It hardly seems possible, but Claes Bang is in Scotland. There is no reason the Danish actor shouldn’t be at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Antonia Campbell-Hughes’s debut feature It Is in Us All is playing at the event and, as a key supporting player, he is there to talk up that intriguing rural drama. It’s just that he always seems to be in Ireland these days. He shot Robert Eggers’s The Northman in upper bits of the country. It Is in Us All was also filmed there and thereabouts. Fans of Apple’s comic drama Bad Sisters will have seen him scowling in various Dublin locations. It is about time we gave him honorary citizenship.
“I was in Belfast, for The Norseman,” he explains soberly. “And this is actually also when we shot It Is in Us All.” The film follows a loner played by Cosmo Jarvis, who, after a fatal crash rattles round a remote Irish village, with Bang as the protagonist’s father, at the other end of a video call. “It was filmed as you see it. I was in my apartment in Belfast with just one sound guy. Everybody else was in Ireland — in the Republic of Ireland. Covid shut down the borders. They could not even come over to me. So we have actually shot this as it is in the movie. I was somewhere else. When we shot this I had never seen or spoken to Cosmo.”
I imagine this may have been useful for an actor. There is no need to conjure up a sense of disconnection when you have literally never met the actor playing the other role.
“There was no way around it. This was just something we had to make work,” he says. “There were no scenes of them together. My character was always in Hong Kong or Dubai or whatever.”
Robert Eggers told me that, when shooting The Northman, cast and crew saw little of Belfast beyond what was visible through the hotel room window. Life on days off was a trip to whatever coffee shop was open and a return to latte and buns over the laptop. They could have been in any number of north European cities.
“I got to know a very sad version of Belfast,” Bang agrees. “It was totally shut down. Yeah. There were a couple of weeks where the pandemic slowed down a little bit and they tried to reopen restaurants and bars. And then it went quite bad again and then everything was shut. The only thing that was open was Lidl and the gas station.”
Claes Bang has had a most interesting career. Born on the island of Funen, he enjoyed a peripatetic childhood. He is not the first actor to hone skills of assimilation while moving from school to school when young. A role in the musical Hair sparked his interest and, after a few failed attempts, he eventually made it into the Danish National School of Performing Arts. He seems to have worked reasonably consistently after that point. Chiselled, dark, with enviable Heathcliff features, he was just the sort of man you need for a Euro-drama or classical theatre piece. But he admits there were quiet moments.
“You have dry spells where nothing is going on,” he admits. “You think: I can’t pay the rent. I will just to have to do something else because I will go crazy as the fucking phone is not ringing. That’s every actor’s story.”
Life became significantly easier in 2017 when, somewhat against the odds, Ruben Östlund’s The Square won the Palme d’Or at Cannes (Östlund won again this year with Triangle of Sadness). It is easy to assume that such awards no longer matter, but Bang’s experience proves the contrary. He starred as the curator of a Swedish art museum in the sprawling, satirical romp. It seems that the Palme d’Or really can open doors — for European actors at any rate. In the aftermath he scored roles in The Girl in the Spider’s Web and The Burnt Orange Heresy. He appeared opposite Dominic West in the hit HBO series The Affair and played Dracula in the BBC’s 2020 reinvention of the Bram Stoker tale. When actors “arrive” so deep into their careers — he was 50 when The Square won Cannes — they are usually relegated to character roles, but Bang still has the simmering energy of a romantic lead.
In the noughties it seemed that Danish television couldn’t get anything wrong. It was crazy. It has probably slowed down a little bit. It’s more Sweden now maybe
“The logic is quite simple,” he says in his precise measured English. “When a film wins at Cannes the whole industry sees it. That film opened up every door for me. All of a sudden they see this guy. I have what my agents call a really good ‘playing age’. I’ve got good English. I can do it. I can also act in German as well. So I’m quite versatile. And I had 25 years of experience. So you could see that I could carry a movie. I can’t tell you how thankful I am for that — for everything that movie has done for me. It was a before-and-after chance. It opened up so many markets.”
He already had the advantage of coming from Denmark. The success of that country’s film and television industries over the last few decades has been extraordinary. Scandi-thrillers took over the telly. Directors such as Lars Von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, Susanne Bier and Nicolas Winding Refn have conquered the film industry. Given the country has a similar population to that of Ireland, we are bound to wonder what they are getting right.
“I think it’s really hard to put your finger on it,” he says. “I’ve thought about this before. I’d love to be able to say it’s this and this and this. But it seems to shift. One country just has it for 10 years and then it moves somewhere else. But, yes, in the noughties it seemed that Danish television couldn’t get anything wrong. It was crazy. It has probably slowed down a little bit. It’s more Sweden now maybe. Look at Ruben Östlund.”
At any rate, Ireland does at least have a firm grasp on the Claes Bang industry. Last year, Sharon Horgan and others were spotted shooting something or other near Sandycove in Dublin. It proved difficult to discover what exactly was going on, but we can now say with some certainty that that it is the Apple show we now know to be called Bad Sisters.
“It was kind of weird,” he agrees. “They were shooting it for a very long time before they came out and said that we were doing it. I don’t know what was going on there. That made it difficult for me to talk about what I was doing. I was not allowed to say anything. The Apple show that I am making now in Paris — The New Look — was announced before we were even shooting it.”
They are just brilliant people that are wonderful to work with. They all have Irish accents. So they leave out the ‘th’s. It’s ‘tanks’ and ‘grand’ and all that
We will not see that fashion epic, starring Ben Mendelsohn as Christian Dior and Juliette Binoche as Coco Chanel, for a while, but Bad Sisters, a dark comedy-thriller also featuring Eve Hewson, Anne-Marie Duff and Sarah Greene, has already registered great reviews and strong word of mouth. Variety approvingly described Bang’s performance as an abusive husband as “skin-crawling”.
“I wouldn’t say there is something particularly ‘Irish’ about the way we’ve been working,” he says of his experiences here. “They are just brilliant people that are wonderful to work with. They all have Irish accents. So they leave out the ‘th’s. It’s ‘tanks’ and ‘grand’ and all that. Ha, ha! I loved being able to spend so much time in Dublin. I had never spent much time there. That was really cool. What I did enjoy was the massive feminine influence on this. Five sisters. All the directors are female. The HODs [heads of department] were women.”
He is clearly still thinking carefully about what scripts come his way. It Is in Us All, the first film by actor Antonia Campbell-Hughes, is an impressive piece of work — a psychological drama in the shape of a western — but it can’t have leapt at his agent as did Dracula or The New Look.
“Well, I just really liked the script,” he says. “And I love the fact that we would work around all the obstacles with Covid and just have a bit of fun. It was fun trying to make that happen. It has turned out better than I’d hoped. A good script that got better as a movie.”
The man has manners. No wonder we keep welcoming him back.
— It Is in Us All opens on September 23rd