Anders Danielsen Lie may be the consummate multitasker. In the past year, he took two films to Cannes in which he turned out two of the year’s best performances — and, oh, he’s also a doctor pioneering COVID-19 and flu vaccines in his home country of Norway.
For that reason, the 42-year-old actor — who stars in 2021 arthouse favorites “Bergman Island” and “The Worst Person in the World” — still feels like a stranger in the world of show business, and it’s a position he’s comfortable maintaining.
“I feel like a tourist sometimes in the film industry, in a good sense of that word. I can always say that I actually have a foot in the real world,” Danielsen Lie explained to IndieWire over Zoom out of Oslo, where he works as a general practitioner and a municipal doctor for the state. He’s been called a “COVID-19 hero” and “2021’s hottest actor-doctor,” but the cool collectedness he oozes during our interview indeed suggests someone whose feet are firmly on the ground.
That steady comportment surely comes from being a doctor who’s forced to exude calm in a crisis, and he is similarly unwavering in his roles in “Bergman Island” and “Worst Person.” In Mia Hansen-Love’s former film, he’s the unflappable (but spoken-for) side lover of Mia Wasikowska, the sort of disaffected fuckboy (a phrase that, in our conversation, Danielsen Lie didn’t correct) who’d almost certainly include “ethical non-monogamy” on his Tinder profile. In Joachim Trier’s “Worst Person,” he’s an emotionally available, ready-to-settle-down comic-book artist who weathers the stormy mental and romantic fluctuations of his girlfriend Julie (Renata Reinsve).
“I tried to play Anksel with some slight control issues,” Danielsen Lie said of his “Worst Person” character, a man in his early forties trying to navigate a relationship with indecisive millennial Julie, on the cusp of her thirties and waffling between various professional pursuits.
“There are scenes where he is not exactly ‘mansplaining’ here, but he’s trying to define her emotions and articulate what she thinks and feels, and that’s also what she has been using him for to: be confirmed and find an identity,” he said. “But at a certain point, she’s just annoyed with that. She’s tired of him always articulating or putting words on her thoughts and feelings. Deep down, he is a sympathetic character, or at least that’s how I tried to play him. She’s a millennial, and he’s not, and maybe it’s as simple as that.”
Courtesy Everett Collection
Anksel almost never boils over, and you almost wish he would as Julie starts (relatable) equivocating about their future together, and weighing another romantic possibility. (Hilariously, Anksel does lose it during a talk-radio program where he, with much blustering, attempts but fails to defend his controversial artwork to a feminist talking head.)
Danielsen Lie speaks so articulately about his character because of his deep-running, longtime friendship with director Joachim Trier, dating back to Trier’s 2006 directorial debut “Reprise.” While that served as his breakout vehicle, Danielsen Lie actually made his film debut at just 11 years old in the 1990 drama film “Herman,” as a child who withdraws into a fantasy world to cope with a rare genetic disorder. It wasn’t until 15 years later, during Danielsen Lie’s last year in medical school, that he found himself lured back to the camera for “Reprise,” in which he plays an aspiring writer struggling to get published.
“I had a little dream of doing something again sometimes, but it had to be the right thing, it had to be a project that I really cared about. It was actually really bad timing because I had one year left in med school, and had chosen a completely different path, but that script [for ‘Reprise’] kind of blew me away, and I figured that if I was going to do one role ever in my life again, it would have to be that film,” he said. “I would never have been working as an actor if it weren’t for that film.”
Five years later, he reteamed with Trier for the widely acclaimed “Oslo, August 31,” in which he plays a recovering drug addict, out of rehab and on a dark night of the soul in the namesake Norwegian city. Atoning for his past in a series of encounters with old friends and lovers, Danielsen Lie brought a chiseled sadness to the film. It wound up as one of the most celebrated movies of 2011, but Danielsen Lie mostly avoided leading roles (outside of appearances in films like “Personal Shopper” and “22 July”) to focus on medicine. “The Worst Person” in the world marks his first collaboration with Trier in 10 years.
©Strand Releasing/Courtesy Everett Collection
“When we worked on ‘Oslo, August 31,’ it was a completely different process because we knew each other so well and we almost didn’t have to communicate with words,” he said. “When you really know a person well, you can just tell by the look on their face where we are and what they need and what they want. It’s been quite a ride working with Joachim and now I feel that our friendship is extremely important for our professional collaboration. We have had so many conversations about character, about psychology, in private that we can use when we work on the set.”
Danielsen Lie didn’t start out having that kind of shorthand with French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve, whom he got to know for the first time while shooting “Bergman Island” on location on the Baltic island of Fårö, just off the mainland of Sweden’s southern coast. It’s the island where filmmaker Ingmar Bergman lived and worked until his death in 2007, and it provided a bubble for the actors and crew that allowed for an intimate rapport to flow.
“To be on Fårö was a bit like being on a silent retreat, or a meditation resort. It’s a very special atmosphere on that place,” Danielsen Lie said. “The light, the landscape, and of course the fact that it’s Ingmar Bergman’s island, you can sense his ghost being there. When a production goes to a place like that and is forced to hang out together during the whole shoot, it creates a special momentum and a special focus. It’s easier to get to know each other.”
Danielsen Lie’s “Bergman Island” character is a bit of an enigma, and that’s by design. “The character in ‘Bergman Island’ is almost without character. I thought of him almost as a character from a Greek myth or something. He is a romantic ideal or a love interest or an object that is unreachable, and I wanted there to be some kind of mystique around him. That you wouldn’t really get who he was,” Danielsen Lie said.
The elusiveness of his character Joseph is native to the script written by Hansen-Løve, who constructs a film-within-a-film (a romantic drama directed by Vicky Krieps’ filmmaker character), in which Danielsen Lie plays Joseph, who is then revealed to be an actor named “Anders.” It makes sense within Hansen-Løve’s dreamlike vision, but the boundary between his two roles, Danielsen Lie said, was meant to be slippery.
“The border between the film’s fictional layer and outside of that, that was organic and blurry. I think Mia wanted to create some kind of vertigo, some kind of dizziness that you don’t really know what is fiction, what is reality, and which layer you’re in at any given moment,” he said.
Despite that, it’s logical that Danielsen Lie, seemingly a master of the side hustle — except where both his side hustles are also primary day jobs — can slip between roles. But for now, with festival noise behind him and promotional duties at a calm, he is most focused on flu vaccinations in Oslo.
“COVID is still a major concern, of course, but expect the flu season to be quite rough, and we also have other respiratory tract infections that run around at the moment. It’s a big workload for the hospitals and emergency rooms and everyone else, so that’s where my head is at,” he said. “I try to participate in the promotion of both films, but it’s tricky to combine these occupations and I know that very well. I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and it’s given me a lot. Working as a doctor is a nice profession and a good place to be, if you want to learn something about people, about how it is to be a human being. That’s the reason why I’ve done both, even though it’s been hard.”
Looking ahead, he said he is going to try to “multitask less in the years to come,” though he conceded that may be a challenge when I point out that multitasking is obviously in his nature.
“That’s what I have in common with the main character [from ‘Worst Person in the World’],” he said about hopping from acting to medicine and back again. “I still haven’t been able to make the final choice.”
“Bergman Island” is now available on VOD platforms. “The Worst Person in the World,” Norway’s submission for the 2022 International Feature Oscar, opens February 4, 2022.