Sofia Helin is Saga Noren, the detective at the centre of The Bridge, the brilliant Scandi-noir series which just concluded on BBC4. Except that she isn’t, obviously. Saga doesn’t have an emotional radar. She is blunt to the point of rudeness, obsessive about her work, and disarmingly pragmatic about sex (if she wants it, she has it, with no care for social niceties). Sofia is different. She doesn’t wear leather trousers. She has clean hair. She is, by all accounts, a warm and emotional woman.
So it’s a little disconcerting when she declares, a propos of nothing much, that she has a question. A Swedish question.
“Normal families,” she says, fixing me with her cool green eyes. “Do they walk naked around the house?”
Perhaps not, I suggest. This is England. “So tell me,” she continues forensically, “if you are having a shower, you bring the clothes into the shower room? Or you have your towel around? Because when I was a child, I remember I was in the puberty years. And my mother and her friends were in the sauna and they were sitting naked and they said ‘get undressed girls’ and we were so embarrassed because it was a nude body and I didn’t want to do that.”
Helin is in London for Nordicana 2014, a festival of Nordic drama, which also includes Borgen’s Sidse Babett Knudsen, and various noirish luminaries. Kim Bodnia, who plays Saga’s Danish sidekick Martin, is here too, in the restaurant of a West End hotel, offering emotional context, just as he does in the series. “You know what?” he says. “We have so many beaches in Denmark where you are not allowed to have clothes on. Nothing.”
“Really?” says Helin, still sounding like Saga and sucking Diet Coke through a straw. “You are not allowed? Well, Denmark is much more liberated than Sweden. It’s so crazy, Denmark. When I was doing my first sex scene in the first season, I didn’t dare to say no to certain things because I was thinking, she’s Danish, the director, and in Denmark they are so free, so maybe I should just do it.”
And do it she did. The scene was extraordinary. Explicit without being exploitative, functional rather than erotic, and novel because the woman was in charge, behaving like a man.
“What you did in that scene is so amazing,” says Bodnia. “I was totally surprised when I saw you acting like that – it was so fantastic. But no actor in Denmark had ever done it like you. It was only because you thought we were thinking like that. All Danish actresses are afraid of getting naked, so what you did was amazing, because you just did it, and you went the whole way.”
Of course, The Bridge isn’t really about sex. It offers a new spin on the TV detective series, by inverting the roles of the sexes, while not making a fuss about it. And it creates a brilliant (actually murky) fictional landscape in the edgelands of Sweden and Denmark.
Initially, the show was created by Hans Rosenfeldt as a vehicle for Bodnia, an actor well-known for hardman roles, notably Nicolas Winding Refn’s 1996 drama Pusher. “All men between 30 and 50, Kim is their idol,” Helin says. “Everywhere we go they’re falling on their knees saying ‘Oh My God, I’ve seen Pusher, you’re so cool.’”
So, Bodnia was played against type, to distinguish him from the generic TV detective, who is an opera-loving emotionally bereft alcoholic male in his fifties. (See: Wallander, K.)
“Kim’s a middle-aged white male so we wanted to make him a little more emotional, a family man, and somebody who wants to smalltalk and chit-chat,” says Rosenfeldt. “He’s a softer detective. So we did that and then thought, what are we going to put him against? We knew we wanted a female detective on the Swedish side, and then we came up with the idea, what about a female detective with absolutely no social skills? She’s brilliant in what she’s doing, and everything that she can learn by reading, she will be excellent in, but everything else, when it comes to interaction between other people, she just can’t get it.”
When she was offered the part, Helin refused. “I told Hans, no one will like her. Then I started to try to think the other way round and it opened up a universe of other ways of seeing things.” She experimented by playing the character in her everyday life. “I went and did normal things – throwing out the garbage, shopping, I went to the swimming hall. What happened was, I felt a big loneliness. If you don’t respond to people, the other person’s eyes, they die. You just feel they’re not interested anymore.”
And loneliness, Helin suggests, is the key to Saga’s character. “Big loneliness. That’s the amazing thing, when Martin shows up. I think he loves her, and she feels that, although she doesn’t know it. So, through him, she dares to do new things.”
