BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., Sept. 25, 2000 — When “Dancer in the Dark” was in production, rumors flew that its star and director Lars von Trier had clashed on the set, and she declared that she would never act again.
It’s ironic, since she says she’d never starred in a film before (apparently she doesn’t count 1987’s “Juniper Tree”). Yet Bjork, best known for her solo singing career as well as her days fronting The Sugarcubes, picked up Best Female Performance (the film won the Palme D’Or) at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
While small, shy and diminutive, the Icelandic singer’s musical career has been a result of eclectic talent and lots of control, which explains potential clashes on the film set. But “Dancer in the Dark” also gave Björk a role she was seemingly born to play: a mother whose love for musicals serves as her one escape from her hard-knock life. Working in a factory, Selma (Björk) fights her deteriorating eyesight to save money for an operation that will save her son from the same fate. Meanwhile, everything from train engines to metal presses provides her springboard into a world of daydreaming.
The film, which boasts an international cast (Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Joel Grey), contains full-blown musical numbers written by Björk, who also composed the score. In light of the film’s U.S. release, Hollywood.com sat down with the singer-actress to address the rumors, discover her inspirations and find out if this is really the last time we’ll see her on screen.
Are you proud of the work you did, not just as your first acting endeavor but also scoring the film?
Björk: I’m very proud. … I think because I’ve done three solo albums in a row, and that’s quite a narcissistic thing, right? So I was kind of willing to get very craftsmanship-py, I think. Ten years of academic classical education as a child, so I was ready to go really anal and … the whole idea of dubbing the music and working with Lars … getting somebody else’s vision, I was really into that. I liked the challenge. I think people who complete other people’s vision are understated. I think sometimes it’s a harder job. … I was ready to go on the other side.
Was it strange to see yourself on screen?
Björk: I can’t really relate to it. … I just watch it and go “blech.” I can’t look at it from the outside. I just remember what happened. I know I gave everything I got and a lot more, so I feel very good, very proud about the film. If I close my eyes I know all my heart’s in there. … I’m not controlling like that at all about my acting or my image or visual stuff. I wish I was more ambitious — well I don’t really — because I just don’t care.
How did you set about writing the music for “Dancer in the Dark”?
Björk: When I write, it’s an emotional thing. … I could never sit down and decide “let’s do it now.” Also, there’s a very strange part of me that won’t do that sort of thing because you can’t control it. If you want to control it, you’ve got a problem because it’s much, much bigger than you. … Not that I’m just lying around like a naked cow, I’m sure not. But you have to be careful what areas you put this into.
Was it emotionally tough tapping into Selma’s tragedies?
Björk: [Selma] experienced a lot more pain than I’ve ever experienced. I’ve had a very lucky life. A lot of these songs come from a painful place, but it’s not mine — it’s not my pain. But when it comes to understanding or sympathizing with people I don’t know anything about … I was bad before. I’d be at airports or subways and I’d see someone and cry all the time, I’m terrible. Just people kissing each other goodbye or whatever. But now I’m 10 times worse, you know. It provokes empathy for sure, but it wasn’t my pain.
Can’t you see why you were such a natural fit for this role?
Björk: My instinct is 50 times more than my head, for sure. So my instinct was going “Go, go, go” and my head was going, “This is the most ridiculous thing you could do in your life. You might as well stop … it’s so stupid.” And all the people I work with, my creative family I’ve worked with as a teenager, they’re all going, “Don’t do it, it’s ridiculous.” But I had to do this, you know? I didn’t know why at the time, but I had to go with my instincts, you know?
Let’s address the rumors about trouble on the set. You and Lars are both perfectionists, so it would make sense that there would be tension, right?
Björk: I think we’re both so honest … so we had established a relationship, and that was fine. I think when he came on the set, that’s when problems were arising. … When you’re with Lars on your own, everything’s fine, and then when other people come in the room … it becomes a different story. It’s like the courtroom scene [in the film], where you’re the only one who knows — you and Lars. So I think that’s where the problem arose. Because I left to Iceland and didn’t want to do press for nine months, getting back to my life, I think the Danish press department started panicking … so it started publicizing just to get attention. That’s when I stood up and did interviews for six weeks. ‘Cause I just felt like protecting the creative process and to say my experience was not what was gossiped about.
Everything from playing Selma to the challenges of shooting this kind of film to your relationship with von Trier — did you ever feel like quitting?
Björk: When I’m committed, you’ve got me. So I was quite committed. I think there was only once that got really exaggerated by the gutter press. Only once I left, but it wasn’t as if I wasn’t gonna come back. But it was to put out the music. … The record’s gonna be the way I wanted to be. I’m gonna have a final mix and after Cannes, for example, I went back and mixed it again. So basically what I was asking for was that I could protect my music. Nothing to do with the film. Nothing to do with being too hard to be Selma or the acting was difficult. … So I was one day off work. But I think it was worth it, because I was working from August to Cannes in May nonstop, doing post-production.
They would chop a minute out of the song — which I don’t mind, I actually prefer my songs to be four minutes long — but it would have to be the minute chopped out that I would agreed with. I’m really a collaborator; I sit and talk about it, not just they take over and I go home. I can’t do that; after 20 years in music I can’t do that.
Are you sure you won’t ever act again?
Björk: I think I should do music. That’s where I’m at my best, you know. It wasn’t because of the film. This film was the exception. … But it’s not like I’ve got it all planned out, you know, because things keep happening that I could never have imagined, right? But right now, I feel very strong about focusing on music. I think there’s quite a lot of people out there who can act in film. But I think I get really depressed when I go to Tower Records; I don’t think there are a lot of good tunes there. I still feel like I get embarrassed listening to my last CD, so I’ve got a lot of work to do.