The Guilty, a nervy, tense Danish thriller set solely in the claustrophobic confines of an emergency dispatcher’s office, is released in the UK on 26 October.
Asger Holm is a policeman working on the emergency phones, often dealing with timewasters and fakers – until he receives a call from Iben, a woman who is being abducted in a van. Determined to help, Asger becomes heavily involved in looking for the woman and her kidnapper.
Director Gustav Möller’s critically-acclaimed film takes place in only one location, and apart from phonecalls and a few brief chats with colleagues, Asger is the only “real” person we see.
Jakob Cedegren, who plays Asger, puts in an incredibly taut performance as a man with a troubling past – who in his desperation to be a hero traps himself in a web of assumptions.
I spoke to Jakob at this year’s London Film Festival about the film. (Read my review of The Guilty and watch the trailer.)
Sarah: You have to carry the whole film. Was that scary for you? Have you done that kind of role before?
Jakob Cedergren: No not like this. I did leads before, but not like this of course. It’s the first time and you don’t get to do many of these kinds of projects, you know? When I read the script I thought it was a once in a lifetime project.
Was it nerve-wracking knowing it all hangs on you? You haven’t got any co-stars apart from at the end of the phone…
Which are very important – they are very important for the performance because they were there, so I had great supporting actors. No I was not nervous because I really liked the character, the story. I believed in the script, I believed in the team, and when you do that you feel you’re in good hands. Everything is good; so what’s the worst that can happen?
So no it wasn’t nerve-wracking. I was kind of excited, wanting to really get the best out of it, because it was a good project.
It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, were you nervous about the reaction there?
Oh of course, absolutely. Yes but that’s always exciting because you wonder, did it work? Are people gonna get bored? I mean, you never know.
I don’t think you could get bored with that film!
No but you don’t know. With people, you never know, will they stay there? That first screening there was a fantastic experience, because that was when we really felt the audience for the first time. You don’t know until then.
And in terms of Asger’s character, was there something, when he starts off he thinks he’s a bit of a hero…
He’s a troubled hero.
Yes! Did he do you have to look for something to identify with, in him?
Like personally you mean? Well I rarely think about it that way actually. It’s very much intuition that starts once you start reading, so I don’t wonder about what it is – either you play it, or you don’t. And then the things you don’t get, you get curious about – so I got really curious very fast because I liked the mystery.
He was a riddle, and at the same time I understood what I felt was somebody trying to do good.
He wants to help doesn’t he.
Good intentions, yes, but it’s not working. I liked that a lot.
I loved at the beginning when he’s speaking to all the other callers on the phone, he’s not remotely sympathetic, you can tell he’s spoken to them all before.
It was an important detail that whenever he’s not sympathetic, he has a reason. I mean, if somebody calls because they fell off a bike it’s not a good reason to call. So it was important to have that, so he didn’t become totally, just stupid, you know?
The reason he gets mad is because people don’t understand – he’s frustrated. I mean, he has a problem with his temper, that’s for sure. But there’s a reason for that also, it all unfolds.
I suppose also he’s frustrated because he’s stuck behind a desk and he wants to be back out there on the road.
For sure, absolutely. He’s been degraded.
I read that The Guilty was filmed chronologically. Does that help with a film like this?
Yes it was. It’s always a help. We did it in eight blocks – the shortest [take] was five minutes’ long and the longest was 35 minutes’ long. So we got this theatrical thing where you hit a wave and then you just go, you get a lot of different things happening, you just have to go because you’re on this ride.
That’s also a huge reason for the way it turned out I think, and it’s also a big credit to Gus [director Gustav Möller] – the way he planned the whole shoot. He’s got a really good understanding of what an actor needs, and all the other crew. So yes it’s great, I mean you don’t [usually] get to do that. But here you had more possibilities like that, because the environment was so controlled.
With the actual phonecalls how did they film that – did someone feed you the lines or did you have them recorded?
No it was live, everything, otherwise it would not have been possible, it would not have worked. If it was a recording it would have been technically very difficult, the timing would be off – no, you need to do it live.
So they did like a radio theatre room with all the voice actors. The little girl was [recorded] afterwards because she would not be able to be on set. But everything else was live which made it, you know, playful. Sometimes it messed up a little bit and sometimes that was great.
It’s very much an ensemble piece.
With your preparations for the role of Asger did you speak to people who work on the desks, or policemen who perhaps had troubled working backgrounds if you like, as Asger did?
Yeah I spoke to a lot of people who could relate to this story and who I felt maybe had some answers to some of my questions. It was policemen, doctors, people from the army, all kinds. You just try to get as many impressions as you can to understand.
I wonder if it might be easy to become overconfident like Asger, who then he has it blow up in his face.
Yeah everybody can have a bad day at the office [laughs]
It’s quite a bad day!
It is, and that’s part of the mystery that evolves in the film, why he is where he is at, so to speak.
In terms of your career now, would you like to work more in America, use the success of The Guilty as a springboard?
It’s not up to me. I mean, my door is open, I’m not turning it down if Spielberg calls me or something! But it’s not something that goes through my mind a lot.
I love to travel for work. I’ve been to Italy and did a film, and Norway. America is America, there’s good and bad about that.
Fortunately I find the world is getting smaller which I like a lot. It’s fun and also you get a freshness, meeting new people. I might be off working in Germany, I don’t know yet but, you know, it’s all good.
Catch Jakob Cedergren in Gustav Möller’s The Guilty in UK cinemas now.