Sunday 21 January 2018

From Borgen to the Bard . . .

Danish TV star Birgitte Hjort Sorensen talks to Rosamund Urwin

Danish delight: Birgitte Hjort Sorensen.
Danish delight: Birgitte Hjort Sorensen.
Birgitte Hjort Sorensen on screen in Borgen

The UK's Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday had a little extra frisson. A political celebrity was in the House: Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, who plays journalist Katrine Fonsmark in the Danish political thriller Borgen. MP Michael Fabricant tweeted beforehand: "If I spot her in the gallery, I shall lose control and jump up and blow kisses at her." Thankfully for her, he didn't. Instead, he described PMQs as a "personal disaster" because he didn't see Sorensen.

The 31-year-old often inspires such reactions. She is equally loved by women ("Can she be my friend?" wailed a female colleague when I revealed who I was interviewing) and men. And now that high profile and popularity has enabled her to swap Borgen for the Bard.

She'll be playing Virgilia in Coriolanus – one of Shakespeare's bloodiest plays – at London's Donmar Warehouse from December. Tom Hiddleston, heir apparent to Benedict Cumberbatch, is the lead.

Sorensen is pleased to stick with a political theme. "Coriolanus deals with the birth of democracy," she tells me. "And that has been fascinating because I've been talking about politics so much because of Borgen. It's a nice bridge."

Borgen was never expected to be such a hit. Sorensen recalls bosses at Danish state broadcaster DR telling the cast that it should do quite well in Denmark but "don't expect it to travel because it's about Danish politics, who's going to watch it?"

The answer was almost one million viewers in the UK alone – not exactly shabby for a BBC4 drama.

"At some point, they must do a Borgen tour in Copenhagen," she jokes. "Like the Sex and the City tour but on bicycles."

I ask Sorensen why she thinks Borgen is so popular. "There's a lot of interest in politics now. Among my friends there's more discussion about politics, politicians, how we govern and should we do anything else?

"For me, art is like a big support group, where you go and meet people who think the same way and you go: 'Okay, I'm not nuts.'"

Work-life balance will be a struggle for Sorensen's character Katrine in the third and final series, which started on BBC4 on Saturday. (Spoiler alert!) Two-and-a-half years have passed and she has had a baby with spin doctor Kasper but they have broken up. Katrine takes over Kasper's role as adviser to Birgitte. Sorensen sees much of herself in Katrine.

"She can be rough around the edges but it's thrilling to play a character who is ambitious, strongwilled and has power."

Some critics have called Borgen anti-men. The husband of the prime minister protagonist, Birgitte Nyborg, has an affair in the first series, claiming her role called into question his masculinity.

Does Sorensen think some men are threatened by ambitious women? "It may not be that they are threatened but that all of us are confused about what a man and a woman are supposed to be today. No one really knows the rules any more."

She doesn't see the male characters as weaker, though. "Borgen is more about people struggling than it is about men or women. Adam Price, the head writer, has said it's a feminist project but I've never thought about it that way."

Would she call herself a feminist? A long pause. A little squirming. "I guess it would depend on how we define feminist. I haven't burnt a bra yet.

"Maybe the reason I am slightly reluctant to say I am [a feminist] is that I've grown up in a place and time when I've never felt like [gender] was an issue." She pauses and ponders. "Is that true? If you go for an audition, you have a character description, and for the women it's always about being beautiful, sexy. And for the men, it's more about the character than how he appears physically. That annoys me."

It suddenly strikes me that Sorensen has almost no trace of a Danish accent. "My vocal coach will be so pleased!" She gives a throaty laugh. So how has she ironed it out?

"Pete pit pet pat pot..." She says very deliberately. "Hump-ty Dumpty sat on a wall."

Sorensen has changed her voice "because it opens up other possibilities". She says a European tinge can limit actresses to "the maid, the stripper, the prostitute".

Her accent is clipped English for the stage, with a US twang for across the Pond. Since Borgen wrapped, she has made a few trips to Hollywood, looking for agents and managers. The show isn't as big as it is in the UK but it has a following.

The daughter of two doctors, Sorensen realised at 14 she wouldn't be following that path during work experience at her geriatrician mother's hospital. "Being met with that number of people who can no longer go to the bathroom or eat by themselves, it was traumatising. I lived too much with their misery."

But Sorensen decided on acting relatively late, while watching the musical Chicago on a trip to London at 19. "I fell in love with Chicago. It's sexy, self-deprecating, ironic and dirty."

Her first job after drama school in Copenhagen was playing Roxie in the musical. She then moved over to the West End version but suffered from homesickness. She is an Anglophile, though. "I read a lot of the Famous Five as a kid, they're all about having afternoon tea, and solving mysteries."

After Coriolanus, she'll be back in Denmark to do a musical show. She also has a noir sci-fi film with Antonio Banderas out soon and there's another chance to see her in, er, Midsomer Murders. I suggest her future lies more in Hollywood than in Midsomer, though. "Now is such a good time for me because of Borgen," she acknowledges. "I think it is the time to strike."

The final series of Borgen is on BBC4 now

Irish Independent

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