So I've been sprucing up my CV and seeking other kinds of work and avenues for work. "You should pitch more interviews and profiles," is something I've heard, and I agree, but I'm kind of cut off from the world of actually getting access, which is something I have to work on. In my diggings I remembered this profile of Bjork, from the October 2000 U.S. edition of Premiere, a story that prevented me from attending the Moscow Film Festival. In spite of its arguably affected use of present tense, I think it works pretty well. Editors! Do you want more of this? Get in touch!
The text is after the graphic. I don't think I knew the piece was a cover story in so many international editions.
Björk Gudmundsdottir is a very professional interviewee. Led to a corner booth at a stylish Indian restaurant in Manhattan, she is polite but not at all pally as introductions are made. She sits upright, her back straight, almost stiff, adopting a businesslike demeanor that's somewhat at odds with the Barbie-pink midiskirt-and-jacket ensemble she's wearing. She's small, but not nearly as tiny as one might imagine. In person she definitely doesn't look, oh, 12, as she sometimes does in her music videos, but she sure doesn't look 34 either. And there's nothing elfin or ethereal or madcap or kooky (or—what's that word they all use to describe artists like Björk?—oh, yeah, quirky) about her.
She's great at answering questions. She'll take one and just run with it, take it to the end of its thread, so that by the time she's through talking you can pretty much just toss your three follow-up questions. On the subject of making a film versus making an album, for example, the pioneering rock musician has this to say: "It seems to me that people who make films are very logical and they talk a lot. I'm not dissing them in any way, but it's just different; they're very outgoing and it's very above-waist, and music is very below-waist, if you see what I'm saying. If you want to write a song with someone, you would never say, 'See you at 4 on Monday, and the song'll be done at 4:30.' It's like the only way a song could not happen. You may spend a week with the person and get drunk and end up hitchhiking through France and then on the train back you write a whole album in a half an hour. That's more how music is made."
She is here mainly to talk about Dancer in the Dark, which she refers to as "the first and last movie I ever acted in" - a deliberately inaccurate statement, because she did in fact act in a Bergmanesque, Icelandic-made drama called The Juniper Tree, back in 1987, and had a cameo in Robert Altman's Ready to Wear (Prêt-à-Porter). But, she says, "I was not present [for Juniper Tree]; I had just had a baby, I was inside this bubble, it was the most gorgeous period of my life. With Dancer in the Dark, I gave all and more." Indeed, she adds, "My friends came over to visit me [on the set] and didn't recognize me. They worried about my mental health, because they'd never seen me like that."
This astonishing film—a sometimes vérité-looking hybrid of musical and melodrama that either brilliantly or perversely denies its audience the usual pleasures of those genres and instead strives for high tragedy—was the talk of this year's Cannes film festival, winning the Palme d'or for its director, Lars Von Trier and a Best Actress award for Björk. It is no exaggeration to say that the film could not exist without Björk's performance, as Selma, a poor immigrant factory worker toiling away in a bleakly imagined America, saving money for an operation that will spare her son from the same mysterious ailment that's robbing her of her own eyesight. Despite an international cast that includes Catherine Deneuve, Peter Stormare, David Morse, and Joel Grey, the Cannes buzz was all about her portrayal, which reduced many in the audience to tears. Odd, then, that here's a woman with very little traditional acting experience who gets asked to carry an extremely ambitious motion picture, hits one out of the park, and then announces that she'll never act again. Something must be up.
Perhaps it was collaborating with Von Trier. The Danish director is known for his unusual working methods. (For his previous film, The Idiots, he had his actors participate in an unsimulated orgy; on the Dancer set, he sometimes practically pushed his handheld video camera into the actors' faces.) It was widely reported that Björk stormed off the Dancer set at least once. A video monitor smashed in the heat of anger has been mentioned.
