Connie Nielsen's fragile political "Situation"
In Philip Haas' drama the cosmopolitan multi-lingual actor wades into explosive waters in the Iraq-based conflict

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

March 28, 2007

Connie Nielsen is only in her early forties -- an exceptionally young age -- yet it seems that she has been on the big screen for many, many years.  The Danish-born actor with a skill for language -- she speaks six languages -- French, German, Danish, Swedish, Italian and English -- all fluently -- and thus gives a new and varied meaning to the term "speaking in tongues."  But as diverse as her multilingual abilities are, her array of different onscreen characters are almost as impressive.  She appeared in "Brothers" (Brodre), a 2004 Danish film directed by Susanne Bier ("After The Wedding", "Things We Lost In The Fire") as the wife of a soldier (Ulrich Thomsen) believed to have died in a helicopter crash.  Other films on her resume include "The Devil's Advocate", the 1997 Taylor Hackford film with Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves.  Miss Nielsen was in Ridley Scott's Oscar-winning film "Gladiator" in 2000, and two years later in Mark Romanek's "One Hour Photo" with Robin Williams, and Oliver Assayas' hypnotic and vertiginous "Demonlover", with Chloe Sevigny, to name just a few films.

Her latest film role is as American journalist Anna Molyneux in "The Situation", a tense political thriller directed by Philip Haas about the conflict in Iraq and the many dimensions it casts on all sides of the violent imbroglio.  Nielsen was in San Francisco earlier this week talking about her role in the film and the politics and people that the film chronicles.  Radiant, bright and sunny, her clear blue eyes have a warmth matching her demeanor.  The midnight blue wool sweater Miss Nielsen wears enhances the wonderful news of her pregnancy (she is very close to the third trimester) and does nothing to arrest her athletic build.  (She is both a trained dancer and singer.)  Lars Ulrich, the drummer of the hard-rock music band Metallica will soon be the proud father of the new addition to their household. 

Nielsen greets her interviewer with a warm, enthusiastic smile, and standing at five feet nine or ten has a presence that would disarm and put anyone at ease.

Connie Nielsen's warmth is superseded by her keen worldview -- a global perspective and well-rounded insight rare in many people in general, let alone famed actors -- and her passionate, informed opinions about the world and the state of its affairs.  It is this type of perspective, philosophy and rule of open (and closed) engagement that the actor brings to her work. 

In fact, there is an interesting conundrum in the very description of the philosophy as Nielsen tells it:

"I often think that when we're making movies, we have to have one part of ourselves that has to be open and not opinionated, but that can only be good if you have a set of clear decisions that pose as opinions about your subject matter as well.  The two have to go hand-in-hand.  To be so open that there's no ideas behind what you're trying to say.  That there's no decisions [as to] what constitutes this reality, what is not part of this reality, what is indeed this reality, versus another reality.  You have to have opinions about this.  And on the same token you still have to be open for allowing more information in that can enrich this.  You start out with some ideas."

Ideas, thankfully, aren't something that Connie Nielsen is short of.  She engages this particular conversation with a flavor and flair that enlivens and fascinates, much more than any 30-minute interaction has a right to.  While researching her role as Anna for "The Situation", Nielsen observed things about the press news coverage of the conflict in Iraq that brought out a visceral reaction in her. 

"In this case, there was on my part, a very specific reaction to a complete lack of ideas and clean, pure information in the media.  Especially the American mainstream media.  I had gotten so frustrated trying to understand, 'who were the Iraqis?  What is going on over there?'  Obviously, you know, some people are saying very specifically, that there are no reasons for us to be there -- because there are no terrorists -- and there is no . . . nuclear weapons, it's all bullshit.  And yet we're going in there because they're saying that they are there.  Then we are there and they were never there, those weapons.  And we knew that, because you know, not knowing that means you weren't listening to all the sage people who were saying, 'there is nothing there at all.'  You were just buying the government orchestration.  Which was so obviously an orchestration.  And so I came at this film with a reaction to having been told nothing and feeling all of a sudden relieved, a real, true relief here."

