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Meet the actress playing Nico in her final few years of life

We talk to Danish actress Trine Dyrholm about portraying the ‘priestess of darkness’ in the period that she battled addiction and tried to reconnect with her son

“Vanity kills art,” says the Danish actress Trine Dyrholm, who plays former Warhol muse Christa Päffgen, aka Nico, in Italian writer-director Susanna Nicchiarelli’s gritty and unconventional low-budget pop biopic, Nico, 1988.

The Nico being portrayed in the film is no longer the glamorous, statuesque beauty who performed with The Velvet Underground, but a junkie still fighting to make her voice heard as an artist in her own right during the last three years of her life.

Dyrholm captures the “priestess of darkness” perfectly – the German-accented, deep-toned vocals don’t drop a note, and it’s a complex performance that reveals vulnerability, sadness and regret.

The film places Nico at a point when she is performing small gigs around Europe in the 80s, attempting to shake off her past and come out from the shadow of the men had always been associated with, while also trying to reconnect with Ari, the suicidal son she gave up as a child.

Warhol once said that Nico “became a fat junkie and disappeared”, but this is as untrue as it is insulting. While not commercially successful, the music Nico made “was by far one of the most interesting, uncompromising productions of the period”, claims Nicchiarelli. “She created a unique style combining personal research with provoking experimental solutions and irony, always refusing to worry about the commerciality of her production.”

Dyrholm admits that she had previously only known Nico from her time with The Velvet Underground, but came to understand her though listening to interviews and watching hours of footage of her in concert. The result is a powerful portrait of a woman taking control of her life just as it is about to end.

How did you and Susanna Nicchiaralli come up with this version of Nico?

Trine Dyrlholm: We created it together. It’s a very complex character, very complicated, and in the beginning I was afraid to imitate her. She has this deep voice, and I had to sing the songs and everything. So Susanna immediately said to me, ‘You don't look like Nico, we're doing our version’. So that was kind of what we did, didn’t stick too much to reality.

What kind of research did you do?

Trine Dyrholm: I looked up concerts from the last days of Nico – that was very inspiring – and I also saw some interviews and a documentary. I then just started to work in the studio with the songs, because that was the key to embodying her.

You had a singing career, didn't you?

Trine Dyrholm: Yes, I started out [competing to represent Denmark] in the Eurovision Song Contest when I was 14. That was another genre, but I have also done some rock things, and I’ve done some theatre where I had to explore my voice in different ways, like singing or screaming. I think it helped me a little bit that I had done these theatrical things, because in the studio I just tried to search for some sounds.

Did you listen to her music before this?

Trine Dyrholm: I didn't know that much about her, actually. I only knew her connected to The Velvet Underground and also as a model, this icon. Of course I knew of her, but I didn’t know much about her. I could’ve been the journalist in the film who says, ‘Can you tell me about Andy Warhol and that period?’, because that's all I knew.

She had many admirers up until the end but she struggled with addiction.

Trine Dyrholm: I think she struggled with a lot of things. I think she was very lonely. I think she struggled with being a German after the war. You know, being a child in a destroyed Berlin. She was punk.

Was there anything in the interviews you listened to that really stood out?

Trine Dyrholm: I saw an interview where she was asked, ‘Do you regret anything?’ and she said, ‘No, I don’t regret anything other than I was born a woman and not a man’. For me it was very inspiring because it told me that she didn’t fit in. She didn’t fit into that beauty icon thing. I think she really wanted to be respected for the music and as a woman. She talks a lot about being beautiful and then not. She stopped taking baths towards the end. It was a protest thing, I think.

“She didn’t fit into that beauty icon thing. I think she really wanted to be respected for the music and as a woman” – Trine Dyrholm

And then there was the stuff with her estranged son, Ari.

Trine Dyrholm: Yes, I think the whole issue about being a mum haunted her a lot. That’s also our story. She lost custody when he was three years old and some people say that’s when she got really addicted to heroin. I don’t know if it’s true. At least the story is that she got clean in the end and she got custody back and started to see him more regularly, and wrote “My Only Child” and “Ari's Song”. Maybe because his father never recognised him, I think she struggled a lot with these things.

These aspects make Nico, 1988 different from a lot of other rock biopics.

Trine Dyrholm: Yes, usually they're about male rock stars, and it’s rock and roll and they’re addicted, and it doesn’t really matter - if you know what I mean. But here it’s a big deal: it’s a woman and it’s not so flattering, because she’s a mum. And I don’t think it’s often that you get these not flattering parts. I mean she’s not likeable. Maybe you understand her, but she’s difficult. I liked that. I liked to portray that.

It’s interesting that Jim Morrison was the one who told her to follow her own muse. Was he an inspiration for her?

Trine Dyrholm: I think he was. I don’t know but that’s what people said, that they had a meeting. And I think he inspired her to go with her own music.

He was someone else that also wanted to escape an image.

Trine Dyrholm: But he died young. I think it’s very clever of Susanna to make the film this way because it goes behind the whole period that we know. It’s behind the beauty. It’s about identity. It’s about trying to be who you are in life. Trying to find peace with yourself. Trying to find your way.

The film’s take on the kinds of small gigs Nico was doing in those last years isn’t glamorous either.

Trine Dyrholm: I think when she performed, she didn’t care about the size of the audience. She just did her thing. In the film she says, ‘I’m not commercial; I hate commerciality’, and I actually saw that in an interview. It’s very interesting because she’s like, ’I don’t go there, I stay here with my art.’ I find that quote inspiring, actually.

“This is a film about a woman that finds herself, and then she dies. But that’s also beautiful” – Trine Dyrholm

You started gigging when you were very young. Did you have a wild youth?

Trine Dyrholm: I’ve never been into drugs, but I’ve had periods where I was a heavy drinker and destroyed myself, a bit. Yeah, I started out early and of course I also had issues with identity, how to find my way. I started out as a pop girl so I had my little ‘turns’. Most of us come out of it but I’ve seen people that were stuck there and it’s so tragic. I find the drugs thing so tragic. And now when I’m a mum, my son is eight-years-old and I’m so afraid of drugs, because they’re just everywhere.

Will you try to stop him trying drugs?

Trine Dyrholm: It’s not that he’s not allowed to try or whatever, but what I’m saying is that back then they experimented with the whole thing, and they do now again with a different kind of chemical shit. But he will find his way. I’m just saying that today you have all the gangs that control the whole market, and they find young people to sell the things, it’s things like that. I’m just a mum who’s worried. But he could also be a soldier. You know, these are difficult times.

Was it drugs that killed Nico?

Trine Dyrholm: She fell on a bike and was brought to the hospital and then she died right after. So you don’t know. She was destroyed. She destroyed herself. I don’t know if she was actually clean the moment she died, but she was clean the last period of her life. That’s why for me this is a film about a woman that finds herself, and then she dies. But that’s also beautiful.