The “star is born” performance is spoken of often but only truly comes around once in a blue moon. It’s not something you can predict, but when it happens you just know. From the moment The Worst Person in the World premiered at Cannes in July 2021, it was clear Renate Reinsve—the festival’s Best Actress winner—had arrived.
Though it’s the first leading role of her career, Reinsve had actually worked with Worst Person filmmaker Joachim Trier once before—on his 2011 feature (and Reinsve’s first film ever), Oslo, August 31st. Shooting nine days on that film, she had one line: “Let’s go to the party.” Clearly the delivery was enough to plant her in Trier’s head—he and co-writer Eskil Vogt wrote the leading role of Julie in Worst Person specifically for her.
Among the waves of adulation that have been showered upon Reinsve for her performance in the film was a placement on our list of the Best Performances of 2021. Securing the second-place spot, John Fink wrote that Reinsve is “simultaneously sexy, vulnerable, in control, and out of control, learning valuable lessons along the way as she ‘finds herself’ and ultimately, perhaps, ends up back where she started.”
As the film makes its way to general audiences after a festival run, I spoke with Reinsve about taking on her first leading role, finding Julie by probing her own honesty, and the delicate nature of time and how it shifts our perspectives.
The Film Stage: The main image associated with The Worst Person in the World is this iconic freeze of you running down the street, looking so free and full of life, and then in the poster that image is juxtaposed with the title right above you. What’s it been like for you to spend the last year seeing that image of yourself everywhere?
Renate Reinsve: At the start I was a little nervous because I had this thing where I thought, “Okay, my ex is gonna be really happy about that.” [Laughs] My face, I didn’t know it was gonna be such a happy face, with that ironic combination of that free, happy face and the title. I try to be as objective as I can about the film. It’s so different, you know? Making the movie and seeing the movie are two totally different things, and I’m always sad that I can’t see something for what it is because I’m in it. Although I’m so happy to be in this. It was the best experience of my life to be in this movie, but it’s something I’ve got to get used to. This is my first lead in a film—that’s never happened, so I’m trying to get used to it.
That time-stopping sequence is of course now this scene that everybody absolutely adores, but like you said there’s a big difference between your experience on the set and what we see in the final product. How does that sequence compare to how you imagined it on the day when you were shooting?
There were no special effects in that scene, so I was actually running through real people standing. That scene was really magical to experience, and so I think it ended up being a similar vibe as what we had on set. We got really deep, and it affected everyone when we were shooting. Doing the breakup scene, I remember Joachim had this big speech to the crew and the cast, saying “We will go home and we will think about things, and we will see our lives in new perspectives. And we will probably be really sad.”
I think everyone had like a weird existential time doing this film because there were so many big questions being asked. [Laughs] But also, when we had fun, we actually really had fun and we tried to push the limits of just how free and liberated we could be—within the limits of what we had there. I think that feeling of what we did really transfers to the audience. That’s what I’ve gotten from it when I’ve seen it. This has been probably the easiest film I have been in. I haven’t been in much, but this has been the easiest one to see.
This role was written for you, which I’m sure was very flattering and also nerve-wracking, and then when you come into it you’re also bringing so much of yourself to the part. What was that collaborative process of finding Julie like with Joachim and Eskil?
Joachim and Eskil, they were reading so much psychology and philosophy, and they’re so full of knowledge, and they’re also very playful and intuitive. A lot of the preparation for the film was having these philosophical, existential conversations about love and loss and shame and self-deprecation—everything the movie touches, really. I remember saying to Joachim that I wasn’t really sure how to do it. That it’s really hard to make choices about the character and how she should be, except from just trying to be honest with myself and trying to really be there in those situations with the other actors and their characters. It was the only way for me to do it—to have that honesty, and to be totally open to what was there in the script. I didn’t want it to be about me, autobiographically, but I think by being very specific and going deep into it in that way, you can also make it universal.
While the film is about a very particular woman at a very particular time in her life, something that’s been extraordinary in the response to it is seeing so many people, including myself, saying, “This is me. I’m Julie,” no matter their age or gender. What has that meant for you?
