Ólafsson (Trapped, XL, True Detective) plays Benedikt Ríkhardsson, an academic, who unexpectedly is elected to the top job as Iceland’s Prime Minister. His unconventional approach brings a fresh air to traditional politics. Some view his ideas as radical - others righteous. However Benedikt suffers from an underlying bipolar disorder, which progressively worsens and starts to destabilise both the nation and his own family life.

Playing against Ólafsson are Aníta Briem (The Tudors) as his wife, Þuríður Blær Jóhannsdóttir (The Swan,The Flatey Enigma) as his personal assistant and Thor Kristjánsson (The Swan, Dracula Untold) as Grímur, his political colleague.

The highly-engaging eight part-series is based on an original script by trained lawyers/screenwriters Birkir Blær Ingólfsson and Jónas Margeir Ingólfsson, and seasoned TV journalist/writer Björg Magnúsdóttir.

The co-directors are Arnór Pálmi Arnarson (Ligeglad) and Nanna Kristin Magnúsdóttir (Happily Never After).

The Minister was produced by Sagafilm for RÚV, in association with SVT, DR, NRK, Yle and support among others from Nordisk Film & TV Fond. Cineflix Rights handles global distribution. The series is nominated for the Prix Europa 2020.

We spoke to Ólafur Darri Ólafsson.

Did the writers have you in mind when they wrote the charismatic character of Benedikt?
Ólafur Darri Ólafsson
: I don’t think they did. I became involved six months before the start of shooting. I attended a casting session.

What attracted you to the role?
It’s always really exciting for an actor to do something you’ve never done before. I’ve played a character who is schizophrenic and that was already a challenge. Here, I was both excited and terrified to play the bipolar Benedikt. I tried to be as human, unprejudiced and honest as possible. It was fascinating to go through that process.

Did you talk to psychologists and do research?
Yes, I read some books, and got a lot of help from a bipolar Icelandic journalist who wrote a book about his illness. I also spoke to psychologists, watched some films, like Stephen Fry’s documentary The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive about his bipolar disorder which I loved. I was also lucky to have worked with US stand-up comedian - Maria Bamford - in the series Lady Dynamite. Maria is also bipolar. I remembered the conversations I had with her.

Still, finding the right tone must have been challenging…
I hope that people who are bipolar and their families will be happy with my interpretation. There is a playful, humorous element to what people can do under the condition, but also a massive dark element to it. It’s a very serious illness.

Would you agree that what makes the show an extremely compelling watch is that we as a viewer, feel conflicting feelings towards the ‘hero’. We fall for his larger-than-life personality, his charm, and it’s hard to believe he actually suffers from mental disorder…
For sure. What makes the success of any show - beyond the genre - is the people that are portrayed, their relationships, their families. A series like Trapped is a classic whodunnit, but the character of Andri [the chief police officer] that I play, is ultimately what keeps us watching.

The Minister also mirrors today’s political landscape. It questions the sanity of some people in power. We have examples of politicians in Iceland who weren’t all there, and there isn’t much sanity in many world leaders today. The political element is interesting and is the engine for the story.

But beyond that aspect, Benedikt’s relationship with his family and the possible link between genetics and bipolar disorder gives a different dimension to the story. We’re fascinated to see what will happen and we dread to see what will happen.! 

Anita Briem who plays Benedikt’s wife and Þuríður Blær Jóhannsdóttir - his assistant - are excellent and relatively new faces to international viewers. Had you worked with them earlier?
Never. Anita Briem studied acting in the UK and lives in L.A. She came back home for this series and now worked in two-three other Icelandic productions. It was incredible to work with her. The same can be said about Þuríður [Blær Jóhannsdóttir]. She is a fantastic young actress and I was really happy to finally have the opportunity to work with her.

What aspect of Benedikt’s personality did you embrace most? Just like Andri in Trapped, Benedikt is sensitive, full of empathy…
Andri is one of my favourite characters ever. He is honest, introvert, his shadow hangs over people. Here, it was important to make Benedikt likeable, funny, different from the other politicians. There is a lightness about him that I loved. He is so in love with life!

He embraces Icelandic culture and history and refers a lot to the past to shape his political agenda…
Absolutely. He is very respectful of the past, knowledgeable, but also quite naïve. When we discussed the character with the writers, I said: he should be an academic. So we decided he should be teacher at the university. And with his academic background, Benedikt brings the best into politics.

Benedikt’s ideas however would easily appeal to populist movements who defy traditional politics today…
ODO: Yes. We seem to be tired of traditional political parties, and this has created a vacuum, which extreme populist -and dangerous movements have been able to exploit. I like the fact that Benedikt is on the edge of that. Some of his ideas are valuable, make perfect sense, others are bizarre, worthless. I want people to agree and also to disagree with him.

How do you think Icelanders will react to the show?
I hope they will enjoy it. The political establishment is going through a tough time, the way the church is going through a tough time. I hope the show will spark interesting conversations. I’m quite sure that some people will agree with Benedikt and others will say he is full of shit!

Icelandic drama has evolved dramatically in recent years. You must be thrilled to be part of this creative burst, as actor and exec producer…
ODO: When we did the first season of Trapped, it was the first time that such a major 10-part series was being produced. For Baltasar [Kormákur], to pull it off was a huge undertaking, and the response from the audience was beyond expectation. We got an amazing response from Germany, France - every corner of the world. I keep getting emails from people from Brazil, Argentina. It’s fascinating!

After Trapped, people did realise there is an international market for Icelandic language content, and a chance for Iceland to do high-end series. Then it really helps to have players like Netflix who are investing in foreign language.

What did Trapped allow you to do?
ODO: I’ve had an interesting career. As I was born in the US, I have a US passport so I can work there. I did The Secret Life of Walter Mitty - one of the best roles ever - and that propelled me in the US. I’ve done a lot of work over there recently - including True Detective, the BFG. Then Trapped opened up Europe for me.

I guess you’re choosier now. What do you say no to?
ODO: I’m a bit of a workaholic… I’ve been incredibly lucky to get roles in great projects and to work with great people, which is perhaps the most important. Iceland is my home, and in normal circumstances I travel a lot. The Minister is something I’d like to continue as well.

You’re starring in and producing the film Summerlight and then Comes the Light by Eivar Adasteins. What can you say about it in a few words?
ODO: It’s based on one of the best books ever, written by Jón Kalmar Stefánsson, which offers a perfect understanding of the human condition, what it is to experience love, sorrow etc. It’s an ensemble piece with four stories that intertwine. We’re in the middle of our shoot. I’ve finished my part.

Are you tempted by directing?
ODO: Definitely. I will direct a short film early 2021 to get some practice.

If you were Prime Minister, what would be your priority to help the cultural sector amid Covid-19?
ODO: I think the Icelandic government is doing really well. They have listened to scientists. It’s been hard on all artists, especially theatres, the music sector. We live in extraordinary times. I feel sorry for so many people who have lost their loved ones, but it’s also a wake-up call for us regarding climate change. The pandemic makes us more conscious of the world around us and of environmental issues. Change is possible if you want. It has a price, but perhaps some people want to pay to have a future.