“As I’m getting older, with more experience from life, I’m also getting more passionate about changing the world for the better,” Ágústa reflects as we sit in the empty dining room of Fjörukráin, the Viking hall in Hafnarfjörður that her father helped build. “But how to do it and in what way, I don’t know. I’m just open to the inner voice and intuition. I’ve never been a planner, but you get scared as you get older, with all the issues that we have, and need to change and be brave. I so hope and pray that I can be a part of some kind of change. I think I’m just getting ready for whatever form that presents itself to be.”
This is a running theme with Ágústa—she is a firm believer in having an open heart and an open mind to the changes that life might throw her way, in having fun being the guiding light. It’s this attitude that has informed every creative decision she has made throughout her career, reflected in the broad range of projects and roles she has taken on. Now that she has landed a major role in HBO Europe’s Beforeigners, once again attracting international attention, we were curious to know what shaped Ágústa into the artist she is today.
Being born into it
Acting has always been a part of Ágústa’s life, even if she wasn’t aware of it at first.
“I think it was a kind of state of spirit that I was born into,” she says. “I was always singing and drawing, and mucking around. Plus, my mom was always singing and dancing with us, and my dad is an artist. So it’s kind of what I was born into.”
Her family took a liberal approach to how they raised her, giving her the freedom to find her own way. “I was never pressured by people asking me what I was going to be when I grew up, whether a doctor or whatever. That wasn’t a part of my mindframe to decide anything. I’ve always been in a state of flow, so to speak, so there wasn’t anything I decided on being or becoming for a job. It just kind of developed in a natural, flowing way.”
Nonetheless, Ágústa found herself drawn to acting, in a purely organic fashion.
“As a child, you’re always playing and acting pretend. That was a thing we used to do a lot when I was a kid; tricking and spying on people. Like pretending to be blind or something in front of tourists, or pretending to be wounded. Also, prank phone calls. That was a lot of fun. I never thought about as ‘acting’. I never went to the theatre. I saw movies, but I was never really captured by people acting or stardom, because we were brought up with that mentality that everybody is equal, so we didn’t really idolize anyone.”
Kill your idols
This final point is important to Ágústa on a personal level. She believes there has been a kind of cultural shift in Iceland; where once the likes of Bobby Fischer or Damon Albarn could walk the streets of Reykjavík without so much as a second glance, Iceland has more recently begun to get hooked on celebrity culture.
“I think that’s really unhealthy,” she says. “The average person’s self-esteem goes down if you think someone is more important than you are. We’re all equal. You’d never pick a favourite amongst your children.” She worked for a time as a kindergarten teacher, which deepened this conviction. “I love all kids. That’s what you learn from being a teacher. You can see the beauty in everybody, no matter how difficult the kids are. You can love every child as much, and I think that’s the same thing with people. You can’t measure people’s worth in something as shallow as being famous. Because anyone can become famous in Iceland if you’re stubborn enough.”
Ágústa’s first film audition—for the Hrafn Gunnlaugsson film Hin helgu vé—took place when she was 10 years old. She advanced pretty far in the auditions—part of which, inexplicably, involved pretending to be a cat and a dog—until her parents read the script.
“They were like ‘No way’ and I said ‘Why not?’ and they said ‘You’ll thank us when you’re older’, and they were right,” she says with a laugh. “It had a lot of nudity and killing, kids watching people have sex. Just a bit disturbing for a 10-year-old to take part in. So we didn’t do that.”
When she was 17, she took part in a photoshoot for a hairdressing competition that her friend was competing in, when a photographer approached her, offering her to take part in a group of people travelling to New York to take part in the Modeling Association of America International competition. This time in New York included tryouts for soap opera acting, which she took part in more as a lark than anything else.
“I had a prepared text, for a scene where I was breaking up with a guy, and I decided I’d mindfuck him; just confuse him and make him uncomfortable,” Ágústa says. “That was my aim: just to play. Not acting. It was really far from me. So I went in, played a bit with his mind and had fun, and I ended up in the second place, and invited me to come live in New York and act in soap operas. I was like, ‘What? No, I’m 17. I’m not going to move to New York and act in soap operas, are you crazy?”
