Now streaming on Shudder following much-lauded festival play, Attachment is the feature debut of Danish writer/director Gabriel Bier Gislason. It was following the mostly English-language movie’s world premiere at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival that FANGORIA spoke to Gislason and his three leads: Josephine Park, Ellie Kendrick and Sofie Gråbøl.
In Attachment, Gislason (who also discusses the film in FANGORIA #18, and is the son of Bird Box director Susanne Bier) combines Jewish culture and mythology with a tumultuous love story and occult chills. Park plays Maja, a former child actress in Denmark whose career has stalled, who hits it off with visiting Jewish grad student Leah (Kendrick). In the midst of their burgeoning romance, Leah suffers a debilitating seizure and must return to her home in London, which she shares with her mother, Chana (Gråbøl). The Orthodox Chana takes a domineering approach to Leah’s care, and Maja, who has joined the two in their house, becomes increasingly unsettled—especially as she comes to believe a supernatural presence dwells within its walls. Taking an intelligent and intense approach to the archetype of the Jewish mother and the darker side of the religion’s folklore, Attachment is also a sympathetic romantic drama showcasing excellent performances by its trio of stars.
Did anything in this movie relate to anything you had gone through in your own lives?
EK: Well, as a queer person, I was really excited about getting to play a queer role where it wasn’t about the gayness, and coming out and all that stuff. I was definitely able to bring parts of my identity to the story, but in a fantastical, supernatural way, which was a lot of fun. So I identify with that element of the role. Also, I believe all of us have had the experience of being so in love with someone that you can’t really see the wood for the trees. You can spin into that, whether it’s a parental relationship or a romantic relationship—loving someone so much, you can’t see outside of your bond. I can identify with that in many ways.
Sofie Gråbøl: I identify completely. [Everyone laughs] Being a mother, like you say, where it’s so hard to differentiate between when am I giving love, and when am I opposing, if that’s the word, my own wishes and kind of choking the one I love. I should mention as well how interesting that this role came out of my relationship with Gabriel. I actually sang goodnight songs to him when he was a kid, and now here I am.
Gabriel Bier Gislason: It’s true; I’ve known Sofie my entire life. I actually wrote Josephine’s role for Josephine and Sofie’s role for Sofie, and I’m only now realizing why: because she sang me lullabies once.
EK: She was like, “I’m getting that part one day!”
Ellie, was it easy for you to fit in with this trio who had known each other for so long?
EK: Gabriel had assembled a lovely crew and a very kind and friendly couple of other cast members, so coming in as the one person who wasn’t intimately connected with his life [laughs], I felt very welcome. I’d already seen Sofie’s work because in the UK, everyone loves The Killing [the hit Danish crime series in which Gråbøl stars], and I’d also seen her in other things. So I was a little starstruck when I first met her, thinking, “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe this person’s going to play my mum.” But then we just got on with it, didn’t we? And had a lovely time together.
SG: Yes, we did. We laughed a lot.
EK: Some would say too much, but I would say the right amount.
GBG: I don’t think you guys ever really got the fits…
EK: We did, we did! I’m glad you’ve blanked that out, but there were definitely moments when we were being less professional than we should! But we actually spoke about our characters’ relationship with each other, and there was such a richness in Gabriel’s script that it was fun to be able to play around with it. Sometimes it’s great when it’s a really short shoot; you don’t have too much time to get involved in conversations that can become overly convoluted. Your first thought can be your best thought, and with this, we had to go with that because we only got two takes for each shot, really. So it was just like, what’s the instinct? Go for it! That was quite a liberating way of shooting.
SG: As I’ve told Gabriel, it’s like he’s done five films when he hasn’t; it’s his first, but he is so playful and creative, even under great pressure. And then, I don’t know about here [in America], but in Denmark, when I ask my colleagues, “What are you working on these days?” they say, “Oh, it’s just another part.” You know, it’s always the role of the mother, and there are two ways to do it: You’re either the good mom or the bad mom. But I find—and maybe it’s also my age—that the archetypical character of the mother is so interesting because she actually holds both. I mean, she gives you life and love, but she also gives you her views on life, and you inherit those; you can’t help it. There’s that duality, and this woman Gabriel wrote contains both, in a very beautiful…
GBG: Somewhat extreme way!
SG: It is! She is the worst and the best.
Ellie and Josephine, you have great chemistry in Attachment; was it difficult to establish that with such a short production schedule?
EK: Though we hardly had any time, we worked very hard. Before we started, we read through all of the scenes, and if we had any questions or if we weren’t sure how it would work, we’d go to Gabriel in advance. We were actually quite nerdy when it came to preparing and put in a lot of time. So it’s great to hear that it paid off.
