Interview: Connie Nielsen
by Carlo Cavagna
LEFT: Connie Nielsen stars in the Harold Ramis comedy/noir The Ice Harvest.
Best Picture-winner Gladiator was when Nielsen proved she could act, starring as Emperor Commodus' tortured sister Lucilla, opposite Russell Crowe. Gladiator made her a star, and led to major roles as a young mother who contends with Robin Williams' dangerous obsession in One Hour Photo, alongside Tommy Lee Jones as an FBI agent in The Hunted, and as a military investigator opposite John Travolta in the thriller Basic. After a trip home to headline Susanne Brier's acclaimed drama Brothers, Nielsen returns to American cinema with Harold Ramis' dark Christmas comedy/noir The Ice Harvest, also starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton as two boneheaded criminals. As the alluring, enigmatic Renata, manager of the Sweet Cage strip club, forty-year old (if you can believe it) Nielsen doesn't give a terribly dynamic performance, but she makes a convincing femme fatale.In Los Angeles, AboutFilm participated in a roundtable interview with Nielsen prior to the film's release.
Question: How cold was it on the set of The Ice Harvest?
Nielsen: It wasn't cold. For me, it wasn't, because I was indoors most of the time. Also we had 70 or 80 degree spring days. I know that sometimes John [Cusack] was cold, because he was doing a lot of the outdoor stuff, and it was earlier in the shoot. But I had a ball. It was great. When I wasn't shooting, it was sunshine. I had a great time.
Question: When you read the script, did you have any idea where your character was going?
Nielsen: Oh yeah.
Question: Really? Before you reached the end?
Question: What gave you the idea?
Nielsen: [incredulously] It's a femme fatale.
Question: How do you like being a femme fatale?
Nielsen: That's the fun part. To be sexy is really boring. When you actually take your time to show the details of how you toy with a guy [Cusack's character]—that's what's fun. I find it funny that she, by doing such little things— I mean, I know that women will [agree] it's a little bit incredible how easy guys are sometimes. This film shows it. There's a sense of humor about it.
Question: What makes you feel sexy?
Nielsen: Well-being makes me feel sexy. Knowing that I'm loved by my guy—that makes me feel sexy. But it's not only that, it's also dependent on where you are emotionally. I think for women it's a lot to do with that. You know, if you slept well. Have you had a week when you actually did go to the gym instead of flaking on it? Little things like that. But I think it comes first and foremost, in my case, through physical well being and emotional well being. Then, you feel sexy.
Question: Obviously you're the sexiest female presence in the movie, and yet you had all these naked girls dancing all around you—was that a little strange?
Nielsen: It wasn't. I have always found [it] pretty logical to me that what is more sexy and attractive is that which is more mysterious and unattainable, especially for guys who are living, breathing, and working in a milieu where it's all about paying the dollar to see. Right? Here is the one woman where you can't do that. Of course she becomes the prize.
Question: Were the strip club sets as nasty as they looked?
Nielsen: Yes. They were. Literally sometimes you were like, “Yeah, I think I'll have my food out in the trailer.”
Question: What femme fatales did you borrow from?
Nielsen: I watched Lauren Bacall for a specifically physical thing—she had that thing which she [did] with the eyes, where she was looking up underneath the lashes a lot. [It] was not a thing she invented, because it was a thing which [women] actually did do in the Forties and Fifties, if you read literature from the time. But then I also put some Jessica Rabbit in there. And then really I thought it was fun to show the little things, like affecting that she's a damsel in distress, or affecting that she's hurt, or affecting neediness. And I mean it—affecting—because she's not really feeling any of these things. Having the chance to do that double play is fun for an actor.
AboutFilm: But she is in distress at one point, in the scene where Randy Quaid has her tied to a chair. That's real.
Nielsen: Yeah, but even then you can see her and you can tell how she's calculating her chances at any given time. It's not looking too good, but you see her trying to distract him [Randy Quaid] while the idiot [John Cusack] goes and tries to find some bullets for his gun. You see her thinking all the time. That's what I thought was fun to do—to show that thinking. Whereas a femme fatale, she doesn't show anything usually. She's mysterious, right? That's part of her shtick, to be mysterious. In this case I thought it was more fun to be more transparent.
