Directed by Ron Howard and adapted from the Dan Brown best-seller, Inferno follows famous symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), after he wakes up in an Italian hospital with amnesia and quickly finds himself on a trail of clues that are tied to Dante and his map of Hell. Teamed up with Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), the doctor treating him, they race across Europe to track down and stop the release of a global virus that would wipe out half of the world’s population.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen (who plays Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey, head of the World Health Organization) talked about how nice it is to play a role that’s a part of the story in her own right, the pleasure of entering different universes, how smoothly Ron Howard runs a set, the incredible experience of shooting in Florence, Italy, and the challenge of doing stunts. She also talked about playing Theresa Cullen (the head of Quality Assurance) on HBO’s Westworld, working on a need to know basis, what attracted her to the project, and what her ideal theme park would be.
Collider: Between being the head of the World Health Organization in Inferno and running the theme park on Westworld, how does it feel to be a woman in a position of such power who’s clearly not to be messed with, on either account?
SIDSE BABETT KNUDSEN: It’s a pleasure. It feels good. Both of the parts were inspired by the part that I played on Borgen, as the prime minister. I think they’re both great parts and very enjoyable. It’s great to get these parts which have nothing to do with family relations. It’s nice to play such a great character who’s there, in her own right. She’s just doing what she’s doing and she is who she is, and the rest is a mystery. I really love that. We don’t need to know the whole story, or the whole psychological background. What we see is where she’s at, right now. In Inferno, we don’t even know where she’s from. I love that. Normally, that’s what would normally stop me from getting that part. I’m Danish, but you don’t know where she’s from. Ron Howard said, “She’s from where you’re from.” That’s another boundary falling down.
Ron Howard has said that he liked working with you because you’re very creative, you’re very intelligent and you’re very humanistic. How do you feel that you approach the work? Do you approach each character the same way?
KNUDSEN: No, not at all. To me, the pleasure is that I can enter these different universes. I’ve been so lucky to do different things. The world in which Westworld takes place is so unique and bizarre, and it’s really interesting to explore that whole universe with the language and brutality going on there. With Inferno, there’s the Dan Brown mystery. My part depends on Robert Langdon, so when he doesn’t remember her, it’s more mysterious. And then, we have some very intimate and close moments, which is a different context. They all demand different approaches, so I don’t approach it the same way.
What’s it like to be on a set with people like Ron Howard and Tom Hanks? Do things run very smoothly because they’ve both been doing this for so long?
KNUDSEN: Exactly, and they are surrounded by people they know and trust, who have been in this business, as well, and who know them. It was very, very smooth and very safe. This was an international cast that comes from different places, but you felt very safe, in a short amount of time, because everybody knew what they were doing. They’re also communicative. It’s amazing, the way Ron Howard makes everybody understand what they’re doing. Coming from Europe, that’s much more traditional there. The director is the center of the whole story. He’s the heartbeat of the story. And it was like that with Ron Howard, as well. You could always refer back to him for what he was trying to tell, which was nice.
What did you most enjoy about being a part of this production, and telling this story with this cast, and what were the biggest challenges for you?
KNUDSEN: I loved that we were shooting in Florence. That was so amazing. I love Florence. It’s beautiful. It’s got wonderful places, but it’s crowded. To be on a film set that had the capacity to block off and reserve the whole museum was such an exquisite luxury. That was really amazing. How else would you get the Hall of 500 all to yourself? That was amazing, and I enjoyed it very much. The difficulty was ultimately with the action. I’d never done an action film before, and there were all the stunts in the water, jumping around and getting wet. That was challenging, but really fun. I loved doing it.
Why do you think Inferno can appeal to not only fans of the first two films and the books, but also people who are coming to the story totally fresh?
KNUDSEN: It has very big themes and it’s an action movie. It’s a wonderful treasure hunt, following these codes, but the codes are made of history, art and poetry. It feels rich and there’s a lot of beauty in it. You’ll see beautiful places and beautiful art. There is that layer to it, as well. And it could not have a more universal topic than over-population of our little planet.
Your character is very connected to Robert Langdon, but you mostly only cross paths with each other. As a result, what was it like to actually get to interact with Tom Hanks?
KNUDSEN: That was pure pleasure. That was really nice. In that pace and in those big movements, there was room for something really small and detailed and very intimate in those meetings. And Tom is so wonderful to act with because he’s just so there with you. You get to play together, and it’s really pleasurable. That was nice. It felt like shooting all kinds of different films, at the same time.
I’ve seen the first seven episodes of Westworld, which is such an interesting show because it seems like each layer that you peel back just has so many more layers underneath. Did it feel that way while you were working on it, or were you given more information than that?
KNUDSEN: It was very much on a need to know basis, I have to say. I knew my story and where I was going, but I didn’t know anything about the rest of it. Every time we got a new episode script, it was like, “So, that’s where it’s going?” I was absolutely as excited as I would be as a viewer, every time I read a script. Hearing Jonah [Nolan] and Lisa [Joy] tell me about the project, in the beginning, there were so many layers, so many possibilities, such potential and so much crazy ambition. It was enormous. It felt like it just kept opening up and up.
We don’t really get to see who these people are outside of Westworld, or what their life was like before they were there as guests or employees. So, what was it that appealed to you about the show? Was it the character, specifically, or was it the themes the show is exploring?
KNUDSEN: Because the ideas are so interesting, that’s what first attracted me. There are so many layers, philosophically and about human beings and technology and the dark side and with technology, that it just felt like something I really, really wanted to be a part of. And then, when I read the character and I read her lines, I’ve never been allowed to swear so much. She’s such a lovely bitch. There’s something that I associated with a young Lauren Bacall, in a modern way. There’s something very old Hollywood about it.
When you’re telling a story where you don’t really know exactly what’s going on, was there a point in the season that you felt like you fully had a grasp on the vastness of the story that’s being told?
KNUDSEN: Absolutely not! Never! They give you a good keyhole, but it was still a keyhole. I have no idea where this is going.
There have been some very interesting fan theories about the characters and what’s going on.
KNUDSEN: Oh, really? I don’t know anything about that. Of course! Everything I hear is that people are very excited about it. With the first episode, people were like, “This is what it’s going to be?!” And then, with the second episode, they were like, “Okay, we’ve turned another page.” I think it was very brave to start off pretty easy, and then have everything change.
If you were someone who could be a guest in a place like this, have you thought about what your ideal world would look and be like and who your ideal host would be?
KNUDSEN: I haven’t thought about that. But I remember once, when I was planning to travel and I had some free time, I had this feeling that there was some place out there and I couldn’t figure it out. So, I was sitting with my atlas and turning pages, and I knew that I wanted to spend a month somewhere. It was only when I saw this program about the ‘60s that I thought, “That’s where I want to go. I want to go to the ‘60s for a month. I would really love that.” So, if you could create the ‘60s for me, that would be great.
Inferno is now playing in theaters.