When Miss Nielsen speaks the quoted words you have just read and the very next to come, they are so heartfelt, so compelling, so urgent, and so moving.  One would be forgiven for wanting to shed a tear as she speaks.  She herself looked as if she might begin to tear up.  The sensitive subject of Iraq and all of its bloody, deadly, perilous travails is hardly old news.  It is living, breathing, ongoing history.  Right now.  And right now, at this very moment Nielsen is invested in the passion, precision and succinctness of her every word, every feeling, every emotion, every expression.  She truly speaks not as an actor, but as a citizen of the world.  And one can feel her every word penetrating the soul.  All the italicized words are her own emphasis, her own deep, abiding belief, not a canned, rehearsed auto-speak.  Being a part of "The Situation" and its research process allowed Nielsen an insight that she strongly believed most of the world wasn't getting elsewhere.

"I now can see.  I can distinguish from the millions of wounded, the hundreds of thousands of dead.  I can distinguish a father, a mother, a middle-class couple, an upper-class couple, a lower-income class person . . . I can distinguish even structures, into that society, such as the family clan tribal structure underneath this tyranny that has now crumbled, the remnants of which we don't seem to know what to do with.  And, at the same time, we can see there's anarchy arriving and how people don't know anything anymore, and what it's like to live like that?  I see a grandmother, who's already lost her daughter and her son-in-law, and has raised her children herself because Saddam killed him.  And yet -- and I can see these people, these real people -- real people -- just like you and me.  I can recognize things in them.  I can see the insides of their houses.  I can hear what they say to each other when they are alone in their kitchen talking together."

Then, pausing for effect, Nielsen enunciates each of the following words for emphasis: "I never got anything from neither written nor TV media about who these people were.  Until I read that script."

The script to which Connie Nielsen refers is the one for "The Situation", written by Wendell Steavenson, an American journalist and author who reported from the frontlines of the Iraq conflict in 2003 and 2004.  The journalist character Anna Molyneux was based in part on Ms. Steavenson, to whom Nielsen spoke when doing research, as well as other journalists from various of the world's media publications and ideologies along the political spectrum, including mainstream CNN's Christiane Amanpour and journalists from Pacifica Radio, a progressive talk radio station headquartered in Northern California.

(And by the way, when Nielsen says she never got any information from the media about who the people of Iraq were, she speaks of media in any country.) 

Photo of The Ice Harvest,  Connie Nielsen  Connie Nielsen as Renata, in the 2005 film "The Ice Harvest".

Connie Nielsen on the desire to work with film director and fellow Danish compatriot Lars Von Trier:

"Lars is a cipher.  I cannot tell you who this guy is.  I had lunch with him twice.  I don't know who he is.  He's come to our summer house.  He's such a strange man.  He is a really strange man!  The reason why he's a genius is that no one can friggin' figure out what he's thinking . . . I think that sometimes . . . he's really liking that, and that's so great.  I love that about him!  He's such an incredible guy!"

"The Situation" digs beneath the surface of news headlines to give audiences a glimpse into the lives of the Iraqi locals and their everyday situations amidst the bombs and gunshots.  The film (a link to The Popcorn Reel review is contained below) works as political drama but is strongest in detailing the fabric of the lives of the people being victimized and caught in the crossfire of violence.  There are authentic relationships depicted and credible circumstances, but beyond that "The Situation" is masterful at capturing the complexity, hopelessness and murkiness of an event that continues to go on.  At its heart, the film is a mystery, or at least depicts the blurry, agonizing mystery of circumstance, one blighted by the horror of a conflict that the locals had not invited to their shores. 

There are times when watching "The Situation" that one feels that one is right there.  It is therefore impossible to feel disconnected or removed from the events in Iraq, even though Mr. Haas shot the film in Morocco.  During this conversation Nielsen will address her experiences in Morocco filming "The Situation", will talk about the character played by Egyptian actor Mido Hamada, who portrays the Iraqi photographer Zaid ("it's so wonderful to meet someone where you're just communicating on a human level, you're not woman and man, but you're humanly interested in each other"), and detail other concerns.  Philip Haas' film expresses the political feelings of the day on all sides of the conflict in Iraq -- so it is a natural, relevant and unsurprising thing for the film's lead actor to talk global politics and media, and Nielsen, who as earlier indicated is from Denmark, is more than up to the task.

