ever asked me to try to lose control that much, and it’s actually quite scary.
There’s [a lot of] pressure standing in front of the camera. [Worst Person] is shot on film, so it’s very expensive. The sound [of the film] is [a constant reminder]. But Joachim actually makes it easy because he removes the pressure by making it a collective work. I never felt like I stood on set [alone]… like it was [only] me doing the role; I felt like we did it together, so the pressure wasn’t about me, as an actress, ever. That [approach] removes the whole ego and all of the nerves because it’s not about me. It’s about the scene and the story and the dialogue. Joachim [makes everyone feel this way by] giving speeches all the time in front of his whole crew before we come on set to get everyone on the same page.
7R: What aspects of Julie did you find confusing or not understand?
Renate Reinsve: She was so confused. She feels equal amounts of different things. She wants one thing, but she equally wants something else. Where her choices come from is very hard to know. It’s the way that she suddenly jumps into something new. We live in this time where we have so many choices that it’s hard to actually choose.
Sometimes, you can have a very strong sense of who someone is — [like for example,] she feels very strong, she always makes the moral right choice, she always takes the choice of love — but I didn’t quite understand [what motivated] her choices. In one situation, it could be fear; in another, it could be love; in a third, it could be boredom; in a fourth, it could be loneliness, but she held [many] emotions at the same time. Maybe in one scene, she had all of those together.
There were many nuances of emotion in every scene. That’s maybe what confused me… and also, that she was happy and charming but very lonely and sad and impulsive. She really loves Aksel and is very loyal, but then, suddenly, she has this thing that has built up, and she makes a big choice that comes from so many places. Humans have a way of making a very clear narrative of who we are and why we did what we did., You can try to create a [back]story of Julie [where the] troubled relationship with her dad [is responsible for her difficulties as an adult]. But I read it like it wasn’t a clear narrative of where she came from or who she was. I really liked that.
7R: Did you feel any pressure having the role of Julie written specifically for you?
Renate Reinsve: Not exactly that, but I felt the pressure because I respected Joachim so much. I was scared of not getting all the nuances out of the scenes because I read the script and felt that it was so rich. I was very scared to not get it all in there and to not make it as good as it potentially could be. Whatever I saw in the script, I wanted to be there [in the scene]. I’ve never worked that hard on the script before. I read it like one thousand times.
7R: Did you have any ideas about Julie that differed from Joachim and Eskil?
Renate Reinsve: I felt like Eskil and Joachim had romanticised the way that Aksel defined Julie. I [interpreted it like] Julie really needed someone to define her, but that it wasn’t right, so she needed to leave Aksel in the end. She couldn’t live with the way that he was defining her anymore. Even though she’s searching so hard for identity, she’s just desperate for someone to see her in a way that she likes because she doesn’t really like herself that much. So, that was one [area where we had different ideas].
Another [area involves] Aksel. Because he was articulate and could put his life into categories and see it from the outside, [the writing suggested that this] made him strong. I felt that this was unfair. I added a line in the fight scene where Julie says, “You think you’re stronger than me because you can put it into words, because you can talk about it.” I wanted her to be strong in the chaos. She should be able to just feel what she feels. Everything is tipping over and she has no way to put it into words, but she can also be strong [in the midst of] that. I feel that’s important. But I think apart from that, everything was perfect and very, very strong.
7R: Aksel often puts Julie’s feelings into words because he’s the one who likes to talk, but he doesn’t always describe them accurately. You can kind of tell whether Julie agrees with his interpretation based on the way she reacts. He does act as her mouthpiece.
Renate Reinsve: Exactly. And I got a sense from the script that [Aksel’s behaviour] was seen as strong, [whereas for] Julie, not knowing and just feeling was uncomfortable.
Read the full interview with Renate Reinsve…
This is an excerpt from a longer interview with Renate Reinsve on The Worst Person in the World. The full interview will be published later this year in our upcoming ebook on Joachim Trier’s films, but you can read the full chapter preview now.