Question: You shot The Great Raid [John Dahl's upcoming World War Two POW drama] not too long ago. What's more challenging, a historical, factual movie like that, or fantasy noir?
Nielsen: You're in such a different place and plan. When I was doing Great Raid—that kind of role, you do a lot of research for, and you live inside that research. You live inside a little time capsule, with those kind of books, with those kind of movies, with that kind of thought process. I lived with the newspaper articles of the time, and all that stuff. Then to go and do Renata is entirely different—to have fun with her, and to avoid the pitfalls of doing the sexy girl—as I said before, I find it boring.
Question: Not that the men in this movie are presented in a very positive light—
Nielsen: Not at all.
Question: But every woman is either some crack-whore stripper or femme fatale, or the cold fish wife. Some could say it's misogynistic. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Nielsen: I think no. That's really reading into it. This is a misanthropic novel, where every human being is bad. There is no one who is treated nicely or with kid gloves. Everyone in this movie is only out for themselves, including the ex-wife. If you look at themes, then I would say none of the women are great, but you know what? The men are worse. At least it's only me [among the women] who is also a potential killer. The [men] are bungling killers—at least get that right, if you're a gangster!
Question: Have you always been a fan of film noir?
Nielsen: I've always thought there was a certain romanticism in film noir that I liked. I liked that romantic hero who is going to have his heart busted by this woman. I always thought that was attractive—a guy who was doomed from the beginning. In the end I think that perhaps the guys are actually rather misogynistic in film noir. But it has become—what I like about it—is that it's a tradition. It's a tradition that is good to play with and send up a bit. I think that this script did it, and I think this movie does it.
Question: I wanted to ask you a bit more about the satiric elements. Film noir has been a tradition for fifty years now, and yet almost very specific to its time and the attitudes of that generation—
Nielsen: Yeah, like the fast woman. You know, she starts in the Twenties. I think there should be more work done—and there's a lot that has already been done in terms of studies—to the subconscious reaction in both men and women in literature, to writers specifically [who create] characters that somehow are reactions to what is going on between the sexes in society at that time. That's very interesting. Kate Millet did a good job with that back in the Seventies.
Question: Do you feel that you almost have to have parody in film noir just because a lot of it has been done?
Nielsen: I don't think [The Ice Harvest] is a parody of film noir at all.
Question: Some kind of humor, then. Some kind of winking. Not playing it totally straight.
Nielsen: No, I think it's an updating of it in this case. It's a light way of referring to the aesthetics of that genre, but at the time we're actually telling a real noir story. But almost like a social satire as well. I would say that it's not that it's mixing genres, but it's an allusion toward certain things in film noir.
Question: Did any of the humor come while you were actually shooting on the set? You had a great line when John [Cusack] shoots a guy—that line seems almost improv.
Nielsen: No, it was written like that. When I was reading the script I laughed out loud. To the credit of the work that's been [done] on this movie—especially on the part of John and Oliver [Platt]—the male malaise has become a much stronger element in the movie than I expected when I read the script. I saw a lot of the humor in [the script] because of those absurdist situations. I mean, the man in the box? Us being in a strip joint and I'm pissed because it's Christmas Eve and there are no clients? There's some things that were just straight-out funny. What surprised me very positively was that that male crisis—that existential crisis—has really come through in this film. I'm thinking specifically of when Oliver and John are in the restaurant, and afterwards when they're driving around town. You realize this is his best friend, [even though] he actually fucked over his relationship with his wife. They've all just lost everything that is worth living for, because they've made the bad choices in life.
Question: What was it like working with Harold Ramis?
Nielsen: Harold was just great. Sometimes, you just get the opportunity to go in and try a little bit of everything. I would say, “I want to go with a wild reading here, and the next time I'll give you degrees so you can choose yourself later.”
Question: A wild reading?
