Words by Gréta Sigríður Einarsdóttir
Photography by Golli
There’s something about Ingvar E. Sigurðsson’s face that feels innately Icelandic. The peaks and valleys of his sharp bone structure are reminiscent of Iceland’s landscapes of lava rock under a soft cover of moss. But there’s something that goes deeper still. As an actor in Iceland, he’s embodied some of stage, film, and TV’s best-loved characters over the past few decades. From his first film appearance in the critically acclaimed Angels of the Universe, to a successful run as the quintessentially Icelandic Bjartur in a stage adaptation of Halldór Laxness’s Independent People, to his established presence as any curmudgeonly but steadfast character in films like Jar City, The Swan, Metalhead, and many more, Ingvar’s piercing blue eyes make it clear that his expressive face is only the tip of the iceberg – and there’s hardly anything more innately Icelandic than keeping most of yourself below the surface.
Ingvar’s latest roles include his turn as Ásgeir in hit Nordic noir series Trapped and appearances in the series Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Justice League. The one he’s most excited to discuss however, is indie Icelandic production A White, White Day, currently making the film festival rounds and garnering praise and attention wherever it goes. “It’s hard to tell you what it’s about because it’s easy to get the wrong idea. If I say it’s about a middle-aged man who lives in the countryside with his daughter and granddaughter, people will imagine this cliché of people in crisis. There’s something extra in this film that takes it out of the cliché.” For Ingvar, what makes the film stand out is the emotional impact it has on its audiences. “It builds slowly but then it captures the viewer.”
While Ingvar has done more film and TV work than many Icelandic actors, his first love was the stage, and he feels treading the boards is an essential part of an actor’s path. “Acting on stage before an audience, you have direct, open contact. There’s something going on in the heads of the audience that affects you at the same time as you affect the audience.” Still, he doesn’t feel there’s a fundamental difference between theatre and film acting. “You adapt to the medium you’re working in. You have to act for a lens and a microphone much as you would an audience. You use the same muscles and you have to make the same effort.”
Ingvar has not only graced the Icelandic theatre, he’s also acted on stages all over the world, including playing the lead role in Peer Gynt, directed by Irina Brook. Crossing the boundaries of their native language is a challenge for any actor, but it can also be freeing. “Icelandic is so close to your heart, your brain can backfire on words. While in English, it will stick better once you’ve learned it, almost like song lyrics. As soon as you’ve nailed the accent, acting in another language is like singing a song.”
Ingvar has done extensive film work in Iceland, but he has also dipped his toe into the murky waters of Hollywood. Again, he notes that his work is essentially the same, even if the environment he’s working in is different. “The language of films is basically the same, no matter where you are. If you’ve been acting in a low-budget movie in the Icelandic countryside versus a huge Hollywood machine, the only difference is that it’s a much bigger factory. They’re building the same thing.”
When choosing his projects, Ingvar doesn’t focus so much on the script or the budget, rather the people he’ll be working with. In Icelandic films, he sees a lot of potential. “Hlynur [director of A White, White Day], Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir, Ísold Uggadóttir, and Ugla Hauksdóttir, the people that are entering the business now, they all have their own distinctive poetic attributes. They’re all unique.” Ingvar sees the emergence of these new artists as an important step in building the industry. Yet no matter the project he chooses, things always feel fresh and exciting for Ingvar and he approaches each venture on its own terms. “You’re always telling a new story with new people.”
Speaking of stories, the cliché goes that Nordic people and the stories they tell tend to exhibit emotional restraint. Yet A White, White Day is deeply saturated with emotions, though they may be slightly under the surface. “We’re always dealing with the same subjects. How we deal with life, how we deal with the people we live with, in our communities or our families. It can be dramatic or funny: this film is both. There are parts where you sense, rather than see, that the character is about to explode with emotion.”
Many of Ingvar’s most-loved characters through the years have been characterised by emotional restraint and lack of sentimentality, although by no means a lack of emotions. “Maybe it’s a part of yourself and all the men and people you know from Iceland. You don’t stray far from your home, whether you’re playing Erlendur in Jar City, Ásgeir in Trapped or Ingimundur in A White, White Day. They’re different men and come from different backgrounds, but there’s a kinship there. Maybe it’s just the fact that they’re all Icelandic. Nordic.”
Even though the emotions are restrained and the characters reserved, Ingvar says there’s something about Icelandic stories that appeals to film viewers abroad. “It’s such a delight that every year it seems more Icelandic films are getting the attention that so many films aspire to.”
Ingvar regularly gets asked about that X factor that sets Iceland films apart from the rest. “I’ve sometimes said that we’re a people of the sagas. We have literature reaching almost back to the time when we first settled here. Telling stories, in books or in any other form, is something we’ve nurtured.” He also has the feeling that there’s something a little bit extra helping things along. “I’m a sceptic if anything, but I believe that there’s something that we can’t quite explain. I think it’s connected to the land we live in and the energy here, that which can’t be grasped. I think that’s what that ‘special Icelandic thing’ is. People can call it elves or hidden people or whatever they like. I just think it’s better not to ignore the power that is in the land.”
This article is an excerpt. Read the full article in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature – since 1963.