A late addition to this year’s Cannes competition, Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s satirical drama The Square ended up a surprise winner of the Palme d’Or. The follow-up to his well-received Force Majeure, the film’s cast includes Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West and Terry Notary, best known for his motion capture work in Kong: Skull Island and the recent Planet of the Apes films.
The main star of The Square, though, is Danish actor Claes Bang, who plays Christian, the respected curator of a contemporary art museum. His next exhibition is “The Square”, an installation that invites visitors to remember their role as responsible human beings, inviting them to be altruistic (“The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring, within it we all share equal rights and obligations”). Despite the thesis of his show, and his public commitment to good causes, Christian finds it difficult to live up to those same ideals in his personal life. Following a misguided response to the theft of his phone, he’s dragged into a series of strange and shameful situations; some of which are brought on by him, others by outside forces like a PR agency creating a disastrous viral campaign for “The Square.”
While he was in London for the film’s UK premiere, I spoke to the charismatic and entertaining Bang about Ruben Östlund’s intense direction, how he thinks he’d react in a Force Majeure situation, the feeling of being part of a Palme d’Or winner, having to share a scene with an intimidating ape, and filming a particularly funny sex scene with Elisabeth Moss.
Considering that The Square opens with a very awkward encounter between your character and a journalist, I was wondering if you’ve had any similar experiences while on the press tour for this movie.
Yes, actually, there was one, because there was a guy in Germany and that was a little bit stupid of me. He started talking to me about an artist called Malevich who actually is into squares, as well. Do you know anything about him? I actually looked it up a little bit because I was, like, what have I been talking about? And I tried to answer him because he was, like, “How can we sort of compare this Malevich to this thing?” And what I should have said is, “I don’t know what this Malevich is, so I can’t answer that question.” But I actually tried to, so I actually did what the character in the film does and I’m not sure if I made a mess of it, but we’ll see when that comes out in Germany at some point. But apart from that, where he was obviously on a quite different level than me in terms of comparing art, I haven’t had any really weird questions, no.
Well, now I’m probably about to change that. So, we’ll address the most important question I have: tell me about acting with the monkey [actually an ape].
Tell you the truth, I was scared shitless of that animal. And for a reason, because it’s a wild animal. Obviously, it’s living with people and it’s used to people somehow, but if you upset the monkey it might react in a way that… I mean, it comes with a manual…
The monkey comes with a manual?
The monkey comes with a manual of what you can and can’t do. You can’t run. You can’t sing. You can’t be loud. There are so many things you’re not allowed to do around the monkey because it might upset the monkey and you don’t know if the monkey might attack you. We just tried to be around it as little as possible, but you know, obviously, when the monkey is passing through the room I’m like three metres away from it or something. So I didn’t feel good about that, to be honest. And I didn’t have my photo taken with the monkey or try to shake hands with it or anything. I just wanted to stay clear of it.
I’ve heard Ruben has intense casting sessions.
Yes, my God, yeah. Really long ones and I think I actually went to three casting sessions for this one. And the first one was something like two and a half hours, and then the next two ones were probably two hours. For the first one, I hadn’t read the script or anything. Well, I think that’s probably quite normal, that they won’t give you the script. But I didn’t even really know what it was all about. For the first casting, I was just asked to prepare the speech that I do in the museum to the audience. I was told it’s about this square and “The Square” is a place of trust and care, and then I was supposed to just write a speech myself and present that speech. I actually think that a good deal of what I came up with ended up in the film.
So I prepared that and I got to the casting, and then instead he sat me down on a chair and said, “Nah, I’m gonna talk you through all this. I’m gonna tell you what the film is all about.” And then he talked me through it from beginning to end, and then we stopped here and there and we improvised some of the scenes. And then at the end he was like, “Okay, super, good, thank you for coming.” And I was like, “Well, I did prepare this speech, don’t you want to see that?” And then I did that, and then a month and a half went by and he asked me to come back to do a casting session with some of the other actors that are in the film. And then one more casting session the next day and that was it.
It all came back very well. I didn’t read the script until after I got the part, actually, but that was such a huge part of getting into the project that it was a good thing to spend that many hours on it in terms of preparing for it. For the second casting session, he phoned me and he asked me if I wanted to read the script before and I was like, “Well, I think that the way we worked for the first casting session was actually quite good.” Sometimes if you become too conscious of something, if you know this is what the story is and this is where it goes, you as an actor want to help it. Do you know what I mean?
You want to push it in that direction?
Yeah – we are going here and now I’m gonna do this. What he’s really after, all the time, is just staying in the situation. I might know that at the end of this scene [my character]’s not gonna be very happy, but he wanted it to evolve. He doesn’t want me to start playing unhappy before it’s there. And therefore I think it’s quite good not to really know, because if I’m gonna be unhappy in two minutes because you ask me a question I can’t answer, I don’t know it now, so there’s no reason for me to play it before it’s there. Sometimes as an actor you can get a little bit too aware of where you’re going and trying to help it too soon. Does that make sense?
It does. I guess it’s getting to a point where you’re almost not acting in a way.
And that’s what he wants, I think. He does very long takes and he does a lot of them. In that way, he sort of exhausts you as an actor into a state where you lose your consciousness of what you’re doing in terms of producing something. You’re just there, that’s what he wants. For instance, in the scene with me and the assistant where we’re writing the note, when I see it it’s like those two actors don’t know there’s a camera in the room. They’re just two little boys playing with this forbidden toy or something.
