Paprika Steen

With leading roles in The Celebration and Mifune’s Last Song, as well as part in Lars von Trier’s samizdat The Idiots and Dancer In The Dark, Danish actress Paprika Steen became the onscreen face of the Dogme 95 movement in the late ’90s, perhaps as close to a sex symbol as Dogme’s unflattering aesthetics could possibly yield. Although she’s made only scant inroads in the U.S.—something she says is about to change—Steen is a bona fide hyphenate in her home country, directing two features and starring in the massively successful Open Hearts. In Applause, Steen plays Thea, a well-known actress attempting to rebuild a life all but destroyed by her alcohol addiction. On stage, as half of the drunken, self-mutilating couple in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, she’s unleashed and in command, but when it comes to regaining the trust of her ex-husband and her two children, she’s at sea. In person, Steen doesn’t lack for confidence. After a Scandinavian lunch and a quick cigarette, she sat down with The A.V. Club in Manhattan to discuss how few people understand the craft of acting, her early years on the Danish Saturday Night Live, and why her friends call her Leni Riefenstahl.

The A.V. Club: Most Americans were introduced to you through Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, which also kicked off interest in the Dogme movement. What was that period like for you?

Paprika Steen: What it was for me was my breakthrough. It was like my birth as a film actress. When I went to theater school they all told me, “You’re never going to make movies—you’re too expressive,” and stuff like that. So that was a great pleasure to do that. I did a little part in Vinterberg’s first movie, and he asked all the guys that he loved to be in this movie, and so it was a great experience, and it was nice doing it, so when it became a hit it was like ultra-nice, you know? Because we really enjoyed doing it at the same time.

AVC: Your acting teachers said you were “too expressive” for film? Was the idea that theater acting is sort of bigger and film acting is more internal, and you were doing this the wrong way?

PS: It was like that, not any more. Now the young actors go on television and do movies very quickly after. The whole Dogme thing was also a revolution of getting Danish film back on the map again, so I came from that group: a Brat Pack, Rat Pack, I don’t know what you call it here. We were like a group of actors and directors that were on the same path in many ways, and in some mysterious way we all met and became socially involved, too. We were friends, a lot of us, and a lot of them are still my friends. We were this group who broke out of the ’80s and wanted to revolutionize the world, with our acting and the scripts and everything.

AVC: It definitely felt like an interconnected movement. The order was a little scrambled in the U.S., but Breaking The Waves and The Celebration and Mifune came out in quick succession. There was definitely a feeling that something exciting was happening in Danish cinema. 

PS: It’s so interesting that Americans feel that way because we’re all interested in Americans, and—maybe not Lars von Trier, the guys at film school were watching Tarkovsky and French movies—but they all, my age, like Vinterberg, we were all inspired by Cassavetes and Scorsese and Coppola, and everyone from the ’70s. That’s my background, not the French or Tarkovsky. It’s the American contemporary movies from the ’70s. That’s completely where we come from, and then we went to America and they’re like, “How do you do that?” We just look at you, and just do what you did. It started with Easy Rider or something, and then it went on with The French Connection, The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, all these movies. So it was really a double-double experience when we came here and everybody was like, “How do you do it?” We were just imitating you, but you were imitating the French. Maybe it’s going to be Romania the next time. I heard Romania has a great film-artist industry.

AVC: There have been a lot of amazing Romanian movies in the last several years.

PS: Exactly, so I think we just had our time there in the ’90s. There’s always a sort of a revolution going on somewhere. And we all inspired, and like the French were inspired from the Italians in the ’20s, and the ’20s were inspired by the blah blah blah, and so on. We’re all in it together. We’re all family, I think. I don’t think of Dogme as especially Danish; I just think that we were very privileged to be in the same place, that we wanted the same things at the same time and we were all the same age.

AVC: Cassavetes seems like a pretty big touchstone for Applause. There are shades of A Woman Under The Influence and Opening Night. Do you know those films well enough that you wouldn’t have to re-watch them? Did you talk about them at all?

PS: We talked about Opening Night, because if you make a movie about an alcoholic actress, you can’t really not talk about Opening Night. But I don’t think it has any resemblance to Opening Night other than I have the hair of Gena Rowlands and that I love her and she’s my icon. But I think I very much gravitated not towards it but far from it. It’s 30 years after, and it’s about time you can do another movie about that. You couldn’t do it two years after. The reason you mention it must be because there’s so many portraits of actors or performers out there that are not on the spot; they’re like the scriptwriter’s perception, the audience’s perception of what an actor is, instead of saying, “Okay how is it?” Actors are mostly really intelligent, really bright, sharp, often cynical, and have troubles relating to the real world. So I think this is a very true portrait. The alcoholism is the drug the actors have, the drug for love, the drug for drugs, the drug of alcohol, the drug of being recognized, the attention, you know. So in terms of Opening Night, I think it’s a very true movie like Opening Night was at that time. If you made Opening Night today it would be a little old fashioned, maybe.

