The car park in a sleepy Copenhagen suburb called Soborg boasts no fewer than three discount supermarkets. But it is barely 7.30am and, as she parks her little black Skoda, Sofie Grabol isn’t here to shop. Instead, Grabol walks to the far corner of the car park, heads through an unmarked snicket and then turns left to a long, low-rise building. She punches in a code, and two huge black doors click open. On one of them, its text peeling but still legible, is a small red-and-white logo: “DR Fiktion”. Though it’s hard to believe at first look, this unassuming building is where they make the best drama series in the world – The Killing.
Grabol walks through the oh-so-Danish outer lobby, with its beige marble floor, floor-to-ceiling windows, and blond Scandinavian furniture. Opening another heavy door, she heads into a darkened studio. This, suddenly, is somewhere very familiar – the “squad room” of Copenhagen police headquarters. By 7.50am – though still dressed in her own pale pink blouse and high heels – Grabol is in character as Danish police detective Sarah Lund, and rehearsing.
Her co-star, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, has joined her. In this third series, Lie Kaas plays Mathias Borch, a Danish Special Branch officer who effectively becomes Lund’s new sidekick. Lie Kaas is, says Grabol, the best actor of our generation in Denmark. “When we were casting series three of The Killing, I texted him and said, ‘If you do it, I’ll jump in the harbour with joy.’ I still owe him that…”
Grabol and Lie Kaas are filming the final episodes for the third series, and this morning’s scene will be the last ever to be shot in the show’s iconic interrogation room. If I told you – before the series even starts in the UK – which character was being interrogated, I would almost certainly have to kill you. But ironically Grabol, who is having trouble learning her lines, envies the suspect their ordeal. “My dream – and I will never live it – is to sit on the other side of the table in the interrogation room,” she says. “It’s so much easier for them. They get the question asked. When you’re asking the questions, you jump all the time, and what they say doesn’t prompt your next line.”
After dozens of production crew appear – seemingly out of nowhere – for a brief production meeting at 8.15am, Grabol and Lie Kaas head off through a door marked “Sminke”. Which, I discover from an embarrassing chat with the production secretary, means not “toilets” but “make-up”. As Grabol sits in the make-up chair, she is clutching her “pink pages” – the crew’s jargon for late revisions to the script.
“I’m fast at learning lines, we all are, but it’s hard when you get them so late,” says Grabol. “It’s all complicated forensic detail, and we only got it yesterday.” She makes the action of one hand patting her head while the other circles her stomach.
“It’s best if I can read them at home, then do something physical, wash a floor or something. But there comes a point when I have to go through them with the other actors, so we finish learning them while we’re in make-up.”
But Grabol is the author of at least part of her own misfortune. She is in almost constant dialogue about her lines with The Killing’s creator and head writer, Soren Sveistrup. When I head off to interview Sveistrup, at lunchtime the next day, Grabol has already been on the phone to him four times from a location shoot. “Sofie has made every word I’ve written better – I couldn’t have done it without her,” says Sveistrup, and he sounds entirely genuine.
Back in Soborg, it’s nearly 9.00am, and Grabol is now in costume. Today, she’s wearing a flimsy plain black V-neck top – not the famous Nordic sweater. The story leading up to today’s scene has had Sarah Lund working all hours – hence taking the sweater off. At the beginning of the series, she experiments with a different jumper entirely – minus the trademark snowflake pattern. And very briefly, she even wears high heels.
“It just didn’t work. The first scene where I had to run, a chase scene, I fell. And I really, really, really fell,” says Grabol. “You can’t run in heels. It was ridiculous. So we went back to the flat shoes.”
In the studio, the props crew are putting together a sheaf of forensic photographs that Lund will use to challenge the suspect as well as treating the one-way mirror in the interrogation room to a crafty squirt of Windolene. The first take, explains director Fabian Wullenweber, is set to use a new camera angle – and he points straight upwards to a hole in the ceiling, which has a camera staring vertically down. “We’ll shoot this scene from a lot of different camera angles, and then cut them together rapidly to give a sense of how the suspect is feeling confused, disorientated,” says Wullenweber, adding that modern editing technology allows the sound, especially dialogue, to be seamlessly matched to visual shots from lots of different takes.
