The person who got me through 2021: Sofie Gråbøl as Sarah Lund felt like a brilliant old friend

In The Killing, Lund’s incredible brain inspired me when mine felt like mushroom soup. She was a solace and an inspiration

Throughout 2021, I have accepted some important truths: I sometimes feel loneliness like an anvil on my chest; exercising really does, annoyingly, make me feel better; I am lost without a murder drama series on the go. This has been the year of the re-watch – Happy Valley, The Bridge, Unforgotten and The Killing. These shows are richly different and should not be reduced to basic tropes, but they do all share a strong-but-flawed female detective in whom you can invest emotionally. And do I.

In a year stained by uncertainty, loss, health issues and boredom, spending my evenings absorbing the lives of fictional female police officers has been medicinal. That murder is a balm is perhaps something for a therapy session, but the determination and bruised souls of Sarah Lancashire’s Catherine Cawood, Nicola Walker’s Cassie Stuart , Sofia Helin’s Saga Norén and Sofie Gråbøl’s Sarah Lund have held my attention like nothing else – even the second or third time around.

I watched The Killing for the third time as summer petered out and felt particularly captivated by Lund: the forensic gaze, the abruptness, the walking out of rooms when she’s had enough of someone, the lovely face that wears remorse for which she can rarely find words. Lund isn’t real, but my experience of her is; watching a woman use her brilliant brain when mine felt like mushroom soup was just right. I envied her drive, though her inability to sustain relationships broke my heart. She moved me, when not much else did.

I explain all this to Gråbøl over Zoom. When she pops up, I have the feeling of seeing an old friend. “What you’re saying is very touching,” she says. “I felt so at home in this character, which is a paradox because she wasn’t a pleasant person to inhabit. She has a strong connection to what feels right, yet there was something very lonely about her.” While filming The Killing, Gråbøl was “in another world”. When they stopped, “it was like when you’re a kid and creating a world while playing, then your parent opens the door and says: ‘It’s dinner time!’ A bubble burst.”

We discuss the power of art in giving us other worlds to inhabit – something many of us have needed this year. “At the root of the human experience is a need to be mirrored, to have different languages for what we go through,” she says. I tell Gråbøl that my friend and I, watching The Killing simultaneously, kept sending each other a screenshot of Lund with slightly wild hair as an investigation becomes all-consuming. Her vague unkemptness spoke to us in our less-vague detachment from personal grooming as the ennui of the pandemic rumbled on. Gråbøl laughs into her cup of tea: “I don’t know whether to take that as a compliment or an insult!”

It has been “a massive year-and-a-half” for Gråbøl. She bought a house for the first time. “I’ve always been frightened of tying myself financially like that because my work life is so uncertain,” she says. “An anxiety of uncertainty is rooted in me and has been since I was a child, before I had the language for it. But I had longed for a little garden, so I just went for it.” As well as working on the film Rose with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s director, Niels Arden Oplev, in which she plays a woman with schizophrenia, Gråbøl filmed The Shift, a new series directed by Lone Scherfig (An Education), playing the midwife Ella, in a maternity ward at a Danish hospital. In July, Gråbøl had a two-week break. During this time, her mother, who had been having cancer treatment, became very ill.

“It has always been my big fear that someone close to me would fall ill because, in my line of work, you can’t just say: ‘I’m leaving now,’” she explains. Those two weeks were her mother’s last. “It allowed me to be there every day, and, at the end, sleep with her in the hospice. I washed her and prepared her for the funeral, following her the whole way, really. It was beautiful. I feel privileged that my mother’s death was like a masterclass in how to die.” I am struck by her elegance in describing such a significant loss.

While researching her role in The Shift, Gråbøl helped to deliver a baby in a real maternity ward. “I have given birth to two children, but: wow,” she smiles, wide-eyed. “Witnessing a birth is something else. I had never seen a birth or a death, but experienced both within the same month. Birth and death are bubbles of their own; the outside world becomes almost fictional. There is nothing else.”

Understandably, Gråbøl feels like the “tectonic plates” of her being have shifted. “We are cleaning out my mother’s apartment and my son is going to move in. So many huge changes have happened and the pandemic being the background to it all has felt quite appropriate,” she says. “The landscape has shifted, but now I will start learning how to move around in it. I have the sense that the collective shock we’ve gone through with the pandemic means we all have to do this, to an extent.”

As the light fades in our respective homes and we say goodbye, I think: “You’re right.”


Eleanor Morgan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Killing star Sofie Gråbøl plays queen at Edinburgh festival
Famous for playing Danish detective Sarah Lund, Gråbøl tackles roles of two powerful women – a queen and a governor in TV thriller

Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent

02, Aug, 2014 @11:05 PM

Article image
Sofie Gråbøl: My Maoist mum made me confess to stealing from a supermarket
The star of The Killing moved into a commune when she was 12 and the first time she cooked she had to make burgers for 30. Interview by John Hind

Interview by John Hind

17, Aug, 2014 @6:59 AM

Article image
Sofie Gråbøl: ‘Lars von Trier is a very caring person… he's not like his films’
The Danish actor on her role in the director’s new serial killer movie, being mesmerised by Suranne Jones, and Christmas hygge-style

Jonathan Romney

08, Dec, 2018 @3:00 PM

Article image
The Killing 2: Sofie Gråbøl answers your questions

Ben Dowell: Sarah Lund returns to British TV screens on Saturday – here's how the star who plays her answered your questions

Ben Dowell

18, Nov, 2011 @10:57 AM

Article image
The Killing’s Sofie Gråbøl: why I was tempted by Arctic thriller Fortitude
Danish star tells of her return to the screen in an all-star murder mystery – and her acclaimed recent stage role

Vanessa Thorpe

11, Jan, 2015 @12:04 AM

Article image
The Killing: meet Sofie Gråbøl, star of the hit Danish crime thriller
The intricate plot and gritty naturalism of The Killing have had BBC4 and iPlayer viewers enthralled for weeks – and at its heart is detective Sarah Lund, played by Sofie Gråbøl. 'How did I come up with the character?' she asks. 'By acting like a man'

Andrew Anthony

13, Mar, 2011 @12:04 AM

Article image
Sofie Gråbøl rules out fourth series of The Killing
Danish actor says prolonging hit series would be ‘milking it’, as she reveals how London helped her emerge from a ‘dark year’

Maev Kennedy

05, Oct, 2014 @4:27 PM

Article image
The person who got me through 2021: Heather Phillipson’s sculpture brightened my trips to hospital
On my way to have painful medical tests, I felt dejected. Then I saw a giant dollop of whipped cream with a cherry on top in Trafalgar Square

Tim Jonze

25, Dec, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
The person who got me through 2021: Miss J and America’s Next Top Model transported me to carefree times
Three years after it ended, scandal surrounds the show, but its familiarity and formula provided a comfort blanket. I really hope they bring it back

Juno Dawson

01, Jan, 2022 @3:00 PM

Article image
Sarah Lund sports new jumper for final season of The Killing
In time for fashion week, Danish crime series releases publicity shots of sweater with same pattern but different colours

Simon Chilvers

17, Sep, 2012 @4:16 PM