GBG: Just to add to that, since Ellie’s was the only role I wrote without having anyone in mind for it, I got sent a list of actors. Ellie’s name was at the top, and the moment I saw that and checked out her reel, I was like, “I think she’s the one.” So we met and chatted about it, and Ellie immediately had incredibly sharp observations about the script, really fun ideas, and got what it was about. So I was like, “Great, you can clearly act, so I don’t need to audition you, but we do need to do a chemistry read since it’s a love story.”
Because of COVID, that had to be over Zoom, so Josephine and I were at the production office, each in our own room, and Ellie was at home in London. I told Josephine, “I think it’s gonna be her,” and Josephine was like, “Great, let’s see how it goes.” But it was going to be really weird over Zoom. Chemistry reads are always weird over Zoom.
EK: At the best of times, yeah, let alone when you’re asking people to improvise.
GBG: Which I did. But even with that awkwardness, it was just clear immediately: “Oh wow, these two are really fun together, even on the Zoom screen.” They’d never met before, they just ran lines and improvised for about three minutes. And afterward, I went straight over from my office to Josephine’s, and the first thing Josephine said when I walked in was, “It’s her!” So I felt pretty sure that they were going to figure it out once they met, even with the little time we had to prepare.
I have to ask: Given how suffused the film is with the Jewish religion, is there any significance to the fact that Maja is first seen playing an elf—a Christmas character—for the kids in the library? [Everyone laughs]
GBG: I should have a more profound answer for that, but honestly, having known Josephine for so many years, I just really wanted to dress her up as an elf! [Everyone laughs]
JOSEPHINE PARK: Such a pleasure for you!
GBG: And to give it slightly more depth, in Denmark, there are these things called Christmas calendars, which are TV shows that play from December 1 to December 24 every year, and the two big national broadcasters pass the torch off to each other every other year. When you’re a kid, it’s the cultural highlight of your life: What’s the Christmas calendar this year? But there’s also a strange phenomenon where the actors in those shows never really go anywhere else, with few exceptions, because they just become identified with being an elf or whatever. This is a cultural reference that will be lost on anyone who’s not Danish, but for Danish viewers, if you tell someone you used to be in a Christmas calendar, there’s almost an automatic assumption that your career ended shortly after. So there was a shorthand in that for Danish audiences that I felt was interesting—and also, I really wanted to see Josephine run around in an elf costume [laughs].
EK: And she did it so well!
JP: Thank you, that was a great day!
Were you able to relate to Maja in the sense of looking at your career and wondering where your next role is coming from?
JP: No, I didn’t really think about that. But I did like the way her life is kind of stuck, and she is repeating this role over and over again. That’s kind of like my nightmare: to be appearing in a library as an elf princess.
Can you each talk about the most fun or challenging part of the shoot?
JP: Well, the big challenge was not having very much time, I guess, but as Sofie said, I really enjoyed working with Gabriel. I’ve known him for many years but was impressed with the way he was so open and listening, yet still not compromising any of his ideas. That made everyone around him very brave, and everybody trusted him, and that gave everyone such freedom. This was my first film acting in English, though, and I was very shy about that. I think you’re so connected to your language in some way that, in a sense, every Danish word connects with my emotional life, and to all of a sudden act in another language, that was challenging.
SG: Then you should try Hebrew! I think that was my challenge, but it was a fun one.
GBG: You had to say those prayers, yeah.
EK: I remember you doing a lot of chanting to yourself to try and remember it.
SG: Yes, but that goes with any character you play, that you have to own. You have to make it seem effortless, and obviously that was a very foreign world to me, personally.
GBG: You did it perfectly!
EK: There were two things that were the most fun for me. One was…well, I can’t talk about it too much because it has to do with the end of the film, but I enjoyed the more horrific elements and getting to do things that were quite different from the roles I’ve normally played. That was fun and really, really scary and challenging. Also, like these guys have said, how collaborative it was, and how up for change and experimenting and creativity Gabriel was. He gave us ownership over our roles and actively encouraged notes and comments. That was lovely, to feel like we were all very much a part of the creative process. Because there are some directors who are like, “OK, you’re the actor, go over there and do that. We’ve got the other stuff covered.” It can sometimes feel like there’s a real barrier between you as the cast and the rest of the creative team. So this was truly rewarding, to feel like we were all properly part of this gang, creating this wild tale. And it was also great for me because I was stuck in London, which was COVID central, and I got to have a lovely six weeks in Denmark!
Attachment is now streaming on Shudder.