Rotterdam 2024 Interview: Per Fly And Mikael Persbrandt Talk About HAMMARSKJÖLD

Editor, Europe; Rotterdam, The Netherlands (@ardvark23)
Rotterdam 2024 Interview: Per Fly And Mikael Persbrandt Talk About HAMMARSKJÖLD
Danish director Per Fly's new film Hammarskjöld - Fight for Peace is getting rave reviews from around the world. At the International Film Festival Rotterdam it scored a terrific audience rating of 4.6 out of 5, with the biopic landing firmly in that festival's top 10.

The film gives an interpretation of the last months of Dag Hammarskjöld's term of service as the Secretary General of the United Nations, in 1961, in which he strongly pushed for the independence of African countries. Opposed and sabotaged by several colonial superpowers, Hammarskjöld died in a very suspicious plane accident while trying to establish peace in Congo. Our Martin Kudlac gave a very positive review of the film (you can read that here).

It wasn't just the film which travelled to the Netherlands though: Per Fly accompanied it, and he brought his lead actor Mikael Persbrandt along with him. Persbrandt is one of Sweden's most renowned stage actors and his instantly recognizable face shows up in films and series around the globe, from Beck and Sex Education to The Hobbit trilogy. ScreenAnarchy met the both of them in their hotel in Rotterdam for an interview. Warning: there are some spoilers, but if you know about the real Dag Hammarskjöld nothing here should surprise you.

ScreenAnarchy: What made you choose to film exactly this part of Dag Hammarskjöld's life?

IFFR2024-PerFlyMikaelPersbrandt-ext1.jpgPer Fly: Ten years ago I talked to a friend who said that HIS friend was starting to make a documentary about Dag Hammarskjöld, and I knew a few things about Dag Hammarskjöld but not very much. But as they were telling me more and more about this, I thought "He seems such an interesting character". And the political things he has done are also interesting. So as they made this documentary they gave me full access to all their materials. In Sweden (I'm from Denmark) I met Patrick Ryborn the producer, and he said he was working on a Dag Hammarskjöld film and I said "Oh, I'm also working on a Dag Hammarskjöld film!" And then we joined our efforts together and that's how we got started, ten years ago. The reason I'm interested in this guy is because it's an interesting story about his character. He was so full of secrets. So we started working on this and looking at his whole life. And more and more I found out that the film should be about the last nine months of his life, because there were so many things that come to the surface during those nine months. He's a mystery. Even now, after the film has been released, new things pop up about him, which is... fantastic!

It isn't a typical rise-and-fall biopic. And you chose a specific way to portray him.

Per Fly: I was more interested in the fall. So many others have done the rise already. And I think it is very important that when I make a fiction film like this, about a character, I feel it is my duty to take a stand. So what you see in Hammarskjöld is our perspective. We read all the books, I formed a picture in my head of how I think it would have been. Most of the things in the film are historically correct, we changed things a little bit, but things like the monkey, all these things where you think "that cannot be true", THEY are historical. But I do take the liberty to change something when I think that will better explain the character. Because it is a fiction film. It's not a documentary. But it's a fine line, if you say too little the film gets very bad, and if you say too much you should also be careful with that.

How did people who knew Dag Hammarskjöld in real life react to your film?

Per Fly: Hammarskjöld didn't have a wife and kids but he had many relatives, a lot of brothers we worked with during the making. They have all seen the film and are very happy with it. But when we say his plane was shot down, that is OUR interpretation.
(Turns to Mikael) You have some friends who think otherwise, right?

IFFR2024-PerFlyMikaelPersbrandt-ext2.jpgMikael Persbrandt: Yes, there are two prominent politicians in Sweden, both of them have been foreign ministers, and one of them says our theory is totally correct and the other says it is absolutely wrong (we all laugh). And they had the same intel, so it's strange. It is like a mystery case and the United Nations still has a pending investigation about the killing... or about the death of Dag Hammarskjöld. We'll see if it will ever be finished. Because the Americans and the British and the Belgians still haven't opened their archives.

Per Fly: They still don't want to open those files. They each claim it's 'for the safety of the country'. There is also a group of strong people who still want to get to the bottom of this. They are still working on this and maybe the film can help push on that. I didn't go along with any conspiracy theories though, we told the story until he died. And there were a lot of people who wanted him dead at this point. It would have been a big coincidence if he had an accident at that moment. And that was a way of doing politics at that time. And by the way, that's back again now.

A question for Mikael Persbrandt: At what point did you become attached to the project?

Mikael Persbrandt: A few years ago we started going through a couple of different versions of the script, a bit earlier than usual perhaps. Sometimes you only hear a few months before they start shooting. They chose me and I'm happy for that, but I don't know why (laughs), you have to ask Per that.

You had portrayed Dag Hammarskjöld before, in the action film The Siege at Jadotville.

Mikael Persbrandt: Yes I did, I was for a week in Johannesburg shooting that, but that was just a tease, this time it was a much more complete portrait. I haven't even seen that other film. It was an action movie about an Irish company of soldiers and it took place at the same time as this film, though it was shot seven years earlier. It was not about Dag but he was briefly in it.

Per Fly: And he had the white suit on. This beautiful white suit.

Mikael Persbrandt: Ah yes, the white suit.

But didn't you think "I played this character before, I thought it was interesting, there's more I want to tell about him"?

Mikael Persbrandt: No, nono. It didn't happen like that. I was away playing Dance of Death by Strindberg in a theatre in Stockholm, when Patrick the producer came and approached me and said "we have a project for you". I don't even know if I made a mental note at the time that I had played that character before! So no, they were very different projects, this was a much more comprehensive job.