Up on a stage
This same hairdresser friend also introduced her to amateur theatre; in this instance, Leikfélag Kópavogs.
“I had a really good director, Ágústa Skúladóttir,” she says. “She kind of changed my life. At first, it was awkward to stand on a chair and give a recital. But then she allowed us to make our own characters, and I was there for three years just having fun and making things. It’s really easy to dare me into doing things.”
Ágústa would end up spending three years of her life in this theatre, an experience which, while educational and rewarding, was also gruelling.
“I have a great love of creating things, but when you’re in theatre, your creative process is not as big. It’s very easy to be overworked in theatre. I like things that you can look back on, like movies—you make a product and it’s there and it’s always there. But theatre stays in your heart and soul, and if it’s good enough it makes a difference in the audience’s hearts. So if I had to pick—and I have picked!—I would put theatre out of my life because it’s so time-consuming and it can easily take over your life. I value family over work, so that’s why I said goodbye to the theatre.” Even shooting films will afford actors long periods of downtime; contrary to popular belief, being on a live stage is far more demanding, in Ágústa’s estimation. “In theatre, I was working every day and night, weekends, too. I only had Mondays off. It drains you, your family and social life. It’s not remotely worth it for me.”
However, one of the people who saw her perform at this theatre—Gaukur Úlfarsson—would prove helpful in launching Ágústa onto the international stage with a new project: Sylvía Nótt.
“Congratulations, for I have arrived”
“She was quite the puzzle,” Ágústa reflects. “We had a lot of mini-Sylvías in our society. And in that year, 2004, we were building up to an explosion in our money-crazy society, everyone had a new car, so the party was getting pretty tiring for us. We were getting a bit sick of people’s shallow attitudes towards life. We had TV characters like Sylvía at the time. Just before Gaukur and I made Sylvía, in 2004, I had quit my job as a kindergarten teacher, and was asked to front a TV show; like sitting on a couch with a young stud, the two of us together talking about music and famous people. With my amateur theatre character-building background, I wanted to bring that into television, so I asked Gaukur to help me. We started to make a character gallery, and the network picked Sylvía, saying they wanted to make a show revolving around that girl. It was a nice choice by [former television station] Skjár 1.”
This satirical take, embodying Iceland’s nouveau riche culture, had several layers to her. But was she based on any one person?
“The way Sylvía talked, and the foundation of her before the philosophy came in, that character was based on two really good people who are close to me,” she says. “One, who acted pretty much like Sylvía when she was drunk, and the other was a child. Then we layered her up. For example, everyone was saying ‘skiluru’ (“y’know”) and I was really annoyed by that so I decided I’m going to put ‘skiluru’ with every other word I say. I was just trying to kill the word.”
She and Gaukur played the media masterfully in the cultivation of this character, at points contending that Sylvía was the daughter of the director of Skjár 1, reflecting the often nepotistic nature of the Icelandic brand of success. Sylvía Nótt’s television show, Sjáumst með Sylvía Nótt, was a sort of cringe-comedy series, featuring awkward interviews driven by Sylvía’s seemingly boundless self-confidence. It was a huge hit, and it wasn’t long before a songwriter approach Ágústa and Gaukur about Sylvía competing in Eurovision 2006.
“Gaukur and I would make every decision based on ‘Would Sylvía do this?’ and of course, she totally would,” Ágústa says. “It wasn’t a plan, it was just something that happened. Which is in keeping with how Sylvía developed. And what does Sylvía do when she’s actually in the competition, how does she talk to others? People were on needles, this timebomb on live television. It was very bold of the nation to vote for her. Huge punk move.”
When the satire is too convincing
Nonetheless, the satire was lost on a lot of people overseas. Even some Icelanders were fooled by the character.
“It was really brain-frying for a lot of people, even people who went to school with me,” she says and recounts being in a bar, running into a former classmate. “He grabbed me with both arms and asked, ‘Ágústa, what happened to you?’ and I was like ‘What do you mean?’ and he said ‘What did they do to you? You were always so nice.’ When I figured out he was talking about Sylvía I was like ‘I was acting!'”
