If you love to hate a great villain, then Danish actor Pilou Asbæk is your man. Whether he’s embodying a biblical baddie like Pontius Pilate in the 2016 Ben Hur, or tearing up the Iron Islands (and Westeros) as Euron Greyjoy in HBO’s Game of Thrones, he always leaves a chilling, lasting impression. And that streak continues with Bad Robot’s Overlord as Asbæk embodies the terrifying Nazi, Wafner.
Gratefully, we can attest that Asbæk is nothing like the awful characters he’s been playing in international film and TV projects. In fact, when we sat down with him at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, the actor was rather cheery and triumphant (and a tad bit hungover) after the successful premiere of Overlord the night before. Candid and charming, the Dane tells SYFY WIRE about the method to his recent streak of villains, subverting clichés, and how Game of Thrones has changed his life.
In Overlord, you play a Nazi, which is pinnacle cinematic villain territory. Did you come at the character from a research point of entry?
Pilou Asbæk: No, I didn't prepare very much with this one. The reason is that he’s a very "from outside, inside character." It’s all in the uniform. So, it was very important for me to establish who he would be in the first 25 seconds. When we go into a room, you read the room with in the first 20 seconds thinking, “This person I'm going to talk to. That one, not interested.” We do the same when we see films.
Every kind of Nazi has been portrayed in film, yet with Wafner, you manage to still surprise the audience and make us wonder for a while, "Is he awful, or not?"
Yes, that was because when I met [director] Julius [Avery] for the first time nine months before we would start shooting the film, I told him, "Julius, I really want to make this film with you. And this has nothing to do with the script Billy [Ray] or Mark [Smith] wrote, but every single scene, we're going to do the exact opposite. The reason why we need to do it is, it's going to be even more of a cliché. So, we need to work with the cliché. We need to make the cliché our strength.” There's a reason why a cliché is a cliché, there's some truth to it, we had to turn it upside down. We had to make him charming and fun, not like [Euron] in Game of Thrones.
Yes, Wafner is very much not Euron.
It's two very different characters. The only reason why anyone would want to compare them is because they're both evil. How f**king superficial is that? They're both male. Okay, please, come on. [Laughs]
That begs the question, why have you taken on such diabolical characters of late?
I don't want to be caught in the same roles. I want to change it. But this is not my home court. That's Denmark. So, whenever I want to do a hero, I go home and I do my drama. And what I take from the Danish cinema is that I act everything for real. No matter what kind of film I'm doing, no matter how silly it might be, I take the premise for real. And I try to do it as three-dimensional as possible.
It's all about collaboration. I always say this when I do the "villains," to put it so superficially, but I have a discussion with the main cast, and the director, and I say, "This is a team effort. No one is better than the weakest link. You are the lead in this film, therefore my job is to make you shine. For me to make you shine, I need a character who is not a f**king idiot. Because the stronger the 'villain' is, the stronger you will be.” There's nothing worse than one-dimensional villains. If you can have a villain that is a mirror, if you can have the antagonist being a mirror of the protagonist, that is even stronger.
Did you have a specific dimensional villain in mind when you played Wafner?
One of the most horrifying characters I ever seen portrayed is in David Lynch's film, Blue Velvet, with Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth. So, at one point he takes that drug or helium, or whatever it is, and I do something in the scene with Chloe [Mathilde Ollivier] where I wanted to give [Booth] an homage, because I think he's amazing. And the leather jacket is an homage to Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Bastards. It's me hinting, “Guys, we know we're basing it on reality, but we're going to take a detour.”
What about the prosthetics that further evolve Wafner in the film. Was that helpful in developing the evolution of the character?
Yes, my background is four years of theater at the National Prop School of Denmark Copenhagen. One of the courses, we had to build your own mask, where you would sit and create a guy, and with that mask you would do a Commedia dell'arte. You don't have that tradition in American films. You really don't work with those things.
In Overlord, with the mask, it told me that I gotta change my body. From him being "the cliché Nazi, with the leather jacket,” he would be more like a monster at the end. Not only mentally, but also physically. So, I had one-on-one lessons with Andy Serkis.
Interesting. What did he help you with?
He was like, "Okay Pilou, what is it you want?" And I was like, "Andy, I've never done this kind of transformation, and you did all these incredible films." He was like, "It's all about decisions. The more decisions you make, the more freedom you're going to have.”
You’ve gotten a lot of attention in the last few years with your high-profile Hollywood roles. What’s been the best takeaway from those experiences?
I was so blessed. I've only done international films in the last three years. I worked with Morgan Freeman, I worked with Scarlett Johansson, and the main cast on Game of Thrones, I worked with so many incredible, talented people. And you know what they all have in common? They're very sweet. Good people that just want to tell good stories.
You got to wrap up the Game of Thrones run this year filming the final season. What was it like bringing that series to a close with that cast?
I came on board in Season 6, so I had two seasons, mostly. Like Stanislavski, the father of all theater, said, "There are no small roles, only small actors." It doesn't matter the size of a character, it matters how you do it. And you can see in Season 7, [Euron’s] impact. I have three or four scenes, but I'm driving them. I love him. I got some great scenes next season as well.
Have you felt the impact that these roles have had on your career, or with your recognition factor around the world?
Ghost in a Shell changed a lot of things, and so did Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones is so massive. I was in Chile, and I got pulled over in security. I was like, "Holy s**t!" I felt like a criminal, I hadn't done anything, but I felt like a criminal. And then they just said, "We love you in Game of Thrones. Can we have a photo with you?" They closed the whole border! No one came into the Chile airport for 10 minutes while I was taking photos. [Laughs] It just tells you, it travels everywhere. Game of Thrones is the biggest show on Earth. Probably the biggest show there's ever been. But that was the moment where I was really like, "Holy f**king s**t, man." And I used to be a very, very big fan of Thrones. I'd seen all of it. And the moment I became a part of it, I have not seen one second since.
You stopped watching?
Yes. Not one.
Will you do a big binge at the end and watch it all?
Maybe I'm going to be one of those selfish actors that's just going to watch my own scenes because I'm too lazy. [Laughs]
Overlord opens wide on Nov. 9, 2018.