'Game of Thrones' Actor Pilou Asbæk Went Totally Gonzo for Zombie War Movie 'Overlord'
They say the only good Nazi is a dead Nazi, but then where does that leave us vis-à-vis undead Nazis? We've encountered them before -- in Wolfenstein video games and culty films like Outpost and Dead Snow -- and now they've returned in Overlord, a new movie directed by Julian Avery and produced by J.J. Abrams. Apparently inspired by Nazi doctor Josef Mengele's monstrous real-life experiments, the wild World War II-set thriller imagines a secret German experiment to develop a serum capable of generating undead soldiers from all the dead bodies piling up. Game of Thrones star Pilou Asbæk plays a particularly villainous Nazi officer named Wafner, who makes life very difficult for some American soldiers on a hugely important covert mission after he decides to chug the serum himself. The Danish actor called Thrillist from Copenhagen to chat about his gonzo performance.
Thrillist: So, how does it feel to have the blood of eternity flowing through your veins?
Pilou Asbæk: [Laughs] You bastard! You know what? It's actually a good line. I've been using it and quoting myself. You know, every single time when you've finished a film, there's always one line where you go, "Okay, this is so over the top" -- especially in Overlord, which is destined to be over the top. And that is exactly that line. [In his character's voice and German accent] "How does it feel… the blood of eternity… flowing through your veins?" How do you get away with saying something like that? That's why I love it so much.
What was your first reaction when you read the script?
Asbæk: First of all, I had a meeting with [director] Julius Avery when A War was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars a couple of years ago, and it was so surreal. We were in this traditional American diner in L.A., discussing the super-soldiers and the monsters and serum and Nazis and blood and gore. It wasn't very subtle. And then I look around, and I see like 25 senior citizens above the age of 80 with fear in their eyes. I thought to myself, "This is a great beginning."
That was in February 2016, but if it had been after the presidential election, people in the diner might have thought you were talking about the resurgence of neo-Nazis in America.
Asbæk: Sadly enough, we live in a society today where people are taking certain liberties... to act rude. I come from a traditional French and Danish background where it's like, 'Behave. Treat people like you want to be treated yourself.' Your freedom stops when it hurts other people. The moment it's hurting other people, it's not freedom anymore. You're just abusing people. It makes sense in Danish, but I don't know how to translate that. But the Nazis were fucking bad people. They were villains. They were evil. They killed 6 million Jews. They suffocated Europe. There's nothing good about that period of time. Nothing. And when you live in the shadow of that period, which we still do in Europe... I don't know why the neo-Nazis can rise. It must be fear. Fear of immigrants. Fear of the future. I consider myself a Dane, a Scandinavian, a European, and a world citizen, so I don't get it. With that said, and with respect for the history, it was a very fun character to portray, because it was so far out, so radical, so evil. I had to go all in, because you cannot cheat when you're doing that. Otherwise it doesn't have the laughter, the kitsch, or the edge that you want to bring.
So how did you go about that?
Asbæk: Well, it's so funny you mentioned that "blood of eternity" line, because for every specific line, every specific scene I do, I try to do homage to someone. Do you remember the Dracula film with Gary Oldman? Do you remember the scene where he's with Winona Ryder, and he says, [imitating Gary Oldman as Dracula] "I have crossed oceans of time to find you"? That's an iconic line. So when I said, "How does it feel to have the blood of eternity," I was thinking about Gary Oldman saying that line! When he sees Winona Ryder, it's like, "Fuck, man! I missed you," and he's trying to seduce her. And Wafner is trying to seduce Wyatt Russell's character, Corporal Ford. Like, "How does this feel? Isn't this fucking awesome?" That's what I tried to make it sound like.