The response to Sylvía Nótt’s performance of her Eurovision song, Congratulations, not to mention her behind-the-scenes antics, rankled a lot of people. Ágústa admits the backlash got to be too much, “but I was having so much fun I didn’t even notice it. But after Eurovision was done I slept on the beach for two weeks.” She had gone on tour as Sylvía through the Balkans and Scandinavia, with only a two-day pause between Eurovision and the tour, filming the whole time. “But it was a lot more fun than it was tiring.”
Following this, Ágústa took a completely different approach to her career, eschewing even any aesthetic trappings that might remotely resemble her former alter-ego. “I was just covered in wool clothes. I didn’t even want to wear mascara. I’d never been exposed publicly as myself. I have many sides. I have a lady side, a bit of punk in me, and a bit of a hippy, like many people have. So at that time, I really exaggerated my Icelandic hippy side.”
The silver screen
While the sun may have set on Sylvía Nótt, it also rose upon a new film career for Ágústa. This included some serious, even heavy, dramatic roles in films such as Baltasar Kormákur’s Jar City and Olaf de Fleur Johannesson’s crime drama City State. When asked which is more challenging, comedy or drama, Ágústa took the opportunity to reflect on the state of Iceland’s acting world.
“Comedy is way more scary,” she says. “A lot of our greatest actors are our best comedians, who then develop into drama. But they’ve had a hard time, because the hierarchy of acting is such that it’s really hard to get into. Even if you studied abroad and come back to Iceland. But it’s changing a bit, with stand-up comedy kind of levelling the game a little.” In Iceland, she says, you have to go to the one acting school, and then only two or three people are selected. But is it changing? “It’s still very much like this. I would love to see more than one school.”
Vikings: not just for nerds anymore
Ágústa’s latest project, HBO’s Beforeigners, has been getting very positive reviews. Set in Oslo, Norway in the near future, it features characters from the Stone Age, the Viking Age and the 19th century turning up in the modern-day, with complex results.
“It gets into people coming from other countries, not speaking the language, not having your family, being traumatised and lost, and how we accept each other, and how we decide—or not—to understand each other and live together,” she says. “That was very appealing to me. With HBO connected to it, I felt I could trust this project. And my character [a Viking woman named Urðr Sighvatsdóttir] is so well-written and I can reflect on many things in my character. At times it felt like it was written for me.”
There’s a good reason why Ágústa would feel such a strong connection to the character, given her family background.
“My father was one of the first guys of this generation to pick up our Viking heritage as a cool thing,” she says. “I grew up in a Viking village (Ásgarður, in south Iceland), and he was making Viking souvenirs and such. And at that time, it wasn’t cool to be into Viking stuff. It was considered nerdy! It’s only recently become a cool thing, where young people have become proud of their Viking heritage.”
The magic of play
Ágústa believes that in any project she has taken up, there has been a recurring theme of the roles seemingly written for her, even when they weren’t. Jar City, for example, was based on a book of the same name by Arnaldur Indriðason and written years before Ágústa became famous.
“In every assignment I do, the connections reflect my personal theme or what’s going on in my own life,” she observes. “It’s ridiculous. Everything is so close, always. And it was no different with Beforeigners. I have no explanation for this, and I don’t want to dive into it because I think I would go crazy.”
When I point out that this seems to be a running theme in her career—following one’s heart and being driven by the desire to have fun—Ágústa is philosophical, with closing words that could almost be words of advice for aspiring artists anywhere.
“The magic happens when you’re playing,” she says. “That’s the thing we all strive to have. We all want to be happy, we all want to have magic in our lives. I think that makes a good perspective in creating things and touching people’s lives. Having fun is the core of it. If you take it too seriously, or think you’re not enough or have to be a certain way, that’s when you get nowhere in your career and unhappy in your life. I think you’d be much happier digging holes for a living than being an unhappy creative person.”
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