We talk to Renate Reinsve, star of The Worst Person In The World: ‘Women not wanting kids isn't a taboo anymore’

The Cannes’ Film Festival Best Actress award winner opens up about her break-out role, which was written specifically for her.
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Mike Coppola

“I feel like a spectator in my own life,” says Renate Reinsve’s character Julie during one of the pivotal scenes of The Worst Person In The World, as she breaks up with her comic artist boyfriend. Julie begins the film as a 29-year-old woman struggling to find her place in the world after dropping out of medical school and breaking up with her partner (a different one). It chronicles her life over the course of four years, as she grapples with romantic commitment, ambivalence towards having children and career uncertainty. 

Julie’s characterisation of herself as a “spectator” might seem like an ironic line, set within this Oscar-nominated Norwegian film about a woman whose dramatic life choices – handbrake turns, more like – very much drive the plot. Structurally, the film is split into 12 “chapters”, together with a prologue and an epilogue, with titles like “Julie’s Narcissistic Circus” and “Bad Timing”, and in the first few minutes, we learn she has walked away from successive romantic relationships and professional paths). Yet as the story progresses, viewers might just find some truth in Julie's assertion that she is spectating – rather than living – her life. Because as much as Joachim Trier’s masterpiece, described among the British public as Norway’s answer to Fleabag, might seem to be, from the outset (and the trailer), a film about an empowered woman advocating for her own happiness, it also speaks to something that is perhaps more universally relatable and human: the fear of making any permanent, life-changing decisions.

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That’s the way Renate Reinsve, 34 – who recently won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her role in the film – sees it, anyway. Of Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt, the screenwriter duo behind this film, she says: “They are interested in characters that are passive to their environments because there’s so much going on in their inner lives”. She approaches Julie as a complex character: strong and worthy of admiration, sure – "Julie's never trying to please the people around her. She's challenging the social structures she's in all the time” – but also deeply afraid of facing up to herself and her own autonomy: “She has a hard time being in her emotions, so she runs away”. 

It's no surprise when Renate casually but graciously bats about the Fleabag comparisons made by the British media around the film. “People say I look a bit like her,” she comments, referring to the show’s creator and front woman Phoebe Waller-Bridge before moving on. Because, unlike Fleabag's occasionally morally-unscrupulous titular character, Renate’s Julie does little that's easily categorisable as good or bad; outrageous or amoral. This, despite one “chapter” of the film entitled “Cheating”. There's a lightness and vulnerability about Julie that makes her hard not to like – or at least, to forgive automatically. 

It’s a complex characterisation that has resonated with audiences. Renate was 33 when she collected her Best Actress award at Cannes – the same age Julie is at the end of the film. This is no coincidence; the part of Julie was written, specifically, for Renate by Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt. Joachim, who also directs the film, spotted Renate’s talent after she played a one-line part in his 2011 film, Oslo, August 31st. He followed Renate’s theatre work in Norway, before contacting her the best part of a decade later, to tell her about the part he and Eksil had written for her. “He knew I could hold the levity and the tragedy that he wanted, the dynamic for that character. He wanted both of those sides.”

So, Joachim clearly spotted Renate’s acting talent. But the natural question, given that the part was written specifically for her, is: is Renate Julie? To an extent, yes. She’s a deep thinker, often falling effortlessly into “existential” conversations with Joachim. “We always ended up in these deep existential conversations after just saying, hello, how are you? And then we went right into very serious conversations. So we knew we were aligned on these themes.” She also empathises with Julie’s sense of lostness. “She's searching in so many different ways and I feel very the same as her”. In fact, Renate was on the cusp of quitting acting the day before she was offered the role of Julie – toying with the idea of a career in carpentry, instead.

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But there are clear points of distinction; like the fact Renate has always instinctively wanted kids, whereas Julie – true to form – is not sure. But, Renate says with a clear empathy and tenderness for Julie that no doubt made her characterisation so powerful, “I can really respect [Julie’s] perspective. Women not wanting kids is not taboo anymore.”

