Brigitte Nielsen on 'Red Sonja' and Hopes for a Female-Directed Remake
To her fans, Danish model turned actress Brigitte Nielsen is still a Viking queen.
Nielsen was introduced to audiences as the revenge-driven title character in Red Sonja, the 1985 swords-and-sorcery comic-book adaptation. She’s also known for playing Ludmilla Drago, a bloodthirsty Soviet athlete and trophy wife, in Rocky IV and Creed II. Nielsen’s real-life romantic life (she was married to Sylvester Stallone from 1985 to 1987) has made her the target of ugly, often misogynistic criticism. But at 55, Nielsen’s a new mother again, and she's eager to continue throwing punches…but only when necessary.
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The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Nielsen last week about her role in Creed II (now on VOD and Blu-ray), her modeling career and her feelings about the allegations of sexual abuse that were brought against Bryan Singer, who has not been removed as director of the Millennium Films' upcoming Red Sonja remake, though the project has been put on hold following new allegations in an exposé The Atlantic published in January.
"I hope Red Sonja is going to eventually move on. But why don’t they go with a great female director? Like Susanne Bier, a great Danish director? That would be fantastic," Nielsen tells THR. "And she would put me in Red Sonja because I need to be in there! Or you could do Patty Jenkins! She’s an incredible director! This is a huge female character, and I can see a fantastic female director."
I read that when you were 13 years old, you were 5 foot 11, 90 pounds and had an overbite. Is it fair to say that your height sort of forced you to develop a thicker skin?
I was so bullied in school; I feel for all the kids today, whether they’re short, tall, fat or thin. In my case, I was super-tall — taller than my teachers — and so thin that I looked like someone who had been in a concentration camp. It was terrible. Unfortunately, they had to take out six of my teeth to make space for the others, and I came out with an enormous overbite. I had silver on the top and bottom of my mouth and plastic pieces inside and underneath. I was the grossest thing kids could see when it was lunchtime and I had to take out all my things to eat my homemade Danish sandwich!
But anyway, back to height – yes, that was really hard. I don’t wish that on anyone, and I always say that in my next life, I’m going to be 5 foot 8, OK? (Laughs) Not 6-feet-and-a-half! What made me stand up straight, when I was 16, was I was seen, in Copenhagen, by a model agent who spotted me and crossed the shop to talk to me. I couldn’t believe it, but that job made me stand up straighter. It gave me some firm confidence. But of course, having been bullied for 10 years, in your young years…that never really leaves you.
Your modeling work seems to have been a big influence on your early work as an actress. When you worked with photographers like Helmut Newton, you were pretty young, late teens, early 20s. So you kind of had to manage not just what your audience and collaborators expected of you, but what you wanted from modeling. How did you manage all of that?
I started modeling at the age of 16, from Hamburg to Paris, Paris to Milan, Milan to New York. And I remember I started out with shoulder-length hair. Jean-Louis David, the famous hairdresser in Paris, hurt my hair, and it fell out. So I ended up with a shaved head. That started the early trend of short hair, and that’s when I got my first big campaign from a stylist who’s no longer around, with a photographer in New York.
When I was 20-and-a-half, I was pretty fed up; I remember saying to my modeling booker, David Brown — an Australian guy, lovely guy — “I’m going back to Denmark. I no longer want to be a model." ... I think I went into things without thinking about them. I had just given birth, and that’s when my life changed, because that’s when [producer] Dino De Laurentiis saw a picture of me and said, “Wow, she’d be amazing as Red Sonja.” Actually, when I got the phone call from this producer who wanted to meet me, I was still breastfeeding at home. It was a crazy time in my life.
You were pregnant with your new daughter when you did Creed II. There’s a scene in that movie where Ludmila walks away from the ring after Viktor Drago is knocked down twice. What was filming that scene like for you?
It actually helped me a lot, having four grown-up boys and having been through a divorce when my youngest boy was eight. I had a 10-year-old, a 14-year-old and an 18-year-old.... I was making that choice to leave again — it was a hell physically and emotionally because Ludmilla was in me. Of course it was tough, but it was overwhelming and it was purifying at the same time. I don't know why, but it’s so magical to be pregnant. I had so much inner energy, and thank god again that I’m almost 6 foot 1 tall, because I was seven-and-a-half months pregnant and you couldn’t tell. I could still get away with it. But that was because of my height; had I been 5 foot 2, it would show in a different way, obviously. But it was amazing, and very emotional.
The most striking thing about your role in Creed II is it’s 30 years later. In Rocky IV, the way Ludmilla and Ivan Drago interact…he’s like a reluctant, brainwashed kind of pawn while your character is somehow even more bloodthirsty, like the way she’s smiling when Apollo Creed is basically getting murdered. What’s going into that performance? Where is it coming from?
That’s what the Americans thought of the Russians in the '80s: that they are cruel murderers out to get upstanding Americans. And for Ludmila, from her private point of view, her husband, she was driving him to gain popularity for Russia, for her own well-being. She had him go through everything, and that’s the reason why she left him going back to Creed II, because she brought back a loser who had invested in her. That’s why she’s sorry she couldn’t be a whole part of that.
Rocky IV is obviously the most prominent of your collaborations with Stallone. But there’s another film of his that you co-starred in, Cobra. In that movie, you’ve got a fairly atypical role: you’re basically just the girlfriend, and you have to be rescued by the tough guy. I’ve always read that the direction on that movie was really chaotic. Some people even said that director George Cosmatos was basically out-directed by Stallone.