It's such a geeky thing to do, but it's the thing I always do. I know my movie history, and I know when I'm stealing from someone versus adding new stuff. You need to know your past in order to build a future. I always see it as a bit of a recipe. A little bit of salt? Gary Oldman from Bram Stoker's Dracula. A little bit of pepper? Hans Gruber in Die Hard, one of the best villains in my book. Alan Rickman's style, the way he did that dialect? So pitch perfect. So I wanted to recreate that beautiful German accent, so I got inspired by him. I'm not comparing Overlord to Inglorious Basterds, but there is some resemblance, right? It's the prototype of a fun, quirky World War II film that has the same flow and energy. Well, then Christoph Waltz -- he was amazing as the German officer. So why don't I get the leather jacket that he wore in Inglorious Basterds, in that first scene? That would be fucking funny! That would be an Easter egg for all the fans, all the geeks out there. So I asked our costume designer [Anna B. Sheppard], "Can we get his jacket?" And this is 100 percent pure coincidence, but it turns out she was the costume designer on Inglorious Basterds, too! So that was like, "Oh, fuck. So this is meant to be! Can we get it?" And she was like, "Hey, I'll get it." But then, sadly enough, the jacket turned out to be too small, too tight. I'm a little more physically built than Christoph Waltz. It would have looked like body paint on me. So the jacket I do wear is not quite that jacket, but close enough.
And then to top it all off, I wanted to have a guy who was unpredictable. And who's unpredictable? That was Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. A fucking legend. So in the scene where I'm trying to rape the French girl [played by] Mathilde Ollivier -- who, by the way, is an incredible actress and I hope is going to have a big, big career, because she deserves it. So just before I [attempt to] rape her, I go down, and I take her panties off, and I wanted to do this homage to Dennis Hopper, inhaling like he did with the gas mask in Blue Velvet. And his laughter, which gives me goosebumps. So I sniffed the panties and made a laugh that was so far out there. [Inhales and laughs a strange laugh] Like this is his kick. This is what's going to give him an orgasm!
"If you have an accent, you're always cast as the villain. That's like a Hollywood rule."
I think that moment maybe have been edited out.
Asbæk: We can kill 200 Germans. We can say "Fuck." I can almost rape a French woman. I can use a little child as a human shield. And I can get half my face blown off. But I cannot sniff a pair of panties. [Laughs] And that's what I love about American films. [Laughs] But it was something I wanted to do, to give something to the legends. Maybe the next one, I'll try to do something else. It's probably not going to be the last villain I do. If you have an accent, you're always cast as the villain. That's like an American Hollywood rule.
Well, you make a great villain because you find these other undercurrents in them. Like with both Wafner and Euron Greyjoy, you make them charming and seductive.
Asbæk: The thing is, when we talked about Euron Greyjoy, I think I told you, "I don't know if he wants to fuck you or kill you." But Wafner? This guy, he will definitely fuck you, and he will hurt you, but he will not kill you. Because it's a different way of controlling people.
During your Game of Thrones audition and in a scene with Yara last season, your instinct was to have your character plant a kiss on someone you were threatening, even if the director ended up vetoing it. Since you were talking about Wafner seeing his interaction with [Wyatt Russell's] Corporal Ford as a seduction, did you ever ask Julius, "What if I kiss him?"
Asbæk: Yeah, but this is going to sound weird. Okay. I wanted to make it personal. Not in a sexual way, but in a very personal way between Ford and Wafner. That's the reason in the torture scene he keeps going, "What's behind those walls?" Smack. "What's behind those walls?" Smack. "What's behind those walls?" Smack. It's a ballet. The violence, in my mind, is a kind of dance. So when we had to do the final scene, with me being on top, I was like, "Why don't we use the hook? Get him up on the hook." Now it's like an image of something we've seen before, but the tables are turned. I went up to Julius and I said, "I just want to have one line in that scene: 'That is what's behind those walls.' Look at him, and then go to his ear and say, 'Me.'" Because I thought that would be a cool fucking thing to say in that moment. [Laughs] If you ask me, in the good films, the protagonist and the antagonist are the same person.
Like mirrors of each other?
