The past two years in the life of Anders Danielsen Lie have been hectic, to say the least. A doctor by trade, he’s been splitting his week between a COVID-19 vaccination center in his native Oslo—one he helped establish—and working as a general practitioner. In his spare time, he is an international movie star, walking red carpets in Cannes and New York City in support of two of the year’s finest films.
“It’s very hard to combine being a doctor and an actor, but it feels good to have a foot in reality,” he tells me. “I feel that I know something about an ordinary, regular life. Being in the movie world can sometimes be a fiction in itself. We can all feel like tourists sometimes in that universe.”
In addition to Bergman Island, filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve’s roman à clef about cinema, memory, and desire, he delivers the finest performance of his acting career as Aksel, a self-absorbed comic book artist who falls for Julie (Renate Reinsve), a searching young woman 15 years his junior, in The Worst Person in the World. It’s the third entry in director Joachim Trier’s revelatory Oslo Trilogy—following 2006’s Reprise and 2011’s Oslo, August 31st—all featuring Lie as a man adrift, torn asunder by insecurity.
Lie, 43, has popped up elsewhere—most notably as a mystery lover in Kristen Stewart-starrer Personal Shopper and mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik in 22 July—but his collaborations with Trier, a real-life friend, have birthed his finest cinematic creations.
“With Joachim, I can go all the way,” he explains. “We’re not afraid of ambivalence and complexity, whereas other filmmakers and producers want more clarity. They want the characters to be more archetypal, and we go in the other direction. I don’t know any other filmmaker I can go that far with.”
I spoke to Lie about his fascinating double life and his Oscar-worthy turn in one of the best movies of the year.
Thank you for taking the time. I know you’re a busy man. You’ve been acting on and off for quite some time, so how does it feel to finally be getting all this awards buzz?
It’s nice to get such amazing feedback but I don’t really think about awards. Playing the movie, I try to have a different focus. We had a lot of fun making this film. It felt like a big privilege to be able to make a film that is both funny and serious/existential at the same time. It can’t get more interesting than that. I know very well why I’m into acting and why I do this. In the films of Joachim, it feels like we have been reflecting on our own lives, people that we have met ourselves. It’s nice to be able to use a feature film as a place for collective reflection.
You mentioned that you know why you act. I’m curious why you do it? Because you have a regular gig that’s incredibly demanding. Is it fulfilling you in a different way?
It is, for sure. I grew up with a mother who worked as an actress, so I was familiar with the profession. I’ve thought about this a lot. I think the process of entering a fictional universe—being a part of creating an illusion that can have an impact on an audience—is the main reason why I do this. I think it’s interesting to build characters and explore parts of myself, potentials in myself, through acting. There’s a film by the French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin called Esther Kahn, with Summer Phoenix in the main role. And the film is about a young woman who is ashamed in real life but when she works as an actress, she can live out all that feels forbidden in real life. That’s a metaphor for why I’m doing this.
You’re quite literally helping people in your primary job as a doctor, but do you feel acting also helps people in a way?
Not always. [Laughs] But you’re absolutely right. Hopefully people can watch this film and think of it as therapy. This is a very old ideal in the history of drama and theater going back to Ancient Greece, this idea of catharsis. It seems from feedback that people have a cathartic experience while watching this film—and that may be because it’s about very human problems like the search for identity, the search for love and relationships, and it’s also a romantic comedy in many ways. People might stumble upon this film as a genre movie and be surprised and see something else.
This is the third film you’ve starred in for Joachim Trier, and you’ve been described as his “muse.” Why do you feel you two work so well together and how do you feel about being seen as an artist’s muse?
It’s a huge privilege to have spent so many working hours with Joachim, because he is incredibly fun and interesting to work with. We’re friends in real life too, and I think we sometimes use our friendship—and all the conversations we’ve had throughout the years about love, relationships, and human problems—as a source of research and inspiration in creating fictional characters. We are both interested in ambivalence, and we’ve tried to challenge some myths in films about what the male protagonist should be like. In film history, the male protagonist is often active, powerful and decisive, and we’re more interested in exploring male vulnerability, insecurity, and confusion.
That does seem to be an overarching theme to the characters you play in the Oslo Trilogy. There is this aching vulnerability. They’re troubled men. And Askel reminded me quite a bit of Phillip from Reprise. They’re both literary figures who are deeply unhappy with where they are professionally and have their hearts broken by women. It seemed like bookending, in a way.
I agree. Although I would say that Phillip, and Anders even more in Oslo, August 31st, are psychological portraits, whereas Aksel is seen from Julie’s point of view all the time. We get to know him from her perspective and through their relationship. But he’s representing a recurring theme in Joachim’s films: the melancholy passage of time. There’s definitely a link between The Worst Person in the World and Reprise in the sense that both films try to tell me, as a member of the audience, that there’s a link between time, memories, and identity. We don’t understand our lives if we don’t have any memories, and when you approach the end of your life maybe you start realizing that memories are all you have.
Aksel gives Julie this spiel after they first sleep together where he says that they’re at different points in their lives due to the age gap, they want different things, and the relationship couldn’t possibly work. Do you feel he had a correct read from the beginning—that they were in different phases of their lives, so it didn’t work out?
