Claes Bang Is Finally In Charge of His Own Career
Claes Bang worked as an actor for 25 years before getting a massive international breakthrough. He won the Palme d’Or in Cannes for The Square, and saw his career somersaulting from a hard-working Danish actor to a sought-after international icon. Today, he is no longer searching for new manuscripts or having dry periods with no work. Instead, the manuscripts come to him, and he has the financial freedom to choose exactly what he wants. Here, we chat with Claes Bang about how to deal with uncertainty, how to believe in yourself, and how to build a career upon longevity instead of sensation.
Claes Bang, are you aware that you are a good actor?
“I’m arriving at a point in my life where I believe that I have something to bring to the table. That if a director asks for something special, I got it stored somewhere inside me. It’s not always been like that.”
“Experience accumulates over time. You only get better by working. We grow when we do something we love.”
– Claes Bang
What has changed?
“I have always been very affected by how in demand I was. And when there’s been little demand, I’ve interpreted that as me not being a good actor. I’ve rarely ended a job without knowing what came next, but often there’s been a few months’ waiting time before the next production began. Which is a problem because of no money.”
How have you been handling that?
“Taking charge of my own career, I’ve worked a lot with the idea of me being not only an actor, but also an entrepreneur. I was employed by Aalborg Teater but I only had minor roles. Why the hell did they hire me in Aalborg if they weren’t using me for anything, I thought to myself. Frustrated. So I asked my director if it was okay for me to work on a monologue on the side. So I did. I turned the situation into something else and managed to get something out of it.”
What was the monologue?
“Ondskab (The Evil) by Jan Guillou. It’s 70 minutes long and it’s been a part of me ever since. I used it when I was searching for an agent in the UK. I rented a theater and performed the role for a group of agents I’d invited, and then picked one of the interested agents afterwards.”
To push your own career. That’s very proactive!
“Indeed. But nothing compares to the boost I got from The Square.”
You got a major breakthrough with that film. Tell us about it. How has that materialized?
“It’s hard to pinpoint exactly, but it has been crazy. When a film wins the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival everyone in the industry sees it. It’s a showcase like no other. Producers, directors, casters. Suddenly they are looking my way. I have a great age for many roles. My English is good. I have 25 years of experience. And I’m strong enough to lead a film for 2,5 hours.
The film came out in 2016 and won in Cannes in May 2017. And then things went ballistic. I received 2-3 manuscripts each week that I could choose between. Some films were historic, some were contemporary, some were naturalistic. It was a cornucopia. And it still is. Today I’m basically free to choose a film based on the director, the script and the pay.”
Does it even feel like going to work at all?
“Yes it does. But there’s a playful element to the work that is very satisfactory. We’re playing. It’s cowboys and Indians. We are on set, we only have this scene and this day, and now is the time. It’s time to deliver. There’s a great sense of curiosity in it. It’s still interesting to see where we can take each scene, and I really like that exercise. But yes – it very much feels like work. You get up at 2 am in the middle of the night. Pick-up is at 3, you arrive at the set at 4, make-up from 4-6, shoot all day and then transfer back to your hotel. That’s what I call a day, to be honest.”
How much better an actor are you today that just a couple of years ago?
“Experience accumulates over time. You only get better by working. We grow when we do something we love, and I sense that I slowly but securely become a better actor day by day.
I guess the international part of your career has also done quite a bit?
“There is no proportionality between the amount of potential work I’ve been presented for in the last three years and my skillset. The actor who went to the casting for The Square was not 500% worse than he is today. I couldn’t have made The Square without the accumulated amount of work before that. And then it was just pure luck that Ruben needed a guy like me, and not a blond 26 year old.”
How do you land a role? Like what’s the actual process?
“Through my agent. He is the sales man, I’m the product. He receives a script, I read it. He’s doing a good job trying to pitch me to various roles, and then it’s up to me to deliver. With The Square I went to the casting in January and waited until March until the director Ruben Östlund called me back and told me I got the role.”
Is it always like that?
“No. Some productions are way faster. I did a casting with Netflix on Wednesday. On Thursday my agent called and told me that I was basically the only option for the role. On Saturday they confirmed.”
And when the job lands you get to work.
“When the job lands, I have to have the skills to do the job. My job is to serve the narrative and the director. I’m an instrument they can play. My job is to keep that instrument in tune and be able to deliver as many chords as possible. I’m incredibly proud that I’m able to fulfill another person’s vision.”
“I’m scared of the success and if the momentum disappears all of a sudden. My well-being is closely tied to the amount of work in my life.”
– Claes Bang
Are there any roles you cannot play?
“It’s impossible to say before the role is laid out before me. The Square was impossible to explain or imagine before I read the manuscript. A similar thing happened when my agent mentioned Dracula. I told to my agent: “What, me, and why another Dracula film? There are so many Draculas out there. Do we really need another?” But then I read it and it was really, really good: True to the original script but also adding something new. After I accepted the role and word got out everyone cheered on me like it was the most natural thing that I was going to play Dracula.”
Are you in charge of challenging yourself to make sure to try out new roles and characters, or do you leave that to casters and directors?
“It’s a mutual thing. I always read the manuscript, but I’m not concerned whether it’s a new type of role. I’m just interested in making a really, really good film. I can easily play two similar characters in a row if the narratives are great. And then comes Dracula with new challenges on a range of parametres, and that attracts me. The film I’m currently making is about the Danish prince, Amled, set in around year 900. The film is set in Iceland and is primarily being shot in Northern Ireland. In my career I’ve been doing everything, from naturalistic films to Dracula. Now it’s time to chop the head off people.”
Is it possible to take your job too seriously?
“Everything deserves to be treated super seriously. Not in a hard way, it’s not supposed to destroy you. But everything that evolves around you deserves to be treated with utmost respect. That being said, there are plenty of examples on actors who are so spellbound by their work that they bring it home. I try not to do that anymore.”
How do you handle criticism?
“It’s always been tough for me. And it still is. I tell my agent to only forward the positive criticism (laughs). I had a tough experience last year at Telluride Film Festival. There were probably 6-800 people in the cinema watching the film I starred in, Lyrebird, and afterwards some 20 people came up to me, shook my hand and thanked me for the film. Five minutes later the review arrives, I think it’s Hollywood Reporter or Variety, and it’s not a good one. The positive impact of the 20 people who came up to me vanishes immediately. I take the review in the worst way possible.”
Did it teach you anything?
“Don’t read them. It’s the opinion of only one person. It just happens to be printed in a paper. But it still affects me.”
Besides bad reviews, are you scared of anything?
“I’m scared of the success and if the momentum disappears all of a sudden. I’m afraid of the nothingness. My well-being is closely tied to the amount of work in my life. During the years I’ve become better to not get caught in it, but it’s definitely my breaking point.”
A Headlight alumni with a clear vision for his professional career, Claes Bang has seen an incremental rise in international roles over the latest years. From the tv-series The Affair and Dracula to film successes like The Square, Claes Bang continues to explore and develop his skills on the big screen.
We are always looking for people to be a part of our ever-growing community of alumni who wants to change work for the better. If you want to know how Headlight can play a role in your worklife, do not hesitate to get in touch. Take me to Headlight
The images for this interview were shot by Lis Kasper, Claes Bang’s wife.
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