Sofia Helin

Ja! Ja! Ja! She’s back! As Sofia Helin plays detective Saga Norén in The Bridge for the final time, Nigel Farndale meets her in Stockholm. Where else?

As viewers of the Scandi noir series The Bridge will know, Sweden is a land without sunshine or green shoots. They film it that way, in the winter months. Its star, meanwhile, the detective Saga Norén, played by 46-year-old Sofia Helin, is a woman who rarely if ever smiles.

My sense of disconcertion is acute, then, when Helin arrives on a cloudless morning in Stockholm and won’t stop smiling. She turns out to be one of those people who can smile and talk at the same time.

In her hand is a cycle helmet. Although she is (probably) Sweden’s best-known actress, people never point or stare as she cycles past. “It’s considered uncool to do that here,” she says in a crisp yet breathy voice, one that emphasises the plosive musicality of her Swedish-accented English.

Or it could be that people don’t recognise her, with her long, blonde hair tucked into a helmet, because her look as Saga – the combat boots, the greatcoat, the leather trousers – is so distinctive. These trousers have become associated with her to such an extent, they are now on display in a museum in Malmö, where the drama is set. The only Saga-ish things about Helin today are her quizzically arched eyebrows and the scars above her mouth, which we will come to.

For now we discuss a scene in the fourth and final season of The Bridge on BBC Two. In it Saga is released from prison, having been acquitted following a false allegation, and steps back into her old investigator role in a way that is almost fetishistic. “Yes,” Helin says. “When Saga is putting on the leather trousers and the boots and the coat, that’s what we wanted to tell the audience. She’s back. It’s a bit like stepping into the character, the boots especially for me. But it wasn’t hard to be her in prison either, without these clothes. The secret I found to playing her is that she doesn’t move her hips. It helps to straighten all my body up.”

In that scene, it was almost as if the producers had come to recognise Saga’s true potency as a sex symbol, for men and women alike. “I never thought about it like that,” she says. “Saga is vulnerable and yet hard. I never thought about her as a sexy person. I try not to look at my characters from the outside, like objects, but from the inside.”

Actually, Helin doesn’t like looking at herself on screen at all. “It makes me feel overwhelmed and sick. I don’t have the kind of ego needed to look at myself on a big screen and enjoy it. Instead I will watch myself on an iPhone, so it is smaller.”

The complex, chilly, socially awkward Saga has Asperger’s, and when Helin is playing her she says she feels like she is in a cement costume, behind a glass wall. It is a remarkable performance, deserving of the acclaim it has garnered from critics. One of the ways in which Saga’s condition manifests itself is in her unromantic attitude to sex. When, for example, a man she likes the look of smiles at her in a bar she says, “Vill du har sex?” (You want to have sex?) In another scene, she intimidates a would-be lover by giving him graphic instructions, dialogue Helin wrote herself.

“Do you find that scary?” she asks when I mention this. Yes I do, I say, but then I’m British and repressed.

“Well, in Sweden people are very matter-of-fact about sex. Like the way they use Tinder to meet and have sex.”

More liberated and honest? She nods. “Saga is very frank about what she wants in bed. She wants to fulfil her needs. Because she has Asperger’s she can’t hide what she is thinking. If I wanted to hit on a man I would do it subtly, with little signals, saying, ‘Yes, yes,’ without words, but she can’t do that. In real life, people with Asperger’s can’t measure whether a situation is dangerous or not.”

She thinks young people in Sweden especially are becoming more “Saga-like” in their sexual tastes. “It may be to do with the availability of pornography on the internet,” she says. “I feel uncomfortable with the way teenagers have such easy access to it. And it’s every kind. What is considered normal sexual activity has changed. They have intimacy without intimacy. I have a teenager and I find it worrying that he will see these things.”

Me, too, I say, but what can parents do, beyond using filters? “You can’t really stop pornography, but you can do it in a better way, not always from a man’s perspective. I have heard of a Swedish company doing female-friendly porn. That is a good idea.”