"I feel that there has been a bizarre situation where Europe has also been reacting to George Bush . . . and on the one hand wanting to be realists, real politicians who are dealing with whatever's coming at them.  If it's George Bush, they'll be dealing with that and we're accepting that as the new order of things.  And there's another part, which is that we're Europeans and what is the European Union going to do with itself as a power potentate?  And what does that mean in comparison with our communication with America?  There's all of these uncertainties that I feel the people have been exhibiting.  That has resulted in a fairly strange tottering of the media in my opinion.  I also feel that you know, a lot of things that I thought were pretty, pretty set in stone, such as journalistic integrity and so on -- that even that has been abused as a notion by people who were practically serving the purposes of the government." 

Then Miss Nielsen's eloquence reaches a sudden, but brief halt.

"I don't know.  This has been a very strange situation and I feel that perhaps that has been one of the reasons why I'm even venturing into a movie like this.  If I feel that I'm now in need of information myself, then God knows, then we'll have to try to provide information then.  If instead of telling stories I have to provide information, goddamnit, I'll provide it.  This is information by the way, this movie ["The Situation"] is information.  It was incredibly informative."

While Connie Nielsen is speaking about herself as an actor providing information to edify both herself and a movie theater audience, is it not also the implication that non-documentary filmmakers will be the future (or present) news makers and shapers, while actual mainstream media journalists will be doing a job of something other than real news (replacing news with propaganda), perhaps?  (Many will say that much of the news on any side or of any media, is propaganda.)  Some would say that the age of true journalism, with the attendant serious media reporting on world events and global political affairs, are bygone.

Connie Nielsen on her "Situation" film character Anna's relationship with Zaid, an Iraqi press photographer:

"When a thing starts to turn from a friendship, and two different worlds colliding . . . like two bubbles that are enveloping these two people bursts and they're in one bubble together?  That kind of thing, you know?  I just love playing those moments and feeling those moments because they're so pretty."

Connie Nielsen as journalist Anna Molyneux in Philip Haas' film "The Situation", which opens today in additional American cities.  (Photo: Shadow Distribution)

But for all the seriousness of the conversation on this sunny late morning, there is some laughter.  When told that Nielsen seamlessly blends in with the local actors in Morocco and does not stand out above the film like some big-name actors might, making themselves self-important, she quickly offers in a mocking, booming voice, "I am the star and this is my fucking vehicle!"  She bursts into a hearty laugh, which is contagious.  When the mocking response of, "and if you don't like it, take a hike!" is playfully thrown back at her, Nielsen immediately quips in a quiet comedic voice, "that's the producer [talking]."

After the stress-relieving laughter, she talks about the business of acting -- meaning the detailed preparation she undergoes.  There is a "yes" and (a more extensive, but unpublished) "no" answer to whether she approaches acting in the same way for each film that she does.

"Yes.  I approach all films in a very sort of kaleidoscopic way.  I try to see as much of the environment -- not only the inner environment of the character, the emotional and psychological environment of the character, but also what is the -- say, if I'm an FBI agent then I try to know as much about the FBI as I can.  What has she gone through from the moment she decides to become an FBI agent all the way up until -- what kind of steps has she gone through emotionally, mentally, and physically in order to become where she's at the moment that you meet her?  And I even try to indicate somehow, where is she going after?  Where is the likely thing she's going to do after?  I do that.  I also try to, you know, go into, 'okay, what is the point of the FBI in the society and the time that she's living?', and all of these things.  So I do try to have a kaleidoscopic -- the same with "Gladiator", you know -- I try to see as wide an angle, and then once I'm in there shooting, then I've gotten this whole panoply of information and then I go into the personal.  And then I stay in there.  And it can be really hellish and I stay in there for the time that I'm in the movie.  And then I come out. 

"In this movie ["The Situation"] I did that -- that I just described -- but it was a bigger situation here, because there was Iraq historically.  There was Iraq -- the last thirty years of history.  There was Iraq and Islam.  There was Iraq and the political streams that floated through, you know, all of the post-colonialist problems.  There was the problem of America versus Iraq -- and in Iraq.  There was the problem of the media itself being exalted in terms of its importance for democracy.  And therefore a great inspiration in Iraq.  I think a lot of people were trying to do great things.  You know, a lot of people came from America here [in Iraq].  This is what's so incredible about this country [America].  These people who come over there and they volunteer to teach young kids how to become journalists.  The whole mindset behind being a journalist in a democratic country -- try not to serve authority, but to serve truth?"

Connie Nielsen on the desire to work with film director and fellow Danish compatriot Thomas Vinterberg:

"He calls me once a year and says, 'we have to do a movie together!'  He's just made a Danish movie about teenagers . . . so I think he's just finding his way and looking for material that is up his alley."