Björk doesn't deny there was tension. But she insists it's not the reason she's renouncing acting. "What was going on on the set was nothing compared to the work that went into the music," she says, "and nobody said one word about that." When she heard about the Cannes award, she says, "I immediately thought it was for the music. And when they told me it was for the acting, my feeling was, 'I don't want to sound ungrateful, but it's not where my heart is.' My heart definitely belongsto sound."
Sound is where her heart has belonged for at least a quarter of a century. The Icelandic-born singer made her first record at the age of 11, and her musical career was into its second decade when the band she fronted, the anarchic new wave combo the Sugarcubes, made an international splash in 1988. Her solo-career, which began in 1993 with the somewhat ironically titled Debut, has seen her continue to collaborate with some of the most forward-thinking, and sometimes seemingly unlikely, creators in the European music community.
Then again, anyone who has followed Björk's life and career knows to expect the unexpected. She has often presented a persona that can seem more than a little loopy. On her first solo hit she sang, "There's definitely definitely definitely no logic to human behavior," and her personal life would seem to follow that dictum. She was once romantically linked to a weird-looking dude with gold teeth (drum 'n' bass pioneer Goldie). And didn't she pound the crap out of some reporter in Bangkok once? Similarly, Von Trier, whose memorably off-kilter works also include Zentropa and the definitively deranged Danish TV_miniseries The Kingdom, and who cofounded the ascetic film movement/practical joke known as Dogma 95, enjoys playing the eccentric (among other things, he really has no "Von" in his name, but reportedly appended one there as a kind of homage to not-quite-normal auteurs von Stroheim and von Sternberg). And then there's the fact that Björk's role in the movie, as the ultimate self-sacrificing mom, would be a bear for even the most seasoned actress to handle. It could be argued that no movie has demanded so much of its lead actress since, well, Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, but really, there's no reason to stop there. No movie has demanded so much of its lead actress since Carl Dreyer's 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc, a picture Von Trier clearly reveres, a picture that so utterly defined its lead actress, Maria Falconetti, that she, in fact, never made another film. Hmmm.
That's such a tidy analogy that one can't help but imagine there's a deeper story behind this no-more-acting vow. But Björk insists there isn't. She characterizes the atmosphere on the set of Dancer as "brilliant." When told this, Von Trier himself asks, "Yeah, okay, but what does that mean?" Bjork calls Von Trier's often - vérité style "genius." Still, she'd be the first to admit that "going through what Selma was going through was very painful. It was painful just to wake up in the morning." And she likens acting in Dancer to "signing on to war, going to the Vietnam War. I believed I might die. Acting is like jumping from a cliff without a parachute."
For his part, Von Trier says, "I felt like a policeman who had to force Björk to do something she really didn't want to do all the time. It was not pleasant at all, and I don't think she could have said it was pleasant."
"She cannot really act—she can just be." That's what Catherine Deneuvesaid about her costar Björk at Cannes. Good quote—very dramatic and mythmaking and all that, but it's a bit of a crock nonetheless. Certainly, some of her costars are pretty convinced that she has the stuff to be a movie star, if she so desired. "You can't do what she did on that picture without being a good actress," says Joel Grey (Cabaret), who plays a tap-dancing trial witness in Dancer. David Morse, who portrays Selma's villainous neighbor and whose exchanges with Selma make up some of the film's most shocking scenes, says that Björk became the character "in the way she had to experience things. For instance, I don't think she's ever picked up a gun in her life. So to bring herself to do these things that were deeply, genuinely repulsive to her - she couldn't pretend to do them. But I think she truly has the instincts of an actress."
"I agree that I'm very instinct-driven," Björk says. "That's just the way I am. And when Lars convinced me to act the [part], he asked me not to act. Acting was bad; that's what professionals do. I had to become the girl. That was fine with me, because I'm not interested in being technical."
