Danish actor Pilou Asbaek has made an incredible impression in homegrown films like the brilliant A Hijacking (sort of the Danish version of Captain Phillips) as well as the emotionally gripping A War. Now he’s making his way into Hollywood: Ben-Hur is his first major studio film, but he was also in Lucy opposite Scarlett Johansson, and he’ll also be seen as Batou in the upcoming live-action version of Ghost in the Shell, also with Johansson. He also joined Game of Thrones last season as Euron Greyjoy, and we’ll see more of him in Season 7 as well.
At the press day for Ben-Hur, we spoke with Asbaek about playing the real historical figure of Pontius Pilate, appearing in his first Hollywood movie and how he’s approaching his role in Ghost in the Shell.
Pontius Pilate is, aside from Jesus, the only real or historical person in this movie. So did you do any research into the historical Pilate at all?
Pilou Asbaek: Yes, I did. Out of respect for the historical character, of course, but also out of respect of – to find some inspiration for the character. Timur (Bekmambetov, director) was very fond of him being a soldier, a warrior, which is actually more correct than some of the Pontius Pilates that we’ve seen throughout history. Some people make him a nobleman, a guy who hasn’t been a part of the war, but the fact is the Roman Empire was built on soldiers. And to be a prefect of Judea, you had to become not only a nobleman, but a soldier who had conquered lands and stuff like that. So we made him very intimidating, strong.
He’s also been played by a lot of people…David Bowie played him (in The Last Temptation of Christ)…
Did you go back and watch any of those?
No. The thing is, I’ve portrayed characters who have been hijacked and stuff like that. If you start to read or see or take too much, people think that you’re stealing from them. I get inspired by Wikipedia or something like that. By the history books.
I’ve seen you in A Hijacking and A War, two great films from your home country…
Very different films!
Very different. Which leads to my question: what’s the transition been like going from Danish cinema to Hollywood?
Ben-Hur is the first American film I’ve ever done, because Lucy is a French production. It was Europa Corp, it was Luc Besson; it was American but it was a French production. So Ben-Hur was the first American one and it was incredible, because I came from an industry where the budget is like $3 million to make a film. That’s a big budget in Denmark. And then all of a sudden being part of this film where you have 5,000 extras, eight chariots, you’re working with Jack Huston, you’re working with Toby Kebbell, you’re working with Morgan Freeman, you’re working with these incredible, talented actors, and you’re standing there in your gold and red costume, and it’s a dream. It’s a dream come true. And all of a sudden, you’re like, “This is what I love about movies. This is magical. This is what we create –this is what the myth of the American film industry is based on.” You know what I’m saying? It was a hard period because I wasn’t with my family, but from a professional point of view, it was something I’ll cherish.
You’re working with Scarlett Johansson again in Ghost in the Shell, and playing what was an animated character. Can you talk about bringing that character to life in a live-action film?
He’s an animated character, but the anime is based on a manga. So I went back to the manga, back to Shirow, and looked at that for inspiration. So I based my character in Ghost in the Shell much more on the original manga, then on the anime.
Ben-Hur is now playing in U.S. theaters.