Sidse Babett Knudsen on ‘Inferno,’ the Magic of Tom Hanks, and the Mysteries of ‘Westworld’
When Knudsen first answered my call for a brief phone conversation earlier this week, I told her I was particularly excited to speak to her because of my love for The Duke of Burgundy, the outstanding 2014 drama about the trials and tribulations of a unique couple, played by Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna. Knudsen’s response? Borderline shock. “I love it too,” she said, but admitted that it’s “rare” that people come up to her wanting to talk about the film.
It seems likely that more people will discover The Duke of Burgundy (which is still available on Netflix, by the way) as they discover Knudsen. After a long international career, the Danish actress, previously best known for her lead role on the TV series Borgen, is now finding success in the United States. In addition to Inferno, Knudsen can also currently be seen on Westworld, where her Theresa Cullen is in charge of keeping the show’s Western theme park up and running.
In Inferno, Knudsen plays World Health Organization director Elizabeth Sinskey, who’s part of the larger mystery about a deadly virus that could decimate the world’s population. She shares a romantic past with Tom Hanks’ Robert Langdon, but in the present, can she be trusted? Knudsen told me the mystery of Elizabeth’s allegiances, and not revealing too much about her motivations too soon, factored heavily into how she played the role. That makes for an interesting comparison to Westworld, where the motivations of many of the characters remain oblique. Knudsen and I also discussed working with Hanks (she previously teamed with him in Tom Tykwer’s A Hologram for the King) and the secret to his longevity, and whether she follows any of the fan theories swirling around her popular new TV show.
I read that in the Inferno book, your character and Robert Langdon don’t have this romantic past. What did you think of the choice to change the character the way?
I was a bit surprised, but I thought it was good. It’s good for him. [laughs] In the book, she also looks a little different. Her silver hair is really important, and I fell completely in love with that image, and for a while I actually tried to keep it. Many of the characters in the film have been changed from the book. And I suppose it’s nice that there’s a layer of surprise for readers of the book as well.
I must admit I am not super familiar with the inner workings of the World Health Organization. Did you do any research before you played this character? Who did you look to to inspire your performance?
I did a little bit of research into the WHO, just to find out what it’s really like. Normally, it’s about putting pressure on organizations; it’s not, as in this film, running around and action. This person, in our world, is normally someone who works at a desk or in a conference room.
I was inspired by [WHO Director-General] Margaret Chan, and then I was quite inspired by one of her speeches where she was talking about tobacco companies and she says “We will not be intimidated.” I liked that idea. So that was sort of my mantra for her as well.
The big climax is this race to stop the virus from being unleashed, and there are fights and chases, a lot of it taking place in this underground pool. And knowing I was going to talk to you, I was watching you do all this and thinking “This looks like it must have been a nightmare to shoot!” Was it as brutal as it looked or is that the magic of acting?
[laughs] I loved it! It was my first action scene. In fact, we needed to do a test for my costume, just to see how it would look in the water. And I misunderstood a little bit, because I was really proud that I can stay underwater for a very long time. So we do the test and I dove in and went under for a while. And when I came up, [director] Ron [Howard] was there, and he said I didn’t need to do that. But I really loved it. It was such fun.
You’ve worked for a long time in film and television, but you’re now getting a chance to work on these American productions. Can you compare the experience working overseas with working here?
The American productions I’ve done have been big, like this with a big enormous crew, or Westworld where we don’t even know half the story and where it’s going and it’s such an enormous thing. It’s very much like stepping into this big world from a smaller world. But then again, during Inferno, I thought it’s big, it’s crazy, but it still felt like doing a film in the way I’m used to doing a film, with the director who knows the story and cares about it and has people around him that he trusts.
You’ve made two films with Tom Hanks now. He’s been so good for so long, I wonder if we take him for granted a little bit.
You’re working with him on set, you’re doing scenes with him. From your perspective up close, and as an actor yourself, what’s he doing that we’re maybe not seeing or appreciating?
I don’t know what he does, I can just see that it works. Of course he’s such a professional. He’s so much in the moment, all of the time. Every take he gives 100 percent of himself. He doesn’t have super powers, that I can say. He’s a real human being. But his voice, his intonation, it’s so smack-on all the time. And it’s not the same, either; he improvises. You can’t really say what it is, and you can’t copy him, but he’s got it.
You mentioned Westworld a few minutes ago, and I have to admit I am a little obsessed with that show. Have you read any of the fan theories online about the show’s secrets?
No, I haven’t. Not at all.
Not at all! When you were shooting the show, did you know where the whole season was headed, or was it a surprise to you when you would get each new script and shoot it?
It’s very much a surprise. This was the most mysterious project I’ve ever worked on. Information was very much on a need-to-know basis. I know about my character, but that’s pretty much it. So every new episode was so exciting to read, and you go “No, not really!” just reading the script. It was really, really exciting.
I still don’t know everything; I can’t wait to see the episodes. And we’d make theories as well, while we were working on it. “I think this is going to happen...” So it doesn’t surprise me that people imagine what’s going to happen.
Every episode was like a new layer, and the world is becoming bigger and bigger. When [Westworld creators] Jonathan [Nolan] and Lisa [Joy] talked about the universe, it was so impressive how many directions they had, how many layers they were conscious of, and how big and vast that universe is. They’re very intelligent.
It occurs to me as we’re talking about it that there are some interesting parallels between Westworld and The Duke of Burgundy. They’re both about fantasies and the way power shifts in relationships, and they’re both set in these very closed-off worlds separate from the rest of society. Is that a coincidence, or are those themes you’re particularly interested in as an actor?
Wow, now that you say it, I have not thought about that. What I’m interested in as an actor is exploring universes that I have not come across before. It’s interesting to me to be able to discover new things. I do like fantasies, and I like when film is inspiring and it puts creative ideas into the minds of the audience. I like to go in that direction, rather than being in things where we tell people “This is how it is.” It’s nice if you can involve the audience in some way.
Well if you have a chance, you should really check out some of the Westworld speculation online. Could your character be a robot? Could everyone be a robot?!? It’s a lot of fun to read.
Yeah! You’re getting nothing out of me.
[laughs] You can’t blame a guy for trying.
Inferno is in theaters now.