He starts, at 9.05am, with that overhead shot – as well as a shot through the window behind Grabol and Lie Kaas, framing the suspect’s face and the back of their heads. Wullenweber is acutely aware of the issue of learning lines: by 11.00am, he has already done four takes of the scene, with two camera angles each, and is only just about to focus in on Grabol and Lie Kaas’s faces. “We save these angles till later – they’ll be warmed up by now,” he explains.
But Wullenweber has another force of nature to contend with: Grabol’s sense of humour. In person, she could not be more different from Sarah Lund: warm, outgoing and, most of all, giggly. Lie Kaas, it seems, brings out the worst in her and, sure enough, she corpses. “For Satan,” she chides herself, several times (it’s Danish for “goddammit”). “Nikolaj said, when we were doing that scene, it’s like I’m running on the water, and there are little stones, and I jump from stone to stone,” she explains later. “Hopefully I get to the end of the scene with dry feet.”
At noon the crew breaks for lunch – which includes the remnants of some rather delicious cake that was delivered for Grabol’s 44th birthday earlier that week. The Killing’s producer, Piv Bernth, takes me for a tour of this slightly melancholy building. Alongside Sveistrup and Grabol, Bernth is the third strand of what she calls The Killing’s “creative DNA” – she has now been promoted to head of drama for DR, Denmark’s public service broadcaster.
In another studio, an entire house is now being constructed for a new DR series. But this, explains Bernth, is where the Birk Larsens’ removals depot was constructed for series one of The Killing – she shows me the huge doors that once opened out on to their yard.
“Over there was our ‘back lot’”, gestures Bernth, explaining that the Copenhagen skyline was painted on huge boards. But Bernth had to do a deal with the local fire department in Soborg – the boards were sufficiently flimsy that, if a fire broke out in the studio, the cast and crew could jump in the red Birk Larsen vans and drive straight through them.
Before shooting restarts for the afternoon, Bernth leaves me to chat with Lie Kaas, an amiable chap who seems unmoved by the fact that his predecessors in series one and two both met sticky ends. His Special Branch character is brought in because the case involves one of Denmark’s richest families but, says Lie Kaas, there is more to his relationship with Lund. “We have some sort of connection, from way back when at police academy. They knew each other, there’s a personal angle to this,” he says. “They’re old friends – maybe more than that – and things didn’t work out. This kind of tension is definitely an issue.”
So do Borch and Lund get together in series three? “I can’t tell you that. Can I? I can’t.”
Shooting reconvenes for the afternoon, with the action now among the desks and files of the police squad room. I perch at a police desk, out of shot, but surrounded by props left over from previous series – there’s a note on a file in front of me signed “Jan Meyer” (Lund’s partner in series one) and, on the windowsill, a memo from the office of Thomas Buch (the beleaguered Justice Minister from series two).
When filming finishes after a long day, it seems too much to ask Grabol to start posing for press pictures. But, in typical Danish style, nothing is too much trouble for her – she even puts The Sweater on specially. Sarah Lund then “interrogates” me in the interview room, and we find a rail full of three series worth of jumpers.
And, when the camera finishes flashing, Grabol won’t hear of me taking a cab back into town. She bundles me into her Skoda, throwing a pair of trainers out of the way so I can get into the passenger seat. Is she, I wonder, getting a sense of how it will feel to say goodbye to Sarah Lund? “Yes, I am getting a sense, and I’m dreading it, I’m really dreading it. I think it’s pathetic, to feel that way – it’s a character, it’s a job. But I must say, it’s going to be like a divorce. And all divorces – I know this – are a mix of relief and grief.”
What fans want to know, of course, is whether Sveistrup will leave the door open – even a tiny crack – for Sarah Lund to return. When I ask him that question directly, he pauses to think. “Is that the same as asking me if I’m going to kill her?” he asks – then roars with laughter. “I’m not going to tell. And… it’s not written yet.”
Whether Lund survives or not, Grabol at least is promised a proper send-off by the crew. She explains that Bernth, the producer, is insisting that the very last scene to be filmed must include Lund. “Piv’s not going to stray from that – she wants the very last shot to be of Sarah Lund,” says Grabol. “And I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do that last take. It’s going to be emotional.”
Maybe, I suggest, Sarah Lund will finally learn how to cry. “Oh, I hope not,” says Grabol. “I really hope not.”
The Killing III begins tonight at 9:00pm on BBC4