Yorick van Wageningen on the horrific experience of playing a creep in David Fincher’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’.
David Fincher’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ is as uncompromising as Lisbeth Salander’s character, the heroine of the film. The director doesn’t shy away from showing the jet black world on the wide screen of Stieg Larsson’s books, which contain some gritty and shocking scenes. In our ‘Dragon Tattoo Interview Trilogy’, 200% spoke with three of the people who were involved in the film. We kick off with the Dutch actor, Yorick van Wageningen, who plays Nils Bjurman, the state-appointed guardian of Salander.
‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ delivers some candidates for the top 20 of best movie villains. Bjurman’s mind and actions are so sick and repulsive that Salander in the notorious ‘revenge’ scene inscribes a text in caps with a tattoo kit on his fat belly reading: “I’M A SADISTIC PIG, A PERVERT, AND A RAPIST”. It’s one of the many violent episodes between Bjurman and Salander. In previous encounters the guardian forced Salander to give him a blow job in his office and raped her in the bedroom of his apartment. Watching these scenes are highly disturbing, even to the film crew. Fincher, who has a notorious track record of films that feature psychopaths and serial killers, most notably ‘Se7en’ and ‘Zodiac’, explained in the Charlie Rose Show: “There were scenes in this movie where the crew, literally, except for the focus pullers and the operators, were not watching, they didn’t want to watch”.
Imagine, thus, what it must be like for the actors, Van Wageningen and Rooney Mara, who plays Salander, to perform those scenes. In this interview, Van Wageningen discusses what it was like for him and Mara to play these revolting scenes, his serious doubts whether to play this character, and giving Bjurman a certain humanity that makes him even more creepy.
200%: Can you tell us something about the casting process of your role as Nils Bjurman?
YvW: It went kind of weird. I got a call from my American agent who told me that David Fincher’s casting director is casting something. “We don’t know what: we think it is ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, but we’re not sure.” They are so secretive these days, especially Fincher. They wanted to put myself on tape, as nowadays, most European actors, do an audition at home. They wanted me to do a scene of Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Conversation’ between the main character of the film, Harry Caul, and a girl. It is a strange scene as nothing much happened and they just talk. I really had no idea what to do with it. I got two friends of mine, a girl to play opposite of me and a young cameraman and we did two takes of the scene. After we did the scene, I didn’t think much about, until a few days later I looked back at what I did and I thought it’s actually quite interesting so I uploaded the scenes on the site of Fincher’s casting director.
200%: Did David Fincher gave you an explanation why he cast you in the role?
YvW: Yes, he was looking for a kind of ambiguity of humanity within this character. That was a lingering thread and that’s what attracted him in ‘The Conversation’ scenes I did. At the time when I went to have an interview with Fincher in Tribeca, New York, he was doing promotion for ‘The Social Network’. I remember he answered to the question as to why he had actors do hundreds of takes: “I don’t always do that but when an actor comes with a pre-conceived idea about his role and he /she is just going to play that’s something in which I’m not interested. And I just go on until they give up which can result in many takes”.
200%: Is Fincher more interested in ‘discovering’ the scene whilst it’s being filmed?
YvW: Yes, he is. With Steve Zaillian, the screenwriter of the film, David, Rooney and I, we talked about the character and the purpose of it and Steve re-wrote a couple of the scenes. Ultimately, though, when you start shooting, it is between the actors and what happens between them. When you try to ‘discover’ the scene and something exciting happens that you hadn’t imagined, Fincher is thrilled like a little boy. All of Fincher’s film have such visually stunning looking imagery in them and you need true life in the scenes, and he gives you every space to do that. I think that’s his growth as a film maker, which he probably found in filming ‘Zodiac’ and continued to explore in ‘The Social Network’.
200%: What kind of discussions did you have with Fincher and Zaillian about your character?
YvW: We were trying to find out what kind of man he was in the beginning of day. David was thinking in the direction of a second-hand car salesman. I thought it would be much nicer if you could take him [Bjurman] in the direction of a pseudo-social-caring-civil-worker otherwise it would be such a struggle to relate to the humanity of the character. I figured that if you make him at least human it will make it even worse that he does such horrible things and Fincher completely agreed with me. We took that idea and went of with it. Lots of the actual stuff we found out whilst we were filming and that’s always very exciting. In this case it was also freakishly scary as he does such horrible things.
200%: Had you read the book and seen the Swedish version of the film before you were approached for the film?
YvW: No neither. I read the book after I was cast but I still haven’t seen the Swedish version.
200%: Are you interested to see it?
YvW: No, I’m also going to play in the second film ‘The Girl Who Played with Fire’. For a year you live with the story and at one point you’re quite done with it.
And to be honest, I’m probably one of the four or five people who is not a great fan of the book.
200%: Why not?
YvW: It bored me. It wasn’t my cup of tea. I’m probably offending the audience here but it’s all a matter of taste. Millions of people devoured the book. I thought that the script of Steve Zaillian was a hell of a lot better.
200%: Did you have any concerns about playing this character?
