It’s not often that an actor finishes production on a film only to return to their full-time job as a doctor. Even rarer is when said film, The Worst Person in the World, turns out to be one of the year’s most acclaimed, and said doctoral work includes serving as a medical adviser at a COVID-19 vaccination center in his country’s capital city. In fact, there’s surely no precedent for Anders Danielsen Lie’s career at all.
The charming, dryly funny Lie has enjoyed a steady acting career for 15 years, a time he’s also spent graduating from medical school and building up his own practice. Managing this pair of intensive vocations simultaneously “has been a constant struggle,” he says with a knowing smile. “It doesn’t really work and I would never recommend that anybody else combine the two.” Then again, actively working on the COVID front lines while two of the biggest films of his life are set to come out indicates he’s figured something out.
Before Neon releases The Worst Person in the World later this year, the 42-year-old Lie is gearing up for next Friday’s U.S. theatrical release of Bergman Island. In July, he went to Cannes for both movies’ world premieres, then returned to his native Norway for a couple months of full-time medical work. Now he’s a little jet-lagged, Zooming with me from New York. He’s in town for the film festival, which screened Bergman Island last week. Directed by Mia Hansen-Løve (Things to Come), the movie takes place on the island of Fårö, where Ingmar Bergman lived for a period and shot much of his work, and follows a married pair of filmmakers (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth) staying there for an artistic retreat of sorts. As Krieps’s character gets to work on her next project, a film within a film begins playing out onscreen, starring Mia Wasikowska as Amy, a woman drawn to an ex-lover, Joseph, played by Lie.
Amy and Joseph’s rekindling plays out like a romantic indie, a swoony slice of naturalism full of mutual, thorny longing. Bergman’s ghost hovers over the film both spiritually and referentially, his essence haunting many of its characters. “It’s impossible not to feel that you are in the shadow of Bergman’s legacy,” Lie tells me of making the movie. For him, at least, you get why: This is an actor who approaches his craft with a very rich, particular knowledge of and love for the medium—Bergman and beyond. He cites the French actor Denis Lavant (Holy Motors) as one of his great inspirations, and name-checks the 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc as a model for how he approached one of his past roles. Watching work he admires “reminds me of things that I need to work on,” he says.
It’s a special kind of dedication, studious and focused on improvement. Lie sees a connection there to the other big part of his life. “As a doctor, I meet people every day and in often extreme emotional situations,” he says. “It’s a good place to be if you want to study human drama. When I work as an actor it feels like a reflection on my own life and my work as a doctor.” Perhaps that give-and-take explains why Lie hasn’t been able to pick one lane over the other.
Says Joachim Trier, director of The Worst Person in the World: “It comes down to curiosity and humanism in both cases. He really cares about his patients. And he really cares about his characters.”
Lie had one child-acting credit, the 1990 Norwegian drama Herman, before Trier gave him his big break with 2006’s Reprise. The actor auditioned just as he was finishing up medical school, nabbed the lead, and established a close bond with his director. Reprise would be the first in the “Oslo Trilogy,” movies connected largely by location and the pair’s collaboration. Trier compares the evolution of their relationship to another cinematic trilogy, Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke’s Before series: “We’ve grown in parallel; I hope and believe we’ve both gotten better,” he says. “It’s a gift to have that experience with an actor, to cover different life stages with the same faith, and use the possibility of cinema to not only be fiction, but also have a sense of documentation in it.”
Trier admits to spending a fair amount of time contemplating Lie’s “dichotomy”: “I feel he’s like the Norwegian Daniel Day-Lewis. Instead of going to make Italian shoes, he will be removing appendixes.”
The Worst Person in the World marks the conclusion to their trilogy, though likely far from the end of their professional relationship. In the film, Lie plays the key role of Aksel, a fast-rising comic book artist who falls for protagonist Julie (Renate Reinsve), a spirited woman in her late 20s careening around boyfriends, jobs, and passions. Their romance sticks, at least for a time, and they move in together; the ever-brash Aksel gets more confident speaking on his partner’s behalf (or “mansplaining,” as Lie puts it with a grin). They grow apart, and then a late-act twist recenters Lie’s bad boyfriend in a very different light—in which he’s faced with his own mortality.