AVC: Your character is starring as Martha in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? as her life is falling apart. That was a real production you were in, right?

PS: It’s real footage, eight months before we started shooting. They asked if they could film it so they had some footage of her in action. It was supposed to be mute and in slow motion or something, but then the editor kept it on. They really liked it, so they put more and more pieces of it in it. The character George’s voice almost works as a score for her development. It just intervened really nicely. It’s interesting because that actor is one of our best friends, and we asked him if it’s okay. And he said, “Yeah, fine.” He’d have a bottle of wine for it. And then he watched the movie and he’s like, “I’m a lot in the movie.” It was really interesting.

AVC: Having talked about the idea that you’re “too expressive for movies,” is it odd to actually see a really expressive theater performance put on film?

PS: I didn’t want to see it before. Maybe I did see a little bit of it, but when I was doing the play, I didn’t want to see it. That would be too weird. I’m pretty much how I thought I was. I’m pretty much in control of what I do. I know that a lot of people ask me about Applause—“What did you do? How did you prepare?” This is the way I do it. This is always the way I do it. I pretty much know what I’m doing. I think that’s the art of acting: that you’re conscious. You’re conscious of the camera, you know where the camera is. You know what’s going on. I’m not just like an amateur you took in from the street. It took me years of experience to do this.

AVC: But now it’s second nature you? A lot of great film actors say they’ll look at the position of the camera or the lens they’re using and instinctively adjust their performance accordingly. 

PS: I never get the numbers of the lenses. I can never learn it. I mean, I’ve done it so long. Is it a 35mm or 100mm? I always forget. I even directed two feature films, and it still doesn’t stick to my memory. It’s so embarrassing. I’m location-blind. I don’t know my way around.  I can’t find my way, even in New York. I’m always like, “Where am I? East? South? West? Am I uptown? Am I downtown?” I can count the streets—that’s it. They tell me I’m very good at it, to catch the frame and stuff. But it’s all…

AVC: Unconscious.

PS: It must be. I don’t know the numbers. I always forget them. I’m lying about, “Yeah, right. Oh, yeah.” [Laughs.]

AVC: Do you watch your own movies after the fact?

PS: I don’t enjoy watching movies with myself. I do when I go to film festivals. You have to be there and watch the movie. We saw the whole movie for the first time in the Karlovy Vary Film Festival on a huge screen with 1,400 people, so that was great and very, very intimidating. But I don’t watch them again and again. Then I like to watch them 10 years after or something, to see how young I was. I think a lot of actors don’t like to look at themselves.

AVC: You talk about catching the end of the frame and not knowing. Do you then watch the movie and say, “Hey, look at what I did”?

PS: It must be like playing soccer. It’s just something you do, sense. You can just feel it. Bicycling. Never forget. It’s just there. You just have a sense of it. You have a talent for it, or you don’t.

AVC: Did that come quickly to you?

PS: I think so. I think it did, much more then I expected. I had a very professional attitude about working on camera, because I started in television, like doing Saturday Night Live in Denmark. I did comedy for many years.

AVC: That was where this movie started, right? The character was a comedian...

PS: But I wasn’t a stand-up comedian.  I was just a comedy actress. I was funny. No, I never did stand-up comedy. We were shooting every day, and you know how hard it is, like Saturday Night Live. You do things live every Saturday, then you shoot pre-produced stuff. So, I was on camera for two years. It was a good experience for me, to learn how to talk into the camera, and be on camera. Technical is a good place to start. But then with Dogme, I couldn’t see the camera. Thomas Vinterberg told me I looked 200 times into the camera. But it has to be said that I’m completely blind, that I’m like, -6 on each eye, so I can’t see anything. So I think I just looked around to see where were the photographers, even though I wasn’t allowed to. But I did anyway. “You’re so conscious of the camera,” which I took as a compliment.

AVC: With The Celebration, those cameras would probably be pretty primitive by today’s standards.  It was just consumer video...

PS: A DV camera. I couldn’t see them because I was blind. We were sitting at a dinner table for three weeks, and they were over there and over there, and then next to me.

AVC: And the camera is up in the heating vents and all over the place.

PS: Oh, yeah, that’s Anthony Dod Mantle for you. He won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire. He has such good energy. He’s just a nice guy. He’s just a treat to work with. I had only worked with him a couple times. Now I miss him. I want to work with him again. 

AVC: Part of what’s different with Dogme is the relationship with the camera. It’s not on a tripod.

PS: It’s very mobile. But I know where it is, even though I’m not supposed to.

AVC: There’s no light you have to stand in and look this way so it falls in the right place.

