How do you get at the person behind the icon? That’s just one of many riddles director Susanna Nicchiarelli had to work through in making her latest film, “Nico: 1988.” Much of the success of the project hinged on finding the right actor, of course—one who could put on the changeable guise of the late German artist without either losing herself or sticking too close to her source, one who could make something new yet somehow still familiar from a life story now long over.

Oh, and she’d also have to sing.

Luckily for Nicchiarelli (and judging by the reception, for audiences as well), she found a star who likes taking risks. Danish actor Trine Dyrholm was also a versatile performer, gaining international notice with strong performances in films such as “The Commune” (2016) and “In a Better World” (2011). As a bonus, when she was just 14 she nearly claimed the top prize to become her country’s representative in the annual Eurovision Song Contest.

That took care of the acting and singing requirements, but becoming a figure like Nico is another, much trickier matter—particularly for someone who neither looks nor sounds much like Nico. Luckily for Dyrholm, that wasn’t really what her director wanted from her.

Instead, they created more of an emotional portrait than a straight-up biopic by taking an unflinching deep dive into the final years of Nico’s life. It may have helped that their subject wasn’t always known for keeping her facts straight, particularly as she slid further into heroin addition, pulling her son along for much of that ride. Even her name was a departure from the much less memorable, far more German original: Christa Päffgen.

But no small part of her glamour came from her offbeat mystery. Nico was most widely known as the singer and model who shared the stage with the Velvet Underground and ran with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd—she of the throaty vocals and gauzy sensuality, all  lips and bangs, who helped create the aesthetic and the soundtrack of late ’60s New York. Many of those classics, like “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “These Days,” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” have kept their cool in the many years since.

Which was more or less the extent of Dyrholm’s familiarity with Nico before she signed on to play her. Turns out that was probably better, as what interested the filmmaker, and ultimately Dyrholm, more than Nico in her heyday was the one who emerged after that glowing moment had passed. She was many other things besides what others made of her, professionally and personally. Significantly, for “Nico, 1988,” Nicchiarelli and Dyrholm took on the version of Nico that wasn’t defined by the more famous men around her, when she wasn’t someone’s backup singer or anyone’s muse. It’s not always pretty, but that’s not remotely the point of this darkly lovely composition.

In a recent interview, Dyrholm told Truthdig about how she found her way into her role, how it was and wasn’t like others she had played, and what she thinks “Nico, 1988” is ultimately about.

Kasia Anderson: Can you tell me a little bit about the process of becoming interested in doing the part and how you decided to take on such an iconic character?

Trine Dyrholm: I got an email one day from the director, Susanna Nicchiarelli, where she talked about the project and she wanted me to do it, and she said here’s the script. I didn’t know much about Nico—I would have been like one of the journalists in the film, asking her about Andy Warhol and Velvet Underground; that was basically what I knew. So, I Googled her and tried to find out more. I was very interested when I read the script, and I liked the take on Nico—that it was Nico after Nico–and what’s behind the icon, and I really liked it.

And then Susanna came to Copenhagen, and we had a great day and night together. And she said to me, “You don’t look like Nico, you don’t sing like Nico, but I think you have the right spirit to play this character, so if you dare to go on board, let’s do our version.”

That’s basically what happened. Of course, we worked with the script, and we changed some things when I came on board, but then we went to the studio to find the voice. Not to do an imitation, that was very important for us, not to do an imitation. And I have a background as a singer—when I was 14, I was in the Eurovision Song Contest, a contest in Europe, so I could use that background in a way to work with the sound in the studio.

So, we tried out different ways of singing the songs, and we treated all the songs as monologues, in a way. In an emotional state of mind—of the character. That was key. …

KA: Not to stop your train here, but I was going to ask if the preparation for the singing was its own separate kind of project—whether finding the character and finding the voice were part of the same impulse, or whether you had to do preparation for the acting and preparation for the singing in different parts.