Nielsen expounds on the media and its re-development in Iraq and journalism as it germinates from scratch in the scarred and war-ravaged country.  Similarly, the character Anna Molyneux tries to find truth and the lives behind it in "The Situation", and Connie Nielsen saw a lot of the same when she learned of the things that Iraq is also bringing forth.

"And there's the whole idealism there that's still incredible.  There's like a young guy who tried to make the first English-language newspaper in Iraq and came in through Jordan like, literally on the heels of the occupying forces.  There's all these wonderful people . . . and then you have the other guys, who are just as dedicated, the embedded ones.  Then you have the less dedicated embedded ones that are serving just straight out -- I've never kind of been able to put a name to that -- but seeing some of those mainstream -- the big five [ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX, NBC] news channels -- standing in what are obviously poses on tanks and trucks and in the desert in their embedded uniform and speaking patriot-speak.  I, I just sat, I just stood, with my mouth open.  I couldn't believe those people.  In such seriousness, you are today, in the year 2003, 2004, spouting b.s.!  In the middle of a war?  Aren't you ashamed of yourself?  We have better news information [technology] and media now than we had in the second World War or in Vietnam?  Don't spout patriot-speak at me!  Tell me what's going on!  That's your job!  You know?  And it's scary.  So I came at it ["The Situation"] from all these different points, and as Connie -- and as me -- as well." 

Of Iraq, Nielsen also mentioned the sexual dynamic of "the woman-man situation over there."  She spoke to many women in journalism besides Amanpour and Steavenson.  Nielsen also mentioned the specter of being a journalist in an Arab country, a journalist who is a woman in an Arab country.  These all-encompassing variables were also wrapped up in her portrayal of the character Anna Molyneux.  "It's a lot, a lot, a lot, of sides that we had to had to kind of like try to get in there.  I love the title.  "The Situation".  And that is the name we use when we can't quite quantify what in the hell this is."

Nielsen has traveled to Morocco, the film's location, many times, including 20 years ago.  And for her the landscape of the North African country has undergone many changes.  "I never saw that much of a religious manifestation before . . . now there's more.  A lot more."  

In the film's most tense dramatic moments Nielsen said that "I was really trying to portray a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown because I had talked to one journalist . . . who had come home two days earlier.  She actually had trouble actually speaking, you know.  This is a hardened reporter, another Dane, like myself, and she is a woman who works with words.  She had trouble verbalizing.  She's an immensely brave woman.  She's still over there [in Iraq].  Two years later, she's still over there.  And she feels she can't leave.  She feels a responsibility to continue doing her job over there even though it's more and more impossible . . . and I wanted to really put myself out on the edge.  I wanted to be just off all the time so that I felt that, just everything, to show what kind of physical and emotional stress you're working under as a journalist.  I wanted to show the delirious state you are often in as you're trying to be factual, stating what's going on!  You are living in some kind of hyper world, a hyper-reality that is beyond description.  And yet that's your job.  You're supposed to be able to describe it.  I understand why a lot of journalists, you know, in the end want to go over into the "I" -- and just describe, 'okay, this is what happened to me, alright!'" 

She laughs heartily.

"Because, you know, this whole objectivity has got to be a friggin' drag!"

(Note: Connie Nielsen was born and raised in Copenhagen.  At age 18 she headed to Paris to further her acting pursuits.  Prior to that she began her career working with her mother on the local variety and revue acting scene.  Nielsen has studied in Rome, Milan and South Africa.  Her next film to open in North America is called "Battle In Seattle", a political drama about the real-life protests and uprisings in Seattle in 1999 during the World Trade Organization's Ministerial Conference there.  The film, to be released in December, will also star Charlize Theron, Woody Harrelson, Ray Liotta, Michelle Rodriguez, Channing Tatum, Ivana Milicevic, Joshua Jackson, Rade Sherbedzija, and Andre "3000" Benjamin.)

[The top photo of Connie Nielsen as Anna (in a light blue headscarf) in "The Situation", is courtesy of Shadow Distribution.]

"The Situation" opens today in San Francisco, Berkeley, San Rafael and San Jose, and continues to play in other American cities, including New York.  The film will continue to make its way around the U.S. and Canada.

Related story: The Popcorn Reel Review of "The Situation"

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