Saga and Martin are a double act, but there’s no doubt that Saga dominates. Partly this is due to Helin’s extraordinary performance, and the way she blunts her beauty, but it’s also down to the design of the character.
“When we started, they had an inspiration book,” Helin says. “They had a lot of time to work out how they wanted it to look and be. They already had the car for me, then the car and the clothes wanted to fit together. I know Charlotte Sieling [the show’s first director] wanted Saga to be a hjort, a deer. And then I was thinking about Clint Eastwood, about Dirty Harry.”
Saga’s wardrobe is not unimportant. She invariably wears brown leather trousers and a flapping green coat, all the better to camouflage her under those dark tobacco skies. “I need the clothes to be her now,” says Helin. “Both the coat and the trousers. It was hard this season, since she got shot, I had to wear something else underneath. I was never really content with what we found, actually.”
“But the trousers are there!” Bodnia ejaculates. “They are so Saga! They are so fucking sexy! It’s not only because you’re a woman. Leather follows the body very nicely, and because it’s an animal, it’s very emotional, very nice.”
The subtle feminism of the show extends to having several bosses in the story who are female, though their sex is never mentioned. They just happen to be women.
“That’s something that I and Charlotte spoke about when we were going to do the first season. I said ‘Have you noticed how there are so many men [in the script]?’ She said yes, and she changed it. Some people say it’s hard to write a woman boss – I don’t know why. But you can just change the name – its’ no problem. It’s even more interesting. I think that’s why people find me interesting when I’m doing Saga because I’m doing something that’s s far from who I am. So giving a part that’s written for a man to a woman; that’s the complexity of it.”
“If you look at Martin,” says Rosenfeldt, “he has more female characteristics. We really turned the genders around a little. And when we did that, we played with the clichés of Danes and Swedes. In Sweden, everybody thinks that the Danes are laid back, they are like huggingly nice people. And In Denmark, everybody thinks that in Sweden we follow every rule, and are really cold and stiff and hard. We tried to get away from the gender clichés, and we walked into the country clichés instead, and I think that’s better!”
Over the show’s two seasons, events have conspired to make Saga and Martin’s emotional worlds overlap. In Season 2, Martin was emotionally frozen, after the murder of his son, while Saga was experimenting (unsuccessfully) with a cohabiting relationship. The clear suggestion was that if you put both characters together, you’d have a whole person. “Yeah,” says Helin. “It’s like Yin and Yang.”
But wait, did Helin just say that Martin loves Saga? No spoilers, but does she think anything could ever happen between them?
“I don’t know,” Helin deadpans. “You’d have to ask Martin.”
“What are you talking about?” says Bodnia.
“Sexually, you mean?” says Helin.
“I never thought about Saga as a woman,” says Bodnia, slipping into his character. “I thought about Saga as a child. From the beginning she was like my daughter, so I never think like that. It would be very strange. But when I travel around, especially In Norway, they are waiting for Martin to get on Saga.”
“Or maybe Saga to get on Martin,” says Helin.
“Something is wrong with Norway,” says Bodnia. “Something is wrong with these guys that they want that to happen. It cannot happen. It’s a love story between two people who are trying to be together and work together, because Martin is the same way that Saga is. Totally into the work. Totally into trying to save the world through not having killers around. But I fuck my life up, and I cannot be as concentrated as Saga, because she is so focused. That’s why I admire her, because she doesn’t have the same way of fucking up her job. I do it all the time. I admire her because her life isn’t fucked up, but then it turns out that she is.”
And that, really, is the key to The Bridge. It’s not really about crime. It’s about emotions.
“I really have to force myself to get interested in the plot,” Helin confesses. “We have to explain it to each other sometimes because we’re so dumb with those things.”
“It’s like we are a couple,” says Bodnia. “In the bus we have our space; we only talk about senses and feelings, and we come on set and it’s a crime. It’s like, ‘Oh my God, I know that, but…’”
Helin completes the sentence, for once sounding nothing like her make-believe self. “What am I doing with this fucking gun?”