Earlier in the year when Nordic Watchlist was speaking to Olafur Darri Olafasson, we discussed one of his upcoming films Beautiful Beings. A film directed by Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson – whose previous work includes Heartstone and Whale Valley – Darri spoke very animatedly about the young stars in this film, so we had to check it out.
In 2016 Guðmundsson released Heartstone, a powerful piece of Icelandic cinema focusing on a group of teenagers growing up in East Iceland. It picked up much accolade with a number of nominations and wins on the festival circuit.
In his next feature, Beautiful Beings, a brutal yet moving story that shows a darker side of Iceland that perhaps people are not so familiar with – a youth culture of bullying and abandonment. The story focuses on a trio of friends who take a bullied outsider into their group and how their friendship grows amongst the violence and danger they find themselves in.
The leader of the group is Addi, who is played by upcoming young star Birgir Dagur Bjarkason, and Alex got to speak to the young star about his breakout role.
As the zoom call begins, Birgir is excitedly sitting by the window of his grandparents’ farm in the West Fjords in Iceland, one of the most stunning and more quiet parts of the country, and somewhere he escapes to every Easter.
Birgir: It is out in the middle of nowhere – you can just connect with nature, it’s beautiful here!
It sounds idyllic, and perhaps the polar opposite of the world that is portrayed in Beautiful Beings, which is a gritty side to the country’s capital of Reykjavik. Forget the snow capped mountains and a bit of Nordic noir – this is the ghetto – Iceland style.
Birgir: This is the part of Iceland you don’t see – you see all the nature and such but you don’t see this dark side to Reykjavik!
If I were to pair it with another film in showing such a dark side of the land of fire and ice, then it would be Baldvin Zophoniasson’s Let Me Fall, which was a very heavy-going movie that followed the life of heroin addict Magnea. Beautiful Beings has already picked up some recognition when it travelled to Berlin film festival in February. The cast travelled over there too, with Darri being their minder!
Birgir: It was kind of weird at first, we were told the premiere wasn’t going to be in Iceland but in Berlin! I jumped in the air when we were told we were going to one of the biggest film festivals in the world.
The first time I met him (Darri) he was just the nicest guy and we all couldn’t stop talking to him the entire trip. I had seen him in Trapped and his other movies and am his biggest fan – then here I was starring in a movie with him and then going to Berlin! I felt starstruck!
How did this all come about for the young star, who is only seventeen, and has already walked down the red carpet of one of the world’s prestigious film festivals with his co-stars?
Birgir: There was this guy who came to our school, and he had starred in Heartstone, and he said we need some actors for this new movie by Guðmundur and I just said to myself – why not, I have nothing to lose.
Birgir hadn’t done a lot of acting, a few classes when he was younger but that was it.
Birgir: The next thing I know I had made it all the way to being part of this amazing film with hardly any experience at all. There were a lot of talented people auditioning for this and I was just not expecting it at all. However I was confident in myself and so was my family – they were amazing!
His mother helped him with all the preparation he needed, making him work through his lines and practising them for his first audition.
Birgir: I swear she was more comitted to this than I was!
Then he landed a second audition and his mother had trained him for hours which he believes was definitely how he ended up landing the role. It was not by any means the easiest of roles either, Addi is a troubled teenager who smokes, drinks, and lashes out with violence amongst his gang – at times it is hard to watch and the film certainly isn’t for the faint hearted.
I ask him what his initial thoughts were when reading the script. How much did he know about the role and what would be expected of him?
Birgir: I read the script all in one night and for two or three hours I was thinking about it then I opened the door to see my mother and was like: ‘Wow’ – I was just blown away. I had to read it again to process everything!
His character Addi is a complicated kid, at times you despise him for his cruelty and then find yourself almost rooting for him, taking you on this journey of emotions. He is a complex character to read and Birgir’s performance is absolutely outstanding in how he has delivered this role.
Birgir: We had an acting coach there who would help a lot with the scenes and if we needed to talk them about it and how we felt about it there were always there to look after us. Everybody was so supportive and interested to hear how the boys felt about the scenes.
