CANNES — Compared to the composed frosted figure of Denmark’s prime minister which her character Birgitte Nyborg occasionally achieves when in “Borgen,” at least when signing papers behind a sober desk, Sidse Babett Knudsen, probably Denmark’s most famous actress, comes across in person, sitting on a sofa at a Cannes beachside restaurant, as younger, livelier, enthusiastic — “Yes!” “Yes!,” she exclaims, leaning forward in the seat, in hearty agreement at the interviewer’s flailing questions — and with a far larger sense of humor.
She also seemed thrilled to have just been announced as the official patron of the first CanneSeries TV festival, which will unspool next April 4-11.
In serving as its patron, it could be argued that she is giving back to TV something of what TV has given to her.
“I’m a film person,” Babett Knudsen says of career that takes in Susanne Bier’s 2006 Oscar-nominated “After the Wedding” and Peter Strickland’s “The Duke of Burgundy.” She says that early on in conversation making it sound almost like a confession, and talking in such an impeccable English that the only question regarding that point is what part of England the Danish actress comes from.
(In reality, she attended a school in Tanzania from the age of five to seven, when her parents went off to do voluntary work in Africa, and hen went to an in terminational school in Copenhagen when she returned to Europe).
She came to TV by chance, she explains. “I was asked to do TV and very reluctant to do it. I was a snob, and then a director I loved said you have t get on board, Sidse, and gave me ‘The West Wing.”
She binged it all. Literally the day she finished she got a call from DR, Denmark’s esteemed public broadcaster, to audition for a political show they were going to do called “Borgen.”
Following on “The Killing” whose acquisition by the BBC brought down the flag on Nordic Noir as an international phenomenon, “Borgen” was acclaimed by Newsweek as “the best TV show you’ve never seen.” But quite a lot of people saw the show that was never seen: One million viewers for the opening episode of Season 2 on the U.K.’s BBC, for instance.
“Borgen’s” sales from the U.S. to Mexico to Japan made it one of Europe’s first foreign-language TV dramas to confirm a hugely widespread and burgeoning niche audience for TV shows from any part of the world.
“For me, ‘Borgen’ was very Danish. The fact that it started to travel but so unpredictable,” Knudsen recalls.
Given that, it is quite appropriate, that Knudsen has been chosen as the CanneSeries patron, argued Albin Lewi. “Sidse embodies what series are today. Any show from anywhere can be a massive global success.” But Knudsen helped prove it first.
She is also one of the New TV’s most consummate actresses, not just in “Borgen,” but also “1864,” a TV show of epic sweep and withering tragedy, showing how the life hopes of a generation of Danish youth were dashed by the absurd 2nd Schleswig War, Playing Johanne Luise Heiberg, a histrionic grand dame of 19th century Danish theater, Knudsen constructs more of a persona than person, as she recognizes, an embodiment of Danish patriotic values which swept Denmark into war on a swelling tide of folly.
In “Westworld,” as Theresa Cullen, the cowboy theme park’s head of operations, her death scene is a wonderful mano a mano with Anthony Hopkins, a case study in high drama played with total control.
Just seen in the U.K. in Channel 4-Sony Pictures TV-Amazon Prime Video’s “Electric Dreams,” a Philip K. Dick sci-fi anthology, where she plays an android, Knudsen is also a flag-waver to the artistic potential of TV drama.
Playing Birgitte Nyborg, she watched other TV shows such as “The Sopranos.” “I saw some really, really good shows of such high quality, visually, story-wise, in production values.”
She was “fascinated” by listening to “Westworld” show-runners’ explanation of the philosophical theories the series channels, she says.
Series can offer dramatic possibilities to actors which film can’t.
The first stretches of “Mad Men” could seem just to be men sitting around smoking and drinking whisky, she comments. But series can develop at a more measured pace than film, she argues. “Borgen” allowed her to work her character with continued depth, she adds.
“As series get shorter and shorter, will five-episode series be mini-series or five-hour films?”
Once a naysayer, CanneSeries – and global drama seen anywhere and from anywhere – has won a high-profile convert.