Which is true! But you have to remember having Sylvester Stallone, who has always written just about everything that he does: he is a great writer and director. He always hires very clever, great directors, but he has a hard time sitting in his acting chair, you know? He always wants to sit in both chairs, which you have to keep in mind. Other directors have their own egos and their own jobs to do. So yes, it was very chaotic. But at the time, I was so young and green. I was just an actress dating Stallone! I wasn’t even allowed to have an opinion! I was thinking in my own little Viking head, but it was never to be discussed or anything like that. But yes, it was very chaotic! He had other issues on other movies with other director either being fired or not really directing when they were on set. But he does his own job, you know?
Like Cobra, the 1988 Bye Bye Baby is a gear shift of a role. It’s not your typical role, and there’s a real sensitivity in your performance, which is kind of shocking given the aggressive tone of the rest of that film. You’re in just a handful of scenes, but the energy of the movie picks up whenever you're on screen. Was that a rewarding role for you?
With Cobra and Bye Bye Baby, I have always been grateful that someone sees a sensitivity in me to do certain roles, because I never get to see those roles. I am never approached for them because I’m limited by my physical appearance. Which is too bad, because in movies you could make a 15-year-old look like a 90-year-old if you really want. I mean, there are so many things that live in you if you have it. And I certainly do. That’s why I’ve always said my real name is “Gitte.” That is a Danish name, and it speaks to the sensitive woman that I am. Then there is “Brigitte Nielsen,” who is outspoken, at times aggressive, wears a miniskirt, can handle any sword or any gun and do any kind of thing. It’s that wonderful balance of two people that I basically am.
But for my work, there are very, very few times that anyone wants to hire “Gitte,” the girl I really am. “Brigitte Nielsen” is someone I became when I was hired to do Red Sonja. So I don't think I have ever spoken in an interview – and I’ve done them for 40 years – who has recognized me for that. I’m really blown away. So yes, it was very nice for me, and I wish it would happen more often, but I know it won’t. I enjoyed that and thought, “My god, I can’t believe that’s here.” And I’m actually a very, very good billiards player. I actually beat this Italian champion. It was a very interesting role. Jason Connery was very sweet, and Carol Alt is a very, very nice woman. We had a good time. It was a rushed shoot but a great character.
Let’s talk a little about the original Red Sonja. What did that role mean to you at the time?
I think it was teaching about how war and love go hand-in-hand. In my entire life growing up I was scared, but I was so eager to love. I was not frightened by love so much. So Red Sonja was very much a part of who I was. And then, of course, the excitement of looking like what I call in my inner dreams because I’m Danish, a Viking, even though she wouldn’t be there, it just spoke to me. And it excited me to be embracing Red Sonja. I was very emotional and also very nervous, which is a very good thing, I think, when you’re acting, because you’re eager to learn more and to be very, very, very good. It was my first movie, and a lot of things were requested of me, and I had to learn things very, very fast, because the last thing I had ever thought to do with my life was to become an actress. It had never been on my wish list, but neither was modeling, because I was too tall. I thought I was going to own a bakery or work in a library, something like that.
…We shot for seven months. It was a very, very long shoot, long hours. I worked so hard and so fast during those seven months. It was the fastest I’ve ever grown, and I was kind of ready with my young baby son to take on life, big time. And that’s exactly what I did when I finished Red Sonja and I went to New York and the whole Sylvester saga starts.
But Red Sonja was amazing. When I look back on it, on director Richard Fleischer having one camera with a fish monster…I still think it was not that great. But Arnold Schwarzenegger was amazing; he still is. And Richard Fleischer was a sweetheart. He is another one who is not around anymore. Wow. Isn’t it crazy how life goes on? Anyway, Red Sonja is an incredible character and I’m so…I want to be like the mother for whoever’s going to be the next Red Sonja, if they ever get it off the ground with all the difficulties they are having.
How do you feel about the fact that Millennium still hasn’t taken Bryan Singer off of the upcoming Red Sonja movie?
You know what? I don't know if he’s taken off or if he’s not. You tell me he has not?
The movie is off of their production slate, but that doesn’t mean he’s not attached to it anymore.
I don’t know what’s going on with Red Sonja because we’ve heard about a remake for years now. I personally think that Singer is a great director. I also think every allegation should be investigated; there should be justice. I think people too often are jumping to conclusions before they know where they stand. But of course, if someone is found guilty on the right evidence, yes, you should be taken away whether you are a director, a banker, whatever you are. And you need to be punished for something if you’ve done something terribly wrong.
As for Singer’s situation: we will see what’s going to happen. I hope Red Sonja is going to eventually move on. But why don’t they go with a great female director? Like Susanne Bier, a great Danish director? That would be fantastic! And she would put me in Red Sonja because I need to be in there! Or you could do Patty Jenkins! She’s an incredible director! This is a huge female character, and I can see a fantastic female director. Let me have my first project as a director! I’ll do it! (Laughs) I’m kidding. But a female director wouldn’t be a bad idea if Singer is eventually off the project for whatever is going to happen. I’m not one to say.
I mean, of course, we all know it would be a remake more than a sequel, but it’s not an easy task. It really is not an easy task to bring Red Sonja back…but she needs to be around. She’s amazing and she’s beautiful and clever and she’s all of the things that true gorgeous women are!
I just want to put a word out: we talked about with Steven Caple, our director of Creed II, about the Dragos, because he’s so into the Dragos. And I just want to say that if they create another great movie franchise, the Drago saga has to be next!
by Graeme McMillan
by Vasilis K. Pozios, Philip Saragoza, Praveen Kambam