YvW: Yes, I have a mentor here in Holland, a theatre director, Karst Woudstra, whom I consider to be one of my greatest teachers. He once said to me: “If you want to play Hitler, you actually have to believe that you’re able to do that. You have to believe that you’re capable of the destruction of millions of people, you have to find a way to get there”. That was simmering in my head when I was offered the part. I really considered not accepting the role because of that. It was Fincher that really made me to decide to take on the role as he is one of the greatest in American cinema today. I knew it would involve going to an extremely dark place and for some actors it is different than for others. I was more frightened for the rape than the revenge scene, and you have to sort of believe that you can do that – even find some satisfaction in doing that. If you don’t believe it, then in the end the audience won’t believe it. You have to go to a place where you could imagine that you could do that.
200%: Did you also have moral struggles to play this character?
YvW: Not necessarily moral struggles but the fact that you don’t want to go there. The scenes between Rooney and me, it was just not fun. In the rape scene she lies there crying and screaming on the bed and then you have to mount her and act that your character enjoys doing that.
Rape is always about rage and it is not a pleasant thing to do. The revenge scene is about humiliation that comes with self-hatred and self-loathing. These are all areas to where you really do not want to go consciously. We shot the revenge scene in March 2010 and we had to re-shoot parts of the scene as the original version was too much for the studio executives. It was May 2011 and I was shooting in Budapest then so I had to fly to LA to do that scene again. It was an 18 hours shooting day and frankly you’re lying there on the floor all day and sometimes between takes they undo the handcuffs I was wearing but most of the time they stayed on. So you just lie there on a cold wet floor and they put a blanket over you in between takes and you have to go through the whole process of humiliation again. If you want people to believe you, you have to undergo it. That freaked me out the most.
200%: How do you make playing someone like that believable, that the public perceives as sick, creepy and unpredictable?
YvW: You have to go in the opposite direction. You have to explore the width of the character, you have to explore the other side, not only what made him do that, but also what it is that prevents him from doing that. You have to find where he is even fragile or is he generally interested in Salander. After the rape scene Bjurman shows some care when he asks Salander if he should bring her home. All these little things don’t make him a freak and that’s what makes him so scary as it gives him a certain humanity. That’s what you want to bring to the role as much as your darkness to a role like that and as an actor there is some kind of satisfaction from a craft perspective.
200%: Where there any spontaneous ideas that happened on set?
YvW: Whilst we were filming the rape scene there is a point where you see Bjurman and he has tied Salander to the bed. Then he drops his pants and, for a minute, he doesn’t know what to do. He stands there and Fincher pauses for just a second and you see him looking at Salander lying on the bed. Then, I don’t know why, I suddenly remembered that a few weeks before the scene, we talked in Fincher’s trailer about Bjurman’s latent homosexuality. Suddenly I saw her lying there and her ass was almost looking like a boy’s ass and that thought went through my mind; so Bjurman looks at her ass, pauses, and then mounts her and rapes her.
200%: How was Rooney Mara in all those scenes?
YvW: She was fantastic and it was unbelievably brave of a young actress. She said: “Listen, I don’t want to know what you’re going to do, do whatever you have to do, I don’t want to know about it and I don’t want to talk about it. Please don’t be nice to me in between the takes”.
200%: Did you gain some weight for your role?
YvW: No, I didn’t. I lost weight after the role. Before I played the role of Nils Bjurman I played a man who had an eating disorder in Emilio Estevez’s film ‘The Way’. You know when you play a man who is going to rape such a frail girl, the more weight you have, the more disgusting it makes. So I just kept it on. I didn’t resort to rigorous measures to lose it before I start shooting the film.
200%: Despite the horrible, repulsive things your character does, was there also an element of fun, excitement to play a character like Bjurman?
YvW: No, not really. The fun and excitement was more outside filming. Working with Fincher and Rooney was great fun, as was going out to dinner with them in Sweden. Fincher has worked with most of the crew before and there is a very dark humour on the set and that is a lot of fun. I have played bad guys before, which was a lot of fun playing for some reason, but, to be honest, this time it was not.
Read another interview with Yorick Van Wageningen on his role as a cyber criminal in Michael Mann’s ‘Blackhat’
Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers
Picture: Salander threatens Bjurman, Columbia Pictures
Yorick van Wageningen bio: European actors are often cast as the villain in Hollywood movies. The late Rutger Hauer played memorable villains like Roy Batty in Blade Runner and John Ryder in The Hitcher. Van Wageningen followed in Hauer’s footsteps by playing Nils Bjurman in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Sadak, a cyber criminal in Michael Mann’s film Blackhat. In the Dutch film, De Wederopstanding van een Klootzak (The Resurrection of a Bastard), he played Ronnie, another nasty character.
Upcoming article: Reports from Frieze London 2019, an interview with the artist Bernard Piffaretti on the practice of his ‘duplication method’ – abstract paintings that appear to be two identical halves, split through the vertical axis. Also articles on Mark Bradford and Theaster Gates.