Actors have a long history of side projects: some use their free time to write books, while others are even front rock bands. But it’s fair to say that few actors go through dual careers quite like Anders Danielsen Lie, who currently stars as an enduring love interest in both ‘Bergman Island’ and ‘The Worst Person in the World’ – an indie film Doublehead, which prompted a critic to outplay him “the art house’s next great ex-boyfriend” – while still working full-time as a doctor in Oslo.
“It was mind-blowing,” Lie, 43, told me in a recent video chat, and he wasn’t kidding: In early January, he was named Best Supporting Actor by the National Society of Film Critics despite working three days a week at one vaccination center in Oslo and two days a week as a general practitioner. “It feels kind of abstract because as an actor, the most important part of making a film is the shoot itself,” he said. “Then when the film comes out, it’s kind of a surreal experience.”
Expect things to get even more surreal when the acclaimed The Worst Person in the World finally makes its way to American theaters on February 4th. In this romantic dramedy from director Joachim Trier, Renate Reinsve – who won the best actress award for the role at the Cannes Film Festival – plays Julie, a young 20-year-old trying to figure out her future. For a time, she explores Lie’s character Aksel, an elderly, charismatic comic book artist, and makes his sedentary life her own. But even as they break up and Julie discovers new pursuits, she finds her bond with the arrogant Aksel hard to shake.
Lie previously collaborated with Trier on the critically acclaimed films Reprise (2008) and Oslo, August 31 (2012), but The Worst Person in the World has proven to be something of a breakthrough: Tinkered the Internet has video tributes to his character, and the film struck a chord with viewers who prefer simple, human stakes to superhuman ones. “It felt like we made a very local thing out of Oslo and we were afraid that anyone in the world would understand,” Lie said. “But people on the other side of the planet can identify with it. That’s the beauty of feature films, they kind of bring people together.”
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Aksel and Julie feel like the qualities that brought them together eventually drive them apart. How would you summarize their relationship?
He’s good at articulating her feelings and thoughts and that was something she probably wanted at an earlier stage in their relationship, but at this point she’s just plain annoyed by it. He’s quite a friendly person, but he also tries to subtly dominate her using language as his tool, which he’s good at.
Is Aksel a “bad friend”, as a recent Vanity Fair article claims?
I don’t really see him as a bad friend at all. She’s not bad; he is not bad; You are only human. They are put in situations where they have to make tough decisions and end up feeling like the worst people in the world, but it’s not really their fault. It’s life’s fault in a way.
In the film, we see Julie flipping between different identities, trying new jobs, new passions. Did you behave like this when you were that age?
I personally thought my 20s and 30s were tough, tough years because I spent so much time figuring out who I was and what I was supposed to do. I haven’t made that choice yet, but it doesn’t bother me that much anymore. I am fortunate enough to have two children and a wife. Maybe it’s that simple.
When you were younger, did you feel pressure to make a definitive choice between acting and medicine?
That was my ongoing identity crisis.
Maybe that’s just the dual life you feel best suited for.
It’s definitely a dual life, and at times it feels like an identity crisis because it’s just a lot of hustle making the calendar work. It’s difficult to combine these two professions and sometimes I wonder a bit who I am. I try to believe that I am something deeper: I’m not the doctor or the actor, I’m someone else, and those are just roles I take on.
Her mother is an actress. Has that influenced your view of the life of an actor?
My mother isn’t your typical actress – she’s not a diva or anything. She’s a very ordinary person and I think it’s important to have a foothold in reality if you want to portray people on screen with confidence and believability. But I grew up seeing what it was like to be an actress and what it was like to be a doctor and I ended up being both! I should probably go into psychoanalysis or something.
Her father was a doctor. That pretty much split you down the middle, didn’t it?
Exactly. Maybe it’s an inherited disease.
Does one career affect the other?
Working as an actor has improved my communication skills as a doctor because acting is so much about listening to the other actors and trying to establish good communication, often with people you don’t know very well, and that reminds me a bit to work as a doctor. I meet people, often for the first time, and they present me with a very private problem and I need to get the right information to help them. It’s actually a very delicate, tough communication job.
You made your film debut at age 11 in a film called Herman. How did that happen?
My mother had worked with the director so she knew he was looking for a boy my age and she asked if I was interested in auditioning. I didn’t really know what I signed up for – I was 10 years old and it felt like we were just playing a game. I remember when the director wanted me to do the role, he came to our house with flowers and said, “Congratulations,” and I was scared because I realized, “Now I really have to play this role and deliver.” For the first time I felt that fear of not doing a good job, exactly the same feeling I can get now before a shoot that I really care about. I can be afraid of not being up to the occasion.
After this film you did not work as an actor for 16 years.
“Herman” was an overwhelming experience. I felt like playing with explosives. I was dealing with emotions and manipulating my psyche in ways that were kind of scary.
Do you think that feeling of being overwhelmed by it as a child might influence your decision to live this dual life? Acting can never quite overwhelm you now because you have a very different career going on at the same time.
You should become an analyst. I think you’re on to something here because I’ve always felt that working full-time as an actor would not be good for me, especially when the roles are really dark and emotional. I’ve often thought that as an actor I need to find a psychologically viable way of working. I don’t know if I’m there yet, but I’m starting to see how to protect myself.
Interesting that you refused it until Joachim Trier asked you to audition for “Reprise”. If that hadn’t happened, do you think you would ever have returned to acting?
When I was asked to audition for Joachim’s first film, I had no intention of acting – I had a year of medical school left and other plans. But I’ve often wondered why I keep doing this because I’m a very neurotic person and when I perform on stage I get very, very nervous. It costs me a lot to do this and I often ask myself, “why are you doing it if it’s so hard?”
I think the process of creating a fiction and the borderline experience of entering this fictional character fascinates me. It’s like discovering and amplifying potentials within yourself that you probably can’t explore in real life.
Have you ever done that “come out to LA, meet the Hollywood people” or are you still keeping it all at bay?
I’ve been to LA many times, but I have no naive illusions about what it’s like to be a movie actor. It’s important to me to be in this industry for the right reasons. I definitely have ambitions, but I hope it’s more artistic than career.
I think those are good ambitions. I’ve seen European actors have a big moment like yours and they’d make quick money to play the villain in an American comic book movie.
Maybe playing this character would be great fun! But I try to have a long perspective. I want to work with it for a long time and I don’t want to be someone who shows up one year and then you never hear from that actor again. I want to make a career with time.
After everything that’s happened in the past year, have you felt more drawn to acting or medicine?
In an ideal world, I would like to continue doing both. I think I’ve found a balance in the last five years that makes sense and doesn’t exhaust me too much. But I do not know. I keep putting off that final decision.
If there hasn’t been a final choice until now, perhaps there never will be.
You could be right. We will see.