Sofia Helin explains why it will be a "relief" to say goodbye to Saga Noren and The Bridge
The Swedish actress prepares for what's set to be the final series of Scandi drama The Bridge – and reveals her ambitions for what to do next
The Swedes say S-ahh-ga; the Danes say S-eyyy-ga. But please don’t call the whole thing off. Alas, this is being trumpeted as the final season of The Bridge. Sofia Helin, its star, however, has talked about being brought back in her 50s so, you know, is it just wishful thinking to say: “Sag aldrig aldrig”? (Never say never, in Swedish.)
Sofia Helin is perfectly groomed, with lustrous locks and bright eyes which immediately meet your gaze. In fact, it’s hard to see any trace of Saga in this charming woman, with her friendly manner and ready smile. Only when she’s in front of a camera, looking far off in the distance, does she assume that remote, slightly puzzled frown, with the raised eyebrows, and I feel a familiar rush of affection.
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Saga inspires legions of fans, some bordering on obsessive. Helin tells me of one woman who turned up to an event, dressed in exactly the same clothes as the detective’s unchanging uniform – leather trousers, military boots, greatcoat – all in shades of drab khaki and dung. “She had even bought the same car,” Helin adds, still slightly astonished, referring to Saga’s 1970s olive Porsche 911, which has its own cult following.
We repair to a small room, where Helin balances a canteen-style lunch of chicken and chips on her lap, opening onto it a bag of edamame beans, bought the previous day as emergency healthy food rations, which keep pinging haphazardly off the plate.
She loves it, she tells me, when people tell her Saga is their feminist icon: “Oh, it makes me so happy. That’s the most beautiful compliment I can get.”
Last year, Harvey Weinstein revelations led to the global #MeToo movement, with its various national iterations. Sweden’s version is called tystnadtagning, translating as “Silence, action”, which is what the director shouts out before the cameras start filming. Helin was one of more than a hundred actresses, holding hands and wearing black T-shirts with the tystnadtagning slogan, at the Swedish Oscars held in Stockholm in January.
This action followed a collective letter, full of stories by actresses of their own sexual abuse in the industry – the difference to their American colleagues being that the Swedish sisterhood decided to keep the whole enterprise anonymous, both for the victims and the perpetrators. But the whole reason this movement has taken off, I suggest, is precisely because of the toppling of the massive behemoth of Weinstein. Without him being personally pursued, would Silence, Action, and its like, even exist? And are you not naming and shaming because you don’t want to burn bridges?
“No, no! Not at all! It’s to not make a war. To make it peaceful. I really admire and I thank all the women in the world who have named people – when they do it right – but I don’t think that’s the way of progressing. I think the way to progress is by going together to expose the structure,” she says, in her gentle voice – most unlike Saga’s monosyllabic bark.
The result of her union’s investigation into sexual harassment in the theatre, film and television industry revealed that 65 per cent of women reported having been sexually harassed. “The numbers are crazy. So we have to look at the structure. It’s not just one man or two – and it’s not just them, it’s also us. We have all agreed, in a way. We have been blind and now we can see.”
Are you saying that women have been complicit? “No, not quite,” she says, aware of having to tread lightly here or risk blaming the victim. “But when it happened to me or to someone I know, we have been joking about it – even though it hurts. Instead of standing up and saying, ‘Hey! No! What are you doing?’”
It’s important, though, to point out that the most common reaction to sexual harassment is to freeze – “and you can never discern that in advance. However powerful, great and tough you are, you never know how you would be. So you should never judge someone from their reaction.”
She and her husband, Daniel Gotschenhjelm, an actor turned priest with the Church of Sweden, have two children – Ossian, 14, and Nike (pronounced Nik-eh), 9, named after the Greek goddess of victory, rather than her sports shoe namesake. When I ask Helin how she would feel about her children following her into acting, she breaks into a panic-stricken little hum: “Hmm, mmm, ahhh… Yeah, if they love it.” She clears her throat: “If 65 per cent of Swedish actresses are being harassed, until now…” So you would worry more about your daughter than your son? “Unfortunately, yes.”
Her advice to a young woman entering her profession would be to hook up with an older woman for support, “and we should also look out more for the younger ones. I say to my colleagues who are my age and older: ‘Find yourself someone to take care of – don’t see someone younger as a threat.’ Because I think the young women shouldn’t go to a job and feel: ‘Oh, how am I going to protect myself?’ I just want them to go to work and DO IT!” she almost bellows.
Feminism is not a dirty word in progressive Sweden and Helin is proud to say she wears “feministic spectacles that I cannot take off, even if I wanted to. I had them before but now it’s like I sharpened them even more.”