She is married to a Lutheran priest, Daniel Götschenhjelm. They have two children, a boy, 14, and a girl, 8, who attend a progressive, “gender neutral” school. Her experiences of being that age have made her wary. “I was rebellious as a teenager,” she says. “Didn’t want to go to school. I drank quite early.”

“Is it possible to have an orgasm if you are scared? I don’t think so”

How early? “Twelve. And I smoked. I developed early too, physically, so I was mature before my brain was mature. When I was 12 I looked like a 16-year-old. One time I met an older boy and said, ‘I’m 16,’ and he said, ‘Well, I’m 18. Let’s hang out,’ and he wanted to do more than hang out. Just at the right moment my mother appeared and said, ‘Sofia, what are you doing?’ and I pretended to be angry with her, but I was relieved.”

As a teenager, was there a moment when she realised her looks gave her a certain power over boys, and made other girls jealous? “I do remember going into a school canteen one day and I felt everyone was looking at me. I was 13. I thought, why is this? I didn’t understand.”

Her first steady boyfriend was when she was 17, she says. “So I did things at the right age. But the way I grew up too quickly was that I took care of my father too much. He had difficulties. My parents divorced. I lived with my mother, but my father lived close.”

Their divorce didn’t put her off marriage? “No, I married at 31, so I had my years of wild life. I fell in love constantly. I find it easy to fall in love.” A smile. Pause. “I met my husband in acting school [before he became a priest], when I was 25. We were together for a long time before we got married.”

Helin’s fame, as well as Saga’s status as a symbol of female sexual emancipation, hasn’t changed their relationship, she reckons. “Put it like this, he doesn’t think of me as a sex symbol. I don’t think in Sweden that’s my profile at all. That’s not how people see me.”

How do they see her, then? “I think they see me as being quite political and angry with things. And my husband, he sees me as I am, messy and vulnerable.”

She’s difficult to live with? “I have my dark moments, but we know how to cope with it after so many years.”

We discuss the Scandinavian reputation for melancholy and introversion, associated with the long dark winters. She seems the opposite of this today, but she says she has suffered from it in the past and still sees a therapist. “It is useful for an actor to stay open and I think all actors should have therapy. I am a curious person, so it suits me very good.” She corrects herself. “Very well. What I have to work with is my body and my mind. Therapy is like going to the gym for my mind. What I’m not comfortable with is an environment where you cannot talk. I cannot stand it when everyone is too polite.”

Don’t move to Britain then, I say. “But I love Britain!” she counters with a laugh. “No, what I mean is when people aren’t open, as if we are around a table and one of us is naked and the others are pretending that the person isn’t naked. That is what I don’t like.”

A curious mixture of confidence and low-level neurosis – she tells me she suffers from claustrophobia – Sofia Helin can seem as inscrutable as her best-known character. Her manner is direct, but she has a habit of answering a question with a question. Shortly after she was born, one of her brothers died in a car accident, aged six. And then her parents divorced when she was four. I ask if she thinks these events partly explain her rebelliousness as a teenager. “Yes, there was a strange atmosphere at home because we had lived through difficulties. I grew up with a feeling of something bad having happened in my family.”

Her childhood experiences also left her with a keen interest in philosophy, a subject she read for a degree at Lund University. “But I tend to read more politics than philosophy nowadays.”

She certainly is political: she campaigns for WaterAid, and was deeply upset about Brexit. “I couldn’t sleep the night of the Brexit vote. I woke at 5am to watch the news. To go apart is never a good solution.”

Although she also supports Sweden’s version of #MeToo – she even persuaded the Queen of Sweden to get on board with it – she is more forgiving than her Hollywood counterparts. “I think we’ve had enough [accusations] now. Men and women have got to get along to change things together. The trouble is, if someone is accused that person is out for ever. There is no room for change. If you do that, people get scared and deny the problem. It becomes like a war. That’s the sad thing. Men tend to think it is something against all men, but it is not.”