TD: No, I think actually it was a way to find the character—through the music. Because when suddenly I found a way to sing the songs, the character was kind of there, and I started to embody it. And then the weight came and all these kinds of things. It was really something about finding the voice. And of course, when we then had to start shooting and I had to do the first talking scenes with this voice, I was afraid that it was too much, and I was in doubt, you know, like does it work? But always when you work you’re in doubt, and you know, is it good enough?

That’s how it is always! And now we’re in New York, and I have to meet the audience tonight and I’m, “Oh what do they think? What do they say?” But that’s also the fun thing, that you risk something. I would much rather risk something than not. And if you risk something, then you’re also nervous and in doubt, and that’s part of the job. I like that. And of course, this job was by far the biggest challenge I’ve had in my career. It’s a character that is so different from me. I’m very different from this character.

KA: I imagine her being an actual person was part of the difficulty there.

TD: Of course. But it helps me in that Susanna said that to me, that “nobody believes that you are the real Nico anyway, so don’t go there.” I mean, let’s make a character. It’s not only about Nico, it’s about—it’s a universal story, it’s about a mother, an artist, a war generation, a human being. That’s very important. And then of course, I was inspired by some things that I could find on the internet, and a documentary that I saw, and her music and all these kinds of things. But basically, I mean, I’m an actress, I live on imagination, and I always have to imagine how is it to be this person.

KA: Whether or not it’s a real person.

TD: Exactly. And nobody knows how she was anyway. We do have our imagination, but what is the true one?

KA: And she was mysterious—that was part of her allure, and it leaves a lot of unanswered questions.

TD: Exactly, but also, I mean, it goes with all persons, that we define each other. But who knows the true story about you? Nobody! We always have ideas—“this is Trine, she is like this”—but actually, nobody knows.

KA: One of the things that I was thinking as I was watching is about the fact that the director is a woman. I appreciated how the film brought Nico out from under Andy Warhol’s wing, so to speak, and of course that was chronological as well as part of the story, but do you feel like the project itself benefited from having a woman at the helm?

TD: Well, I think that every director is different. Men and women. But the take on this film … Susanna wanted to do a film where Nico can define herself. Nico was very defined by men—back then, by Andy Warhol, by being a model, by being in the Velvet Underground, you know. And this movie is about identity. And it’s about finding your way in life. I think that she was much more happy in her later life, when she was not only the beautiful woman. I think she struggled a lot—she wanted to be respected for her art and not her beauty.

I was very inspired by an interview I saw where Nico was asked, “Do you regret anything?” And then she says, “No, I don’t regret anything—other than [that] I was born a woman and not man.” And it’s a very tough sentence. But also very inspiring when you have to create a character, because it tells you a lot of things.

It was a big thing for Susanna that she wanted Nico to have her own film and not only be a blond girl that makes a blowjob in the Doors film. She has been portrayed as just like the hip, blond glamour girl. And here you have an artist!

KA: She was a screen that others projected things onto that may not have had much to do with her.  …

TD: … I don’t know if it’s a typical female film, but I like the take on it.

KA: Did you watch footage of her while you were still in the preparation stage, or did you have a time when you had to put aside video and recordings so that you could focus?

TD: A little bit, to get inspired, and then I didn’t stick too much to reality, because it can sometimes be too narrow—because then you don’t have your imagination, and you’re like, oh, well, maybe she didn’t do like that, and then you don’t have your creative freedom.

I kind of looked up things, and Susanna sent me things that she found, and then I just grabbed things that could inspire me. And then I was also inspired by other things, you know, by some artwork that I could find, and some other physical things … that’s how I always work. I’m very inspired by a lot of different things, and I put it in an emotional bank and then I can use it when I have to.

KA: And I read that Nico’s son was fairly involved in the process as well—he became involved?

TD: Well, I didn’t meet him, but he lives in Paris. But Susanna met all the people for writing the script; that is important for the script.

KA: Do you have a favorite Nico song, and did it change from before you did the movie?

TD: Of course I knew the Velvet Underground songs, and I also knew “These Days” from her first album, before. But I must say, I know that we do another version of “My Heart Is Empty,” but I really like that song. And I also really like “My Only Child,” because it’s such a simple, very tough song.

Transcript edited for brevity and clarity.

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