Connie Nielsen: When a Performance is Art

by Tina Jøhnk Christensen March 7, 2019
Actress Connie Nielsen

jim spellman/ wirimage/getty images

I Am the Night,  the TNT limited series directed by Patty Jenkins, focuses on the real-life story of Fauna Hodel, a white girl who was adopted by a black family and told she was biracial. The truth, it turns out, is far from that. She is a relative of George Hodel, a physician who was considered a suspect in the murder of Elisabeth Short a.k.a. the Black Dahlia, one of the most lurid murders in the annals of Los Angeles and perhaps the city’s most infamous unsolved crimes. Nielsen plays the fictitious ex-wife of Hodel and the mother of the woman who was forced to give her away to adoption.  The Danish actress portrays a woman who is loyal to a man who can easily be described as a monster – and a character that belongs to the era of the film noir.

What attracted you to the series? Was it mainly working with Patty Jenkins again after the success of Wonder Woman or was it the subject matter of the series or maybe your character, Corinna Hodel?

It is definitely a mixture of all of the above. I felt that it was a really good story and I think any story right now that speaks to the role of race and to a certain degree even gender – and many of the problems that we are dealing with currently are interesting to me. Then, of course, I am pleased that Patty is calling me and asking me to do it. I immediately said ‘of course’. Also, I love the character. The character was very different from anything I have done before, she was outrageous. At the same time, I could see her vulnerabilities and her weaknesses and I was interested in her experience and story and why she had become this person. It is always a good sign when you are interested in knowing more about the character.

You mention race and gender. Are those issues close to your heart?

Any kind of injustice is close to my heart. I think it is to most people’s heart. Justice is a human thing to care about. I think that we have been seeking it since the dawn of civilization. I think that any kind of injustice whether it is racial or gender-based or economic for that matter is something that we have to continue to seek to talk about.

Corinna Hodel is not a character based on a real person but on several people. Why would she stay loyal to someone abusive like George Hodel?

That was really interesting about her. The character is built in part on one of George Hodel’s wives whom I believe was a screenwriter. But we did not make her a screenwriter. Here is someone who is an artist in her own right: Someone who is a performance artist. We had an incredible scene where you get to see which type of performance artist she is and it is a very interesting moment in the series.

What kind of research did you do to play her?

I based it on everything that was written on the page and also the psychological research as well as the art research that I made. I was reading a lot about Marina Abramovic before doing the abovementioned scene. Not to imbue it with Marina Abramovic but to kind of understand where Corinna was coming from and how her mind worked as an artist when she was doing some of her famous first performance art. A lot of it was asking the audience to mirror her and that would enrage a lot of people – her absolute vulnerability and almost radical form of vulnerability where she would either stand completely naked or where she would put weapons into people’s hands or at least make them available to them. It was interesting to read what people’s reactions were. In Naples, when she did the first performance Rhythm O in 1974 –a lot of the audience reactions were extremely aggressive. A lot of the audience members who were interacting with her were reacting as if her nakedness or her vulnerability made them super aggressive.

A scene from the limited series "I Am the Night", 2019

Connie Nielsen as Corinna Hodel in a scene from I Am the Night.

tnt

 

How did you use this information in the scene of I Am the Night?

I really felt that this was something that was almost happening in the scene in our series. Obviously, the people who were playing the audience were playing a role, but they were not scripted that way and you could kind of see that when we put a pair of scissors in their hands and they were allowed to come to me and cut my dress in pieces – like how different people would react and how different experiences would come up in them. Not to compare it but it made me think a little bit of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment where you just tell people: ‘you are a guard’ and ‘you are a prisoner’ and people just started behaving that way. They really started taking on the role as if it were a true experience. And I loved doing that kind of research in the role and obviously, that scene is emblematic in what Corinna is exploring herself. I think she is exploring her own vulnerability but she is also working out underlying issues.

In the series, she has been married to a man, George Hodel, who can be described as a monster. How did you sympathize with this woman, who kept silent even though she seemed to know about her husband’s deeds?

I looked into which kind of woman would, in fact, marry and stay for quite a while with someone like that and even after no longer being married to him, why would she continue to assist him? And one of the things you see in psychological literature when you look at anything that has to do with class malignant narcissists. The type of person that they look for is someone whose boundaries they can cross so that fits neatly into Corinna’s kinds of art as well. She has invited people to cross her boundaries and their own for that matter.

What else did you learn about her through her art and did she feel like a victim herself?

I think that she could not think of it like that at all but I think that she drinks because of it and when she is drunk she knows the truth and she can face the truth. She is someone who dares look at herself when she is drunk and then it becomes almost too heartbreaking with the choices that she has made: That she has let this person – George Hodel – invade her. I do wonder what is it that happens to women like that. One thing that you see is that they are co-dependent. They are attracted to the monster’s apparent vulnerability and what they get back is that they are useful for that monster. They, therefore, believe that they can be loved through her sort collusion with this guy.

Can you talk a little about your knowledge of this story – the Black Dahlia is obviously a well-known part of Los Angeles history – but were you aware of this particular part of the story about Fauna Hodel?

I read the book of course about her. I like to also look at it as a piece of art. I see it as a memoir but also as a work of art that explores not just a real story but also a historical time in Los Angeles and a very strong and beloved genre which is the typical LA noir. And so there is that kind of mix with reality and imagination – the kind of free imagination. In the moment that I walk into a scene, I don’t start thinking and analyzing it – in that moment I have already put myself in a place where I am going to even do unexpected things as Corinna.