Claes Bang has terrified audiences across with the world with his spirited portrayal of Count Dracula for the BBC. Now he’s moving closer to the present with his latest film The Burnt Orange Heresy in which he stars with Elizabeth Debicki and Donald Sutherland. Steven Goldman sat down with the actor to talk about his latest film and what’s next.
Claes Bang has got a thing for art – at least as far as the movies go.
The Danish actor first captured the global spotlight as a crisis-juggling museum curator in The Square, taking top honors in Cannes in 2017. Last year he was on the trail of Nazi-looted art in The Last Vermeer, which premiered at TIFF. This year, his focus shifts back to contemporary abstracts with the sexy neo-noir thriller, The Burnt Orange Heresy.
Here, Bang stars as James Figueras, an art critic whose fall from grace has landed him on the lecture circuit in Milan, spinning water-colored tall tales to tourists to keep himself afloat. Redemption, unbeknownst to the self-absorbed critic, arrives in the form Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki), an enigmatic American with whom he soon shares his bed, if not his darkest secrets. Indeed, the feeling between them seems to be mutual. Debicki’s Berenice might well be the (decidedly not so simple) tourist from small town Minnesota as she claims, a femme fatale, or something else altogether. Indeed, part of The Burnt Orange Heresy’s charm is that no one – and nothing – is quite what it appears to be.
A seemingly perfect match (with a palpable on-screen chemistry to boot), the duo head off to the Lake Cuomo estate of wealthy art dealer Joseph Cassidy (played, no less, by Mick Jagger) who makes Figueras an offer he can’t refuse – an interview with the reclusive artist living on the property, Jerome Debney (a JD Salinger type played by Donald Sutherland) which will restore his career, on the condition that he ‘procures’ (read: steal) a painting from a man who hasn’t exhibited a single work in decades.
Adapted from the novel by Charles Willeford by A Simple Plan author Scott Smith and directed by Italian helmer Giuseppe Capotondi (The Double Hour), it’s a sumptuous, Hitchcockian thinking man’s noir. It’s also an acting tour de force with enough twists and turns to keep you on the edge of your seat until its final frames.
We spoke with Claes Bang about the making the film at The Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles. These are edited highlights from that conversation.
What was it that first attracted you to The Burnt Orange Heresy?
The very weird twisted relationship between Berenice and James. When I read it, I was like, “What the f*** is going on with these two?” I just wanted to get in there. It’s like when you read a good novel and you just can’t put it down. Those games they’re playing with each other all the time… That was the first thing. I just thought: “This is so cool. I want to do this.”
Tell us about the man you’re playing.
I play an art critic that has fallen from grace. He used to be the director of a museum, did something with the books, and was kicked out. Now he’s traveling Europe, doing a little lecture here, a little lecture there. Not making a lot of money. But what he really wants is to just get back in there. And he’s very, very ambitious. That’s probably the thing that I connected within the beginning. Because I’m very ambitious too. And I always look for something in the roles that I play that’s something I can relate to. It’s important for me to get to something that really resonates and then to embody it, so it becomes authentic. That’s the hope.
Not in any way. No. To me it’s about the content and the people. And if they keep on bringing scripts that are all in the art world and I think the story and the personnel is great, I’ll just keep doing them (laughs)… That said, I am doing something quite different now with Robert Eggers’ next film, The Northman, which is set in the 900s.
Not many art critics running around at that time, I believe.
I don’t think so, either (laughs)… He’s definitely not an art critic, this one.
Tell us about it.
As inspiration for this film, Robert has found the very old Danish saga of Amleth, which is what Shakespeare read and turned into Hamlet. It’s also the inspiration of this. The ‘Northman’ is Amleth, who Alexander Skarsgård is playing. I am the king’s half-brother and I want the throne. So I chop the king’s head off and steal his wife…
So he’s actually not that far removed from the art critic you’re playing here-
No. It’s the same guy (laughs).
Is there something about a story set in the art world, in particular, that’s appealing to you?