Asbæk: In In Cold Blood, Truman Capote says,"It's as if [the young killer] and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door while I went out the front." So whenever I create a character, it's like, "How is the protagonist and the villain connected?" The moment you say that at readings -- "We are the same, we need to mirror each other" -- it works better. That's the reason why I do a lot of villains. When I have meetings with directors, I say, "Dude, I don't need more scenes. But I want to elaborate on the scenes I've got." That always makes people go, "Oh, that's nice," because then you're not stealing money from the budget. [Laughs]
And Julius, I love him as a director. He wanted more, more, more, so I was just giving it everything and improvising and adding lines and jumping around. When I was transforming into this super soldier, this monster, we were like, "How the fuck do we do this?" Because Wafner doesn't have that many lines by then. And then [producer] J.J. Abrams was like, "Why don't you guys just call Andy Serkis?" I was like, "What?!" He was like, "Wait, wait, I'll arrange it." Five hours later, I was in a limo on my way to central London to have a two-hour master class with Andy fucking Serkis! Holy fucking shit.
What did Andy suggest?
Asbæk: Well, he said some very, very obvious things, but sometimes, you need to hear them. He also said something that is so logical when I think about it now -- the more decisions you make, the more freedom you will have. If I told you, "Go write an article about whatever," you would be blank. You wouldn't have any idea what to write. But if I said, "Go write about whales and the color green," all of a sudden your imagination kicks in. And that's just what he said to decide to do with your body. How does this guy move? How does it feel? So I remembered when we did the scene with Iain De Caestecker's character Chase flipping his back, how he was always touching it, how he was tensing up, something like a T-Rex. He becomes a predator. He becomes an animal. So we talked about monkeys, and we talked about transformation. It was amazing. It was only two hours, but it was perfect. It was everything I needed to go home to my lab and create the rest of it.
This is also like 90 percent prosthetics. It was five hours of makeup, but it was totally worth it when you see the result. It gives the film so much texture. So by the end, I had the prosthetics on my face, on my neck, on my arms… I was so covered in silicone, I was almost like a dildo. [Laughs]
How did all the prosthetics -- especially the ones around your mouth -- affect trying to do different languages, different dialects, even eating on set? Did you have to always use a straw?
Asbæk: [Laughs] You have to blend everything. I don't eat that much when I'm working, because I don't have an appetite. If I sit down and eat, I get tired. One of the things I've learned over the last 10 years is that you need to project so much energy when you're in front of a camera. So I eat a big meal before shooting, and a big meal after, but not during the day.
And I worked with a great, great dialect coach for four months -- I'm going to send her roses. I'm dyslexic; I can't spell, so we had to write everything down phonetically for the French and German. Even though I had German in school. So when I'm speaking French, it's just gibberish to me. I have no idea what it means. I mean, I have an idea, but you know, I'm faking it. I'm just happy I don't sound English. I always get that on Game of Thrones. People always go, "Oh, his accent, he sounds Danish," I'm like, "For fuck's sake, I am Danish. Wouldn't it be weird if I sounded Swedish?"
Your mom is French…
Asbæk: Yesterday, we had the premiere of the film in Denmark. First of all, I told my mom to bring earplugs, because it's going to be loud. And if she wanted to, she could leave. I gave her a seat where it wouldn't be embarrassing to get up in the middle and go. And she sat and saw all of it. And she's French. She's old school French. And she came up to me, and she said, "I liked the film. It's a very good film. I was very entertained. But my god, have I not raised you better?" And I was like, "What do you mean?" She said, "You're so good in the film, but your French accent is shit!" [Laughs]
I love your mom.
Asbæk: She's pretty cool.
Did you get to have as much fun doing Euron's scenes in the next and final GoT season?
Asbæk: I can say one thing. When I read all the scripts, I was blown away. I'm so happy and I'm so thankful. I'm so proud I got to be a part of something as big as Game of Thrones, and I think in so many ways, it will forever change my life. Even though I have a small role, but nevertheless a significant one. And hopefully in Season 8, I'll do enough monkey business to make an impact. He's a funny character. I honestly wish I had been able to come in earlier, and develop him much, much more than I was able to.
Maybe you'll get a prequel spin-off. What Euron's adventures were like before we met him on the show…
Asbæk: Dark and dirty! [Laughs]