The Bridge star Sofia Helin: It's hard to get out of the role of Saga

“It’s only now that I feel completely myself again. I’ve felt closed down, spiritually closed down," says Helin

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The Bridge star Sofia Helin: It's hard to get out of the role of Saga
Written By
Neil Midgley

It’s not easy playing Saga Noren. Emotionally detached, socially awkward, repulsively honest: Malmo’s blonde detective has haunted viewers since the first series of the Swedish/ Danish cop show The Bridge, and positively bedevils the actress who plays her. “I had a harder time getting out of Saga this time,” says Sofia Helin, six months after wrapping the second series, which starts on BBC4 this week. “It’s only now that I feel completely myself again. I’ve felt closed down, spiritually closed down.” Even her own kids, says Helin, may have noticed the chill. “But I hope it’s so subtle that they don’t notice too much.”

Helin herself comes across as anything but cold or closed down. She smiles and laughs easily, and her eyes have a warmth that Saga could never project. Her English – fluent, with just the occasional glitch, and spoken in a soft Swedish accent – is reminiscent of interviews given by Abba’s female singers in the 1970s. And Helin’s own life is, both geographically and psychologically, a world away from Saga’s.

The Bridge is set and filmed in Malmo, on Sweden’s south-western tip (as well, of course, as in nearby Danish capital Copenhagen, and on the Oresund bridge that connects the two). Helin lives in the centre of the Swedish capital, Stockholm, 400 miles to the north east.


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She laughs at the idea – fed by shows such as Borgen – that all Scandinavians live in scrupulously clean apartments furnished entirely in blond wood. “Ours is as clean as it gets when you have children, you know,” she laughs. No point spending 10,000 krona on a lampshade, then? “No. You have to have toys all over, all the time.”

When she is away from home playing Saga, Helin hankers to be with those kids: her son Ossian, who is ten, and daughter Nike (pronounced Nee-keh), who is four.

“Just ordinary things,” she says. “Taking them to daycare and school, reading to them, being with them.” Being normal? “Being perfectly normal.” As a result, filming each series – which takes eight months – is “hard” (and there’s more to come: The Bridge has already been recommissioned for a third series).

It helps that Sweden has a progressive childcare system – of which Helin is a vocal supporter. “We have daycare for everybody, and it doesn’t cost a fortune. I’m very proud of that.” She is particularly proud of Nike’s daycare, which, she says, has “gender thinking” – meaning they treat boys and girls equally. “They don’t call, ‘Come on, boys’ or ‘Come on, girls,’ ” she explains. “They say, ‘Come on, friends.’”

It’s a stereotype that equality and good-neighbourliness are passed down by the Swedes in their blood. But Helin has fancier credentials, too: before she became an actress, her undergraduate degree was in “the history of ideas” – a variant of what we would call philosophy. (In a delightful detail that won’t be lost on fans of The Killing, Helin attended Lund University.)

Daniel Gotschenhjelm, Helin’s husband, also used to be an actor – but has now become a priest in the Church of Sweden. However, says Helin, “That’s his world,” adding that she doesn’t get involved in her husband’s church business.


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Their son Ossian, by contrast, still has the ungodly priorities of a ten-year-old. “He understands now that I’m an official person,” says Helin – “official person” being her literal translation of the Swedish for “celebrity”. “He has seen some of my work, but he doesn’t care so much. I said to him, ‘What do you want me to say when they ask what you think of it?’ And he said to me, ‘Just say that I’m interested in football.’”

The one thing Helin does share with Saga is a dislike of shopping. “I try to shop online. All my food, Christmas gifts, everything.” Her character seems to have so few clothes in her wardrobe that Helin’s forced to wear the same pair of sludge-coloured leather trousers, which have become one of The Bridge’s visual badges. “They’re very practical, because they’re warm,” she says. “But I wear them every day and I get very tired of them. To wear brown and grey things every day, the same clothes, for months, it’s quite boring after a while. But it helps me to get into the part.”

Saga’s other trademark – her vintage Porsche 911 – also arouses strong feelings in Helin. “It’s horrible, I hate that car.” She pauses for a moment. “I don’t hate it. I love-hate it. The thing is, it’s so hard to drive.” Yet the trusty Porsche is, inevitably, pressed into service right at the start of series two, taking Saga to Copenhagen to find her Danish sparring partner, Martin Rohde (played by Kim Bodnia).

A ship has been in a collision – and, with equal inevitability, it has crashed into one of the pillars of the Oresund bridge. It has been mysteriously abandoned by its crew, but in the hold the coast-guard find five young adults tied up and in pretty bad shape. What unfolds is a story that – like series one – has a social conscience, this time focusing on environmental issues.

In the fictional narrative, it’s been 13 months since the bloody denouement of series one and, importantly for The Bridge’s fans, Saga, too, has moved on. She has met a new man – you’ll see him moving into her flat in the first episode – and stays up late into the night reading library books such as Codes for a Better Relationship and Emotions in Social Relations.

“She can learn, mechanically, how to behave in different situations,” says Helin. “But she can never be intelligent in a social way.” Later episodes will see Saga confronted with secrets from her past. “By exposing her to that, she had to open up,” says Helin. So, does Saga’s past help to explain her foibles? “No,” says Helin.

“She just is the way she is.” In the second series her double act with Martin intensifies. Martin has been in therapy to help him deal with the death of his son at the end of the first series, but when Saga asks him to assist with this new case, he instantly abandons his shrink – finding Saga’s company infinitely more therapeutic. And the pull is mutual: Saga could, of course, have allowed the Danish police to assign any officer to the case, instead of personally seeking out Martin. “Saga would say, ‘He is Danish, and Danish people are not good policemen, but he is quite good,’” explains Helin. She pauses, and then sums up the difference between her life and her art in a single comment. “I would say, it’s love. Not sexual love, human love. But Saga would never say that.” 

The Bridge, Saturday 9:00pm, BBC4


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