The first interviewer I was with, she was 40-something I think, and she was kind of [Laughs]—she wasn’t angry, but she was very passionately saying, “This is a movie about me. How come you, a 30-year-old, can get into my life like this? Into my head?” That was the first response to the film I ever had, so then I thought that this was what the movie is, and that’s how we would talk about it. Then the next interviewer was a girl in her 20s or something—much younger than me—and she said, “This is a movie about me.” [Laughs] And then the next one was a guy, probably in his 20s, and he said the same thing.
That’s when I realized like—okay, this goes quite broad. The first thing that struck us was how people were having this really close, personal connection to the movie—they really saw themselves. Joachim and I, both in my acting and also in his directing, he wants there to be questions not answered. He doesn’t want to make any hard choices because he knows that this kind of response could happen with that approach. People can have their own perspectives on things if you’re not forcing a specific perspective onto them. I really like that. Joachim really pushed me to lose control, to not really do anything, and just let things happen. It’s in those empty spaces in the film where people can really live their own truth in watching it. That’s so great.
Part of what I related to in the character was this idea that Julie struggles with the fact that she knows all of these things that she doesn’t want, but she can’t really figure out what it is that she does want.
Yeah, we talked about that very early. We wanted you to be able to see it in her body—she’s younger, and she can’t really rest in herself because she’s not comfortable being herself. It’s a very small detail but it was important for us to have it in there. We didn’t shoot the film chronologically, either, so I had to be very specific for every stage she’s in, making sure to know where her mind is in this moment and to make sure her body is correlating to that. It was a big part of making sure that we were capturing these layers—the complexity of each specific situation and state she was in.
That was the fun of working with her—trying to bring in as much detail. Some days we had a lot of fun trying to see how much she could change her mood or her emotions; how many layers of emotion could she have at the same time? Then some days we wouldn’t decide on anything, and that could draw out even more complex things because that’s when some of the most real stuff would happen.
I got to spend a lot of the film playing against Anders [Danielsen Lie], who plays Aksel, and Herbert [Nordrum], who plays Eivind, and they are really, really great actors. They helped make it easy to be in the situations because they were so present, and we really bounced off each other. It wasn’t so much about me being a lead. It was more about the dynamic between us to create events and situations.
Those two relationships are crucial for Julie and both bring very distinct things for her. Was that reflected in your dynamics with each actor? How did those compare to each other?
Herbert I knew from before. He was one class above me in acting school so we felt very safe in that relationship. There were auditions where I had a good connection with someone and it was very easy, but in the audition with Herbert we both had a little bit of anxiety. We were supposed to flirt, but it wasn’t going that smoothly [laughs]. I think Joachim found that very interesting because it’s more true. When you flirt with someone and you try to be charming and smart—all the best stuff of yourself—you’re also very vulnerable and you start to think you’re a little ugly and you start to be ashamed of parts of yourself, you know? So, I feel Joachim tried to find an actor who would have that dynamic with me.
With Anders, he had worked so much with Joachim and he is so smart and he goes deep into all of that existential stuff. What he does in this role is unbelievably great. Also, Joachim gave us time, so even though we shot on film, Anders and I could just sit there and let stuff happen. We didn’t have to push things or rush things. Of course, we had tons of preparation so we knew where the scene went dramatically, but also things would just occur in the moment.
These are the kinds of questions that are hard to answer because they are so complicated. I really want to answer them well but they’re complicated.
A big part of the film is this idea of time and the shifting ways we see things through different periods. Is there anything like that from your own life, where you wish that you had experienced it at a different time because you would have been able to view it differently?
Oh, yeah. Everything! [Laughs] Like, if I could have everything, all of the choices I made in my early 20s, if I could please make them now that would be fantastic. I love getting older because you’re not as nervous and you just don’t give a fuck about everything the same way you did before. You’re also smarter and you’ve seen the consequences of the choices you’ve made, which you couldn’t see before you made those choices. [Laughs] Oh my God, it’s been so chaotic.
This film, though, I love that it taught me to just surrender to the chaos and to give up on the idea that you have of yourself because it’s probably never going to happen. You know? Did you plan on having your life be exactly the way you have it now?
[Laughs] Definitely not.
Exactly, yeah. I don’t think anyone does.
The Worst Person in the World is now in limited release.