Like Nicolas Winding Refn on Mads Mikkelsen before him, Danish writer/director Tobias Lindholm has a talent crush on an actor – the chameleonic Pilou Asbaek – who starred in his directorial debut, R (2010). Lindholm went on to cast Asbaek in cult TV hit Borgen and the pair are reunited in A Hijacking, a tense lo-fi tale of the fate of the crew of The Rozen, a ship hijacked by Somali pirates – and that has actually been hijacked in real life.
Lindholm (scriptwriter of The Hunt) shares a passion for creating realism with Asbaek, who as The Rozen’s chef, Mikkel, gained 18 kilos just to lose them over a six-week shoot in the Indian Ocean. We chatted to them both about how far they’d go for their work.
GFW: When the action starts in A Hijacking, your character, Mikkel is full of love. What has happened to his love by the time the film finishes?
Pilou Asbæk: When the film finishes I know exactly what has happened because Tobias and I discussed it. He’s not capable of loving any more.
You worked in a kitchen to prepare for your role. Did you make all the meals served in the film?
Yeah, I became a good cook. Every single thing that’s eaten in that film, I cooked it.
Does your partner feel the benefits now?
Oh yeah, especially my omelettes. A favourite is cheese and Italian tomatoes, with a little spice.
From omelettes to torture… Tobias locked actors playing hijacked crew members in small fly-ridden parts of the ship in 50 degree heat for hours to create desperate performances. How was that for you?
That was perfect. I know he wants to push me as far as he can and I want to let him because you can see the result. People are like ‘Oh you two are like Scorsese and De Niro and I’m like ‘Seriously, Scorsese and De Niro? They are, like, the two biggest icons!’ But on a very small scale we work like that because we both love realism. I think we want to eliminate acting and create a film that’s so powerful it’s like documentary.
Is there a physically or mental line you wouldn’t cross for Tobias?
We haven’t found that line yet but I know for a fact that I wouldn’t mind him pushing me towards it because if I’m going to step over he’s going to catch me
How do you catch a performer that feels overwhelmed by material or conditions imposed to create a performance?
Tobias Lindholm: When I’m by the monitor in the very demanding scenes, I’m looking for the quality but at the same time I’m watching for the sanity of the actors, especially Pilou, because I put a lot of pressure on his shoulders. When we did R he broke down after a week of shooting. From then on I’ve been constantly monitoring him without him knowing to see if he’s fine.
What are the signs in Pilou that his sanity is wavering?
TL: When he goes all in. There are scenes when he’s doing more than is in the script or taking a situation further than we agreed on and it’s around that time that I know I just need to watch him. At the same time that’s where he peaks in his performance so I don’t want to stop.
PA: There’s one scene in A Hijacking where I was so frustrated and felt so violated, I tried to hit the actor who plays Omar. That wasn’t part of the script. He reacted by pushing me to the ground then the guy behind me accidentally hit me on the head with a gun and I started to bleed all over the place. We had to go to the hospital where I got stitches. They wanted to shave me but we couldn’t because of continuity. That’s how we work.
The character of Ruhne in R was in a miserable situation, as is Mikkel. What draws you to such suffering characters?
PA: I have no idea because I’m the kind of guy that’s like ‘hey, let’s go for a pint and watch football and our kids will play in the garden and let’s be happy about it and the sun is shining and I want to run and sing’. Oh… not the running and singing.
Tobias, what drives you to write and direct such intense survival dramas?
TL: If you have a story that has a very obvious engine it gives you time and space to tell about people instead of plot. To do that you need something that is very tense. The frame of the story has to be very strong and then in the frame we can be more relaxed.
Do you write parts with Pilou in mind?
TL: I’ll write for him as long as I can keep him in Denmark and be allowed to make films with him. He can do truthful ‘guy suffering’ the way you believe it so it’s not just watching an actor act. But I’m scared I’m going to lose him to an international career.
What English directors would you like to work with, Pilou?
PA: The obvious one would be Mike Leigh.
Tobias, can you tell us much more about the new project you’re writing?
TL: It’s the third film with Pilou where we go out into reality and it’s about the brutality of the world.
And on that chipper note, it’s goodbye to our Danish pals.
‘A Hijacking’ is out in UK cinemas on 10 May, and 21 June in Canada.