Per Fly: Caspar Phillipson, who plays J. F. Kennedy in the film, had played him three times already. So now he's played him four times (we laugh). He's living on playing Kennedy. But he looks so much like him!

Mikael Persbrandt: What a strange actor's job eh? Just going around playing Kennedy.

IFFR2024-PerFlyMikaelPersbrandt-ext3.jpgSpeaking of that: you don't look at all like the real Dag Hammarskjöld.

Mikael Persbrandt: No. No, and ehm... is that important? I don't think so. In the film we worked with a wig, because I still had very short hair from a previous production but I think we could have skipped that. It was kind of irritating. And not necessary, in another film there was a big discussion because I played a famous cop in a film about the murder of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme, and I had a lot of prosthetics then. There is an ongoing discussion on whether or not to do that. In some cases it can add to the project and sometimes it can be a negative thing. But here, we tried to capture our take on Dag Hammarskjöld's soul. And my soul is not like his (laughs) but we can try and pretend, as good as we can. I knew about loneliness, and that pointed me to the key of the character, to be in the limelight, in the center of global events, and the solitude of him and his ape in his apartment in New York. For me that was very playable, because I could relate to that. And I don't just mean physical loneliness, you can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely, I think we all know that feeling.

IFFR2024-PerFlyMikaelPersbrandt-ext4.jpgWas that what attracted you to the role?

Mikael Persbrandt: No, I said 'Yes' to the job and then I felt a big anxiety: how to portray such a hero, such a smart and correct and square personality? How to fill him with life? And then you start to work and then you find the way we found. And I think we found a good way, with the loneliness and the limelight. It was not obvious from the beginning. You say yes and then you think should I have said 'No', how the fuck do I portray this guy (we all laugh)?

Per Fly: "How do I get out of here?" But about making the character look like the real character: I made another biopic called Monica Z about jazz singer Monica Zetterlund, and what we do is we take something from the character, but we also take something from the actor, because it's an actor playing the real character. In this case it was very important to me that we got some of the quality that Mikael has as an actor, so he doesn't just go in and look like Dag Hammarskjöld, I want something of Mikael in there. The audience accepts that, they know it's an actor because the real guy is dead. And not many people remember Hammarskjöld for what he looked like.

Mikael Persbrandt: My boys -I have three boys- know him because archival footage of him was featured in a Swedish beer advert (we all laugh), they know him from that one.

My boys always Google whoever I'm going to interview and with you they said "He was in The Hobbit!"

Mikael Persbrandt: Beorn. Oh, talk about prosthetics... like five hours every morning, getting up at 3:30, sitting... the make-up trailer for more than four hours. And I had to sit all day, I couldn't lay down because I had a ridge on my back. And then at 17:00, knock knock, "Sorry not today Mikael", and it takes two more hours to take all that shit off. So each day I'm sitting, nervous, "will I see Peter Jackson today, will we be shooting now?" Day after day, because they had so much money they always made up everybody on set, like Ian McKellen, fully dressed all the time, just to see what Peter would shoot. Crazy.

IFFR2024-PerFlyMikaelPersbrandt-ext5a.jpgYou used to be an ambassador for Unicef. Did that help with playing Dag Hammarskjöld?

Mikael Persbrandt: That could be, in a way. I did my warzones, I was in Afghanistan right after the war, Liberia after fourteen years of conflicts. Haiti after the earthquake, Moldavia, where slavers were active and little girls were abducted. I met a lot of diplomats. I know what it's like to have dinner in a restaurant, with sandbags outside and machine guns, and the feeling of "this could be your fucking last dinner". And for those diplomats, it's a dopamine source for these guys. They'd say "I go home for a few weeks, sleep for three days, then I walk in the park for a few days and then I just want to go back". Because that feeling of being alive, and fix problems and help people... So I could use some of my experiences with them in this movie maybe. Because Dag Hammarskjöld was a diplomat, with the urge... that the quest was bigger than his own life. And he has to push it, push it, push it. For example the scene when I get on the plane and I tell someone "Not you, one should stay behind in case something happens". I played that as if I was sure that something bad was going to happen. And together with the loneliness... I think his loneliness would have killed him eventually just as much as the planecrash did. In a way. I don't know, but it was so deep in him. Longing to belong with someone but the difficulties in doing so, and then just turning to work, because that's gonna be his friend to the end.

IFFR2024-PerFlyMikaelPersbrandt-ext6.jpgPer Fly: It is a hard choice he took there.

But not an unbelievable one, it's entirely in character for how you portrayed him. As an audience you wish it would end differently with him retiring in that cottage.

Per Fly: That cottage in the film is actually the real cottage, it's in an absolutely beautiful part of Sweden.

Mikael Persbrandt: About 45 minutes from Malmö, it's a museum now.

You are not just known as a stage, film and voice actor but also as an artist, you make paintings. With your experience and vision, did you influence the look of the film?

Mikael Persbrandt: No, but I had a totally open dialogue with Per. Production I'm not really that interested in.

Would you be interested in directing perhaps?

Mikael Persbrandt: No, I think there are too many actors who want to have "director" on their C.V... I don't know why. My trade is a beautiful trade to get old in and I am better now than ever. And I will continue to get better. So I will stay by my post as an actor.

We're getting at the end, so let me congratulate you with a great International première here in Rotterdam, it was sold out.

Per Fly: Thank you.

Mikael Persbrandt: I hope this movie will have a long life and will find its own wings to fly oversees and be seen by lots of people, I think it is an important film. Like with Oppenheimer, we noticed lots of young people found their way to the cinema, I don't know where that interest comes from but I'm happy with that, that's it's not just old people like us going to see it.

Hammarskjöld - Fight for Peace is currently travelling around the world on the festival circuit.

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