Why on earth would this director, who obviously does not like women, want to cast someone like me?”
Connie Nielsen, the Danish star of Gladiator, Wonder Woman and new action film Nobody, is repeating the question she’s often asked herself on film sets. “Why has he hired someone who’s going to give him a hard time? Or ask questions?” She sighs, her face suddenly crestfallen. “It’s been freaking hard sometimes, I’m not gonna lie to you.”
Nielsen is easy to spot in most of her movies – she tends to be the only woman there. Wonder Woman and its sequel, in which Nielsen plays the hero’s mother Queen Hippolyta, is a big, femme-driven anomaly on her CV. Otherwise they’re sausage-fests. She’s played the lone woman in a team of astronauts (in Mission to Mars), an army ranger (in Basic), and an FBI agent (in The Hunted). She was also Russell Crowe’s old flame in Gladiator (2000), romanced Sean Pertwee in Soldier (1998) and was Kevin Costner’s wife in 3 Days to Kill (2014).
“I’ve been the token woman in so many films!” Nielsen says. “I mean, it’s the absolute truth, and it annoys the s**t outta me. My experience of walking onto the set of the first Wonder Woman and being there with 50 Amazonians? It was absolutely empowering, and that feeling was transported to the men and women watching it, too.” She remembers seeing it in a cinema with her 10-year-old son and his friends. “They just flipped! And it was like how they would if it was Superman or Batman… except I think Gal Gadot might have been just a little cooler.”
Sat at the end of a glass table in a leopard-print gown with sharp shoulder-pads, Nielsen resembles the most glamorous Bond villain in the world. If she wasn’t so friendly, you’d half expect her to open up a trap door over a piranha tank. Somewhat awkwardly, we’re speaking today about a film in which she, once again, plays someone’s wife. Nobody stars Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk as a cripplingly dull everyman who suddenly deploys fists of steel after his family are targeted in a home invasion. Nielsen is his oblivious spouse, who looks set to jump into the fray towards the film’s climax… only to be sent away for her own safety. I tell her that, as fun as Nobody is, it could have done with more of her.
“You know…” she begins, as if to weigh up whether to go further. “Let’s talk about it!” To Nielsen’s credit, she is open about having accepted the role not necessarily because of what it offered on paper. “I wanted to have the opportunity to enter into a franchise,” she admits. “When the first John Wick came out, I just thought, ‘Oh, it’s another one of those action movies’. But then I was just taken with this very stylised fantasy. I’d never seen anything like it. So I thought, well, if we can create more of that…”
Nobody is a product of the baroque genius behind the John Wick franchise – screenwriter Derek Kolstad – and carries over its hyper-choreographed energy. As with the Keanu Reeves vehicle, there are secret orders, kinetic fight sequences, and hints of a deeper mythology at work. As Nobody unfolds, Odenkirk’s wimpy suburbanite is revealed to be skilled at violence for a very specific reason. It is a bit of a male fantasy, which Nielsen acknowledges. She also thinks it’s a cautionary tale.
“America is still such a macho country,” she says. “I actually think it’s terrifying. I insisted that my kids practise self-defence and karate.” Nielsen has lived in the United States since 1996, and is raising five sons – two from previous relationships, and three as a stepmother. She suggests that the explosion of male violence in Nobody is what happens when men are encouraged to suppress their emotions.
“I’m raising these gorgeous, super-sensitive and lovely men, and I’m teaching them to really be connected to their emotional selves,” the 55-year-old explains. “It can be hard, though, in a society that keeps on telling men to raise their chins and ignore their feelings.”
Nielsen is fascinated by violence, and conscious of how it is used on screen. She says she doesn’t like “splatter movies”, but draws comparisons between the way violence is depicted in modern films – the stylised chaos of Nobody, and even the brutalism of Gladiator’s colosseum scenes – and ancient folklore. “Even before Greek tragedies, or the Iliad or the Odyssey, men and women would go from village to village telling the exploits of these warriors – which weapons they used, how they killed such and such a person. We use stories to reassure ourselves that there is a way out of whatever it is that life presents us with. Because it’s just a fantasy, and it serves a purpose. It’s been serving that purpose for thousands of years.” She pauses. “That might be too serious an explanation, but I’ve actually been thinking about this s**t!”
On screen, Nielsen has always projected a similar kind of thoughtful self-possession. It’s maybe why Hollywood has rarely figured out where to place her. A former model, she studied acting while working runways in Milan. At the behest of an agent, she moved to America in pursuit of a film career. Whether it was because of her modelling background or her accent – she still has a thick Dutch lilt – she immediately found herself being cast as exotic femme fatales: Satan’s oft-naked lover in The Devil’s Advocate (1997), or a suburban seductress in Rushmore (1998). Today Nielsen is still proud of those parts, but is aware that they represented a form of typecasting that could have gone awry if she had let it. “I don’t believe in a feminism that represses female sexuality,” she says, “but there’s a fine line between expression and exploitation. In a lot of [films], it depends who is at the helm.”
Being cast in more challenging roles, only to have them hacked to pieces by overzealous directors, also left her demoralised. “In those first 10 or so movies in America, I signed on to be the female lead,” she remembers. “And then in editing, guess whose role gets cut down? I went through years [of that]. I started really seriously considering whether I should continue in this job, because it was heartbreaking. I put all that work in, and then it was edited out.”
She says she found hope in independent films. She is spectacularly icy and elusive as a corporate spy in Oliver Assayas’s cult techno-noir Demonlover (2002), while in One Hour Photo, the stalker thriller released the same year starring Robin Williams as an obsessive photo developer, she is a picture-perfect embodiment of maternal warmth. But neither was quite able to push her into the big league. She says she’s long struggled with the stranglehold masculinity has had on Hollywood.
“It’s dominated movies since the early Fifties,” she says. “Before that, we actually had some pretty darn amazing female characters, and stories that revolved around ‘dames’. They were psychologically complex, too. Since then we’ve been dealing with so much patriarchal storytelling.”
The industry is slowly changing, she says, partly because it is no longer acceptable, at least on a corporate level, to uphold misogyny. In 2017, Nielsen wrote an essay for Variety in which she described being sexually harassed by Harvey Weinstein after she had worked on a film he produced – 2005’s The Great Raid. Today, she says the enabling of men like Weinstein is endemic to the creative industries.
“I remember in acting school, my teacher would say to me, ‘You know, the director is God and you are there to serve his art,’” she says. “And it was definitely his art. I always had a little bit of a problem with that. It felt paternalistic and patriarchal from the beginning. But you can’t blame people for believing it and then saying, ‘I am God’, and [treating] other people as if they are their servants, or mistreating them.”
Nielsen says there is still work to be done, but that sets already feel slightly different post-MeToo. Last year she filmed sex scenes for a forthcoming Channel 4 series, Close to Me, and worked alongside an intimacy coordinator for the first time in her career. On the set of Nobody, questions were asked, scenes were interrogated, and she was listened to. Fingers crossed she might be able to throw some punches next time, too.
Nobody is in cinemas from 9 June