A by-product of the #MeToo movement is that it has given women across the world confidence in other areas and has acted as a catalyst for wider shifts. Sweden’s Silence, Action group – numbering 70,000 supporters and rising – was contacted, in solidarity, by the women soldiers of the Kurdish Peshmerga, fighting Isis. Helin has called it a revolution and she is palpably excited by its possibilities: “This new movement makes it feel possible to do anything. I guess that’s what guys used to feel previously.”
As an actress, for example, she now feels emboldened to share her views on how her character can develop and because of that other women tell her that her example has made them more confident, “which makes me have courage to raise my voice even more openly”.
On The Bridge, she gives even quite strange suggestions – as she puts it – and the team take what they need for the story. “It can be just out of the blue and I don’t need to feel ashamed – people are not raising their eyebrows. On other sets, what I’ve heard is: ‘You’re an actor. Don’t think. Just say your lines.’ ”
She mentions the company that makes “’Omeland ” – Helin speaks good, Swedishinflected English, with the odd mis-word – and how they’re looking for actors to contribute to their projects: “They call it ‘intelligent actors’,” she says with a wry smile. “They want them to be having their own sayings about the script, and I figure that I’ve learnt something and so many ideas pop up inside of me, so why not bring them out?”
Another way forward is to be actively in charge of the scripts and casting – and she’s developing a number of projects with other women. One is called Honour, a thriller inspired by an actual law firm of women who are trying to change the law regarding consent and rape. The story is about four female lawyers who studied together but have a lifelong secret. They start a law firm – which is when the Scandi noir becomes very noir indeed. Helin is not acting in it but is one of the producers, all women. She also has what she describes as “an English project” in her computer and is looking for an English writer – step forward Sally Wainwright and Abi Morgan!
What she loves is working with other women. “Because we are always just ONE woman. And I think the new and wonderful thing about this #MeToo movement is that women are coming together and that is so beautiful. In Sweden, we have a new connection between colleagues that wasn’t there before.”
Does Helin have concerns about roles drying up as she gets older – she is 46. “I hope to have food on the table but I think I will manage somehow,” she says. “And I think the audience will not accept this concept of the older man with a younger woman for too much longer.” Another project in development is a comedy dealing with senior sexuality.
So… Saga. Helin says that she can reveal some things about the opening of the new season, without spoiling it – those who are behind on catch-up please look away now! We left Saga and her Danish counterpart Henrik – both out of the police force for different reasons – committed to finding Henrik’s two daughters, who disappeared eight years previously.
“It has been more than a year since the last sequence and Saga is now in prison for killing her mother. She is so depressed and she’s in a very bad place from the start. She is not a police officer any more, and she starts wondering, ‘What am I? Who am I? Am I anything without my identity as a police officer?’”
How will it be for her to say goodbye to Saga? “It will be a relief,” she says. “It’s not an easy way to live, playing her. Eight months of filming and in the darkest months. And in dark places, which is depressing. But I love working with the people, so that’s what makes me sad. But leaving the character and that world – that’s a relief. I’m also content with the ending.”
What is fascinating is that Helin believes that playing Saga has in some way rewired her brain. The first season, for her, was as hard as learning to play the piano. But as it became more natural for her to think and move like the character, she felt herself change: “I am so interested in psychology and I learnt that if you behave in a certain way, often enough, it becomes a pattern and changes your brain.
“I’m grateful for that because it has added something to my personality that I can use. The interesting thing about that, when you really think about it, is then you really choose who you are. And that’s a bit scary!”
There is a sensitivity about Helin that is immediately apparent; a desire to be open and balanced with a strong self-protective streak. She looks delicate in her pale blue blouse with pussy bow and gold spangled ballet pumps, but she knows her own mind. When I ask her about her husband – it is unusual to turn from acting to the priesthood – she says that everyone is intrigued but he has been “quite strict with me, saying, ‘I don’t want you to talk about ME in your interviews.’ And I must respect that.” He does watch The Bridge – “and he thinks that I am doing a good job”.
When she was ten days old, her six-year-old brother was killed in an accident while riding his bicycle. Her parents divorced when Sofia was four and what she remembers of her earliest years is sadness. The scar on her lip is the consequence also of a bicycle accident – she came to in an ambulance and had lost a number of teeth. She still cycles but with a helmet and doesn’t allow her youngest child to cycle in the city. “I wouldn’t recommend any children to cycle in the city before the age of 12, because your brain isn’t developed enough to be aware of how long the distance is. Therefore it’s better not."
I wonder, finally, how ambitious she is? Is she keener on her career or more interested in a better work-life balance? She’s not sure that America appeals – “no matter how much money or how famous it would make me, if the project wasn’t right, I wouldn’t go.
“The success of The Bridge has been so overwhelming, so huge, and I am so grateful. But what I always sense is that with your creativity, you have to be very gentle. It’s like with your sex life, I think.” A little laugh. “You have to treat it well, plant it and give it good earth and good nourishment.”
The next big thing for Helin after Scandi noir? It looks like it’s going to be Scandi joie.