PS: But I did anyway. I found my light. I knew how to put a white plate under my face. If you watch the film, I just lie on a white towel. They were really teasing me with that. And I said, “Well, I have a face that goes down, and I need a face to go upwards. So I need the light from that.” I was very teased about my light thing. It’s like every other actress where you’re very aware of where the light comes from. It’s not supposed to show in the movie, and it doesn’t. I look horrible in a lot of stuff I did, like in Applause

AVC: When you see your character playing Martha, you can see the stage makeup on her face. Ordinarily, even when movie characters are acting something else, you don’t see how heavy that makeup can be. 

PS: It’s almost a clown mask, with all the lipstick all over the face.

AVC: It works for the character. It’s like this armor that she has on.

PS: Yeah. It’s a little Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? on the make up.

AVC: That’s next maybe.

PS: That’s in 30 years. I’ll do that.

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AVC: You’ve talked during in this trip interested in doing more work in this country.

PS: Not maybe. It’s going to happen. Around March it’s going to get crazy.

AVC: That’s a whole different industry to get into, not just a different language to speak, which obviously is not a problem for you, but crews are larger and things are done in a different way.

PS: I don’t care. I just work my work. I don’t care. I don’t understand. I hear, “It’s so different.” Will this really affect me? If I have good actors, a good script, and a good director, there could be a thousand people behind the camera. I don’t care. That doesn’t throw me off. What throws me off if there’s a not a good vibe on set or something, if you don’t communicate with your actors or your directors. That would be awful. I tried that a couple times. That’s really hard, and then you feel really lonely as an actress.

AVC: Are you talking about people off watching video monitors rather than what’s happening on set, or just a bad relationship?

PS: I mean, if you just sense if you don’t click. You could maybe have readings where you’re okay, and then you’re starting on set, it’s just not… Very few times I’ve tried it, and it’s very strange. But I did so many weird things as an actress, so it wouldn’t throw me off at all. I mean, I didn’t do porn, but, you know… [Laughs.] But almost anything else. [Laughs.]

AVC: You were in Lars von Trier’s The Idiots, which had unsimulated sex scenes.

PS: Yeah, but I wasn’t in that group. He asked me. Even in this movie, Applause, the bed scene I think in the beginning wasn’t dressed. And then we changed it, and I was like, “Thank God!” I’m not a nude person kind of type. There’s limits to my… what’s the word? Sometimes I forget just a normal word. Like shyness. I’m shy. I’m very shy.

AVC: Are you thinking of exhibitionism?

PS: There are some people who have absolutely no problem with it, and it’s fine. That’s the kind of actor that doesn’t really mind if they are. They see it. But if you’re really self-conscious about yourself, and being nude, it must be awkward, that that would show on screen, I didn’t want to be in The Idiots anyway. I thought that was, “Ugh, no.”

AVC: It is one of the odder entries in the Dogme canon.

PS: It’s so yuck. If you ever meet one of the actors, just make them tell you the stories about that. It is so funny. So funny. It’s an experience.

AVC: Do you want to tell one now?

PS: He hired, as you know, some porn actors to come. And one of those actors had his butt up on somebody’s face, and was sweating, and there were drops of sweat on somebody’s lip. I just can’t believe it. I don’t want to picture this inside my head. The image is so horrible! You have to ask them.

AVC: Looking back on it, it seems if Dogme was very specifically tailored to where von Trier was in his career, making these progressively more stylized and almost ossified films. It was his way of taking away all the devices he used to fall back on and forcing himself to come up with something new. It made sense for directors like Kristian Levring or Lone Scherfig, who came out of more commercial background as well, but for people who weren’t already versed in those techniques there was no need to abandon them. 

PS: Exactly. That’s why Dogme is over. It’s not there anymore. It was beautiful, it was nice, but it’s over. My God, I’ve been an ambassador for that for like 13 years, because I’m the only one besides the directors that have traveled the world. You know? And maybe Ulrich Thomsen. I’ve been talking about it so much, and I’ve been the ambassador for Lars, and I don’t know him that well, so I don’t like to talk about it. “How’s Lars von Trier?” That’s like asking you, “How’s your girlfriend?” I don’t know. I can’t talk about a guy I haven’t worked with since Dancer In The Dark, that’s like 10 years probably. And where’s he at now? Ask Kiefer Sutherland or Kirsten Dunst—they did the last movie with him.

AVC: Changing gears a bit, I understand there’s a movie in which you play a substitute teacher from outer space?

PS: You have to watch that. It’s so funny—a sexy alien from outer space. It’s really funny.

AVC: At last! That’s a role you’ve been preparing for all your life.