There is something about it that’s interesting – a work of art [a film] that deals with a work of art. There is a meta sort of layer in there… That’s quite interesting. But you know, on the day, I think as an actor it’s all about: “What’s the situation we’re doing today? Okay, I’m driving in a car with Berenice to Mick Jagger’s villa and we have this conversation… It’s very much what you’re doing in that very moment. It doesn’t matter if the scene is at an accountant’s office, or a Viking thing, or the art world.
You mentioned Mick Jagger–which to be honest was the first thing that jumped out at me when I first saw the trailer. What was it like meeting him for the first time? And what was it like working together?
I’m so happy to say it was like working with any other really good actor. As cool as anybody, really. He’s really humble. It’s not a rock icon that comes through the door. It’s a guy that really wants to do the job. And he’s such a team player as well. It was all about making those scenes work so that they served the story in the best way possible.
I’m sure I was. I remember thinking when they bring him on set, they’ll probably need to sit me down because I might faint or something. But on the day, what happened was… I had just been talking to the director, Giuseppe Capotondi. I said to him: “Listen, that scene tomorrow with Mick. I think we need to look at it… I think we should try and perhaps switch this bit around.” I then took a call, put the phone down, turned around and Mick was right in front of me. I said, “Hey listen – good that you’re here. Because that scene tomorrow…”
You just jumped right in.
Yeah. I’m not even sure if I was rude and didn’t say hello or something (laughs)… But I think I would have a very big problem if I was sitting across a table from him the whole time and thinking, “Oh my god that’s Mick Jagger sitting there…”
Tell us about your collaboration with Giuseppe Capotondi (The Double Hour). Given you once quipped you wanted to kill your director on The Square…
That’s going to haunt me forever (laughs)… But listen, I keep telling it because it’s a fun story. But it was not to do with the work on the day. It was to do with me going insane in Cannes. I started believing the hype that I was going to get that f***ing award (for best actor; instead the prize went to director Ruben Östlund for best film). But you know, it’s been good therapy telling it again and again… And I’m really good friends with Ruben still. I haven’t killed him. I haven’t even tried (laughs)… And I did not ever come close to wanting to (laughs)…
And Giuseppe Capotondi?
(Laughs)… I enjoyed working with Giuseppe. He’s the sort of director who gently pushes you into the scene… I don’t know how he works his magic, but he doesn’t say a lot actually. When the scene is done, he’s like: “That was great.” And then just rolls his little cigarette and goes out for a smoke. Are you happy? Should we do something else? I always wanted to do more takes, but he was like, “No, no, we got it, we got it…” A couple of times we tried it and he came to me and said, “Good that you asked to do one more. There was something in there that was better than the previous take.”
Tell us about working with Elizabeth Debicki. Some of the film’s early reviews singled out the chemistry between you. But I understand you didn’t have a lot of rehearsal time?
No, we didn’t. We met at Giuseppe’s house in London for lunch – which ended up being a 12 hour lunch (laughs)… We sat there and had dinner as well and a lot of wine. I knew that for this really to work it would be great if we connected, and I totally had the feeling that we did. We then met – 3, 4, 5 days before we started shooting – in Milan and read through the whole script and talked about it. It was just trying to get on the same page with what we thought it was all about and what we wanted with it.
If it’s someone you’ve never worked with or met before, which I hadn’t with her – there is a big element of luck there. I’ve been in productions – in theater, film, television – where you don’t have that connection, and sometimes that still actually turns out well. But when you have it, it does something extra. I think in this film, the chemistry that we have really did something for it.
You’ve been attracting sizeable audiences on the small screen as well of late with Dracula. Has that been a bit of game changer for you?
When something comes out on BBC and Netflix at the same time…It’s just something that I’ve never [experienced] before. Because it’s really massive. It goes out worldwide. I don’t know who’s watching. But it does seem that it’s gone down quite well…
The Burnt Orange Heresy is available to Rent on Digital now.