'The Worst Person in the World' Star Renate Reinsve Rejects Shame
Talking with the star of the Norwegian movie that's your new obsession.
A day before the director Joachim Trier asked Renate Reinsve to star in The Worst Person in the World—the movie that would garner her international acclaim and a best actress award at Cannes—she had decided to become a carpenter. "I really wanted to because I renovated a house," she explains on the patio of a New York bistro one morning last fall, in town to be celebrated at the New York Film Festival. "I was very bad at carpenting. I made a porch and it's all crooked and weird. I really wanted to learn that properly, and go to school and learn that."
Deciding to become a carpenter is something that Julie, Reinsve's character in Worst Person, might decide to do. Trier's film, set in Oslo and out Feb. 4 in the U.S., is maybe the ultimate account of the millennial experience—without being annoying about it. In the prologue to the 12 chapters and an epilogue of a story, the audience learns that Julie was a med student who decided to study psychology, before quitting that and taking up photography. Over the course of the running time, as she moves through relationships and passions, we come to understand and identify with her restlessness and questioning. That's thanks to Reinsve's warm naturalism. Never has a character felt more like a real person—like you could call her up and chat.
By the time Trier sent over the script after asking if she would be interested just as she decided to quit acting, Reinsve was nervous she wouldn't like it. That, thankfully, wasn't the case. "When I read it, I cried three times before page seven, because I felt so close to this character and I was like, 'This is important stuff.'" she says. "The way he talks about these things is very important, right now. Just to be a flawed person. And being ugly, and lonely, and sad, and happy, and charming."
Reinsve has been acting in her native Norway since the age of 9, when she started doing theater on the encouragement of her grandmother, who enrolled her in a drama group for children, which she took very seriously. She first met Trier when she had a one line role in Oslo, August 31st, the second part of his Oslo Trilogy which The Worst Person in the World concludes. In her audition tape she "looked so dirty," and sent it in unedited. Still, she ended up on set for 9 days, the start of a friendship with Trier that would get progressively deeper. "We had conversations about deep, existential stuff, and love," she says. "We were always a bit aligned on how messed up our love lives were." Some of the questions they would pose found their way into the Worst Person script.
Though Reinsve is effusive in her praise for Trier and the way he characterized Julie in the script—"he is a feminist for real"—she adds that theirs was a true collaboration. She, for instance, didn't want to "romanticize" Julie's relationship with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), an older comic book artist with whom she lives and eventually leaves. "I saw it as Julie—in her search for identity—wanted to be defined by someone, and that's also why she needs to leave him because she's defined in a way that she suddenly doesn't like anymore," Reinsve says. "And also that Aksel feels strong because he can articulate what he thinks, and he can categorize his own emotions. And she can't. She's in chaos. So, I added that it's not right that he's the strongest just because he can figure out what's going on. She's also strong in her chaos."
The best scenes in The Worst Person in the World lean into that chaos. For instance, there's the sequence when Julie leaves Aksel's book release party early, and on her walk home decides to crash a wedding where she starts an intense flirtation with a barista named Eivind (Herbert Nordrum). Drunk on booze and their intense, immediate chemistry they both test the limits of how far they can interact without cheating on their respective partners. They bite each other and pee in front of one another. She farts, accidentally. The energy is free flowing, but it was all scripted, except for one moment that Reinsve herself suggested: Julie asks to smell Eivind's sweat and puts her head in his armpit. "It was on the day, but I think I just thought of that because I think I've done that before," she says. "It's a very hot but weird thing to do. To be like, 'Let me smell your sweat and I'll know who you are.'" It's so gross it has to be sexy. And it is.
Shame was not really a factor on set. In fact, Lie, who plays Aksel, and Reinsve bonded by each showing one another something that made them ashamed. Reinsve brought him to her hometown, Solbergelva. "It's just a road and it has some houses," she says. "We had a bank, but it was closed, and then the school. And it's just, no art, no culture, no people. I've never felt at home there. I was always the weird one because I liked these things. I would listen to Pink Floyd in secret at work."
Reinsve is drawn to the "dark" and "absurd." She loves David Lynch and early Lars von Trier, but she also wants to work with Luca Guadagnino and Greta Gerwig. Now, working with directors like that seems like a real possibility, which was not the case when she was growing frustrated with the Norwegian film industry and considering dropping it all for a career working with her hands. But will she ever go back to carpentry? "Maybe when I'm 60 I will learn it," she says. You could imagine Julie thinking the same thing.