I have been waiting for some time when the startlingly beautiful Connie Nielsen appears in the chic hotel room. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she says. ‘I was rushing back from a meeting, and it was at the other end of the city and I couldn’t get a car, so I had to speed-walk back here.’ I’m about to offer sympathy for this stressful journey when she adds in an upbeat tone: ‘It was wonderful! I’ve had a double workout today.’
That’s Connie. In fact, the 56-year-old actress, with whom I will spend an hour in animated conversation, strikes me as an absolute powerhouse. Born in the town of Frederikshavn, Denmark, she speaks eight languages and has led an international life. At 18, she moved to Paris to work as an actress and model, before attending drama school in Rome. She had parts in a handful of French, Italian and American films in the 1980s and 1990s, but became a Hollywood star in 2000, when she appeared alongside Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix as Lucilla in Gladiator.
She’s worked steadily ever since, but has enjoyed particular success more recently thanks to her portrayal of the Warrior Queen Hippolyta in a flurry of big-budget behemoths: Wonder Woman, Justice League, and Wonder Woman 1984. Along the way, she has also had two sons – 31-year-old Sebastian Sartor, with the actor Fabio Sartor, and 14-year-old Bryce Ulrich-Nielsen, with Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich (the couple were together for eight years, splitting in 2012).
We are talking today because Connie is promoting Close to Me, a Channel 4 thriller in which she stars as Jo, who awakens from a serious fall to find that she can’t remember the events of the last year. As she’s nursed back to health by her husband (played by Christopher Ecclestone), she attempts to piece together the circumstances around her accident, the reasons for her fractious relationships with her children, and why she keeps having flashbacks in which she’s having sex with another man.
‘It’s a mystery,’ says Connie. ‘She’s going through some of the after-effects of a brain injury, and so she’s disinhibited, as the doctor calls it – she says and does things that she wouldn’t normally. But she’s also realising that her friends and family are withholding information from her. So a person who’s lacking certain critical faculties is having to rely on her instinct to figure out who she really is – and what has changed.’
It’s a twisty, turny noir with an interesting detail that sets it apart from your average thriller: Jo is menopausal. And it’s when we get onto this topic that I really witness the full force of Connie Nielsen. ‘I started menopause at 53, when I was in the middle of shooting Wonder Woman,’ she says. ‘I was stunned by the experience of my own body starting to behave in completely unforeseen ways – but also by the realisation that it can be a second coming of age.’
The way she goes on to describe menopause makes the hair on my arms stand up; she makes it sound like a superpower. ‘Women become unbelievable during this time. It’s a passage of shedding things from yourself that are unnecessary, and it’s a sharpening of your focus and who you are, down to its essence. It’s extraordinarily exciting. Women are coming out of the other end of it even stronger, even more ready to do battle for important things in their lives. I feel it’s so incredibly interesting and important, and I think that women are dying to have more conversations about it.’
Positive as this is, being hit by symptoms while filming a blockbuster movie doesn’t sound quite so wonderful. Connie is chuckling as she describes it: ‘I can remember standing there wearing a huge wig and two corsets – one underneath, and then a leather corset on top. I was on horseback, sword-fighting and working out six hours a day. And I remember hot flushes coming on, and feeling like, wow.
‘It is an extraordinary experience: it feels like a violence, at the beginning. Your body all of a sudden heats up from the inside as if you were an electric heater,’ she adds. ‘And then from just below your skin, you feel water literally pressing through all at once. It is the most bizarre thing, but it can totally be mediated with hormones and also with changes in how you eat and drink. And you should also talk about it: “Oh, I’m having a hot flush.” Don’t let it scare you.’
The filming of Close to Me, which took place in Hastings, Eastbourne and London in late 2020, was demanding in a very different way. Connie lives in California usually, in the San Francisco Bay area, but she and her youngest son had temporarily relocated to Copenhagen, where schools were still open despite the pandemic. The plan was for him to be with his older brother and continue his education, and for Connie to fly back and forth from the UK.