What was it like shooting the condom argument scene with Elisabeth Moss?
That was so much fun. That was a hard scene to shoot because we were laughing a lot. For the actual sex, I’m not there. She’s on top of the camera, jumping up and down, and when I’m there the cameraman is on top of me jumping up and down. So she could have been in another country or something. The part where we’re fighting over the condom took forever because everything takes forever with Ruben. Even though you’ve definitely got the feeling that we’ve got it now, he wants to do fifteen more takes, always. But because it was so bloody hilarious, we had a really hard time getting through it.
I think it was probably because it was too much, but at the end of the shoot he was like, we’ve gotten so many directions with it and done this and that, but now, in the middle of a take, he said, “Now you’ve only got one option and that is to eat it. Eat the condom.” And so I put it in my mouth and I would play the whole scene with the condom hanging out and her trying to get it out. But, obviously, that was too much so he didn’t put that in the film.
I was thinking watching it that it’s one of the sweatiest sex scenes I can recall seeing of late, but now I’m wondering if that’s due to the long takes.
No, they poured sweat on us. I was like, seriously, isn’t it too much? And it is too much, but it’s quite funny.
Relating to a question posed as part of the exhibition in the movie, would you say that you, in general, trust people?
Yes, I would say that I do, and I would press that button saying ‘I trust people.’ But then, I think Ruben actually asked me, if I knew that coming into the exhibition and pushing that button would mean I’d have to leave my phone and wallet… if I knew that, which button would I push? And then I would probably push ‘I don’t trust people,’ because I couldn’t imagine just putting that down somewhere for anybody to take it.
Do you think the film’s thematic and satirical concerns could work in the setting of a different art world – possibly in the context of filmmaking?
That thing with that art exhibition, that square and the sort of basic human value that tries to shine a light on… even though there are so many other things going on in the film, it’s so much at the centre of it. Everything is bouncing off that thing with “The Square.” I think it’s really hard for me to imagine that you could take that away and have the same film. I’m not sure, but I suppose it could work, but then… no, I don’t think it would. Don’t you think it would be something quite different? I’ve actually thought, could this have happened if he was a dentist? And probably not, because why would we hear him say all these things about trust and care from this marvelous exhibition? It’s because he goes out and then he goes and does something quite different in his private life. That is where the tension is in the character, I think, and I don’t think you would get that if he was a dentist or a filmmaker. I’m not sure.
Regarding Ruben’s previous films, how do you feel you would do in a Force Majeure situation?
When I saw that film, I probably felt what a lot of people felt; that I’m dead scared that I might do the same thing as the man does. Just grab my phone and wallet and run. I definitely cannot say that I wouldn’t do it, but that’s probably why that film hit people so hard, because you felt that shame in yourself because you were like, oh fuck, that might have been me. I can’t say that I wouldn’t have done it, not for sure.
How does it feel now to be part of a Palme d’Or-winning film?
Amazing. I never ever thought that would happen. I was almost the only Danish contribution to Cannes this year, so it was quite a big thing in my home country that the film won and that I’m the lead in it. So when I came back, I did a lot of television and stuff. I came straight from the airport, I was late, and I sat down with this journalist and he’s like, “So, congratulations on winning the Palme d’Or.” And I was like, fuck. I never ever thought anyone would say those words to me. I suppose we did dream. We’ve got dreams, all of us, but I suppose you tend to keep your dreams realistic; something that you can achieve. You know, I am actually the only Danish person ever in a leading role in a Palme d’Or winner.
The last von Trier film that won and the Bille August films that won, they had foreign actors in them. So, male or female, I’m the only Dane ever. I am pretty amazed, I have to say.
They should put that under your billing on the poster.
They should! Listen, I can’t tell you how proud I am of it. I’m really, really happy with my performance. I really think that I’m at my best here; he’s gotten all the best out of me. And I really enjoy the film, and also it’s such a pleasure talking to people that have seen it because it seems that people really enjoy the film and it affects them. I can’t say enough good about the movie. I’m really, really dead proud of it.
A couple of months on from the win, do you feel it’s opened doors for you in any way?
Well, yes, I’ve never had so many scripts thrown at me from the U.K. and the U.S. as I have over the last few months. We’re not talking about concrete offers, but scripts for me to do a self-tape for or do a casting for. Something is going on and I do hope this film can open up these markets for me a bit, but I never really had that sort of thing where I just wanted to go to Hollywood. It’s not really important to me.
I can be perfectly happy working just in Denmark if the work is there and if it’s good. And right now I’m rehearsing a play in Denmark, and all my agents have told me to get out of it because they want me to just do this, do promotion for the film because that would be good for me. I’m just trying to fit it all together because I don’t want to quit that play. It’s a Martin Crimp play called The City and it’s amazing. So it’s not like I’m just dying to get out of Denmark and do something somewhere else. But I definitely do dream about doing great stuff with great people, but it’s not all that important if it’s here or there or wherever.
No temptation to join your co-star Terry Notary in the next King Kong movie.
Is he doing that?
I presume he is. They’re doing Godzilla vs Kong, aren’t they, and I guess he’ll be back as Kong.
Is he the one that was in Kong?
He’s credited as playing Kong, yeah. He has a part in the recent Planet of the Apes films, too.
The Square opens in limited release on Friday, October 27.