I meet Birgitte Hjort Sorensen in a plain office near the Donmar Warehouse in the West End. She’s warm, sharp and engaging, and her fast-flowing English is adorned with the odd Eurotrash platitude. Her American twang owes itself to the global language school of television. ‘I watched a lot of American and English TV growing up. We have it subtitled, not dubbed. Denmark is such a small country and nobody’s going to speak Danish outside of Denmark.We kind of have to learn.’
She’s about to appear as Virgilia in Coriolanus at the Donmar. How does she find playing the wife of a tyrannical anti-hero? ‘Interesting in that she doesn’t talk a lot compared to some of the other characters, who talk quite a lot. She’s, as far as I can see, the only pacifist in the play. It’s a very bloody, very much about war kind of play. All the others are engaging in the wars. She’s the only one who is basically concerned for her husband.’
She came late to acting. As a teenager, she excelled at literature and planned to study languages at university. ‘Then, when I was 19, I took part in this sort of mini musical school. And realised I enjoyed the entire process. There were so many sides to me and I felt I can use all that I am.’
Before leaving drama school, she bagged the lead role in the Copenhagen production of Chicago. ‘I had a fairly easy ride. I was fortunate in that sense.’ The producers invited her to do a stint in the London production. At the age of 27, she was cast in Borgen. ‘Nobody could foresee that it would have this kind of international attention. That was a major surprise, and it’s given me this opportunity, which is amazing.’
All her answers are like this, detailed, balanced, nicely phrased and short of substance. She’s reluctant to express anything that might be called a point of view. Even on cycling.
‘I’ve been given variable advice. Some people say you should definitely do it in London, some people say you will get killed.’ How does she find Tom Hiddleston, who stars as Coriolanus? ‘He’s sometimes like a walking library, the amount of knowledge he has, it’s quite astonishing. He’s so dedicated. Pure joy!’
I probe her on politics.
‘It’s difficult to have perhaps one opinion. And today also everything seems to be up in the air.’ I dig a little deeper and I get this. ‘From the — granted, limited — research or insight I’ve been given into politics by doing Borgen, I have to say I think it’s really difficult to govern and to make laws and to decide what’s best. So I feel confident knowing that smarter people than me are doing it. But if you talk about the idea of democracy, everybody should be heard. So I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer. But it’s an interesting debate.’
It’s like meeting a career diplomat or a future First Lady. She emphasises her modest view of herself and her potential. She’s simple, unexceptional, a beginner, in awe of those with greater capacities and wisdom. Doubtless this is a learned response. She’s clearly the kind of smart, ambitious, alpha female who deserves to be ugly, squat and a bit crossed-eyed as well, just to even up the score. But nature treated her to the full physical package: she’s tall, alluring and rosy-lipped, with eager blue eyes and enough blonde hair to stuff a mattress. So the humility and the self-deprecation are a defensive tactic, like the flares dropped by fighter-jets as they soar heavenwards, to fend off missiles fired by envious miscreants below.
I chuck in a few daft questions to try to nudge her off-script.
Does she throw up before she goes on stage?
‘I get nervous but I don’t throw up. I haven’t yet, at least. Maybe I will for this. Come 6 December, we’ll find out.’
Might she use her musical talents to become the next Lady Gaga?
‘That is not in my plans, no. I like my job quite a lot.’
Does she mind if people shout at her in the street?
‘They don’t shout. They will politely come up to me, saying, “Do I recognise you from that TV show?” I got recognised in Sainsbury’s the other day. Every time it happens I feel so proud I’ve been part of something that people take pleasure in watching.’
Earlier this summer she made a feature film, Automata, with Antonio Banderas. ‘A noir sci-fi sort of thing,’ she says. ‘It’s going to be interesting.’ They were shooting in Bulgaria. ‘How was that?’
‘Bulgarian! It was a bit like stepping ten years back in time. Just the fact people were smoking inside, a stupid little thing, but you’ve got so used to it not happening. It’s kind of like, oh, you’re allowed to do that here. Oh, OK.’
Any further impressions? ‘It was a lot of fun. People were very nice and it was interesting also because I wouldn’t have travelled to Bulgaria on my own. You definitely sensed communism in them, in a way still. Not like it’s present, but you can see it in the architecture, it’s very different from western Europe.’
She’s attracted to Hollywood but, as Banderas told her, ‘it’s a brand, not a place’, so she can pursue her film career without relocating. All the same, she likes LA. ‘I thought I was going to be like all Europeans, thinking it was phoney and full of bullshit. But people are so nice, genuinely really nice. And there’s a mentality where they think anything’s possible and of course that’s why a lot of people end up penniless and in despair. But compared to Denmark, where we tend to be, “oh, don’t reach too far”, it’s a wonderful positive starting point to say anything’s possible. And the weather’s great, which is maybe why they’re so happy.’
Would she like to do more Shakespeare?
‘I’ve always had a soft spot for Much Ado About Nothing. The witty banter thing between Benedick and Beatrice appeals to me, that quick exchange of words.’
The Donmar’s most recent Shakespearean production, Julius Caesar directed by Phyllida Lloyd, transferred to Broadway. Would she find that interesting? For the first time she fizzes with excitement. ‘You never know, but we’ll find out. It got a standing ovation from Jane Fonda on the opening night.’
Then the First Lady reasserts herself. ‘But I never saw it,’ she laments. ‘It’s one of the great regrets of my life.’
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Borgen series 3 on BBC4 ends on 14 December; Coriolanus is at the Donmar. There will be a nationwide NT Live screening of Coriolanus on 30 January.
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