Sofie Grabol: 'In a crisis you use all your resources, but it's the moment afterwards that's really interesting'
Sofie Grabol became well-known for playing Danish detective Sarah Lund in The Killing and her trademark jumpers. She talks to James Rampton about her return for the second series of supernatural drama Fortitude
The Killing killed indifference in the UK to foreign-language TV drama. When the breathtaking Danish detective drama was first broadcast on BBC4 in 2011, it was a game-changer. It proved that we could be gripped by brilliant storytelling, whether in English or Danish, or any other language for that matter. The huge success of that series - which won a Bafta award in 2011 - paved the way for an influx of riveting "Nordic Noir" shows such as Borgen and The Bridge.
An enormous part of The Killing's appeal lay in the mesmeric qualities of its lead actress, Sofie Grabol. She brought a rare magnetism to the role of the ice-cold, homicide detective Sarah Lund. She reached such levels of international popularity that her trademark Faroese jumpers became a "must-have" item online. Even the Duchess of Cornwall owns a Lund sweater, given to her by Grabol in 2012 when she made a royal visit to the set. On the same visit, Prince Charles revealed that The Killing was one of the very few shows that he and his wife loved watching together.
The actress even received a glowing review from that unlikely TV critic, the then Prime Minister David Cameron, who disclosed that he and his wife Samantha enjoyed nothing more than spending an evening watching The Killing together in bed. "It's our idea of relaxation," he said. "I think it's just brilliant. We should be making more television like that in this country. Isn't Lund wonderful? Lund rather reminds me of Samantha. Lund and Samantha are very cool."
And now Grabol is grabbing the headlines in this country once again. She stars in the second series of Sky Atlantic's sweeping supernatural drama, Fortitude. In Simon Donald's chilling (in every sense) drama, the 48-year-old Danish actress plays Governor Hildur Odegard. Having in the last season led the remote Norwegian town of Fortitude through the cataclysm of a plague of prehistoric wasps released from the permafrost, Hildur is now confronting another lethal, otherworldly threat to her isolated Arctic community.
Within moments of the opening titles, some very disturbing creatures are walking the earth, the sky is illuminated by an ominous "blood aurora" and characters are darkly quoting WB Yeats: "The centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." We are left in no doubt that something wicked this way comes. Welcome to Fortitude, the most deadly town this side of Midsomer Murders.
Grabol is the polar opposite to Lund. Where the detective was detached and distracted, the actress is charming and charismatic. And rather than the perennial chunky-knit Faroe Islands sweater, she is wearing an extremely chic all-black ensemble. Unlike Lund, who didn't crack a smile in three series of The Killing, Grabol also has a delightful sense of humour. She is amusing enough in English - I can't imagine how funny she must be in her first language.
For instance, she tells a self-deprecating anecdote about her Danish accent. "It's funny because in my mind, I don't have an accent! I did a play at the National Theatre in London, where I was supposed to be Scottish. I said to the director, 'I can't speak Scottish... just speaking English is enough of a challenge!' So I spoke the best English I could and thought, 'This is brilliant!' Then Sir Ian McKellen came to see the show one night, and afterwards he asked, 'How did that actress get that amazing Danish accent?' I was doing my best, but I do obviously have a big fat Danish accent!"
In the same way, the actress jokes about the enormous amount of support The Killing has enjoyed in this country. "In Danish, the word 'killing' means 'kitten'. I think that's very appropriate because that's how we feel. You Brits have taken us in!"
Grabol, who is divorced and has two children, is equally entertaining on the subject of the "out-there", sometimes gory nature of Fortitude. She loves the fact that the production doesn't hold back. "Being Scandinavian, I really enjoy that, like a child. "We Nordic people like little stories and little expressions and don't give too much away. That makes us really good at details and credibility, but we'd never dare to go where we go in Fortitude. So for me to be in a project where wasps come out of the permafrost in a Biblical fashion is absolutely brilliant. I love it when we go that far."
Hitting her rhetorical stride now, the actress continues: "I also love it when you go into the make-up room in the morning and ask another actor, 'What are you doing today?' 'Oh, I'm eating a baby!' It's hilarious."
The second season picks up just nine weeks after the end of the last series, and it does not shy away from showing the catastrophic effect of the disaster the town has suffered. Grabol, who has been given a clean bill of health after undergoing treatment for breast cancer in 2013, says: "The first series was about surviving and about life and death. In my personal life, I recognise that in any real crisis you use all your resources, but actually it's the moment after that's really interesting. Who am I now? Why am I alive? What has happened? That atmosphere of having survived and the same time being completely lost is fascinating. The community in Fortitude is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It's carrying a lot of scars, definitely."
The catastrophe in the first series has certainly left its mark on Hildur. "She's not in a great place," the actress muses. "I think she's traumatised - or maybe I'm just projecting my own life! She is a doer, she's a solver. She's a woman of power and leadership. So the worst thing for a person like that is that she couldn't guard her town. I see her as the mother of Fortitude. We're so used to watching crime stories where the characters are very driven. I think it's really interesting that my character and others have these moments where they just fall into a void."
Fortitude, whose second series confirms the show's reputation for attracting major stars by featuring Dennis Quaid (Far From Heaven) as a troubled fisherman, Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones) as his poorly wife and Ken Stott (The Hobbit) as a martinet government official, is shot in Iceland. The icebound island doubles for Svalbard, the northernmost town in the world and a place too far-flung to allow filming.
The drama conjures up the sense of desolate isolation that pervades the town. The 2,000 inhabitants of Fortitude are outnumbered by the 3,000 polar bears, who stalk the ice just beyond the town limits. In fact, it is illegal to leave the town without a gun. Grabol thinks the drama captures that idea of utter remoteness. "It shows this community that is beyond our culture. People come to Fortitude from all over the world. But what kind of people would wind up in this place?"
She adds that the producers ensure that the cast experience first-hand the sensation of being cut off from the rest of the world. "It helps to film in Iceland where you get that feeling of real isolation. All the actors are put in a hotel far away from everyone else in a very, very isolated place. There is nothing to do there except get very close to each other. That whole feeling in Fortitude of depending on each other and being close in a very big space - we get to know that as people. There is a great group dynamic. They're such a lovely cast - although sadly a lot of their characters have died!"
Before we part, we have to touch on the subject of a possible revival for The Killing. Grabol smiles that maybe one day it will return and just keep on going: "Like The Mousetrap here in London!"
Or perhaps she could reprise Lund in 20 years' time? Grabol laughs one last time. "That's a good idea... Sarah could end up like the Danish Miss Marple!"
- All episodes of Fortitude season 2 are now available on Sky Box Sets. The new series is on Sky Atlantic, Thursday, 9pm