Vulture is recirculating this piece, originally published during the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, in celebration of The Worst Person in the World’s theatrical release.
Renate Reinsve is having the sort of breakout Cannes Film Festival moment that might be dramatized in a Cannes film. The 33-year-old Norwegian actress is the star of Joachim Trier’s latest, The Worst Person in the World, a funny and poignant 12-chapter rom-dram (or rom-com, depending on your perspective) that follows four years in the life of Julie, a charming, bright Oslo woeman flitting between jobs and relationships, trying desperately to figure out what her life should look like. It’s the first leading role for Reinsve, a theater actress and Dakota Johnson doppelgänger who had a single line of dialogue in Trier’s Oslo, August 31st back in 2011. The critics here can’t get enough of her: The Guardian proclaimed, “She’s just so good. A star is born”; elsewhere, she’s “sparkling,” “vibrant,” and “dazzling.” Just halfway into the fest, there’s already buzz that she’s a shoo-in to win the festival’s Best Actress award.
As a 30-something woman trying desperately to figure out what my life should look like, I too loved Trier’s film and Reinsve’s effervescent performance. The Worst Person in the World is a quirky, bittersweet take on a world with far too many options that’s also falling apart. Thanks to Reinsve’s natural levity, the film manages to engage with topics like climate change and existential angst and the Me Too movement without losing its sense of humor. It’s full of surprisingly weird moments, like a scene wherein Julie trips on mushrooms and hallucinates herself ripping out a tampon and hurling it at her absentee dad.
Trier wrote The Worst Person in the World specifically with Reinsve in mind; I caught up with her a couple of days after the film’s premiere. Looking every bit the Cannes starlet in a navy-blue Louis Vuitton minidress on the patio at Le Grand Hôtel Cannes, she talked about what it’s been like to be on the receiving end of sudden attention (among other things, it made her puke) and, of course, that tampon scene. In the middle of our interview, Trier himself made an appearance to explain what it is about Reinsve that made him want to center an entire film around her.
You’re getting all of this press attention very suddenly, with everyone here saying you’re going to be this big star. How does it feel?
It’s very overwhelming for me. One day I woke up and I puked. And today I woke up and I cried.
What made you puke and cry?
Well, I read the review where the line said, “A star is born,” in the Guardian. I read it the night before, but I woke up and I was like, “Oh no. I ruined the film. The rest of the reviews are gonna be, ‘It’s a great movie, but the lead, she destroyed the film.’” I was really nervous about the press conference. I just saw another good review, and then I just puked. Today, two places it was written, “This might be the best film of Cannes.”
Now, having a few days to digest all of that, do you feel any better?
No. I feel a little nausea all the time. I do. But, probably when I get home and land, it’ll be okay. “Shit, that happened.”
Tell me about how this all came together. I know you were in Oslo, August 31st, but how did you first meet Joachim and when did you start collaborating on this movie?
In that film, in that scene, I had one line: “Let’s go to the party.” It had to be filmed in nine days, though, because of the lighting. So we spent a lot of days together, and it was so much fun. We were this group of new friends just partying. We had to bring that vibe to the set. Then Joachim and I would meet here and there and talk about the same themes: love and life, that it was all chaos, it never went the way we wanted it to go. We were so aligned on the existential thoughts of it all. Those things combined — and I’d done a lot of light humor stuff and a lot of Russian, hard theater — made him think I was good for this part.
You’ve never been the lead of a film before, right?
No, no, never. I was so scared of disappointing him. There was no audition, right? So he didn’t really know what I’d do for this specific role. I would study the script hard, and talk to him a lot about the character. We’d talk about, “Should we make it a bit different?” But I always landed on being me. She’s written like me. I feel so close to her. I’m hearing that a lot of people connect to Julie and the things she goes through.
I really did. I was like, “Hmmm, this is my life.”
We wanted people to be liberated by the idea that life is chaos. Things won’t go the way you think it’s gonna go. Being flawed and making a fool of yourself half the time is okay.
And you helped shape the character, right? How did that work?
Well, it’s two men [co-writer Eskil Vogt and Trier] writing a female character. I was very nervous reading the script for the first time, and Joachim was nervous for me reading it. But I was so moved and relieved by how accurately they wrote a female character of this time. For them, it’s not about gender, but writing a whole person with flaws.
