Unlike Saga Norén in The Bridge, Sofia Helin can smile when she feels like it. I've seen her smile and it's great. The thing she hates is having to smile. Notably on the red carpet, where you are besieged by photographers. “You want to know what the worst thing is? When they say: 'More teeth, please!' What am I? Some kind of horse?” Smiling is okay, but it has to be consensual, not coercive.
Which explains, in part, why, when Sofia Helin made her entrance the other night at the Guldbaggen (“The Golden Beetle”), the Swedish Oscars held at the Cirkus in Stockholm, she was not smiling for the camera. Nor were the other hundred or so Swedish actresses she was hand-in-hand with. They were all wearing the black #tystnadtagning t-shirt. The slogan means “Silence, action” and it's what the director says in Swedish when the cameras start rolling. It's also the hashtag of the Swedish #metoo movement, protesting about sexual exploitation and discrimination in the film industry and beyond.
— Anna Velander Gisslén (@AnnaGisslen) January 22, 2018
“We were also wearing comfortable shoes,” said Helin. She hates anything that stops her running. “There is no fashion statement that is female that is not uncomfortable,” she added. When she watched some of her colleagues recently: “I could see they couldn't breathe. Everything was too tight. Like they were wearing corsets.”
Also unlike Saga Norén, Sofia Helin is articulate and funny and good company. She doesn't normally drive a Porsche 911 or wear leather trousers, like her screen alter ego, but she does still have the Saga Norén scar. This is the scar on her upper lip that viewers are able to inspect one more time as the fourth and final season of The Bridge airs. The scar is real. She picked it up in her 20s when she fell off her bike, but it has become part of her persona now and makes her look like a tough yet vulnerable warrior who has been through a few battles. Which, in fact, she has. I asked her about her own experience of sexual harassment in Sweden. “I simply quote the marvellous Sharon Stone,” she said. “I've seen it all.”
One fan in Australia once got in touch with her via Instagram (where she is “actress_sofia_helin”) and wrote that he knew of a clinic where she could go and get surgery for her scar and get it “fixed”. It would, he said, be “life-changing”. Helin wrote back to him: “I love my scars. Do you love yours?”
An ex-student of philosophy, Helin is now in her mid-40s, married to a minister in the Swedish Lutheran Church, with two children, a boy aged 14 and a girl aged eight. She is quizzical about the contemporary obsession with personal “happiness” – “What is that anyway?” – and passionate about effecting change in the world. “When I'm old I will look back on my life and reflect on my choices. It will be a pleasant thing to feel I did some things.”
Sofia Helin at the Guldbaggen. Photo: Andy Martin
Helin invited me to meet her at the Grand Hotel on the waterfront in Stockholm, accompanied by her friend and “film sister”, Moa Gammel, who wrote a refutation of the recent Catherine Deneuve anti-MeToo manifesto.
“It's not sexual freedom if someone is raping you,” she said, succinctly. They both had a hand in the front-page article in the Swedish daily, Svenska Dagbladet, drawing attention to the asymmetry of “money and power” in the Swedish film industry. They also share a fondness for the Swedish tobacco product Snus – which you can see Saga Noren popping into her mouth and shoving up into her gums. “It's good for writing,” they assured me.
By chance, they also introduced me to Björn Ulvaeus of Abba, the classic Swedish pop group, now bespectacled and scholarly-looking, who was enthusiastic about what they were doing. “We are living in a post-patriarchal era“, he said. “Thanks to you.”
Stockholm in January 2018 feels a little like Paris in May 1968, with the same fervour and ferment, but more snow. “It's like a revolution,” said Moa Gallen. “Only a peaceful revolution.”
The movement counts 70,000 women supporters in Sweden. And it's going global, too. After Helin and #tystnadtagning staged a public reading of personal testimonies last year, they received a message via their FaceBook page from some female Peshmerga soldiers, at war with ISIS. “We are fighting the same fight,” they said.
— Duncan (@shaksper) January 26, 2018
Helin has just returned from Cambodia, where she was an ambassador for WaterAid. And they have links with Time's Up in Hollywood, too. But there is no naming of names in Sweden. It's all about “structures” that have to be changed, not about demonising individuals like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. “Creating a monster absolves us of responsibility,” says Helin.
Changing the script
When I spoke to Stellan Skarsgård (the bad guy in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) who won the Best Supporting Actor award for Borg (about the tennis player Björn Borg), he said that Hollywood had “shone a light on the problem, but now we need to find the solution. You have to start thinking about what to do next.” Helin and her colleagues are changing the script in very pragmatic ways.
Helin loved working on The Bridge, which was always filmed during the long winter season. It has to be bleak and grey and they stop filming as soon as any buds start to appear. It's noir, not green – so daffodils are out.
The Bridge was conceived and written by Hans Rosenfeldt, who also wrote Marcella. Together they came up with the character of Saga Noren who is an outsider figure among detectives, socially inept, with a dash of something like Asperger's and whose most famous chat-up line is, “Vill du har sex?” (“Do you want to have sex?”)
But Helin is now more committed to projects that are created and written mainly by women for women. She listed and derided all the plays and films and stories, written by men, in which women either go mad or commit suicide or both: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Miss Julie, Hedda Gabler, a lot of Shakespeare.
Sofia Helin is both a neo-Ingrid Bergman and a creative force. Inspired by her experiences in Nordic noir, she came up with the original idea for Honour, a television drama series involving four women lawyers, due to shoot later this year. She is quick to point out that, globally speaking, she is in a privileged position.
Actresses in Sweden are really very fortunate. But we are having an impact on women around the world who are not quite so fortunate. It shouldn't all be about appearance. How you look. It's about the stories you have to tell.
Waiting for wonderful
Helin cites the tragic fate of Marilyn Monroe: “She was an intellectual who was forced to appear as an air-head.” Nor, she thought, should fellow Swedish actress Greta Garbo have been known as “The Face”.
“To be reduced to your face, as if that is all you are. Known only for your looks. No wonder she dropped out at the age of 35,” she said.
Helin doesn't want to be “The Face”, with or without scars. On the other hand, she doesn't want to “become invisible”, which is what happens to so many ageing female stars. “You shouldn't have a 'best before' date,” she said.
Sofia Helin as Saga Noren in The Bridge. Photo: Olof Johnson/Filmlance International AB
Garbo famously said, “I just want to be alone.” Helin is the exact opposite. She is collectively-minded, gregarious, and is reluctant to talk exclusively about herself and her own career. “We stand there in the spotlight and it's like there is a competition between us, one woman against another.” But now actresses have discovered solidarity. “Our power comes from coming together with other women. I am grateful to acting, but it's lonely. I long for the female family.”
In her speech on stage at the Golden Beetle, Sofia Helin referred to Nora's speech at the end of Ibsen's A Doll's House. Finally dumping her stupid husband, Nora says she has been waiting for the “vidunderliga” to happen, but it never did – and now she is leaving and we hear the door slam behind her.
Helin and I try to work out the right English equivalent for vidunderliga. Helin originally suggests “the prodigiously” and we narrow it down to somewhere between “wonderful”, “magical” and “sublime”. She says: “Maybe it's not possible to describe it with words, but when we meet it, we always recognise it.” Whatever it means exactly, I definitely recognise it whether I'm sitting in the lounge of the Grand Hotel in Stockholm or at home watching Saga Noren.