Monday 18 February 2019

Aksel comes in from cold

Evan Fanning

Norway's Aksel Hennie's role as the despicable leading man in 'Headhunters' has captured the world's attention. But the 5'7'' actor, who felt isolated as a teenager after being arrested, is a far cry from the character

THE chances are that unless you happen to be a fan of Norwegian cinema, Aksel Hennie won't have made much of a mark on your register. But if you are from Norway you will know exactly who the diminutive 36-year-old is.

Hennie's story is not the tale of your usual movie star. He was not destined to take to the stage having been gripped by a desire to perform since appearing in a school play. Nor did he grow up with the business surrounding him, knowing that one day this would be for him.

But what he does have in common with so many other actors is that at a certain point in his life he had to reinvent himself, become someone else. When you talk to actors you realise that many, for what- ever reason, moved house frequently when they were young. New schools and new cliques form a personality that is forced to learn how to change. Others do it to overcome shyness or introversion. Hennie's reinvention came from a far more sinister place.

In his late teens he was part of a gang on the outskirts of Oslo. Hennie wanted to study art but on the streets graffiti was his calling card. After being arrested he found himself ostracised by his gang, some of whom were indulging in what he describes as "hard criminal acts", because they feared he would turn them over to the authorities.

"I wanted to study painting and become a painter but I had a huge flip-over in my life when I was about 18 or 19," he explains while chewing on a steak in a plush London hotel, a world away from the life he is describing. "I was part of a criminal environment, I got arrested and convicted and I had to start thinking in a new way.

"I didn't [inform on them] but they were afraid I was going to. I was totally alone. I had friends that I'd had for a lot of years and suddenly I was alone. It was tough."

He took refuge in what was left of his life -- "family, art, love and a great portion of wanting to live" -- and, as is often the way when you indulge the more important facets of life, doors and avenues open.

"When you're 19 you don't feel like you have a choice," he says. "But there was too much restlessness in my bones to stop.

"I'm a bit tired of talking about it, but still it has so much to do with who I have become. I don't regret anything. I never hurt anyone other than my family and myself. It has helped so much forming the guy that I am. It has also helped me believe, what a lot of people don't believe, and that is that people can change. Change is possible and it's never too late. That's what I feel."

His directorial debut, Uno, made some years later, was about his own tale. "The film is about how I was isolated from the environment," he says.

Hennie may have to get used to regurgitating the story as the world beyond Norway becomes interested in him. This is due mainly to his performance in Headhunters, a wry, slick and often violent pulp thriller based on Jo Nesbo's best-selling book.

Hennie plays Roger Brown, a dislikeable recruitment specialist who is living far beyond his means in a big house, with a flash car and stunning wife, but he is moonlighting as an art thief to try and fund his lavish expenditure.

He may be dislikeable but Brown is a dream role, and Hennie inhabits his skin effortlessly. "The first five pages of the script I hated the guy," he says. "I wanted to kick him in the groin. He's the guy that I hate. He wears tailor-made suits, lives in this €4m house, has this insanely beautiful wife, €200,000 worth of car. He says to his wife that he loves her and five seconds later he has sex with a random girl. How the hell can you love that guy?

"But he has such low self-esteem and he has the one thing that made me hook on to the script. He thinks that he's not capable of being loved? If someone comes to me and says they're not capable of being loved I want to reach out to them and tell them that everybody's loveable. If a man is forced or wants to become a better man then I root for him. Everybody needs to be loved."

So. I ask, you're not a needy actor? "Of course I am. As we all are. Everybody wants to be loved. If you sit in a room and think you're the only one that needs to be loved then you have a big problem. If you are needy, you have to give the same as you need. If I need love, I have to give love. But that's just a personal thing."

It's easy to look at Hennie's past and come to the conclusion that this quest to give and receive love comes from the isolation he felt following his conviction. Even his take on Headhunters seems infused with this mantra. "It's a popcorn flick," he says, "but it's also a drama and has themes that I believe in. If you want honesty and love you have to be honest and loving and loveable."

Wherever the true origin, he has adopted this belief as a way of living. He is father to a six-year-old girl and is in a relationship with singer Tone Damli, who won Norway's version of Pop Idol in 2005, which make this decidedly unshowbiz and genuine person sitting in front of me part of one of Norway's most recognisable couples. "We have a great sense of understanding in how we alternate our lives," he says of their often hectic schedules.

When I ask what he does for kicks away from work it leads to one of the most tragic tales imaginable. "It would be skydiving," he says, "but you're asking me at a very strange time in my life because my brother died two months ago in a skydiving accident. I was there when he died.

"It's a strange time. Right now I'm mourning. If I wasn't in that state I would skydive and I would be together with my girlfriend and my daughter and doing loving things."

It's not an answer I expected and there must be a stunned look on my face but Hennie reassures me not to feel bad for bringing up such a raw and emotional subject. He explains his love for skydiving -- he has done more than 800 dives -- and his desire to strap on a parachute once again.

"Me, my father and my brother went skydiving together. My father has gone skydiving again. I have a daughter who is six-years-old and she is afraid for me so, at the moment, it doesn't feel right. But I want to go there again at some point when I feel ready for it. I will have changed but I want to rediscover that experience.

"It's like I tell my daughter, we don't stop driving cars or riding motorbikes because some people die in them. It hasn't happened since 2004 in skydiving in Norway. It's just a really tragic accident. It could have happened anywhere."

For now, it is his family and Headhunters that are occupying his thoughts.

From the moment it was shown at festivals last year, speculation began over who would play Roger Brown when the inevitable Hollywood remake comes along.

In the past week it has emerged that Mark Wahlberg is likely to get the role but at the time of our meeting Hennie has only one name in mind.

"Myself," he says only half-joking.

"Whoever it is he needs to be short," says the 5'7'' star.

Headhunters is in cinemas from Friday

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