But Joachim wanted my input about the character — if I wanted to add something, the process was free and open. But the script was already good and the role was so good, there wasn’t much to add. On set, we laid a good foundation of scene analysis. But once we started filming, it was all about letting go. Losing control. Not deciding about anything before filming the scene.
And he wrote it specifically for you, thinking about you and basing the character on you. Did you notice right away when reading the script that Julie felt like you?
Yes. That [she felt like] life is chaos. And that she doesn’t know what she wants. She can’t find her identity, and she struggles to find it through work and who she’s with. She’s very sincere and true to herself. But there are some sides to her that … she falls in love with [her boyfriend] Aksel, but she almost needs him to define her. That’s ultimately why she needs to leave, because he’s kind of in control of that relationship. She hasn’t figured out who she is yet.
Do you feel that way, or have you passed the Julie phase of your life?
That’s a good question, because Joachim knew me so well, through all of our conversations. He knew I’d been through all of that: searching with my thoughts, my style, my boyfriends, everything. I think that’s maybe what’s closest to me. But eventually, you have to accept that everything is a mess and you fuck up your choices all the time. Julie discovers that not making a choice is also a choice, and suddenly it’s too late for her. She’s where she’s at, without having control over it.
What I really related to with her was this terror she has about the permanence of her choices. This idea that you make a choice among many and can’t take things back. Did you and Joachim speak about that sort of fear?
Yeah. It’s a connection to death, for Joachim. You’re mortal, and living now — things change all the time. You’re filled with so much impression, but you’re so driven by individual ambition. Everyone is. And that makes it really hard to make choices that are right. It’s so hard to navigate in that chaos. I think having that many choices — you can change your career tomorrow, if you want. It’s easy now. It wasn’t before. It’s a generational thing.
The film seems to gesture at the idea that part of the problem is that we live so long now. There’s that brief flashback to Julie’s ancestors, the oldest of whom died in her 30s, which was the life expectancy for women at that time.
Yeah, yeah! We’re privileged in so many ways. We have too much time. Back then, they just had to make a choice and [lived with it] for ten years and it was over. But we can do whatever we want, whenever we want. It’s horrible.
Some of the reviews are calling The Worst Person in the World a rom-com. I can see how that might be a good descriptor for it, though it gets pretty heavy. Did you guys talk about it that way?
No, we didn’t. It’s melancholy. But it’s very Joachim Trier–esque, as we say. But it’s a lot more vibrant and lovable and light. All of his themes are still there, and he asks the same questions, and he talks about those deep existential questions, but it’s done in a totally different way.
It’s definitely one of the first rom-coms, or however you want to refer to it, that deals directly with this idea of deciding not to have kids due to climate change. That’s where I’m at and it was refreshing to see the characters talk about it. Do you and Joachim feel that way? Or was that specific to the character?
We didn’t talk about that specifically, no. Her not having kids isn’t a big thing, because so many people say that now. But we both can relate to that: When is it right? Am I ready? Have I found my full potential yet, or can you even do that? For Eivind [another one of Julie’s boyfriends], it’s the climate crisis.
Was The Worst Person in the World always the title?
Not from the beginning, but in Norway we have this saying — if you fuck up, you say, “Ugh, I’m the worst person in the world.” So it comes from this catchy phrase.
Right. It’s how she thinks about herself, and I can relate to that.
You often feel like the worst person in the world?
Oh, yeah. I think that’s a healthy sign.
I want to ask about some of the most memorable scenes in the movie. I love the moment when Julie pauses time and runs across Oslo to meet Eivind while she’s still with Aksel. I think every person on earth has had that fantasy at one point or another. Did you guys discuss that moment as a sort of alternate reality for her, or just a fantasy?
I think it’s a visual conceptualization of — sometimes you just wish that you could have gaps beside reality to live out the potential of a meeting. I think it’s just really liberating that Julie actually gets to do that in an epic scene, to actually live out her daydream.
How did you accomplish that scene? There are so many extras, just completely frozen, all across the city.
They wanted to do it old-school, so there’s no CGI. The extras would stand frozen, and I would run through them. The police had cut off one of the busiest streets at the busiest time, so everyone was so angry. Oslo is small. I still hear from people who are like, “I was there.” So we had to run in, stand still, do the scene, run out, wait for traffic. It was a big coordination, for a few days.
