The Bridge star Sofia Helin on Saga Norén: “Audiences still seem to be fascinated by her”

Barry Forshaw gets to know Helin and why she thinks The Bridge has been such a success

British viewers are once again in the midst of a wave of obsession for Scandinavian crime drama as the second series of quirky Swedish/Danish The Bridge plays out at 9pm on Saturday evenings on BBC4.


The UK taste for dramatised Scandinavian crime was piqued by The Killing, and, to a large degree, the momentum was maintained with the later crime series. Björn Stein’s The Bridge acquired a dedicated following (eager for the second season after its serial killer, the “Truth Terrorist”, was brought to justice); the perfectly acceptable Anglo-French remake, The Tunnel, however, did nothing to slake our appetite.

So what was the secret of The Bridge? One crucial factor was its infuriating but likeable heroine, Saga Norén. The series may have utilised familiar themes, but it gave them an idiosyncratic twist. In case you need reminding: a body is discovered on the Oresund bridge between Sweden and Denmark — two bodies, in fact: the torso and legs belong to different victims. The ill-assorted female/male cop duo with equal jurisdiction and obliged to work together on the case (one Swedish, one Danish) are wonderfully played by Sofia Helin and Kim Bodnia.

But perfect though the amiable Bodnia was, it was the striking Sofia Helin’s performance as the eccentric Saga Norén that made her a cult figure, particularly for those of us missing The Killing’s Sarah Lund. Sofia as Saga matched Lund’s lack of interpersonal skills and pushed this to almost cosmic levels, sporting a hilarious inability to relate to other human beings; in this area, she makes even The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander, look as sympathetic as an agony aunt.

I knew that I had to ask Sofia about the remake of The Bridge, the Channel-hopping The Tunnel — what did she think of the actress Clémence Poésy’s uncommunicative French version of Saga?

Frankly, I was expecting a polite response — I couldn’t see Sofia making negative remarks about another actress — but she turned the tables on me; she had seen only a short extract from The Tunnel, and, in the event, it was her asking me about the series. It was up to me to be diplomatic… but I began with the question she usually shakes her head at.

BARRY FORSHAW: I know you’ve been asked this before, so forgive me, but why do you think The Bridge has proved so popular in the UK?

SOFIA HELIN: The answer to that is: I don’t know! And I remember that Sofie Gråbøl said something similar about The Killing. I have one theory about The Bridge: the character I play is more extreme in her behaviour than, say, Sarah Lund, so she’s a kind of a phenomenon in herself. Audiences still seem to be fascinated by her, and as for the basic pursuit of a killer plot… well, that’s universal, and if it’s well done (which I hope it is) people will be gripped by that.

BF: Isn’t the most interesting thing for audiences not so much the serial killer plot as the difficult relationship between the very human Martin and the difficult Saga?

SH: Of course, and it goes without saying that viewers will be interested in that contrast. To some degree, Kim Bodnia’s character, Martin, is there to reflect what the audience is thinking: when Saga does something outrageous or socially unacceptable, it is through his eyes that we see her — he can act as a kind of surrogate.

BF: And those interactions are often very funny…

SH: Ah ha! I think you’ve touched on another reason for the success of the show. There have been brusque, blunt women detectives before — Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander and Sarah Lund, of course — but although there was dark humour there, it was sort of in the gaps and the shows were deadly serious.

Although the first season of The Bridge dealt with the murders of homeless people, we were aware that we were making the clashes between Martin and Saga more humorous than people had seen before in such relationships — as she gets more unthinkingly rude, the audience response is amusement.

BF: Her bizarre antisocial behaviour appears to be due to a possible medical condition, but I believe that you and the writer Hans Rosenfeld never wanted to identify that as Asperger’s syndrome, right?

SH: Absolutely! Audiences can draw their own conclusions as to why she behaves the way she does, but we didn’t want a straightforward medical explanation that would allow audiences to pin her down and simply say: “Ah, that’s why she is the way she is.” I did study people with Asperger’s syndrome, so I was able to build elements of what I’d observed into my characterisation, but this was not a kind of medical case study — that wasn’t the kind of programme we were trying to make.