PS: There’s a review in a newspaper in Denmark. “You never know. You always think the movie is about Paprika herself. So now we know she’s part alien.” They always think I wrote the script or improvised everything. They don’t get that, no, it’s acting! It’s what I’ve been trained to do for 15 years. I’m not that person. I did not write that script for Open Hearts. I did not write that script for Okay. I did not improvise in The Celebration. This guy who finally got it wrote, “As we have all said, she always writes her own scripts, blah, blah, blah…. so she must be an alien.” And then they thought I was too trustworthy as an alien.

AVC: So are you an alien, for the record?

PS: I tell the kids I am. [Laughs.]

AVC: Is that you in particular, or do people just—

PS: I think so. It’s a compliment, but it’s also irritating that it demeans the directors and the writers so much. What do you think they do, just sit there? No, it’s all about making it work. I hate when I can see the script. I maybe had a few lines in Applause that that I made up. “I hate ordinary people” was my line. It’s a funny line. That’s an old joke that I wanted to do a stand up show, a one-woman show called I Hate Ordinary People, and I wanted to see how many people come see it. Maybe in The Celebration I did one or two lines by myself, but that was scripted.

AVC: Do you think what makes your character in Applause want to be an actress is the same thing that makes her an alcoholic?

PS: I think so. It’s like wanting to feel. It’s wanting to feel, like a sucker for emotions. Roller coaster feelings. A lot of actors that I know that I love are doing coke or alcohol. I don’t know, I read about that they are. I just don’t get it. I think about my work as enough emotions for me. For me, I wasn’t the big party guy after playing on stage, going after to drink. I just go home. But I see it. I come from an artist family. I see it everywhere. My mom was popping pills a lot. My father’s a jazz musician. Everybody lives at night in my family, so I think I maybe chose something else because it’s so horrible, how hard it can get. But also, the director of the movie, Martin [Zandvliet], had been fighting with that. So, for me, she could be a drug addict or sex addict or whatever. It’s just an addiction for feeling, I think, for feeling life. She becomes more and more numb. The more she shows emotion on stage, the harder it is to intervene with life when she’s off. If she was a bad actress, she probably wouldn’t drink.

AVC: Those scenes with the man in the bar are so painful to watch. She has this very sensible desire to brush him off, but she can’t that she can’t let him go.

PS: It’s so interesting, because that’s the only person. She doesn’t have any friends in the movie. She wears black all the time. She wears this mask all the time. So, the director really made it clear that she’s lonely. She’s completely isolated. The only person she has something to do with except from the kids and the husband is this guy.

AVC: She says, “The kids are all I have.”

PS: Yes, exactly. And this guy, this creepy guy in the bar, that’s who she can relate to. It’s so weird. It’s horrible. But I know the feeling. I don’t know if I know the feeling, but I knew that when I was in my late 20s, early 30s, I worked so much. I had a boyfriend, but there was no space for him. I had so much to do, and I know by the time I came home, I just had my wall and Oprah Winfrey on television. I promised myself when I was 32, “This is not going to be my life. This is not going to be my life. I need a family. I need something. I need kids. I want a real life. I don’t want to be in this plastic life all my life.” Because I really loved my work, but I don’t love it on top of everything.

AVC: There’s a point where you look around and say, “I like what I’m doing now, but I don’t want to do it for the rest of my life.”

PS: No, I want friends. I want a social life that’s not just in the bars until 5 o’clock in the morning. I want light. I worked a lot with myself to not become Thea. 

AVC: Your family is in the movie, right?

PS: My husband is the producer, my son is playing the oldest son, yeah. A lot of my stuff is in the movie, too.

AVC: Really?

PS: Yeah. [Laughs.] My pictures, the pink things. When we saw the room the first time, something was missing. The director wanted some color, and I had all these… I went pink in Spain once and bought, I don’t know, five bags of pink pillows. I don’t know why. I went berserk. So I had all this pink stuff in my basement. I was like, “Come and pick it up if you want.” It’s a little bourgeois, a little boudoir kind of stuff. My painting and the pictures of me are mine.

AVC: So it’s not a Method thing—just a matter of convenience.

PS: No, no. I’m not a Method actor. I don’t even know what that is. I don’t know what method acting is. I never went to the Actors Studio.

AVC: One thing that’s confusing is that there isn’t really a method. There are dozens of different ones.

PS: I have my method [Laughs.], which I can’t explain. It’s a color. It’s a song on the radio. It’s a voice. It’s a smell. It’s something I can’t explain. That’s why I’m a really bad teacher. I would never be able to teach. I would just look at them and say, “Do it better. Why do it if you don’t know how?”

AVC: How does directing work with you, then?

PS: It’s really fine. I enjoy directing. The first time they called me Leni Riefenstahl because I was so bossy and controlling and afraid it wouldn’t be completely like I wanted it. And then the next time I relaxed more. But I am pretty controlling. I pretty much know what I want.