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Interview: Director Maria Sødahl and Star Andrea Bræin Hovig on Bringing the Human Experience to the Screen in Norwegian Oscar Entry ‘Hope’

This year’s Oscar shortlist for Best International Feature includes Hope, which looks to become the sixth nominated film from Norway and the first since Kon-Tiki in 2012. Andrea Bræin Hovig stars as Anja, a woman grappling with a terminal cancer diagnosis and struggling with how to share the news with the three children and three stepchildren that she and her husband Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård) share. Awards Radar had the chance to speak with Hovig and director Maria Sødahl about realizing a relevant, authentic, and emotional story on screen.

Q: This is a very personal film for you, Maria. Can you share the experiences you had in your own life that inspired you to make this film?

Maria Sødahl: I was supposed to die, you know, and I didn’t die. And then the years went by, and I thought it was horrible that I wasn’t able to work again because I wasn’t well enough. When I got offered a quite huge international movie, then grief came. That made me start writing. Because it was something I could never do. It was totally premature. But I got the guts to try to see if I was able to do this. It took me quite a few years to know that I had a story which was a fiction story very much based on my own story. It’s the most autobiographical project I’ve ever done. But also, it interested me. I was curious to study what happened to me when I thought – I knew – I was going to die. What passes through a person’s mind when you’re in the midst of your life? Just stop. Also thinking sometimes that being a film director, having this experience, friends of mine said, you have to deal with this, you have to tell this story. All the people who actually live this story don’t have the means to tell it.

Q: Had you seen other films that had dealt with grief or illness and done it in a positive or realistic way, or were there any types of things you wanted to make sure to avoid because they didn’t feel genuine?

Maria: Definitely. I mean, in the States, it’s almost a genre, cancer stories. I really wanted to make a different kind of love story. Treating the cancer plots or story in a very unsentimental way. Not because it’s cool to tell it in an unsentimental way but what I find fascinating is exactly how you can know that you’re going to die, and you still have to clean the floor, and do all the prosaic stuff, still, and everything looks, smells, and feels different. You think about your life suddenly in a very, very different way. You think back on life. I thought all of those things were very exciting to explore, to remind me of what actually happened in these specific days during the Christmas holiday where we portrayed this couple and this family.

Q: Andrea, what appealed to you about this role and what did you see in the character of Anja?

Andrea Bræin Hovig: Well, everything. I thought the manuscript was wonderful. I thought it was funny. I loved the rawness of it. Maria just said it – it’s not just cool to not be sentimental. Life is not sentimental. I know Maria wanted to make a film that was true to life, and I think she really made it. I also wanted to work like that, not be sentimental. I worked really hard to keep my tears back a lot because me, as a person, I would have cried a lot more than Anja did. But I wanted to be true to Anja and who she is. Maria really succeeded with this, making a raw and really true story, a really wonderful film.

Q: Those moments where she cries away from other people are reminiscent of Emma Thompson’s character in Love Actually and Charlize Theron in Tully. The thing that all three of those films have in common is that the husbands aren’t really all that great. You don’t see them and peg them as a great husband and devoted father. What do you see in Tomas? Is he a great guy who just isn’t really trying hard enough, or is it more than that?

Andrea: I think that, even from the script, Tomas is a wonderful husband. I think he is great, he is supportive, he is faithful, he is true to her. But the audience, I’ve heard so many different things, how they experience this character. I’ve always liked Tomas a lot. That’s one of the brilliant things about both the script and the result of the movie. Just like life, both Anja and Tomas are people. They are silly, they are wonderful, they are smart, they are stupid, they are everything. That’s one of the things I really love. Take it away, Maria!

Maria: I don’t know, I think it’s very fascinating what you can do with the character like Anja, high on steroids, so direct, so feisty. As a person who knows she’s going to do, what can you do? How can you help? How can you be there? Tiptoeing around her. Often, when Stellan wanted to, in the very beginning, when he started shooting, be more active or speak up against her when she’s so brutal, I said, yeah, try to do that and see what it looks like then. It just becomes stupid. But of course I have the same experience where the audience thinks about it very differently. When he goes towards her for the first time and says, you don’t do that to me, I think the audience is like, yes, come on, Tomas, yes! But it’s a very difficult part to do. It needs a very good actor who’s able to do those small gestures. If he even lifts his little finger, it’s big drama. He’s a phlegmatic character as well, that’s his personality.

Q: So many people don’t even ask about how Anja is doing, and they just assume that it has to be good news when they do, that there has to be hope. How did you decide on the title of the film?

Maria: It was a working title, which I thought was quite cheesy for a long time. It’s a different kind of a love story, which I try to focus on when I talk to people. It’s a movie about life, how you live your life, the choices you make, a lot more than about death in itself. And then again, there was just no other title which could compare. It changes meaning over the course of the movie, from being hope in the medical respect regarding her survival, and then becoming hope that she’s actually going to be able to love and receive love, not only being man and woman, but also towards life. To embrace life and the life she’s had although it’s not perfect. Getting rid of anger, getting rid of bitterness, to become serene. The whole movie is about getting to that moment where all the dirt and noises just disappear in their lives, that’s where the hope is. Then you can die. It’s an existential movie. It’s all these levels of living. It’s an overpopulated movie, as well. Tons of doctors, tons of children, tons of life.

Q: Congratulations on being on the Oscar shortlist for Best International Feature, representing Norway. This is Stellan’s second year in a row starring in the country’s submission after Out Stealing Horses. What it is like to be representing Norway on an international level?

Maria: I think it’s wonderful in the sense that people get to see the movie, that it gets known, that it exists outside of modern Europe. It has been sold to forty countries, but during the pandemic, it’s been horrible. Distributors have not been able to release it. This also gives it a second chance. It’s also wonderful to be part of a wonderful group of international movies which are all wonderful. In one way, I think it’s silly to compete with films and art, totally. And then again, you’re in it. It’s an ambiguous thing as well. That’s how it is. It’s a great privilege. If we get nominated or not, we have already won for this movie, in a way.

Hope is scheduled for a virtual theatrical release in New York, Los Angeles, and other cities on April 16th.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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