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The Shape of Things to Come: 'The Square' Star Claes Bang Talks Working with Ruben Östlund, James Bond and His Musical Side

November 10, 2017Ben Mk






People often say, "art imitates life." But in writer/director Ruben Östlund's The Square, the phrase takes on a whole new meaning. Part scathing satire, part biting social commentary and part pitch-black comedy, the film follows Christian (Claes Bang), a museum curator who finds his sanity taking a turn for the worse, as a series of events — from a stolen cell phone, to a one-night stand with a journalist (Elisabeth Moss), to a museum promotional campaign that goes viral for all the wrong reasons — culminates in the undoing of his perfectly curated lifestyle.

The Square is now playing in limited release, and I recently had a chance to catch up star Claes Bang to chat about the film, his music side project and, of course, those James Bond rumors.


I'll start with the obvious question. What drew you to The Square?

Bang: Well, a lot of things, really. First of all, I think the story of this film — the whole universe of it — is amazing. And for the first casting, I hadn't read the script, but Ruben, he talked me through the whole film. And we did improvisations of a lot of the scenes when he talked me through it, and I just remember coming home from that first casting and thinking, "This is like the most amazing project that I've ever heard of."

The way his mind works, and the way he sort of thinks of all these little scenes and stories and how they all connect — I was really, really interested in getting into this way of working that he had, [to] really plunge into this character and get the chance to do something like 70 takes, even if they're 12 minutes long each takes, [and] sort of just try and see and take the character in any direction we might think would be right, and really investigate what can we do with this material. I mean, he spends all his money on shooting days, instead of effects. I think we shot this in something like 78 days, and I was there for 76.

I've said this before, and it's probably going to sound almost clichéd now, but I really do think that with this work that I was allowed to do here, I've driven the Rolls Royce of my job. I've got the chance to do what I suppose any actor would dream of. I mean, this was just amazing, and it's not to say that it wasn't tough, because obviously, as you can imagine, a shooting period that long is really exhausting. And also, Ruben and I weren't always the best of friends; we had fights about this or that, like you always do. You can't go through that process for 4 months without getting into all these arguments. [But] even if it was exhausting and tough, I'm really having a hard time seeing something in the future that will be as fulfilling as this was.


This is also your first international starring role. Even though you've been acting for over two decades, did you ever feel intimidated? And if so, were you able to channel that into your performance?

Bang: No, I wouldn't say [that I felt intimidated]. Because the casting process was really, really long, and [Ruben]'s really thorough about it. So I think we did something like 9 hours of casting over 3 casting sessions before he picked me. And then [when] we went on to prepare this film. I'd probably see him at least once a week before we started shooting for 3 months or something.

And I also started doing recordings of some of the scenes on my own and preparing. I transcribed an interview with a real theater director and sent it to him, and he commented on it. So we worked really thoroughly before we started shooting. So I actually felt that when we started shooting we were quite well-prepared. And then you start shooting, and he's not the kind of director that will tell you, "Oh my god, that was an amazing take." If he is really satisfied, he won't say it. And I think he does that to keep you on your toes.

So for the first 3 weeks, I was like, "My God, have you got the right actor for this?" But then I sort of saw that he was that way with everybody on the set, and he wasn't all that concerned with what was going on. I mean, as an actor, I really need to know, like," Oh my god, Claes, that was a wonderful take." And he doesn't give you that, so I had to get used to [how] he wasn't giving too much away. But when I realized that he was doing that with all the other actors as well, I started feeling more calm. And I know that he had been casting — I don't know how many actors, it's absolutely more than hundreds for this part — and he spent a lot of time doing it, so I was quite safe in the knowledge that he had sort of checked me out in every possible way. And that if he thought that I was right for it, I sort of relied on that.

And then, obviously, everyday of shooting you're always doubting yourself. You're always thinking, "Oh my God, did we get today what we wanted to get? Or is there something that we haven't gotten? Was it good enough?" There's always this doubt [if] it [was] good enough, really. I suppose that just comes with the territory.


