Danish Star Ulrich Thomsen on His Directorial Debut 'In Embryo'

Stefan Ciupek
Thomsen, right, with 'In Embryo' co-star Ross McCall.

Thomsen wrote, produced, directed and co-starred in the film noir, which has its world premiere at the Shanghai International Film Festival.

When Ulrich Thomsen decided, after two decades as one of the Europe's most acclaimed actors, to try his hand at directing, he got advice from an unlikely source: fellow Dane Lars von Trier.

“At first he mocked me: 'Oh, so you're going to direct now too?'” recalls Thomsen. “Then he said: 'Whatever you do, don't listen to anyone.' And laughed.”

Thomsen took the instruction to heart. In Embryo, his directorial debut, which has its world premiere at the Shanghai International Film Festival on Sunday, deliberately flaunts convention. On the surface, In Embryo is a classic film noir. It's the story of Sean, a drug dealer (Ross McCall) who falls in love with Lilly (Kristen Hager), a heroin addict as damaged as he is. We know, pretty much from the start, that this won't end well.

But Thomsen isn't interested in making another by-the-numbers thriller. Though set in Los Angeles, In Embryo has the feel of a European art house drama. It's deliberately slow and contemplative, with long scenes of little, or no, dialogue. The violence, and there is plenty, feels almost an afterthought. The real focus is the lasting damage violence has — on the people who commit it and on those caught in its wake.

“I know it won't be for everyone,” Thomsen says, “But, to quote Lars von Trier again, a movie should be a little pebble in the shoe. There should be something annoying about it, something that makes you uncomfortable.”

Thomsen has made a career out of making audiences uncomfortable. Thomsen's villains are oddly charming. His heroes, slightly creepy. In every Thomsen performance there is that pebble in the shoe.

His breakthrough came in 1998, playing the angry son in Thomas Vinterberg's incest drama The Celebration. In Adam's Apple, a dark comedy from Anders Thomas Jensen, he plays a neo-Nazi who clashes with a naively devout priest, played by Danish star Mads Mikkelsen. Even in Vinterberg's latest, the Berlin competition title The Commune, his character, an overtly liberal college lecturer, reveals himself to be a force for destruction when he cheats on his wife.

In the U.S., the Danish actor is probably best-known for playing Kai Proctor, the villain cum in Cinemax's critically acclaimed (but recently canceled) crime series Banshee. An Amish farmer-turned-criminal kingpin, Thomsen's Proctor manages to be both brutal and intimating and, at times, strangely vulnerable and sympathetic.

“Whenever I do anything, even the most simple character, I need to twist it somehow, make it more challenging, in terms of psychology and storytelling,” Thomsen says. “I can't just do it straight.”

That need to complicate things might explain why Thomsen, is still relatively unknown outside of Europe. Unlike his Scandinavian contemporaries, Mikkelsen or Stellan Skarsgard say, the 52-year-old Dane has yet to make the jump from art house darling to Hollywood star. His U.S. film career so far has included a small role in a Bond movie (The World is Not Enough), and a few turns in otherwise forgettable schlock like Hitman and The Season of the Witch.

It's telling that, when asked about the directors he admires, Thomsen's list includes Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch and Terrence Malick: American filmmakers beloved in Europe but solidly outside the U.S. mainstream. Success, it seems, matters less to Thomsen than the European ideal of art for art's sake. Throughout our interview, Thomsen seems less interested in pitching his movie than in exploring the ideas behind it.

“This: conversation, debate, is the only real purpose of a movie. The only reason to do it,” he says.

The ideas behind In Embryo are political. Thomsen said he first got the idea for the film while watching former U.S. president George W. Bush on television, giving his infamous 'Mission Accomplished' speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. Thomsen had just recently become a father and he was both exhilarated and terrified by the prospect of raising a child in what seemed an increasingly violent world.

“I started thinking about Bush, how he had a tricky upbringing and how he sort of represented this way of using violence to solve problems,” he says. “In the 80s, we at least had the idea of diplomacy. Today, the way you solve things is to go to war and kill. In the name of democracy.”

After many twists, turns and false starts — plus multiple delays to act in other films and in Banshee — this led to In Embryo. Thomsen wrote the first draft of the script in Danish, but later switched to English and moved the action to the U.S. “We have the same problems, the same issues, in Denmark, but there is something iconic about America that makes it universal,” he says. “Plus L.A. has that noir feel that really suited the story.”

He had initially set up the project with German partners (Thomson, who is fluent in German, has starred in several German films, including Tom Tykwer's The International). But, following Lars von Trier's advice, he broke free of their control and financed the film himself, together with a friend, a Danish lawyer he'd met at a party in Cannes.

“Things were taking too long and I thought the (original) budget was too high for what the film was,” he says. “I thought a movie like this should be cheaper. So I did it myself.”

In Embryo eventually came in at $600,000 and Thomsen had complete creative control.

“There was no producer standing at my shoulder telling me what to do. I was the producer. Whatever this movie is, it's my fault,” he jokes.

Thomsen said he's anxious to see how audiences in Shanghai react to In Embryo. So far, he's shown the film to a few select people in the U.S. and Europe. The Europeans got it, he says. The Americans, less so.

“People in American are used to the moral being clear in a film, to having everything explained and tied up, which is fine, but this film is not that,” he says.

Whatever happens with In Embryo after Shanghai, Thomsen says he's “gotten into the mindset” of movie making and is already deep into writing his second film. Once again, American politics are his inspiration. This time, it's Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

“It's about a politician who starts a campaign against a brand of German sausage, which he thinks is threatening the American way of life,” Thomsen says. “It's a dark comedy, a bit Coen Brothers.”

Thomsen goes off onto a long discussion of the U.S. election campaign, racism and “why we can't seem to progress, why the same shit keeps coming back,” before pondering the possibility of a Trump presidency.

“I don't pray, but if I did, I'd pray to God that Trump doesn't win,” he says, before adding, with a smirk, “Though if he does, it would be great for my film.”