Agnes Kittelsen was born in Kristiansand, Norway, on 20 May 1980. After graduating from the Norwegian National Academy of Theatre in 2003, she has worked at Den Nationale Scene, the largest theater in Bergen and one of the oldest permanent theaters in Norway, for two years, from 2004 to 2006, before moving to the National Theatre a year later. Kittelsen is known for her role as Anneli in the 2004 TV series “Skolen”, Tikken in “Max Manus” (2008) and Liv Heyerdahl, the wife of Thor Heyerdahl in the 2011 Sundance winner “Kon-Tiki” by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, and the highest-grossing film of 2012 in Norway, the country’s most expensive production to date and the first Norwegian film nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 85th Academy Awards and the 70th Golden Globe Awards.
At the Black Nights Film Festival, Tara Karajica caught up with Agnes Kittelsen, star of Charlotte Blom’s debut film, “Staying Alive”, that premiered in the Tridens First Feature Competition at the festival. They discuss her role in the film, her career and acting, and being a woman in the film industry.
Before you starred in films, you performed on stage at Den Nationale Scene and the Norwegian National Theater, after graduating from the Norwegian Academy of Theater. How did your transition from the stage to the screen happen?
Agnes Kittelsen: Actually, my first job after I finished acting school was a big TV series [Skolen] whose filming went on for almost a year. It was for the Norwegian main broadcaster. And then, I went back to the theater where I worked for a couple of years and I did some short movies as well. Then, I had my biggest movie so far, Max Manus: Man of War [by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg].
Do you still act on stage?
A.K.: I do, yeah, yeah! My job is at the National Theater.
What do you prefer, the stage or the screen?
A.K.: I feel I’m very lucky to be able to do both things. That is almost necessary for me and I think that doing stage work makes me kind of braver because I tend to have a sort of small expression and I need the stage to widen up and be bigger. But then again I feel filming reminds to be real… It’s a really different kind of work, actually. But, it’s nice to be doing both because I don’t get bored.
How have Happy, Happy and Kon-Tiki affected your film career so far? Has it been better since?
A.K.: These specific movies, Happy, Happy and Kon-Tiki did open things up for me. I think that Happy, Happy was the first one and when it won in Sundance, it was actually the opener for me. And, with Kon-Tiki I got to travel a lot and going to the Oscars was fun, of course! So, what it’s done to me is that it’s gotten me agents in the U.S. and in England as well. And then, I can’t say how much I use that and take advantage of that because of my life situation and everything – having a small child. I don’t think I can really leave. And, the States are like “Yeah, we can get you a job but you have to be here and you have to live the life and you have to just get up and leave” and I haven’t felt like I have been able to do that yet. But, I get scripts and I read them and for me it’s about telling a story, you know, that I want to tell. Often, the American movies are always in some way about a vampire or somebody who’s going to be a vampire and these are fine movies but it’s not what I want to do and it’s not what I feel I am the best at and I’d rather not do it.
Your portrayal of Marianne in Staying Alive is so raw and authentic. How did you achieve that?
A.K.: It’s kind of the way I attack every role. It’s just what the situation is. And, she’s under a lot of pressure; she’s hurt and she’s angry and she’s really sad and then she’s happy when she’s happy… She has that kind of fortitude. She’s able to just laugh out in all the misery. She goes deep down. It was a a matter of balance making her believable as well, because she’s a bit crazy!
How much improvisation was there? Were you given a lot of freedom to do this?
A.K.: Yeah, we had freedom. But, we didn’t use it that much; we kind of always ended up with the script.
Do you think many women will or have identified with her? The story is universal, though…
A.K.: The story is universal, absolutely! And, how you manage that situation is, maybe, personal. Not everybody will do that. But, with Marianne, I like that she is a different kind of female character. She is the one who wants to have fun; she is the one who wants to party and she’s the one enjoying being a mother and the husband character is more like “Oh we have to tidy up!” He’s stepping down. And, I like the way the director kind of plays with that. It’s not stereotypical, you know.
Borgen is a good example of just a female main character and she’s the Prime Minister and you believe it and it’s interesting!
Staying Alive is a film made by women for women. Do you agree?
A.K.: I think it’s an easy assumption when you have a female main character and you have a female director. We had a female producer as well… And then, we assume that it’s a female movie in a way. But, I think that for many films, you just take the main character and turn the genders around and this story would be the same and it doesn’t make it any less interesting because it’s a woman. People tend to think that and producers tend to think that. So, if they want to make a movie that sells a lot of tickets then they can’t afford to have a female lead role, they have to use a man. And, I think that that is really wrong and I think that this movie is about being human more than being female.
In that regard, how is the situation of women in the Norwegian film industry in particular and in the Scandinavian film industry in general?
A.K.: It’s really interesting and something is happening because we have these big, huge successes with TV series, in Denmark especially. We have The Bridge, The Killing, Borgen… And, if you take The Bridge and The Killing, and you see the female main characters, they are kind of tricky women; they are really nice characters. And, it’s really good, but you have to come to a point where you have a female main character and she’s not crazy and doesn’t have male qualities… But something’s happening there. Borgen is a good example of just a female main character and she’s the Prime Minister and you believe it and it’s interesting! And, I would never give up on the fact that this story is just as interesting because it’s a female main character.
There has been a lot of talk of gender pay gap and lack of diversity in the film industry in Hollywood. Is it the same situation in Norway?
A.K.: It’s not the pay gap. It’s not… I do make the same money as my male colleagues. It’s more about who you are, you know, and in the theater as well. But, of course, there is more work for the men and they have a much wider spectrum of what they can play. Female characters are narrower. If you’re fat, you have to be funny and if you’re beautiful, you can’t be intelligent. That does exist…
So, there are a lot of stereotypes…
A.K.: Yes, there are… There are…
And, is it the same in the theater?
A.K.: Yeah, it’s the same in the theater. Better, but the same…
What are your next projects?
A.K.: I just finished a movie called Pyromanen and it’s in postproduction now. It’s a Norwegian film by Erik Skoldbjærg who did Insomina. I think it’s going to be a really beautiful movie! And then, I am obviously working at the theater also.
This interview was conducted at the 2015 Black Nights Film Festival.