It’s life’s fault. They’re different, and the age difference contributes to that. But there are two ways of interpreting that scene. Aksel is slightly patronizing throughout their relationship. He’s a man of language, and he’s good at using language as a powerful tool to almost manipulate people with language. He’s good at putting words on her emotions, and her thoughts.
We also know he’s kind of a chauvinist due to his comic book work.
Totally. And she is also using that ability—that side of him—to be confirmed in her ongoing identity project. She’s using his gifts, and his way of articulating, to understand who she is. But when she starts to understand more, she doesn’t need it anymore. She gets annoyed by it. Another reading of that scene is a Socratic realization of “I know what’s going to happen, because I know I tend to control people with language.”
I wanted to talk to you about the hospital sequence, which is incredibly powerful. Aksel is on death’s door and gives Julie this speech that almost feels like his last rites, telling her, “If I regret one thing, it’s that I never managed to make you see how wonderful you are.” He says she’s “the most important relationship” in his life, and that he believes she’s “a damn good person.” It seems to be his way of absolving himself.
It’s very interesting. Yes, he’s opening himself up and I think the intentions are good, but it’s not easy to be on the receiving end of that speech. What is she supposed to do with that information? She knows that he probably doesn’t have much time left. It also makes her feel bad.
There’s a guilt-tripping going on.
Yes, he’s kind of guilting her. It’s a very complex scene.
Joachim seems to love hospitalizing you. It happens in all three films of the Oslo Trilogy. Is that his way of nodding to your other career?
We’re constantly joking about him always putting me in difficult situations in his films and ending up killing me in the end. You know, I’m not a very courageous person in real life, and it takes courage to search for something when you don’t really know what it is with a director. That’s something I can’t do with everyone. Sometimes it feels like a father-son relationship where I’m the child fooling around and playing, and I need someone who sees me and helps me up when I hurt myself. But that’s what the acting process should be like at its best. You shouldn’t be afraid of stepping way outside of your comfort zone and trying something different.
Reprise happened while you were still in medical school, right?
I had one year left in medical school and I didn’t have any plans of doing acting at that point. I looked at that as a closed chapter in my life. I was on a totally different path and the film changed my life. I never would have been a film actor if it wasn’t for that film, and there’s a meta element for me with Reprise because it’s a coming-of-age film, and it’s almost like a documentary for me because it captures my own coming-of-age drama at the time. It was extremely bad timing for me to do a movie—I had to take a year off from my studies—but I’m glad I did.
It must be pretty fulfilling, I imagine? A lot of people hate their jobs, and you get to be a doctor saving lives and a movie star.
I feel extremely privileged. I will be the first person to say that. At the same time, it sounds very glamorous when you frame it that way, but it doesn’t always feel meaningful to work as a doctor. It can be frustrating. You don’t always get that reward, and sometimes I don’t even know how I can help people. It’s not always easy. And it’s the same working as an actor. Sometimes when I finish a shoot, I’m longing for my other job—to get back to my office and back to reality. It’s very hard to combine being a doctor and an actor, but it feels good to have a foot in reality. I feel that I know something about an ordinary, regular life. Being in the movie world can sometimes be a fiction in itself. We can all feel like tourists sometimes in that universe.
That contrast must be so stark during the pandemic. There must have been moments where you were jetting off to a film festival to premiere one of your two acclaimed films this year, and then returning home to treat COVID-19 patients. What was that like to manage that yo-yo act?
I know, and it seems like the contrast is extremely stark. I think that it anchors me in reality and reminds me of what’s important. But I’ll also say, because some people have asked me, “Doesn’t it feel important and meaningful to make entertainment when we have an ongoing pandemic?” I think it’s the other way around. The importance of culture, entertainment, and escaping reality by even watching a superhero movie—all of that is so important in the world that we are living in now. I’ve really seen how culture and movies can make a difference and be of tremendous importance to people, and that’s also good for people’s health. I think the arts and culture can have that kind of function in a society, and I’ve been very concerned about the damage that COVID restrictions have imposed on the arts and culture. Being a cultural worker as well as a medical professional, I think of medicine in a much broader perspective.
Norway has done one of the best jobs battling COVID of any country with a very low mortality rate. But they had very strict lockdowns—and even banned serving alcohol in restaurants.
There are many good things about Norway. Here, we have an exceptional level of trust in the health-care system and government, and vaccination hasn’t been a politicized topic. But there are other factors. We are not a very densely populated country, so it’s easier to distance. Even in Oslo, it’s been fairly easy to maintain social distancing, so we can’t take all the credit. We’ve also had a very open public discussion about what the right level of restrictions are at any given moment, so there’s been an honesty in the system that we’ve all profited from.
It’s been a crazy couple of years for you, between battling COVID-19 as a doctor and starring in two of the most celebrated films of your career. I’m curious what your plan is? Will you still keep juggling being a doctor and acting?
What’s the plan… That’s a good question! It’s a question I ask myself regularly. You know, I’ve been doing this now for many years, and I have no plans of making a big choice now. I hope that I’ll be fortunate enough to find new good material and exciting people to work with, but it has to fit with my family life and my work as a doctor. It puts a little bit of pressure on me to be selective and only pick the projects that I want to do. I try not to do projects just because I have to for economic reasons or something like that. I want things to be meaningful on both fronts. That was an exceptionally bad answer to your question! I don’t have any strategic plan here. I just try to stay open to wherever life takes me.