She had an encounter with a predatory man herself, at the start of her career. “One of the first castings I went to, there was this middle-aged man who said, ‘Can we take some photos together? Is that OK? I’m not so ugly, am I?’ So that was my first experience. I just said, ‘I don’t think so,’ and ran off.”

“I grew up with a feeling of something bad having happened in my family

We discuss a comment that the veteran feminist thinker Germaine Greer made the other day, citing The Bridge as an example of how depictions of sexual violence against women are driven by women, who are the main audience for crime drama. More than 30 per cent of women, she went on, have fantasies about being violated, according to recent research. “Yes, but don’t we all have fantasies that we don’t really want realised?” Helin asks. “Sex is so much about our instincts. So much. It can be natural for some women to have these fantasies, but I don’t think that is the same in real sex. Something that has just occurred to me: is it possible to have an orgasm if you are scared? I don’t think so.”

I ask her to what extent the cycling accident that left her with a scarred face at the age of 24 changed her self-identity. “When you are young you think you have all the time in the world. You are not so careful about your life. I got more careful after that. I was lucky not to die. The bike broke; I went over the handlebars and blacked out and woke up in hospital. So I lost my innocence after that. I had to have my teeth put back in and surgery on my face. I thought it would be the end of my acting career, but the scar turned out to be my trademark. It makes me distinctive. Directors usually want to use it rather than hide it.”

But not everyone takes that view. “I recently got a message on Instagram. An Australian guy saying, ‘You could have your scar fixed and it would completely change your life.’ So rude. I replied, ‘I love my scars; do you love yours?’”

After that accident her views on what makes a person attractive changed. “It’s like there is a mass psychosis in society that says youth and beauty are everything. I think it’s tied to our fear of dying. Everyone tries to avoid getting older.”

That must be harder for actresses who have to watch themselves on a big screen, I suggest. “Only because there is an idea that the actress has to be young and beautiful. I can’t stand watching movies where the women are there just to be pretty, usually dating an older guy. That’s something that should be buried and forgotten. I’ve started to produce and do my own stories. I was in Berlin talking about a new project and met a producer who said to me, ‘I know this photographer who thinks that the only thing that counts for female film stars is to be beautiful.’ That is so stupid. No wonder there is pressure on older women in this business. Beauty is not something you should suppress of course, but you should never forget there is a whole person there. I mean, what is beauty?”

Well, Keats said it was truth.

“Yes, truth. That’s a good answer. I think if I were to sit here today completely without make-up for this shoot, messy in my bra and jeans, that wouldn’t be so bad, would it? With Saga, I asked for as little make-up as possible because in season one I had a young child and didn’t have time to sit in make-up every day. I think imperfection is going to be the new style.”

On the subject of films in which a younger actress plays opposite an older actor, she is in That Good Night, which has just been released. It turned out to be the last film Sir John Hurt made. He plays a writer who has found out he is dying. She plays his wife. “We knew John was dying during filming, so he was trying all these diets with healthy things, but he was fragile. He was lovely. I had my kids with me and he was so sweet with them. Even though he was quite weak physically, when the camera was on, it was like a lamp came on in his eyes.”

Hurt became something of a father figure to her, not least because during filming her own father, a retired office equipment salesman, was also dying. Did it force her to contemplate her own mortality? “I think about those questions constantly. It was painful but also beautiful to be able to follow my dad to his last breath. I stayed with him for four days in his room when he was dying and really saw the whole process. It was overwhelming. One of the most significant events in my life. It was like giving birth – in that same existential area.”

We have been sitting on sofas in a quiet corner of a cavernous photographic studio in Stockholm and now the photographer is ready to do the shoot. In her uninhibited Swedish way, Helin strips down to her black bra and knickers and tries on various outfits, settling on some trousers that are beige and, yes, leather. Then she plonks herself on the floor, assumes an almost manly pose, legs apart, and the smile that has been prevalent for the past hour melts from her face like snow in springtime.