Some actors the camera loves. Then there are those the camera really, truly loves. The last category includes Esben Smed.
A million Danes know this already: over two seasons of DR's Sunday night series "Follow the Money," they have been howling "What are you doing, Nicky?!" at their TV sets and the 32-year-old actor playing a mechanic burrowing ever deeper into the criminal underworld. More than 317,000 cinemagoers know it, too, charmed by Smed's performance in 2015's "Summer of '92" – about the Danish national football team's surprising victory in the 1992 European Championship – as John "Faxe" Jensen, the national football team's class clown, who only hit the goal when he really had to.
Now European Film Promotion is in the loop, too, as they named Smed one of this year's 10 Shooting Stars at the Berlin Film Festival.
"This is one intense, high octane Dane. To meet him when he's angry is somewhat disturbing. And we mean this in the nicest possible way. Esben's presence is unquestionable and fills up the screen with great edge," the jury writes.
Among those who are unsurprised at the world coming around to Smed is the director Jacob Bitsch. His new film, "Letters for Amina," opening in Denmark on 9 March, stars Smed in the all-important role of Janus, a schizophrenic man who comes out of the hospital with a mission to locate his high-school friend Amina, sensing she's in danger.
"When you're in front of the camera, you've got to have something that makes people want to look at you," Bitsch says. "They have to believe you're present in that moment. It's this weird, almost magical gift that some people have, and some don't – and Esben has in spades. He lends credibility to every scene he's in."
It's Hard Work
For Smed, it all began on stage. At 15, he interned in the workshop of a small theatre. When the day was done, he would sometimes sit in the theatre and watch the actors work instead of going home and have dinner with his family.
"The theatre manager noticed. They needed a boy in a play and asked me if I wanted to audition. I did, and I got the part. So, when I was in the ninth grade, I got to go to the city every night and act," Smed recalls.
A few years later, he was getting parts in films. By then, he knew that he wanted to be an actor. But the first time he applied to the Danish National School of Theatre, a few years after graduating high school, he was rejected. And the second and the third time. Only on his fourth attempt did he get in.
"Getting rejected completely knocked me out. But in the long run, it made me realise that it's not all about being some kind of amazing genius, it's really hard work. And that's stayed with me."
Letters for Amina Photo: Christian Geisnæs
It Has to Feel Right
Today, what Smed likes best about his chosen profession is the hard work preparing for a role. Before playing in "Summer of '92," he bought a pair of football shoes and spent his summer vacation kicking a football against a wall. For "Follow the Money," he interned at an auto repair to learn how to put a trashed car back together. And preparing to play Janus in "Letters for Amina," he spent time in a psychiatric ward and read everything he could get his hands on about schizophrenia.
"I spend a really long time creating a character," he says. "All the things I don't know anything about, I try to learn something about. There aren't a lot of jobs going around in this business and when you're lucky enough to get one, you should appreciate the work involved. And I do."
Before "Letters for Amina" started shooting, Smed met with Bitsch, the director, to go over his lines. He wanted to make sure that they felt right, Bitsch says.
"Esben is very humble and down to earth. But he's also dedicated in the sense that he doesn't do something without feeling it. If a scene doesn't give him that gut feeling, he's stubborn – in a good way. You can't bullshit him by going 'We'll fix it in post!'"
Dreams of Playing a Bad Guy
Getting the role of Janus was a dream come true for Smed. He had read the novel by Jonas T. Bengtsson that the film is based on, and when he heard that an adaptation was in the works, he immediately called Bitsch and asked if he could audition.
"Janus is a bit of a Terminator. He's the kind of guy who doesn't call it quits no matter what happens. I liked that drive," Smed says.
Janus is Smed's first starring role in film. As for the future, he hopes he'll be able to keep combining film and TV roles with stage work, as he's doing this winter. Up to the Berlin Film Festival, he's playing King Leontes in a critically acclaimed production of Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale" in Copenhagen.
Letters for Amina Photo: Christian Geisnæs
"Playing bad guys is always cool," he says. "They're just more fun to play than good-looking good guys who just think everything is terrible. I was always wildly fascinated by Richard III, because he gets to do everything. I would also love to play a James Bond villain."
The Bond thing may not be far off the mark, director Bitsch says. Only, he pictures Smed in a completely different role.
"The way I see it, Esben is the type who can play anything. He can go straight from an offbeat play on a tiny stage to a blockbuster. Had he been born in England, he'd be the next James Bond" •
About Shooting Stars
Each year during the Berlinale, the European Film Promotion presents ten young acting talents to the film industry, public and international press.
The four-day event culminates in the awards ceremony at the Berlinale Palast – for 2017 on Monday, 13 February – where each talent will be presented with the European Shooting Stars Award.
The talent platform is supported by the Creative Europe – MEDIA Programme of the European Union and the respective EFP member organisations.