Actor and painter Eirik Sæther explains how his role in Sick of Myself drew on a career split between fine art and film.
The world of conceptual art provides fertile ground for director Kristoffer Borgli in his new film Sick of Myself, described by Time Out as “a whip-smart black comedy out of Norway that shines a damning light on society’s self-obsession.” The film features actor and painter Eirik Sæther as Thomas, a contemporary artist in a narcissistic battle for attention with his waitress girlfriend Signe (played by Kristine Kujath Thorp). As Thomas’ fame increases, Signe goes to increasingly disturbing lengths to reclaim the spotlight. Similar in style to last year’s Norwegian hit The Worst Person in the World, Sick of Myself is a lemon-sharp comedy of bad manners.
Sæther’s performance as Thomas – a conceptual artist whose practice involves stealing furniture – is a masterclass in subtle egotism. As a working artist in Oslo himself, it was a part for which Sæther could draw on his own specialist knowledge and experience. First presented at Cannes this summer, Sick of Myself recently received rave reviews at this year’s London Film Festival. On the eve of its London premiere, Sæther talked to Norwegian Arts about Oslo’s art scene, burying bitterness and projecting personas.
You’re an artist playing an egotistical and irritating artist, how far did you have to stretch yourself for the role?
Ha, well I had to dig a little bit. For some scenes where I’m at my most jealous or at my most bitter, I had to dig into my own history and try to find the right pieces of real bitterness and real jealousy. Stuff like that you tend to want to forget or bury.
But both Thomas and Signe are unlikeable protagonists.
In the movie there’s no warmth, there’s no affection. We were conscious of trying to find out what the lead up was to them being together. What’s the fascination, where’s the love? So, we had a series of dates to restaurants as the characters. We acted out the first date, and we acted half a year into the relationship, and then we acted out when it was spiralling down.
Do you consider yourself as an artist who has dipped into acting or is it the other way around?
I’m an artist mainly but I’ve always done some sort of acting. I’ve done performance art since I started with art. Recently, I made film shorts of myself, with sort of a classical narrative where I played different dislikeable characters. Which Kristoffer [Borgli] saw. That was my audition process.
How accurately does Sick of Myself capture Oslo’s art world?
There is some local accuracy there. And Kristoffer is fascinated by hinting at real figures, situations and stories. Twisting them a little bit but still making sure that those in the know get the hint. There are a lot of references there. I feel there’s a lot of things going on in the art scene, more than any other Nordic city. It feels like being part of something. It’s definitely a struggle for most artists, it’s only a small percentage that makes a turnover. But, besides from the economy and studios, it’s intellectually a really flourishing city.
What is the focus of your own art?
Recently I had a major exhibition of oil paintings where I used postcards from Cannes as a background but skewed it. Of course, being in Cannes with the movie, I thought that’s a funny joke.
[While filming Sick of Myself] I was an adviser on the art itself. The quest was: you need to use stolen furniture and present it in a way that looks like art. So, we went through a lot of different stages. All of them became too subtle. In the few seconds you see the art, you weren’t able to catch that it was furniture. So, in the end they became like ‘ready-mades’ stacked on top of each other. It’s a side-story so you have to be clear visually what’s going on.
Did you steal the postcards in Cannes?
Ha! No, I paid for the postcards.
Is the theme of self-obsession in Sick of Myself touching on a change in Norwegian society?
I’m not sure if it’s a specific thing for Norway but it’s definitely a specific thing of contemporary culture, with the ‘economy of attention’. In Sick of Myself it’s very comic. Who’s the best narcissist? Who’s the craziest loser?
To some degree, I work with projecting a persona in my own projects. I mean, just the idea of painting postcards when you’ve been to Cannes, that is a projection of a self-obsessed character. And I’ve made a lot of Instagram stories, that I see as art, where I walk around in the streets acting like a character. Sometimes it’s a little hard to differentiate your character from your real persona, there are layers of acting.
As well as having an artist playing an artist, Sick of Myself features Anders Danielsen Lie – a doctor in real life – playing a doctor.
I think Kristoffer finds those things hilarious. Like staged reality, sort of, where the borders between fiction and reality becomes a blur. Especially with his previous movie, Drib. I can’t remember what’s real and what’s fake in that movie. In Sick of Myself as well, part of the story is taken from real events. There was a gang of artists and musicians who stole design furniture.
Is it right that you are playing real-life artist Ludvig Ravensberg in a new biopic of Edvard Munch?
Yes, it’s just a tiny role. The funny thing about it was the relationship stuff, him being Munch’s cousin. And thinking that he must have been jealous of Munch’s career. Their relationship – I connected that to all the jealousy in Sick of Myself. I wonder what Ludvig and Edvard’s dynamic was like. Ludvig being the underdog and going all the way to Copenhagen to pick Munch up at the hospital. And I guess Munch had some arrogance to him.
Do you want to continue combining acting and art projects?
I think one leads over to the other. So far it has, literally: all the roles I’ve had have been artists. Ha, I’m going to have a hard time making a living. I had never done any auditions before Sick of Myself, but they’re starting to pour in. Norwegian productions. It’s really exciting.
Sick of Myself will be released in UK cinemas by Modern Films in March 2023