Sidse Babett Knudsen: the Borgen star mixing Danish drama and Westminster intrigue | Television

Sidse Babett Knudsen had an ulterior motive for joining the cast of BBC One’s new political thriller Roadkill, playing the mistress of Hugh Laurie’s ambitious Conservative minister. Sure, she is a fan of Roadkill’s writer, David Hare (whom she describes as “one of the gods”); in her theatre group days, she would regularly make the trip from Copenhagen to London to see his plays at the Royal Court. But that’s far from the whole story. “One of my favourite shows of all time is Veep, and Selina Meyer’s obsession with Hugh Laurie’s character is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen,” she says. “I thought if I could get a photo in bed with him and send it to her that could be so funny!”

It’s the kind of cunning plot that would certainly be beneath the dignity of Knudsen’s most famous character, Danish PM Birgitte Nyborg, in the soon-to-be revived drama Borgen. In any case, she confesses, the kompromat was never obtained. “I never really got around to do it. The ambience when we shot it wasn’t really all that silly.”

Opportunities were probably also few because Knudsen’s Roadkill character, Madeleine Halle, isn’t the sort to lounge around the bedroom in revealing lingerie. There are plenty of risque roles in her back catalogue – she played one half of a dom/sub lesbian couple in Peter Strickland’s 2015 film The Duke of Burgundy and a femme fatale senior manager in HBO’s Westworld – but Knudsen doesn’t do nude scenes. It’s a decision she made against the grain of her drama training in France, where, she says drily: “It was all crazy and psychological and the more you got fucked up and believed you were the part, the better.” Her experience since has only reaffirmed the choice.

Sidse Babett Knudsen as Madeline Halle with Hugh Laurie as Peter Laurence in Roadkill
The end of the affair? Knudsen as Madeline Halle with Hugh Laurie as Peter Laurence in Roadkill. Photograph: Robert Viglasky/BBC/The Forge

“I can’t help looking at somebody naked and thinking: ‘Oh, that’s what the actress looks like for real! Oh, she’s got really beautiful breasts, or her knees are very funny-looking.’ I don’t want people to go away from the part and think that about me. For some reason, I think nudity does that.” And she’s no fan of sex scenes. “There’s only so many ways you can throw your head back and paw the linen. It just becomes cliche so quickly.”

In contrast to the roles she became famous for, what’s turning on Knudsen at the moment is playing weak characters without much personal authority. “I want to try something else, y’know? And I actually read [Madeleine] as quite pathetic. A bit of a sad, sad creature who doesn’t get what she’s going into.” Hare, who was on set for much of the production, had a “more healthy and sensible” vision of the role he had written, which Knudsen says she went along with — but, you sense, reluctantly: “Because, I mean, I do love really pathetic parts,” she laughs.

Roadkill is privileged to be among a small handful of roles Knudsen took on during what was supposed to be a year off from acting. “I kind of locked myself down before the virus thing,” she says. “I was planning on being very isolated and quiet, so when everything locked down I just thought: ‘Welcome aboard!’” She likes to take these extended breaks every now and again to reset, she says. “I mean, it’s not a natural thing to be someone else, and sometimes you just have to take some time off and find out who you are now. Also, you get influenced by like, ‘What sort of drama do we do now?’ You just have to go completely out of it and not be trendy at all.”

Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte Nyborg, the prime minister in Borgen
Power play: Knudsen as Birgitte Nyborg, the prime minister fighting to keep ahead of the game in Borgen. Photograph: Mike Kolloffel

This current quiet spell will end in January when, pandemic allowing, the new series of Borgen is due to start shooting. The original three-series run was produced by Danish public broadcaster DR and arrived in the UK as part of a wave of enthusiastically received Scandi shows, which also included crime thrillers The Killing and The Bridge – although as a murder-free political drama, full of government intrigue, Borgen has more in common with The West Wing. In April, Netflix announced the revival seven-and-a-half years after the last episode aired. How difficult was it to persuade Knudsen to return to the role that made her an international star? “Very difficult. It’s taken them – what? Eight years? I mean, we talked about it once in a while. I met with Adam [Price, the creator of Borgen] and we both agreed that we had a really nice run, but let’s just stop there … Unless a good idea comes up.”

Knudsen can’t be too specific about what this persuasively good idea was, but she does say that the new Borgen will “definitely, definitely” acknowledge the massive transformation in political culture that has happened since 2010, when the sensible centrist Nyborg first rose to the top of a coalition government. This is a theme explored by Roadkill too, summed up in a cocky comment that Laurie’s character makes to his special adviser: “Voters think of me as a character. They’d much rather be led by characters than zombies.”

Sidse Babett Knudsen as Madeline Halle in Roadkill
‘A bit of a sad, sad character” … Knudsen as Madeline Halle in Roadkill. Photograph: Robert Viglasky/BBC/The Forge

For Knudsen, Borgen’s lack of cynicism is striking both in retrospect and in contrast to British political television. “Particularly in the UK, when you talked to people about [Borgen], they said: ‘We could never do something that wasn’t cynical. We have to show that side; that’s in our mentality.’ Borgen comes from a really soft, sweet, idealistic place. I mean, even for the Danish public it was a nicer place. I think we just had the last of an era where a little bit of innocence is allowed.”

In some respects, though, Borgen was astutely prescient. It put the first female Danish prime minister on screen a year before the country elected their own, Helle Thorning-Schmidt (who is married to the British Labour MP Stephen Kinnock), and five years before Selina Meyer was elected to the presidency in Veep. Since then, Nyborg-alike leaders around the world such as Jacinda Ardern have – according to some analysis – fared better in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis than their male counterparts.

But Knudsen doesn’t see leadership in such starkly gendered terms. “I think, maybe, deep down – I’m very, very cautious in saying this – but instinctively, if it’s something about ‘Let’s get together and protect our weak’, about humanity more than economy, maybe we’ll believe that just a bit quicker from a woman?” On the other hand, channelling the bridge-building nature of her most famous character: “When you look at the males that have done the worst in this crisis, that’s not because they’re male. They’re just really incapable of being leaders,” she says with a mirthless laugh, once again sounding more like a character from Veep or Yes Minister than her own Birgitte Nyborg.

“That thing over in America could have been a woman and would have been just as bad.”

• Roadkill starts on BBC One on Sunday at 9pm

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