There’s a chapter of the film where Julie writes a short story or sort of viral essay called “Oral Sex in the Age of Me Too,” about enjoying getting “mouth-fucked,” which was sort of her Carrie from Sex and the City moment. Very “I couldn’t help but wonder …”
The thing with Julie is that she is sexually liberated. That was important. At some points, she’s sexually aggressive. Not aggressive, but how do you say it in English?
Yeah, or liberated. When she bites Eivind’s ass. Joachim and I, we feel that women’s sexuality is often portrayed very submissively. We wanted it to be more like what we’ve experienced. A female character who’s that — how do you say a softer word than aggressive?
Yeah, she’s dominant —
[Joachim Trier walks up to the table and asks Reinsve how she survived his DJ set from the night before. He is on the way to dinner with his mother, but agrees to sit down and talk.]
We were talking about Julie’s sexuality and the article that she writes. We were trying to find a softer word for “aggressive.”
RR: We talked about how it’s true that women are much more liberated than we used to see in the movies.
JT: Maybe this is a Scandinavian thing, but I grew up in a feminist household. For me, it’s not a paradox that Julie says, “Fuck it. I want to be free and talk freely about things.” But I also know that can be seen as controversial today, because the climate around female sexuality from social media and pornography is becoming very regressive. I remember talking to someone who was a part of the ’70s feminist movement, saying, “Even though the world seems more modern, there’s an aggression towards the female body now, in a way that’s harder than it was in the ’70s.” A modern feminist can sometimes have that more restricted, controlled approach to talking about sexuality. Sorry, I’m getting academic.
What was wonderful about working with you [Renate], is that you’re very confident [about] where your limits are — what you will and won’t do — and you take charge of things when you shoot. You push me. As a man, I’m aware there are so many cliches around the way that we film sex. I’m trying to find a way to show a female gaze. And it’s done humorously, like when you bite Eivind’s ass. Why be prudish about that? It’s a wonderful situation, someone in love.
Were people shocked by the sexual content in this movie?
JT: No, rather the opposite. People are enjoying that aspect. “Someone is daring to show this in a climate that’s very cautious.” The joy of a woman experiencing passion. I’m kind of relieved.
Did you anticipate the level of attention that Renate is getting?
JT: To be frank, I knew. I wrote this film for her. But I also feel a bit proud, if I may say, that it turned out the way I hoped. You never know in the world of film.
What was it about Renate that made you build a whole film around her?
JT: I had Stephen Frears as a teacher, and he put into prominence people like Daniel Day-Lewis and Uma Thurman. So I was brought up as — the main thing you do as a director is casting. Find the right actor for the right role. The funny story is that Renate played a small part in Oslo, as I’m sure you know, with one line of dialogue. I’m sorry I didn’t offer you more. But what I did discover was her talent. I thought, Dammit, she’ll be a star soon. Ten years passed by, and she did incredible work in the theater, but nobody really offered her the lead role in movies. So here I am.
I’m sure you know, but the attention is making her very nervous.
RR: I was like, “You’ll discover that I’m … not [talented].”
JT: This is my fifth film, and I’ve worked with some gifted people, and every time there’s this sense of impostor syndrome.
RR: You have that a little bit as well. You were so nervous about not giving me good enough direction.
You’re both Julie.
JT: We’re both Julie. That’s what I’m discovering. [He leaves.]
Let’s talk about the mushroom scene before you go. What was your first reaction to reading the scene where she rips out her tampon and flings it at her father?
I did like a [gasps dramatically]. It was so cool. But also taboo. And it shouldn’t be! Maybe I’m a prude or something. Is it called prude? Throwing a tampon into someone’s face! I don’t know. Menstruation should be something that’s not to be embarrassed about. But that was shocking to read.
Talk me through the filming.
They had this little capsule that they put a tampon with blood in. I was naked, but I had covered up my [gestures below]. So I took it out. We did two takes, because on the second take it just hit him right in the face. It was perfect. It was like, “Okay, we have it. Bye.” Everyone on set was so respectful. They know that sitting with your legs open and doing this is fragile and vulnerable. But it was really fun.
Apparently, in The Souvenir Part II, there’s another “menstrual blood on the face” scene. And her name is Julie, too. Are we having some kind of moment?
Really? This is the moment. This is when it appears.
2021. The year of the tampon —
In the face.
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