The movie business is full of multihyphenate talents, but one label you don’t see every day is “actor-slash-doctor.” Over the past two decades, Oslo-born Anders Danielsen Lie has pulled off a rare double feat: starring in a string of acclaimed European art films while having a career in medicine. This is no novelty act—his best-known roles are in three lauded pieces by auteur Joachim Trier that have been featured in festivals from Cannes to New York. Together, they’re a disarming triptych in modern melancholy and missed connections, spanning from the vague feeling that life is beginning to pass you by to the daunting extremities of depression.
Lie’s characters have a way of sneaking up on you with the depths of their intensity—the actor outwardly suggests an unassuming guest at a friend’s dinner party, who matter-of-factly proceeds to unspool a heartbreaking story with a wan smile. Trier’s so-called “Oslo Trilogy” with Lie began 15 years ago with Reprise, featuring him as a struggling young writer, and continued with the bleak character study Oslo, August 31st, in 2011. It concludes now with The Worst Person in the World, a warm, funny-sad portrait of a woman in her twenties, Julie (Renate Reinsve), who’s feeling out her next moves. 43-year-old Lie plays Julie’s boyfriend, Aksel, a quietly neurotic comic-book artist from an older generation who’s beginning to feel his age.
The Worst Person in the World opens February 4 and is Norway’s entry for the Academy Award for Best International Feature. It’s not even Lie’s only film from the past year: he also starred in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island, which opened last October and, with the Trier film, screened in The New York Film Festival. That’s when I spoke with Danielsen Lie, on a breezy fall day at a boisterous French restaurant in Midtown. Unfailingly polite and agreeable, the actor also poignantly mentioned that he had been reading the latest novel by countryman Karl Ove Knausgård. Below, he opens up about his non-traditional career path and the therapeutic nature of Trier’s films.
How did you approach the role of Aksel in The Worst Person in the World?
I tried to focus more on the relationship and creating chemistry with Renate, so that the audience would see him from her point of view. And I wanted him to represent a theme more than a character. He's representing the melancholy of the passage of time. She's right in the middle of the chaos that he maybe went through some years ago, so they are not synchronized. That’s the “bad timing” aspect of the romantic comedy, which is also quite melancholic, because that's how life is. We've all met people where we dream of what it might have felt like to meet this person at another time.
Aksel is at a transition point too, but he doesn't totally realize it.
Yes. In most of the movie there's this contrast between him being the wise, mature character and her being in the middle of life decisions and general existential confusion. But he is more lost than you would think. Identity is a work in progress for almost everyone. At least it is for me. I feel more self-confident now, and there are things in my life that I have acknowledged and accepted, but I can still have days where I wonder, “Who the hell am I?” [Laughs.]
Speaking of which, you’re both an actor and a medical doctor. What’s your medical specialty?
I’m still in the process of specializing in “general practice,” which is a specialty in Norway. It's not exactly family medicine, but...
Like a General Practitioner?
Yes, it's a long course where working as a GP is an important part of the specialty. [Acting and being a doctor] is not a combination that I would recommend to others. [Laughs.]
And now you’re stuck.
Yeah, I'm stuck. You know, I've always been somewhat ambivalent about acting.
I don't know. I think part of it comes from the fact that I don't have any formal training. So I've spent a lot of time figuring out a method so that I don't always “use myself,” in a way. Especially in a film like this, the style of acting is so close to real life, and it requires naturalism, emotionally and in every other sense. If you're going to do that in many films, you have to have some kind of method so that you don't end up totally confused about who you are. [Laughs.] Sometimes I’ve been concerned about being typecast too much.
How are you typecast?
Sometimes it feels like I end up being, well, “the depressed, melancholy person.” I would like to do different things and expand a little bit [of] what I can do. But you never really get away from yourself.
In Bergman Island, you infuse your character, Joseph, with a kind of mystique.
Yeah, that's true. My experiment was—if it was a Post-It on my wall—“no character.” I wanted him to be like a Bressonian model and let the audience project their expectation for that character. Because he's a character in her script, and there's almost a mythological, fable-like quality to the love story. And also he's a love interest, right? So I wanted there to be a veil of mystique and I wanted him to be obscure.
You’re also playing a doubly fictional character, because Joseph is a character in a story being told by another character.
Yeah! And I was just talking with someone about how Joachim’s films have felt almost like a documentary. Reprise felt like a documentary of the fall of 2005. That film had an impact on my own life—from meeting my wife, to acting again. I had no plans to act.
Reprise wasn’t your first screen role?
I did one film as a child. It was about a 10-year-old who loses his hair. But when Reprise happened, I still had one year left in med school. I remember, I was reading for an exam in forensic medicine. I got a phone call from a production company asking me if I wanted to audition for Joachim’s first film. I didn’t know Joachim. At first I said, ”Thank you, but no thank you.”
But you ended up doing it.
I read the script, and I felt, okay, this is everything I care about. And I was working with young adults with mental illnesses at the time, and I was supposed to play a person with a mental illness, so it just made sense to give it a shot. Joachim’s films are fictional, of course, but there are elements from our own lives, people that we have seen, people that we know. So there is this therapeutic quality to working with him, because we're reflecting on our own lives.
Is Aksel in The Worst Person in the World based on anyone in particular?
Not really. There was this underground milieu in Oslo in the early ’90s that was heavily influenced by Robert Crumb. This transgressive discourse of, you know, sex and body fluids. And when Aksel is on the radio [getting grilled about his transgressive work], that's a moment of deep truth for him.
For Renate and me, our research was much more centered around relationships, intimacy, how we would talk in a relationship. We tried to explore every possible corner. Sometimes a scene feels like a big house with a lot of doors and potential rooms that you can go into. Our job is to get to know that house. We have to go into all the doors and see what's there. And we have to know what's in the attic and in the basement.
What's your next project?
It’s a good question. I've been working as a doctor since we shot this movie. In the pandemic, it felt really meaningful to be able to contribute. I mean, this is the biggest crisis since World War II!