MIPTV: Connie Nielsen on Becoming Karen Blixen in ‘The Dreamer’
How do you turn an Amazon into an author?
For Connie Nielsen, the Danish star perhaps best known as Queen Hippolyta in the Wonder Woman films, it took six months of fasting and taking a deep dive into the life and work of one of her’s country’s most acclaimed writers: Karen Blixen, the author of Out of Africa, Babette’s Feast and Winter’s Tales.
Nielsen plays Blixen in the new mini-series The Dreamer: Becoming Karen Blixen, a six-part Danish drama from Nordic streamer Viaplay, which TrustNordisk is selling worldwide at the MIPTV television market.
Nielsen’s Blixen is worlds away from Meryl Streep’s Oscar-nominated performance in Out of Africa (1986). Instead of the romantic young woman entangled in a passionate love affair — a story based on Blixen’s 1937 memoir of her 17 years running a plantation in Kenya, East Africa — we have a broken, middle-aged woman who, having lost her farm, her lover and nearly her life, is forced to return home to Denmark, penniless and dependent on the largesse of her family to survive.
“In a way, our story is the anti-Out of Africa, not that we have anything against the film but a lot of people took that story, her memoir, as the truth and Out of Africa was actually an invention that Karen created to veil her true self,” says Nielsen. “It was part of her self-invention as an artist, something she created after she returned home.”
The Blixen that returned to Copenhagen after 17 years in Kenya was a broken woman, thin and frail. A far cry from the athletic Nielsen.
“Physically, playing her was a challenge. I had to go through a sudden weight loss. I had been doing Wonder Woman, one and two, and Justice League, so I was built, but I had to become this sparrow of a woman,” the actress recalls. “It was how to give off the appearance of physical fragility when I’m in fact, well, I’m an Amazon. I tower over most people.”
Starting last February before The Dreamer shoot in June, Nielsen began a strict fasting diet — “I was doing 16-hour intermittent fasting every day and a two-day, 48-hour full fast every week. I did that through the end of August. Then, from the point of around episode 5, when she is getting treatment and starting to feel better, I started eating again.”
Nielsen’s physical transformation in The Dreamer is astounding. From a fallow-faced waif in the early episodes to restored and radiant by the series’ end, when Blixen has successfully re-invented herself as a writing genius. Unusually, and refreshingly for an artist’s biopic, The Dreamer spends little time on Blixen’s romantic life, focusing instead on her life of the mind and the imaginative worlds she would create.
Nielsen, who came up with the original idea for the series after hearing about Blixen’s life story from a curator at Denmark’s Karen Blixen Museum, said the show is an attempt to break free from the “body-focused” depictions of famous women. “We always make films or write books about the sex lives and love lives of female artists,” she says. “It’s like the female artists cannot escape being a body, no matter what, no matter how much she uses her mind.”
Instead of a traditional biographical approach, The Dreamers, written by Terribly Happy scribe Dunja Gry Jensen and directed by Jeanette Nordahl (Wildland) uses flashbacks to Blixen’s earlier life, particularly in Africa, to illustrate how she was forming and fictionalizing her own life story, in the process of finding her artistic voice.
“That aspect, how she deliberately created her own artistic image of herself, is in her letters from the time,” notes Blixen. “You can see, by her second book, how she’s already deliberately staging herself, how she’s become her own self-invention.”
It’s a performance, Nielsen says, that she admires, but one she could never pull off herself. Despite being one of Denmark’s most recognizable actors, with a list of Hollywood credits that includes Wonder Woman, Gladiator and roles in network series The Good Wife and The Following, she says she still feels “more boring” than famous.
“I actually think that I’m less successful than I could be if I had done that, if I’d reinvented myself, but I have this inherent Danishness, I don’t believe in class differences, in fame, in anything that goes against the idea that were are all the same. I’m resolutely one of the people and resolutely not a star,” she says. “I mean, my name is Connie fucking Nielsen. Can’t get more boring than that.”
Nielsen’s fans would beg to differ. And with The Dreamer, the accomplished actress has added a surprising new chapter to her career.