His reference to ‘the boy’s are the excellent fellow cast members he is working alongside – Viktor Benóný Benediktsson plays Konni, Snorri Rafn Frímannsson as Siggi, and then Áskell Einar Pálmason who plays the bullied Balli. Each put in a performance alongside Birgir’s that is truly remarkable – and a particular thing of note is the cast’s chemistry. Had they all grown up together or knew other before?
Birgir: Well, the first time I met Snorri (Siggi) we were locked outside somewhere before training and we talked for about twenty minutes. We were so open – we met and talked and we just connected, the chemistry was there. We are all best friends now, we are all like brothers now – we got out and play basketball and hang out all the time now.
Thankfully they are not fighting, something which plays a quite a big role in the film. One reviewer described the fight sequences as some of the most brutal and realistic he has ever seen, even making sure someone’s nose was not really broken as it had looked like it really had in one particular sequence.
Even here at Nordic Watchlist we have not seen such convincing moments of violence break out, especially in an Icelandic movie, you almost walk away from some scenes feeling as bruised and battered as the victims on the screen.
Birgir: We had some great trainers who trained us to the bone. We trained with the two stunt directors Jón Viðar Arnþórsson and Imma Helga Arnþórsdóttir who helped us with all the fight sequences. Guðmundur wanted to make these feel as real as possible because they are teenagers, they don’t really know how to fight. They just come in swinging and don’t really know what they are doing which helps make it feel genuine.
There are two particular sequences in the movie which are both pretty technical and involved a lot of flying fists – I ask Birgir how much work had to be put in to make sure no one got hurt in the fighting melee.
Birgir: We trained and trained and trained to prevent anything from going wrong – I was so worried I might end up punching someone in the face but fortunately that never happened.
Let’s circle back and talk about some of Birgir’s co-stars: firstly, there is Darri – he is so loved over here in the UK for his role in Trapped but it is becoming more noticeable how he is enjoying playing some pretty evil characters. He was recently in TV series The Tourist which showed on the BBC as a gun-toting hit man and in Beautiful Beings he has a small role, but one that might make his fanbase a little shocked.
Then there is Anita Briem (Quake) playing Addi’s mum, who is a tarot card reading spiritualist who her son mocks, but is there truth in her predictions?
Birgir: There were points were I was in the zone and thinking, oh my god, this is happening – I am acting with my favourite actors. It was nice though that when you start talking with them and realise that they are just people too, and no different than anyone else. I just felt so comfortable acting with them.
He goes on to say how he learnt so much which he hopes has made him a better actor – we can vouch that his performance is quite something.
It seems that director Guðmundsson has some kind of magic when it comes to bringing the best out of a youthful cast – watching the director’s previous film Heartstone, Birgir says how he was just totally blown away by the film and in particular the acting.
Birgir: I wanted to live up to the expectation that this cast delivered.
It is a great time for Iceland when it comes to film – with Lamb picking up so much love last year and this year seeing the likes of Tinna Hrafnsdóttir’s Quake hopefully getting a UK release, Anton Kristensen & Ásgeir Sigurðsson’s Come To Harm, and Hannes Þór Halldórsson’s Cop Secret due out next month the year has started strong – not to mention all the TV series that are out there!
Where does Beautiful Beings go from here? Birgir hopes that after the premiere in Iceland, the film will be picked up for some more festivals – the slight mention of Cannes Film Festival brings a glint to his eye.
Birgir: Hopefully we get to visit some more film festivals, me and the boys would love to continue to travel and share the film.
We couldn’t agree more, there is nothing more frustrating in our role here at Nordic Watchlist than to witness an incredible piece of work such as Beautiful Beings and not being able to share that love for a film with others because it hasn’t been picked up by distributors. So our flag will be flying high for this!
The pair of us continue to converse for some time, and Birgir shows me how his grandparents have cut out the film’s poster from the local paper and stuck it on the fridge. The excitement and energy is very real and it couldn’t happen to a more deserving cast and crew.
Beautiful Beings has its premiere in Iceland on the 22nd April and as soon as it get international release we will let you know – be sure to follow us on Instagram @NordicWatchlist.
Interview by Alex Minnis