Then there’s the fact that Renate is, well, superfluously graceful. A trained dancer and competitive swimmer, she was asked to become clumsier for one of the film’s key scenes, where she runs from one romantic interest to another. “They told me, ‘We need to work on your run - it’s too elegant’.” The running, a focal point in the film's trailer, is, as it turns out, important. Its messiness embodies one of the central questions of the film: is Julie running towards her autonomy – or away from it? Should we admire Julie for her strength; her refusal to accept a set version of her life, again and again? Or is freedom, as Janis Joplin once sang, “just another word for nothing left to lose” for Julie; her constant “searching”, as Renate puts it, becoming the very thing that paralyses her. The film provides no answers and no morals; just questions. It’s a film that will resonate with you long after you watch it – and there’s no doubt that Renate’s performance is instrumental in that.

In conversation with GLAMOUR, the breakout star opens up about the parallels between her and her “messy, chaotic” character; the film’s themes of maternal ambivalence, autonomy and making life decisions; navigating almost overnight fame; plus, the two leading actors that inspired her characterisation in the film.

Congratulations on your award for Best Actress at Cannes – it’s truly well-deserved. I’ve read that the character of Julie was written specifically for you by director Joachim Trier. Could you tell us more about how that came about?

I played a very small role in a film he [Joachim Trier] did ten years ago [Oslo, August 31st], a very small role, but I had to stay there on set in Oslo for nine days, while we shot with the sunset at different positions. So he said that he felt very safe with me there because he didn't really need to direct me because I was doing my own thing in the background there. He had seen some theatre work that I'd done, small things here and there in Norway. So he knew that I could hold the levity and the tragedy that he wanted, the dynamic for that character. He wanted both of those sides. We met here and there in Oslo – because it’s very small – and we always ended up in these deep existential conversations after just saying, ‘Hello, how are you? And then we went right into very serious conversations. So we knew we were aligned on these themes. But I didn't know that they [Joachim and co-writer Eskil Vogt] started writing it quite a while before they told me. And then after they told me, it was another six months until the script was ready – because their writing process is very complicated. They don’t know what they’re writing until it’s there. And you can see that in the film too.

Are there real-life parallels between you and Julie?

We had a lot in common, yes. I can relate to most of the things Julie goes through. For me, I always knew I wanted to be a mum – although I can really respect the perspective of that she has on that – but I think for everything else, I can really relate to her. Like being in a social dynamic somewhere, you don't really know why it's uncomfortable, but you're not giving in to it. Julie's never giving in and trying to please people around her. She sits back and asks, Why is this uncomfortable? And how can I change that? And how can I put it into words? She's searching in so many different ways – and I feel very much the same as her. Like in the cabin scene, where they’re sitting around the table, and she starts talking about periods with the men. And the women are sitting there not talking – because it's just the way it is – but she's trying to change it and trying to provoke the other guys. 

She's trying to challenge the social structures she's in all the time. But she also has a hard time being in her emotions. She always runs from her emotions when she gets sad. Like when she sneaks into a party [in one scene, Julie gatecrashes a wedding] and becomes self destructive by flirting with another guy, even though she's in a good relationship. She’s in this relationship, and something is uncomfortable, but she doesn't know how to put it into words yet. In the end, it’s about the power dynamic – the fact that he [her on-screen boyfriend Aksel, played by Ander Danielsen Lie] is defining her. For her, that’s a weak place to be. And it makes her feel unhappy and chaotic – even though she went into the relationship because she wants to be defined – because she doesn’t know who she is. It’s rare that you see that complexity in a script. Joachim and Eskil have done a very, very good job writing her.

And so have you, playing her! Do you think that women are almost unfairly blamed for making these big decisions about their own lives to explore their own happiness in a way that maybe a man wouldn't be for leaving a relationship or changing things? After all, in the title – which we assume refers to the lead character – she’s called “The Worst Person In The World”

I think that’s a good way to see the title. And I think you’re right. Women blame themselves and they're more ashamed about wanting a career and not wanting kids or not wanting a family – or wanting it later. That’s not taboo anymore. You can talk about in Norway. I don't know about all other countries. When I do interviews in France and, and Italy, that's what they want to talk about because they're not there yet. I think it’s easy for these women to feel like the worst person in the world.

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Maternal ambivalence is a strong theme in both this film, and another one of this year’s Oscar-nominated films, The Lost Daughter starring Olivia Colman. Speaking from a British perspective, this feels like a big moment; it’s the first time we’re seeing these narratives around motherhood played out on screen. How do you feel about representing that theme?

