Aged 11, Going on 29

INTERVIEW. Pilou Asbæk has made the trip from drama school graduate to leading man in record time. In Berlin for the third year running, he's Danish Shooting Star 2011. Still, radio host Per Juul Carlsen is convinced that Asbæk will never lose the enthusiasm of an 11-year-old kid going on a great adventure.

Pilou-Asbaek_isak-hoffmeyer

Photo: Isak Hoffmeyer

The first time I met Pilou Asbæk he was 26, but he looked like an 11-year-old on his first trip to Disneyland. He was at the Berlinale to present himself in his first starring role, in Niels Arden Oplev's "Worlds Apart", as a carefree young man who falls in love with a girl from the Jehovah's Witnesses sect. Asbæk lapped up the hoopla. "Come on, this is so cool!" he cheered on his 17-year-old co-star who was acting like a world-weary veteran who had seen it all before. His trademark heavy brows nearly covered his eyes and he was hard put to conceal a touch of irritation.

This profession is a rollercoaster. You buy a ticket for Candyland and giddily wait to see where it takes you.

The next time I met Asbæk, he was 27 and looked like a young man who had adapted to his new life. He was back in Berlin, this time as a cast member of Pernille Fischer Christensen's "A Family", in which he again played an easy-going, sensible young man across from a young woman facing major life decisions. I saw him meet the Danish media with a big smile but also a certain casual professionalism. He had, after all, seen it all before.

The last time I met Asbæk, he was 28 and I almost didn't get to meet him at all. It took more than a week to set up an appointment for a short interview. In the year that had passed, he had delivered his singular unaffected, boyish intensity in one of the year's most acclaimed Danish films, Michael Noer and Tobias Lindholm's prison drama "R", and he had become a household name from his part in the TV series "The Government" that enthralled a full third of Danish television viewers every Sunday night for several months. In two short years, he had gone from greenhorn graduate of the National School of Theatre in Copenhagen to being recognized every ten yards, and it only seems fitting that he is this year's Shooting Star in Berlin.

"It's all gone extremely fast for me," says Asbæk, who was born as Johan Philip Pilou Asbæk to a well-known family of Copenhagen gallery owners.

"This profession is a rollercoaster. You buy a ticket for Candyland and giddily wait to see where it takes you. With some luck, you won't end up as an old workhorse. With some luck, you can keep on being a happy little kid," he says with a big, disarming smile.

All in all, this 28-year-old Shooting Star seems profoundly conscious not to appear spoiled, or even changed, by his rocket to stardom. He looks genuinely guilty and profusely apologises for being hard to get to talk to. Then again, he seems outright proud when he mentions that he once worked as a clown in an amusement park, where the audience pelted him with popcorn and beer cans, an experience that gave him a lasting helping of humility. Eyebrows curling up with concern, he asks me to understand the harsh words he had for a TV crew that insisted on sticking a big camera in his face and asking stupid questions at a recent gala premiere, and he looks frankly nervous at the thought that success could be going to his head.

"My first year in Berlin was such a great experience. So was the second year, and I'm hoping this year will be, too. But obviously you lose your innocence after a while and it becomes more of a job. I was watching an interview with Robert Downey Jr, where he pulls all these answers out of left field and suddenly completely loses it. Not that I want to compare myself to him, that would be ludicrous, but all I could think was, 'Poor guy'. He's been answering the same questions 46,000 times. So I certainly understand why he would lose his temper. There's only so much you can take." Despite it all, Asbæk isn't worried about ever completely losing touch with the excitable little kid inside.

"It's part of my nature. My first job in films was as a runner ten years ago, when I was just out of high school, and I met Bill Pullman who was working on Thomas Vinterberg's "Dear Wendy". He was the biggest star there and he was also the most humble and the most understanding and polite person I met. It made me think that talent, diligence and humility walk hand in hand. I would rather be not so talented and a good person than super talented and a real bastard."

The 11-year-old kid lets out another big laugh, "No, wait a minute. Can't someone be talented and nice at the same time? And a bit of a bastard maybe once in a while?"

When I meet Asbæk again he'll be 29. But there will definitely still be an 11-year-old kid inside of him demanding to be heard.

R_Magnus-Nordenhof-JoenckLink to factsheet on R. Photo: Magnus Nordenhof Jønck

PILOU ASBÆK ON SCREEN

Feature films: The Whistleblower (2011), A Family (2010), R (2010), Monster Busters (2009), Crying for Love (2008), Worlds Apart (2008). For TV: The Government (2010-11), Blekingegade (2009), The Killing II (2009), Deroute (2008).

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