BF: You mention Lisbeth Salander, and, similarly, Saga in her own way does not deal with people in what most of us recognise as a “normal” fashion — but she is different from the tattooed, hostile Lisbeth in that she does function as part of a police unit, although her colleagues regard her as odd.

SH: Yes, she is able to function with other people, even though she doesn’t understand such things as the necessity to lie for the sake of people’s feelings. But she can do her job, and of course she is a fantastically intuitive detective, almost (in some ways) as a result of her condition.

BF: But she remains undiagnosed…

SH: Actually, I think that the very fact that she is undiagnosed is a clue as to why the character of Saga has a certain truthfulness — and why people have accepted her. She is very intelligent, and has been able to bypass her limitations — even, perhaps, use them to do her job. It’s not so much that she hasn’t had time to be diagnosed, it’s the fact that she doesn’t feel the need — she just gets on with her life. If she needs something, she will go out and get it, although not necessarily in the most diplomatic way.

BF: As, for instance, with her sexual needs? She has an unromantic encounter in a bar, with none of the usual preliminaries and none of the necessary affection we’re supposed to show after such encounters.

SH: Correct. Sex for Saga is simply an itch that needs to be scratched occasionally, with zero emotional commitment. Someone she meets in a bar will do, if he’s presentable.

BF: Apart from studying people with Asperger’s as you mentioned before, how did you get inside Saga’s skin? Were you able to identify with her?

SH: Obviously for an actor that is the crucial thing. You need to be able to understand why your character behaves the way they do and be… well, affectionate towards them — to like them the way you might like yourself. Initially I looked at Saga as something like a blank wall, and then something happened: that blank wall became a glass wall, and I was able to look through it and see the kind of woman she was. I was able to become Saga.

BF: As the two cities in the show are Copenhagen in Denmark and Malmö in Sweden, there is the kind of culture shock that comes when the two detectives interact; they’re both Scandinavians, but to some degree are foreigners to each other. But there isn’t too much about the clash of cultures in The Bridge, is there?

SH: I don’t think that would be particularly interesting, do you? We obviously have to have some of that in there, and it is a Swedish/Danish co-production. We don’t ignore it, but it’s not necessarily a particularly interesting aspect.

BF: Kim Bodnia told me that there was more of this culture shock element in the show originally, but he persuaded people to play it down.

SH: I think we all agreed on that. The most interesting thing is the relationship between the two detectives and the tracking down of a ruthless, intelligent killer.

BF: Of course, the culture shock we’ve just been talking about has been transposed to another show, The Tunnel, with France and England replacing Sweden and Denmark — and Clémence Poésy playing a French version of Saga. I don’t know how many times you’ve already been asked this — and if you haven’t, this will be the first of many — but have you seen it? And what do you think of Clémence Poésy’s new version of the character you created?

SH: Please believe me that I’m not being diplomatic when I say that I can’t express a view — I’ve only seen a short extract of it! You tell me: what’s it like?

BF: Well, it’s rather like the American version of The Killing — a perfectly creditable reimagining that nevertheless offers no real competition to the original show.

SH: Is that because you know what’s going to happen in The Tunnel?

BF: The plot has been tweaked slightly, but Clémence Poésy is given less to do than you were, and her character is far less outlandish. But let’s get back to you… do people in Sweden expect you to be like Saga when they meet you?

SH: No, they don’t — I’ve done a lot of work over there, so people know me for a variety of things: Saga is just one of the characters I’ve played. It’s different in England, where I’m really only known for her.

BF: I guess you’d like to change that situation?

SH: Hopefully I can! There’s a film I’ve made which I hope will be shown in the UK — set in modern times but with a Viking theme — and if people see more of the work that I’ve done, they’ll realise that Saga and I could not be less alike: she is light years away from the kind of personality I am. But then it’s an actor’s job to make you believe in the reality of a character, isn’t it? And that’s what I was trying to do with Saga in The Bridge.

Sofia Helin will be among the guests at a Radio Times-hosted panel at Nordicana 2014, the festival of Nordic fiction and film which takes place in London on 1 and 2 February

The Bridge is on Saturdays at 9pm on BBC4