Interview

Adam Woodward

Illustration

Tavan Maneetapho

Pilou Asbæk: ‘Today’s world leaders don’t have any answers’

The star of A War and the new season of Game of Thrones offers his thoughts on a curious human compulsion.

You may not know the name but pretty soon Pilou Asbæk will be on everyone’s lips. While the 33-year-old Danish actor has been quietly plying his trade in his homeland for the past eight years, finding success with shows like Borgen and The Killing, 2016 looks set to be the year he makes it big.

First up is A War, his second collaboration with A Hijacking director Tobias Lindholm, in which Asbæk plays a company leader accused of committing a war crime while serving in Afghanistan. Then there’s the small matter of the sixth season of Game of Thrones, which marks his first major role outside of Denmark. We sat down with Asbæk recently to talk global politics and how it feels being poised for stardom.

LWLies: You’re originally from Copenhagen. Do you still live there?

Asbæk: Oh yeah. There’s no need to move.

What do you love about your city?

It’s just so chilled. No one harasses you, no one wants to take selfies, it’s great! I live in Nørrebro, one of the toughest neighbourhoods, which is really multicultural. I really love that.

What are your thoughts on the recent influx of immigration to Denmark and particularly Copenhagen?

People have been travelling for thousands of years, so I don’t really know why we’re making a big fuss about it now. It’s not something new. The crisis in Syria is a world problem, not just a European problem. We need to understand that war has consequences and we need to relate to that and accept that. Right now there’s a couple of million people, refugees, walking through Europe – what are we going to do about it? I don’t want to be part of the generation that said, ‘No, you can’t enter.’

Denmark was one of the first countries to send troops to Afghanistan after 9/11, which is a fact that perhaps not many people are aware of outside of Denmark.

We put in a big effort in Afghanistan; we did the same thing in Iraq and Kosovo. But the thing is, Afghanistan was the first war where we became a warfare nation, where we were proactive. We were the third country, after the US and UK, to sign up. It was a massive argument in the Danish press 10 years ago, and the popular opinion at the time was that it was a collaboration among world leaders. When you talk to people in the US and UK no one seems to know about Denmark’s involvement, and you think, ‘why did we sign up for this, other than for our Prime Minister to become pals with Blair and Bush?’

Presuming the mood has changed, as it has in the UK, what do you think is the significance of a film like A War being released now?

It is interesting because the film doesn’t give any answers, and I don’t think the world leaders today have any answers. They don’t know what to do in Syria. We don’t even know how to agree on a climate issue… We were pretty naive back in 2002, 2003 and I don’t think we’ve learned all that much about foreign policy. When our government came out and admitted they made a mistake by sending troops to Afghanistan, that really affected the Danish people.

Did you have much interaction with war veterans while conducting research for your role?

Quite a bit, I talked to a lot of soldiers and the really interesting thing was meeting the people, the husband, the father, the mother, the wife… I started reflecting on this, because at the time I thought these professional soldiers were the enemy of the state, you know, this idea of going to a foreign country and killing in the name of democracy just seemed crazy to me. And then suddenly I hear all these life stories and it totally changed my perspective.

Were there any common themes that emerged from those conversations?

Yeah, they were frustrated. All of the soldiers in the film are played by professional soldiers, and have served in Kosovo and Iraq and Afghanistan, so they’ve been there and understand the rules of warfare. But the Taliban don’t follow the same rules, they fight to survive. We’ve seen what happens in warfare without rules and regulations. So they were very frustrated that these rules of engagement which they had to follow seemed to change every day.

As a species, why do you think we’re so obsessed with war and conflict?

That’s such a British question.

How do you mean?

Well, in Denmark I always get asked the same question: ‘Are you pro war or anti war?’ In the UK you have a much more international perspective on politics and the questions are so much more nuanced. I think it’s the Shakespeare in you guys. It sounds weird, but it’s the struggle for power. I’m a massive Game of Thrones fan, so to suddenly be a part of it was like being 10 years old and going to Disneyland, and I think what intrigues us is this idea of being in control, being on top, being the one who’s calling the shots. That’s war, whether it’s for control of land or oil or whatever, that’s the essence of why we fight.

What can you tell us about your role in Game of Thrones?

I play Euron Greyjoy, which I’m only allowed to talk about because someone leaked it. That was a crazy time. The day it got leaked, I was shooting and when I got back to my hotel room I had 200 missed phone calls and twice as many emails, and I genuinely thought something had happen to one of my family members. Either my wife or my mum or my kid died, I was convinced. I mean, I knew the show was a big deal, but that was intense.

You know this is just the beginning, right?

Apparently so. Already people are sending me all this fan art over Twitter. No one’s even seen the show yet! That’s when you know how massive it is. But it was a lot of fun. I can’t wait for everyone to see it.

A War is released 8 January.

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