The Bridge’s Sofia Helin: my love/hate relationship with Saga Noren

The star of BBC4's hit Danish/Swedish co-production says she sometimes "can't stand" her character Saga – so why does she keep coming back to her?

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When we last tuned in to the bleak, wintry Scandi crime drama The Bridge, things had taken a tricky turn for our two detectives.

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The flawed, emotional, likeable Dane, Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia), had just been arrested for poisoning the man who had killed his son. And Sofia Helin’s Swedish cop Saga Noren had sniffed out her partner’s crimes and shopped him.

Martin was last seen looking ruefully at her during his arrest while Saga looked on impassively. It appeared that loyalty did not matter to Saga, nor empathy, her Asperger’s-type condition leaving her short on both. It was getting the job done that was important.

Since then, Bodnia and The Bridge creator Hans Rosenfeldt disagreed over how his character would operate in series three, which starts on Saturday. Bodnia thought he should stay in prison; Rosenfeldt wanted him free. In the end Bodnia pulled out in April 2014, leaving Rosenfeldt to make hasty rewrites for filming due that autumn. Much of the plot stayed intact but Saga was given a new partner, Henrik Sabroe (Thure Lindhardt). Rosenfeldt says there was (and remains) no ill feeling.

But how did all this affect Sofia Helin, the woman behind the Porsche-driving, leather trouser-wearing brilliant oddball that is Saga?

“It was a painful process before the decision was made,” she says, “and at first I was terrified, unhappy and, of course, sad. But I quite quickly realised this was an opportunity for me as an actor to use the situation. So I started using it, and said, ‘Sofia, step forward and do it.’ We had a new energy to do something completely new.”

As fans of the show will have clocked by now, Saga is the kind of woman who would have been pleased to be working by herself. But her new partner Henrik is someone with whom she has a “good relationship”, says Rosenfeldt. “We couldn’t have them fighting for ten episodes, and we have found that if people take against Saga on screen they end up being hated by the audience!”

This series is as dark as ever (in every sense) and sees Saga investigate the murder of a gay woman (and pioneer of Denmark’s first gender-neutral preschool) in an apparent gesture against her supposed betrayal of family values.

Family and prejudice is a clear theme and the series will also see Saga face up to the suicide of her sister Jennifer, mentioned in the last series. And we meet her “awful” (her words) mother for the first time. “It was hard to go into her past – quite depressing actually,” adds Helin. “The guilt, the suicide of a kid… I had to go into really dark places within me to find her dark places so I spent months in darkness.”

Rosenfeldt really puts Saga through the mill in series three. “She’s not on top of things, and we see her emotion affecting her work for the first time,” he says. But he was keen to have a lower body count from the “ridiculous” 37 corpses that piled up in series two.

“Because I am so much into my character I don’t count bodies,” says Helin. “I am so much into Saga, I see everything from her perspective… It’s the story, the psychological issues that I am interested in and what makes people do what they do.”

Thure Lindhart as Saga’s new partner Henrik

Part of the fascination of The Bridge is its exploration of the differences between Swedes and Danes, who live on opposite sides of the Oresund Bridge that the programme is named after. This new series draws attention to the Danish notion that the Swedes are much more politically correct, and to the two countries’ different approaches to the refugee crisis: the Swedes have taken in many more displaced people than Denmark (and the UK), something Helin says her countrymen and women should be proud of.

“You’re taking 4,000 a year and your population is 64 million and we are taking 100,000 and we are nine million. So we have to discuss it. It’s a big responsibility we have. I am so proud of Sweden, I think it’s so beautiful.

“When you make it simple, say, if someone stood outside your door saying, ‘They are killing me, will you let me come in?’, could you say no? Why do you have to make it more complicated than that? If they are coming to ask us, don’t we have to open our doors? After a few years people coming in start to gain for the country.”

Helin’s social awareness also extended to the character. While Rosenfeldt has always resisted diagnosing Saga’s condition (“It means we are free to do what we want with her as a character”), Helin is clear she has a form of Asperger’s syndrome. “Saga would never go to a doctor to diagnose herself,” says Helin firmly, “and she has avoided that all her life. She knows she’s different and she knows about Asperger’s as well. If some-one asked her she would say: “It might be but it’s not important. It’s important that I can work and I am good at that.’

“For me it was a great help to read about and meet people with Asperger’s. I went out onto the streets being her, to experience how other people would react. I am talking to you now. I am seeing you, I am hearing you, but what happens when people don’t? It was interesting.”

Playing such a demanding character does, however, take its toll on her life at home, where she lives with her husband Daniel Gotschenhjelm, an actor turned Church of Sweden priest, and their young children (son Ossian and daughter Nike).

“When I am playing Saga my husband can sense I am not as emotionally present as I am otherwise. When I stopped I had to make a real effort to stop my brain being her way of thinking and being more me. What we have in common is the passion about work. We never stop working. Otherwise we are quite different. But what happens is when I am being her for such a long time it affects me. I become a bit like her.”

She says she is a “believer” in God, but would not necessarily describe herself as a conventional Christian. But there is no denying her warmth and humanity, especially when talking about Saga. “I love her, I care for her and I can’t stand her at the same time,” she laughs. “She would be annoying in real life, but as the viewer you love her. I don’t get a good feeling being her. She’s tense in her body, she moves fast. She exhausts me.

“I think of her a lot when I am not playing her. She’s like a relative, a close cousin you are forced to hang out with all summer even if you don’t like her. Because I wouldn’t want to hang out with her. Who would?”

A lot of men, probably. It takes a while to get on to that subject, but the idea of being a sex symbol is something that prompts her to screw up her nose in distaste. “That’s not something I think about when I am playing her. I heard she is a feminist icon and that’s something I want to hear… the other things, I don’t know. Some students at a Q and A in London said she is now a feminist icon and that really made me happy.”

Happiness? It’s a rare commodity in Saga’s world – so it’s one that should be treasured.

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The Bridge returns to BBC4 tonight (Saturday 21st November) at 9.00pm