You also mentioned that there was some improvisation involved. For your part, how much was improvised and how much was scripted? And how did that affect how you approached the movie?

Bang: Well, in the casting process, when I didn't know the script yet, [Ruben] just sort of laid out the scenes for me and he was like, "Please react to whatever happens here." That was that; that was the improv of the casting. And then on the day when we would shoot a scene [from] the script, we would sort of read through that, and then we'd start improvising — not to change the scene, and not to do something else with it — just to sort of keep the basic structure of the scene and in order to get at very organic and authentic way of doing it.

He would allow a lot of space for you as an actor to really dig into it and do your thing with it. And still, you could sense if you were trying to do something that he didn't want; you would know it right away. So every day actually started with improvs over the scene, and we almost every day ended up shooting the scene almost like it was written. But through the improv, we got at it in a very organic and authentic way. So the improvs weren't to try and change the content of the scene; with some of the scenes, you actually get a bit more. Almost every scene in the film is very, very close to how the scene looked in the script, which is sort of "went the long way out, come the short way back" somehow.


You worked with a talented group of people on The Square, including your director, Ruben Östlund, and your co-star, Elisabeth Moss. But when you're making a film — especially one as multilayered and as tonally varied as this one — how do you try to ensure that you're all on the same page, while also maintaining your own vision for your character?

Bang: Well, I wouldn't say that I have my vision for the character. I very much try and adapt to what [Ruben] wants. I don't see myself as an interpreter. I see myself as an instrument. I see myself as a piano or a violin that a director can sort of pull any notes out of. And in order to stay on the same page, that was actually quite easy. I mean, a film is not multilayered by the actor trying to be multilayered, because you can't do that. What you do on the day is you just do that situation; you just stay in that situation; you do your improv and you work that situation to the max to see how much you can get out of it. And then when you put all these scenes one after another, you probably get this quite complex and multilayered structure, but this is not something that we ever talked about when we were shooting it.

With Ruben, you never talk about character or psychology or background, you always just talk about relating to the situation, being in the situation, being as organic and authentic in the situation as you can be. And then it's actually up to him to sort of make sure that he has what he wants. It's not my thing to have that perfect overview of everything; I just went to the set every day, did my thing with him and with the other actors and just really tried to get that situation as true and organic and authentic as I could. If someone came up to me and said, "Would you please make this character really complex and multilayered?" I would say, "My God, I have no idea what you're talking about." To be asked to play complex, I would actually run off the set and say, "You need to get another actor." Because I can't do that.


What about the recent buzz that had you tapped to be the next James Bond? Even though Daniel Craig is reprising the role for Bond 25, would that have been a direction you would like to go in?

Bang: I think it's good fun and everything, but it is just rumors. I haven't really asked myself that question. Would I go in that direction? I think if they phoned me up tomorrow and asked me, "Could you come and do the next Bond?" I probably would say yes. [laughs] I'll have to talk with an agent about this if this would be the right thing to do right now. I imagine that doing Bond must be quite technical. I mean, I think it's quite the opposite to doing The Square, for instance, where you are allowed as an actor to sort of dig in deep into your toolkit. To be honest, I have no idea. I haven't asked myself the question. It is a very cool rumor, but it is a rumor.

You're also a musician. How do you balance your acting career with your musical ambitions?

Bang: Well that's quite easy, because I can't make a living off my music. My music is just something that I just do on the side. And I don't really think of myself as a musician, to be honest, because I play the piano sort of alright, and I play the guitar quite poorly, and I program my way out of the rest of it. And it's just really good fun, and I actually managed to get some of my tracks on national radio, which was quite cool.

And right now — I'm not really sure where this is going, but the woman who played my boss in the film (you know, with the glasses and the dog), she's actually sort of a semi synth pop legend in Sweden. And we found out during the film that we like all the same kinds of music. So I asked her if I could send her some of my demos, and now we've recorded 5 tracks together, and we just got signed to a label last week. So the first single of our collaboration is going to come out in a month or something like that.


The Square is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.




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