Nielsen: Yeah, I'd go in for something that would seem inappropriate for what we were doing because you get some idea and you want to work it out. [Harold's] the kind of guy you can do that with.
Question: When you say something “inappropriate,” anything specific?
Nielsen: For example in the scene where [John Cusack] comes to fetch me, and [Randy Quaid] is actually in my club, and I'm tied to the chair. [John] comes over and he stands there—I always found that really hysterical. But in the rehearsals it just started becoming just straightforward dramatic. And I just thought it was more fun when it was fun, so that's when I went like, “Are you for real?” It actually wound up [in the final cut] rather than the more dramatic readings of it.
Question: Did you give her any redeeming qualities?
Nielsen: No, I didn't feel the need to give her any redeeming qualities. I thought she was funny because she had none. I thought it was funny that she had no conscience whatsoever. She's definitely animated by emotions, just not emotions of compassion or kindness. She's seen a thing that she wants, and that's the only thing she's from here on after interested in.
Question: She's in a noble tradition going back to Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity.
Nielsen: Exactly, yes. Absolutely. It's only now that we feel that we should make a psychological explanation for everything. I didn't need one. Not with her. I had fun with exactly that kind of personality. She's both a literary archetype as well as someone you still have to place within a reality. So I worked on both levels.
Question: What kind of back story did you give her?
Nielsen: Eastern Europe. Gotten out of there probably by the age of sixteen. Probably worked her ass off as a stripper for ten years. Saved up money, was a tough-as-nails kind of cookie. Made her own rules, decided what she was willing to do very early. I've seen some of these Eastern European women, they are so determined, it's incredible. And then she bought her own joint and realized that was not going to solve her life at all. The only thing that would solve her life was to get out of that hell hole. I imagined she was on her way to New York.
AboutFilm: What is your own back story?
Nielsen: I only came here eight years ago. I came here with a little child and my nanny. I started doing Devil's Advocate a month after I arrived here. So I've had you would have to say a rather easy life in terms of being an immigrant. I saw myself as somebody who was just going to come, make my agent happy here, give them six months, and then go home. That's how I saw my life [because] I was perfectly happy being where I was [in Italy]. I had a lovely house, a wonderful family. I said “I might as well just try it and see what goes on.”
AboutFilm: Obviously you studied English going back further than that, because you don't speak like somebody who learned it as an adult.
Nielsen: Oh, I learned it very early on, first of all because I grew up as a Mormon in Denmark, and there were a lot of American missionaries, and they would hang out a lot with my family. My mother would make Thanksgiving for them every year. Being around English-speaking persons from an early age makes it easier. Also in Denmark we have no looping [i.e., no dubbing], so everything is in original language with subtitles. And then we just have a really great school system. Really good teachers. I can make comparisons now because I've raised my child in Italy and here, so I can tell the difference between those schools and the ones I grew up with.
Question: What was it like working with Al Pacino a month after you got here?
Nielsen: Well you can imagine. The first day on set, and I'm going to shoot the scene on the balcony overlooking Central Park, and it's with Al Pacino. It's the combination of a long dream.
Question: What do you have coming up?
Nielsen: I've got The Situation that Philip Haas directed about the war in Iraq, coming out in the spring. And also Tonight at Noon by Michael Almereyda with Chiwetel Ejiofor, and I'm starting in January with Dave McKenzie on Hallam Foe.
Question: They keep talking about a Gladiator 2 if they can figure out the script. They tried a next generation and scrapped that, and they're working on something else. Your character isn't dead yet.
Nielsen: No, I'm very much alive.
Question: Have they ever talked to you about—
Nielsen: Yeah, we talked about stuff, so we'll see what they end up with.
AboutFilm: Do you think there should be a sequel?
Nielsen: You know, I don't know. That's sort of like an industry question and I'm not living in the industry so I'd be the wrong person to ask.
[Read the AboutFilm review of The Ice Harvest]
[Read the AboutFilm profile & interview with John Cusack]
Article and interviews © December 2005 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
ICE HARVEST images © 2005 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.
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