It's really needed because I think, in the media, it's really hard to find that emotionally complex conversation about these things. So you don't really have a platform other than art, and it's taken this long to make movies about it – as I'm sure there are other themes we're not thinking about right now that we need to. It's really important. And I feel like people who have seen The Worst Person In The World are so hungry to relate and to talk about these things. Joachim, and everyone working on the film, wanted to leave spaces for people to fill in their own perspective and their own stories, because it's a very powerful thing. So many movies tell you what to feel and what to think. And I feel so degraded watching those. I didn't want to impose anything on anybody.

As a woman who does want kids, and has always known that, did you find this theme interesting to explore nonetheless?

Yeah. Because nowadays you're supposed to have very strong opinions about everything you want. So the ambiguity – the process of deciding things – is very narrow because you don't have all the nuances of how complex every emotion and every situation are. Experiences can be many things. Like wanting kids. You don't know what it's going to be like until you're there. You don't know the consequences of your choice until you've lived them out. So you can never really know what it means and what it is. But it's important to understand the ambiguity of everything and how complex everything is and that it can be everything at once. For me, understanding that makes things a lot easier. It feels like these decisions aren’t as hard, or as heavy.

Because you’re not in control?


Do you think there are any universal lessons to be learnt from this film?

I think the themes are very easy to be affected by. We were all very affected by this movie, I think. I can only speak for myself, of course, but it changed so many things in my life and I saw things differently. I felt that by talking about these themes, I felt so much freer and that it's OK that my life is a chaos and I don't know anything. You think you’re going to come to a point where you grow up, but you never really do. You're just pretending half the time, and you’re always encountering new people and being in different relationships and trying to figure out the society you’re in. It’s very complicated to be alive today.

I read somewhere that your performance was inspired by Diane Keaton's depiction of the title character in the 1977 film Annie Hall. Could you tell me about what you learned from her as an actress and how that inspired your depiction of Julie?

Annie Hall is so… messy. She's very present but she is also messy and she makes mistakes. That combination was very important for Julie – this role is also messy. When we did the running scene, we had to rehearse many times because I've been a competitive swimmer and a dancer. And they told me, we have to work on your running because it's too elegant. We need to make you have this weird run or this yeah. So we had to do small stuff like that – to make it messy. Diane Keaton as Annie Hall is also very funny. And whimsical. She's somewhere in her mind and then she changes – she makes associations very swiftly and it's all over the place. It’s a good thing to tap into with this character.

Are there any other sort of actors that inspired your characterisation?

Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name. I rewatched it a couple of times, and saw Timothee has this very playful levity. It feels very light, but he can go really deep in his emotion. He can go from one place to another emotionally, in this dynamic way – he can feel both things at the same time. So I had Timothée’s energy with me too playing Julie.

This was a breakout role for you, and now you’ve become a huge star in your own right. How have you found that?

This year has been absolutely fantastic and wonderful, but it's also really hard and complicated. It’s everything at the same time. It’s been a big change in figuring out: how do I relate to people now and how do other people relate to me? The biggest shock was that I met people who already knew who I was and had an opinion about me before. Luckily, with this movie, it's only been good. People are so nice. But it's strange, going around and people knowing who you are everywhere. It's a very strange feeling. But it’s wonderful, too. I get to talk to so many great people about the themes in the movie – and that I love talking about. I know that it has meant so much to other people. 

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How do you navigate that new experience of strangers coming up and talking to you?

Luckily I'm very sociable and I really like people. If I have days where I'm tired and I can't put my good face on, it's harder, but it’s still nice. If I was a shy person, it would have been very hard.

You grew up in the Norwegian village of Solbergelva, and now live in Oslo. The film has a universal appeal, clearly, but would you say there are any parts of it that are specifically Norwegian?

Oslo is very up and down; the mountainous scenery offers lots of different perspectives. The cinematographer, Kasper Anderson, is from Denmark, where everything is flat. But he wanted to introduce many scenes where Julie is looking down at the city from uphill. He says that’s why people from Norway are so existentialist, and reflective about their own life in such a profound way, because they have all these different hills – and they’re always looking down at the city. Everyone in Norway feels like the worst person in the world sometimes: self-deprecating and shameful. And that’s a part of Julie, who has such a complex inner life.


The Worst Person in the World is in cinemas from March 25