‘That ended up not working out so well, because Denmark got the mink variant of Covid, which meant that I was no longer allowed to fly back there,’ she says. ‘I was very lucky that my oldest son was there and so it was brother-bonding time. I would have these Facetimes with them every night, and they could see I was distraught at not being able to get back there, so they would sit with their arms around each other. “Look mum! Stop worrying, we’re happy!”’
Here in the UK, the crew on Close to Me were also grappling with Covid. ‘We had to have special insurance, testing and safety protocols, and so it just tightened our budget a lot more than we expected, which meant longer hours for everybody. But I have to say, it worked – we did not have a single Covid case on production. And it was an incredible feeling that all of these people on set were able to provide for their families, during a time when a lot of people in our industries were not able to work. That gave me a real sense of joy.’
These things were perhaps on her mind more than usual, because for the first time, she was there as an executive producer, as well as being the star. It sounds as though this progression was rather overdue, for somebody who has strong and intelligent opinions about how things should be done. ‘I’ve been boxing my whole career with this feeling that the way women were depicted in films was oddly alien to me,’ she says. ‘So many scripts I turned down, simply because I could not recognise the character as a woman that I knew from anywhere. They would say, “Oh you’ll like this Connie, because it’s a strong woman – she’s an astronaut or a CEO or a journalist.” And then you read the script, and you never once see her do her work. It’s just decoration and performative feminism, and women deserve better.’
She’s keen to continue having input into script meetings and production decisions, and to create more work and better roles for women. ‘I’m not saying that every film should be didactic or prescriptive,’ she explains. ‘I’m just saying that when films don’t counter negative ideas in society they reinforce them.’ She is delighted by the recent surge of TV shows by female directors and writers, and mentions I Will Destroy You’s Michaela Coel as particularly inspiring. ‘I think a lot of women right now are trying very hard to do right by other women, by telling their stories as they actually are, and not through a male gaze.’
When we talk, it is almost exactly four years since Connie spoke out about being groped by Harvey Weinstein at a dinner. She published an article at the time, calling for better gender balance in the industry, an overseeing body to deal with incidents of harassment, and changes in the way victims are spoken about. Does she think #metoo has led to significant improvements?
‘I think it’s still very, very early on,’ she says. ‘There needs to be more empathy from men, but also from women themselves. Sometimes as a woman you just have to become a little political and you have to push, because not pushing means that you get erased. You get erased because people don’t invest in you if you’re a woman director or a woman writer – the same amount of money’s not available to you.’
As an example, she points to Patty Jenkins, who wrote and directed the Oscar-winning Monster in 2003, and was so badly paid that she came out of it in debt. Her next big project wasn’t ‘til 14 years later: Wonder Woman. ‘Patty laboured for years even though she’d done Monster,’ says Connie. ‘She should’ve been given a big movie right off the bat, just like all the boys who are 28 years old and running around in hoodies, getting $80-million budgets to show robot fighters. That’s par for the course. The baton is just handed over to them, but it isn’t just handed over to us. So we are also relying on women themselves to show up for our films. I’m not saying, go and watch a bad movie made by a woman – but how many bad movies made by men have you watched?’
Connie has now been acting on screen for almost 40 years, and while menopause may have given her extra clarity, her outspoken nature is nothing new. ‘Even when I was 15, I’ve always been this fighter,’ she says. ‘I remember a producer saying, “You know what? There’s something slightly insolent about you.” And I wasn’t being obnoxious, but I was not afraid of him and I don’t kowtow to power. I’m Danish in that way, and I’ve always been a feminist.’ Perhaps you can be more successful professionally if you are willing to kowtow a little? She dismisses that with a smile and a shrug. ‘I don’t know how to be different. I don’t know how to be someone else.’
Close To Me airs weekly Sunday nights, 9pm on Channel 4. The full boxset is available on All 4.
By Hattie Crisell