Thursday, July 17, 2008

"My Coffee With Amundsen"

NB. This was part of the fascinating stuff at the late, much-lamented -- come back, Emily, we miss you! -- that we were lucky enough to snatch almost from thin air before it disappeared from the Google cache forever. The author, a self-confessed Polargeek, had been so smitten with "The Last Place on Earth" and Sverre Anker Ousdal as well that she managed to wangle a trip to Oslo and an interview with the man himself. Gosh, do we wish we'd thought of it first. Instead, we reprint it here.

My Coffee With Amundsen

by Emily Slatten

c2002, 2001

One Polargeek's interview with a legend

Recently, I had a chance to sit with Sverre Anker Ousdal and chat (in English) over coffee. I found him to be warm, intelligent, and quite up on polar history. Since I was unable to record our interview, I will instead paraphrase some of his more enlightening stories from our hour-long conversation. These short notes do not adequately capture how utterly charming he really is. My thanks to Herr Ousdal for graciously agreeing to meet with me.

We had arranged to meet in the lounge of the Continental Hotel at 5pm. He arrived right on time and ordered a coke with lemon. Our conversation meandered through topics as diverse as Norwegian geography, World War II planes, genealogy, cars with manual transmissions and his work as an actor. I had prepared a few questions regarding Last Place on Earth, but our conversation thread answered them before I could even pose the questions.

Their own stuntmen

This website's suspicions were confirmed-- all the actors in LPOE did their own skiing, dog driving and, poor English, man hauling. Sverre told about learning how to drive dogs from the native Inuit on Baffin Island, where LPOE was shot. Apparently, one should never use the voice to command a dog, as very soon your voice will be completely shot. Instead, he was taught, one should use breathy exhalation (that's the only way I can describe it. I know it sounds weird but honestly, I can't think of any other way to say it)-- like lamaze breaths.

Shooting on Baffin Island

The blizzard scenes were, at first, shot using small plastic snowflakes but the English, who had to shoot in more of the snowy scenes, soon complained that they were getting plastic in their eyes. So, they flew in tons of potato flakes. Bags were piled on top of bags, Sverre told me, and the shoot went on as planned.

Until they stopped for the night. The next morning, they returned to the shoot and the potato flakes were gone. The Inuit had recognised the bags as the food they were and absconded with them!

Strangely like real life

When asked about how the Norwegian and English fared together during the shoot, he said that it in some ways mirrored the experiences of the explorers in the South. Upon arrival at Baffin Island for the shoot, the Norwegian actors were right at home in the snow and ice. Meanwhile, the English were always cold and not quite comfortable enough to enjoy themselves. In addition, since the Norwegian contingency had worked together before --being as they were all from the Nationaltheater -- the shoot was a lot fun, like an extended winter camp with friends. The comaraderie apparent between the crew of the Fram in LPOE was really true in the Norwegian cast. I would like to say that I pointed out that the Norwegians did have an easier shoot, since they did not have to manhaul all their stuff, but I didn't think of it at the time.

Getting the part

I asked him how he got the part of Amundsen, and he said he was approached by the producers and did not have to audition. He said he thought it a little strange, since he is not much like Amundsen (I concur-- he is far better looking and not quite so dour and single-minded, to say the least). He noted that Per Theodore Haugen, Leon Amundsen in LPOE, had actually played Roald Amundsen in Scott of the Antarctic and was, he felt, perhaps better suited to play him.

The Shackleton's Furthest South song

I asked him if he could remember the song that was sung when Amundsen's party made it to Shackleton's furthest South ("Now Shackleton," he said, "was a hero."). Much to my delight, he sang a bit of it to me, and said he thought it had been written specifically for the show. Then I asked him if all the actors in the Nationaltheater could sing, and he just laughed.

Masterpiece Theatre press junket stories

Some of his best stories came in response to my asking him where he had been in the states. He told me that Masterpiece Theatre had flown several of the actors out to Boston (on a Concorde, no less) for some sort of press shindig celebrating an anniversary of some kind. They were then put on a train to New York to go to a fancy dinner. He said he was in the car with many of the British actors, who put on an improvised show for the passengers that was just delightful. Unfortunately, I did not press for particulars (Who was in it? What did they do?). Once in New York for the dinner, Sverre received a call early the next morning from someone with instructions about something that he was too sleepy to pay attention to. But once at the dinner (he was seated next to George Bush Sr.'s sister), he was approached by a man who began his conversation with "Ok, now, when you go up to make your speech, be sure to..." Sverre was stunned. --- My what? --- Your speech. Remember? I called you about it this morning... He quickly excused himself from the table and hightailed it to the bathroom. His speech would be following some of the most distinguished British actors to play in Masterpiece Theatre productions, and they got very competitive with their speeches, each trying to out-Shakespeare and and out-Wilde the last. At this point he described to me his feelings of panic as he sat on the toilet in the Waldorf-Astoria and tried to think of something he could say to the waiting crowd of dignitaries and mucky-mucks. It was a wonderfully animated telling of a funny story, and I'm sorry I can't even come close in my retelling of it. Anyway, he said he finally hit upon something and returned to his seat. When it was his turn to speak, this was how he started: (note: I am writing this as if he really said it, but this is not a direct quote. In the interest of narrative, I am --for all intents and purposes-- putting words in his mouth. Please bear with me and know that he told it much better.) "Many people have asked me if I was cold when shooting Last Place on Earth. Well, no, but I will answer that question with a story. When I was 16 I saw West Side Story, and decided that I had to see New York for myself. I got myself a job on an American Liner peeling potatoes. I thought that if I peeled my quota of potatoes early enough, I could slip out to see New York once we docked. So, I peeled and peeled and peeled until finally I had met my quota. I slipped on my jeans, went out into New York, and then I felt cool." Sverre said the audience had been sitting in rapt attention during his story (as was I), and cheered and applauded when he said that final line. He said that this was one of the proudest moments of his life.

Thoughts on the history

Sverre was very knowledgeable about polar history in general and Amundsen in specific (though this should be no surprise. Amundsen has been practically canonised in Norway along with Nansen, perhaps to make up for the fact that no one else on the planet seems to be taught anything about him in school). We discussed the possibility of lead poisoning as a contributing factor to Amundsens descent into paranoia toward the end of his life. He recommended "The Race", a book by Kåre Holt that pulls Amundsen off the historical pedestal in much the same way Roland Huntford did in LPOE. I hadn't read it when we met, and now that I have read it I'm dying to go back and discuss it further. I asked him if he ever discussed the politics of history's treatment of the Race for the South with any of his costars, especially the English. He told me that, not surprisingly, most of the English were Scott supporters, particularly Martin Shaw, who did his best to infuse as much dignity into an obviously slanted screenplay.

What's next

Sverre has a lot on his plate right now. He is currently starring as Orgon in the NationalTheater's production of Tartuffe (it's a great play to showcase his comic timing). He is also the voice of Captain Roarke in the Norwegian release of Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire. In July, he'll be heading to Sweden to shoot a Swedish miniseries.

In conclusion

In hindsight, it might have been better had I not been quite so starstruck. It occurred to me later how many opportunities I missed to ask pertinent LPOE questions. Nevertheless, that hour in the Continental Hotel bar remains the absolute highlight of an already fantastic trip. Sverre Anker Ousdal is a genuinely kind and open person, more down to earth than most non-famous people that I know. My deepest thanks to him for his hospitality.

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