Looking sleepy from jet lag – she’s just returned to New York after a whirlwind trip to Los Angeles – and complaining a little about the bone-chilling wind on Manhattan’s streets on this December day, Danish actress Paprika Steen contemplates the idea of becoming a star in Hollywood and figures the time is right.
“I’m a late bloomer for everything,” says the 46-year-old actress, sipping from a Starbucks cup. “In a funny way, I think I was born in my 30s. When I was 19, I didn’t look 19. Before, I was always playing the wife; now I’m playing the love interest. So it’s interesting that it goes that way – perhaps it’s the Helen Mirren way. I guess I’m growing into my age – in a nice way.”
Tall, lithe and blonde, Steen has seen her Danish acting contemporaries – including Mads Mikkelsen and Ulrich Thomsen – make inroads into American films. Now she believes she’s got the perfect calling card as well: “Applause,” a searing Danish drama that just opened in Los Angeles for a qualifying Oscar run and will open in New York in early 2011.
The film, in which Steen plays a stage actress fresh out of rehab trying to reestablish relations with her estranged children, offers a memorable enough performance for Steen to mount a small Oscar campaign as best actress. Though she’s a long-shot for a nomination in a crowded year, the performance is definitely deserving – and is already earning her meetings with American filmmakers.
“I’d like to land a part in a big comedy,” says Steen, who made her name in Denmark playing comedy on a popular “Saturday Night Live”-style TV series and in film comedies. “That would be a good place for people to see me. In Denmark, I did a lot of parts resembling the kind of thing Teri Garr or Lisa Kudrow would do. I’d love to do that again.”
Comedy seems the farthest thing imaginable from her work in “Applause.” Steen’s character, Thea, struggles not to drink while dealing with her own isolation – and the demands of playing Martha in a stage production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” Steen’s performance is detailed and wrenching, a portrait of the artist as a vulnerable human being with a hard shell.
“In many different ways, I know actors like her,” Steen says. “Anxiety comes with age. I’m not an alcoholic or a drug addict and I never have been. But my mother was an actress, so I watched that bohemian lifestyle with her friends when I was growing up. That’s why I don’t touch anything but coffee. I do have a drink now and then, but you know what I mean.”
The contrast between Edward Albee’s character, Martha, and Steen’s character, Thea, is an obvious one to Steen.
“Martha is very naïve, much more innocent – she’s nice until she’s drunk at 3 in the morning and her husband’s been provoking her all night,” Steen says. “Thea is much more aware, more conscious – and that makes her lonely.”
Thea is also obviously not a very good mother. When her children see her for the first time after a long separation (though the reason for the separation is never explained), they hang back, rather than rush to embrace her.
“Of course she has love for them – the connection is there,” Steen says. “But she’s not a mother in the normal sense. She doesn’t know how to handle them. When she plays with them, it’s much more open and free – but then she doesn’t want to have to deal with them at all. It’s interesting – a lot of men think she’s unlikable. But women like her. I have great compassion for her. She wants to be a mother, but she can’t.”
Steen, who grew up in a household with five siblings who were a mix of full, half and step-brothers, decided to try acting because her brothers were all musicians “and they all played 10 times better than me. Then I thought I’d be a singer – but when I was 9, I heard a girl who was 19 sing. And I thought, ‘I’ll never be that good.’ That’s when I decided to act.”
But she finished high school and applied to Sweden’s national drama school, only to be rejected. And not just rejected – but rejected four years in a row, before finally being admitted on her fifth try, at age 23.
“The first time I thought it was a misunderstanding,” she says. “The second time I was suicidal. The third time was horrible. People were asking if I was sure I wanted to be an actress. The fourth time, I almost made it. By the fifth time, I’d become fluent in Swedish and decided to go try acting in Sweden – and that’s when they took me.
“I was so mortified – I thought I’d get in my first try. It was totally frustrating. I was a waitress and spent the rest of my time waiting and studying. It was a hard beginning. But I never took no for an answer. I’m not a victim. I saw my mother have a lot of rejection and I thought, ‘No one else but me is going to be in charge of my happiness.’”
Still, while her colleagues have found roles in American films – Mikkelsen as a James Bond villain in “Casino Royale” and films like “Clash of the Titans,” Thomsen in films such as “Duplicity” and “The International” – Steen is still looking for that Hollywood breakthrough. She’s had small roles in independent films such as “Forty Shades of Blue” and countryman Lars Von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark,” but is looking for just the right vehicle for her real American unveiling.
“But it has to be the right script, the right part,” she says. “I’ve always been very picky, very critical. I turn down a lot of parts. I want to be wise about my decision.”