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The Danish star’s uningratiating portrayal of the German singer warrants an Oscar nomination. Here she explains why she became fascinated with Nico.
In Nico, 1988, actress and singer Trine Dyrholm pulls off a considerable feat by transforming herself into the eponymous German chanteuse at the end of her career. By the mid ‘80s, Nico was no longer the svelte, icy rock goddess she had been with the Velvet Underground two decades earlier, but a cranky, unkempt small-venue performer with a matter-of-fact heroin habit. Dyrholm’s magnetic performance in Susanna Nicchiarelli’s vibrant biopic nonetheless allows Nico to remain an enigma – as much to herself as anyone else.
Dyrholm was previously best known to American audiences as the hotel maid in Thomas Vinterberg’s seminal Dogme film Festen (The Celebration, 1998). A singing sensation in her early teens, she has for years been a major star in her native Denmark, the winner of four Best Actress Bodil Awards (chosen by Danish critics) and four Best Actress Roberts (the Danish Oscars). A tall, warm, elegant woman, she sat down with Culture Trip to discuss the bundle of complexities that was Nico, or Christa, as she preferred to be known.
Culture Trip: You are completely unrecognizable from Nico in the film.
Trine Dyrholm: [laughs] Yes, we’re different persons. That’s one of the reasons why I was so happy to get the offer to play her.
CT: Did you know much about Nico before you got the part?
TD: Not really. I would have been like one of the journalists in the film who asks her about the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol. That’s basically all I knew. So when I got the script I had to Google her and find out who she was.
CT: Do you have a rock ‘n’ roll side to you, or did you have to find that?
TD: I wouldn’t know what my rock ‘n’ roll side is, but I like rock music. I was a huge fan of David Bowie, Patti Smith, and, when I was young, the Beatles. I also like Björk and Prince, so I am quite open to different artists.
CT: Susanna [Nicchiarelli] said that Nico truly became herself when beauty was no longer an issue for her, when she dyed her hair red and started wearing baggy clothes. I wondered if the hair and clothes were important to you in discovering the character?
TD: The wig was very important, also the clothes and finding how she walked, though I don’t know how she walked exactly. I was very inspired by an interview I saw when Nico was asked, “Do you regret anything?” I thought, “Well, we all regret a lot of things,” but Nico answered, “No, I don’t regret anything other than that I was born a woman and not a man.” That told me she didn’t really fit in the image of that beautiful woman. She was the most beautiful woman – maybe in the world – and she was so iconic, but at the same time she had this very deep voice, very cold and masculine. I think she wanted to be respected for her art and not for her beauty. The model image was too narrow for her. She was also defined by men [early in her career]. In the film, we show her defining herself.
CT: Yet it’s hard for others to define her.
TD: In one of the interviews shown in the documentary Nico Icon, Nico is waiting to rehearse a number and she looks like shit – she’s totally destroyed. And then she sits and puts on makeup, and you see she’s trying to keep up some kind of mask. There is a scene like that in our film where she’s putting on makeup before [performing] “Nature Boy.” I’m fascinated by this woman who is so contradictory. She’s so strong and she’s so vulnerable. She’s so beautiful and she’s so ugly. She’s such a big artist and sometime she’s just not there.
CT: I like how disagreeable she is at the beginning of the film.
TD: Her sarcasm is quite funny. She is not a pleaser – that’s quite unusual, especially for female characters. I found it inspiring that she didn’t care so much about what people thought about her.
CT: Do you think she was conflicted?
TD: She was very conflicted about her son. The film is a mother-son story, basically. But it’s also a portrait of a war generation. She said, “Every time I close my eyes and I’m on the pillow, I’m back in destroyed Berlin.” That influenced her a lot. Nico was born in ‘38 and died in ‘88, before the Berlin Wall came down, so she didn’t experience the liberation that came with that. Coming from Germany, she felt a lot of guilt – she made up stories all the time about her father helping the Jews.
In a way, the film is about identity – it’s about finding your way in life. Who was she? She was so defined as a German, as a model, as an icon, as Nico. And then if you take all that away, what is inside of it? For me, the most important thing was to find small cracks where you can invite the audience into her inner chaos. Maybe not to defend her or to understand her, but to get a feeling about what she is struggling with. Existential loneliness is a big thing in her life. She’s so tough, so “I don’t care,” and then you suddenly feel that she’s searching to be someone, searching to be connected to her son. This loneliness is our burden as human beings. That’s why we do cinema, that’s why we do art, so we can share all these things that we can’t really talk about.
CT: Tell me a little about your approach to acting. Are you a Method actor? Do you try to “become” a character?
TD: Definitely not. I’m very aware that acting is acting. I want to find the truthfulness of the character on screen. Susanna said to me, “You don’t look like Nico, you don’t sing like Nico, but you have the right spirit to play the character so let’s do our version of Nico.” It was very important for me that I didn’t do an imitation. The singing was the most important key for portraying the character, to find the voice.
CT: You make us care for Nico.
TD: But hopefully the film isn’t only about Nico. It’s about being a woman, being a mother, being a female artist that has to fight against beauty, being a German – I think it’s the combination of these things that makes this woman. Hopefully it’s universal.
Nico, 1988 is playing at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, New York, NY 10012. Tel: (212) 727-8110.