So, when people speak of what she can or cannot do, she doesn't take it as an insult, but as a compliment. It's like she's a magician who's really sold her trick. The craft-versus-instinct thing is something she's always aware of; she speaks of her grandfather, who is a carpenter, and how sometimes they'll get together and he'll show her a picture of a fireplace he's built, and she'll play him her latest record, and they'll both appreciate their accomplishments on the same level. Dancer's bizarre, impressionistically lit musical numbers, which Selma conjures up to escape from—or comment on—her dreary existence, have more than a little in common with the video Björk made with Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze for the song "It's Oh So Quiet," in which she cavorts around a tire store. Von Trier (who cites Jonze's video as his inspiration for casting Björk in Dancer) breaks out of his quasi-documentary mode for these musical scenes; they were shot with 100 fixed video cameras, many of them hidden from the actors' view. The songs Björk wrote almost always take their cues from some repetitive, mechanical noise—the clank of tray-making machines, the turning of train wheels—and then transmogrify into gorgeous, otherworldly, sometimes orchestral soundscapes.
It's the music-making aspect of the Dancer experience that Björk is most protective of, most eager to hang on to. The much-cited instance where she stormed off the set was, she insists, over a disagreement about how the music was being edited to fit the picture. "The conflict wasn't between me and Lars either; that's another misunderstanding. It's been exaggerated a lot. I had been working 16 hours a day, every day." She is a little vague about who "they" are, but "they" apparently "were changing the songs. I had done one and a half years of work with an 80-piece orchestra, and then I'm working on the set as an actress; I'd come home in the evening and they'd say, 'Oh, they cut a minute out of the middle of something,' and I would say, 'No, you can't do that; I'm ready to cooperate but you just can't do that...' "No one who hasn't actually made a record has any idea just how much work goes into it—work that, as fulfilling as it can ultimately be, is often backbreaking and tedious. But that's the work she lives for. "So I walked away and came back with a manifesto, and they were all musical things, such as, I had to have the final say on the music because we had never signed a contract—me and Lars, everything was based on trust—so I said, I have to do the final mix, the actors can't do the vocals without me..." It seems to be all she thinks about, this music, or music in general. Even here in New York, months after Cannes, as she works on her next album, she says she's been toying with the audio mix for Dancer. For the CD of her Dancer music, which she has titled Selmasongs, she enlisted fellow musical risk-takers such as Radiohead's Thom Yorke to sing in place of the actors, because, Björk says, "I see the album not as the soundtrack to the film but rather as the realization of Selma'sdream. I want this record to be my gift to Selma."
She doesn't get quite so pretentious as to liken her musical works to her children, but when she talks about her 14-year-old son, Sindri, and how much of Selma's maternal instinct stems from her own life, you hear some parallels. "The second time in my life that I was ever physically violent was four years ago, when this woman in Thailand was trying to interview my son live on the air and she was crazily abusing it, and I just saw red and hit her. It's a different energy there when you want to protect your children. I remember after that, me and my son going to see Aliens, and there's that line in there, 'Get away from her, you bitch!' And we were laughing our heads off, because this had just happened to us!"
Dancer in the Dark is in fact a dark film, and while Björk doesn't seem to have any regrets about it, she's very happy to be moving on. "After being Selma for so long, it was great to go back to being Björk. There may still be a little Selma left in me." Honestly, though, there doesn't seem to be much. What's left, it seems, is a woman who knows what she wants and will not let anybody tell her otherwise. Agents, directors, screenwriters, take note: "If I'm lucky I've got 50 years left, and I should spend all of them on songs." That, it seems, would pretty much be that. The experience was apparently of the most value in terms of helping her establish where, and what, she should be. "I've never felt so lucky and so grateful as I am now," she says. Her dance into the world of film led her to what she already knew. Her air of contentment expands when the interview concludes and the tape recorder is turned off, and Björk almost automatically relaxes, curls up her legs, and starts sampling, with great (and practically elfin) eagerness, a tray of appetizers that up until this point she has been very professionally ignoring.