Roland Møller arrives on time, but visibly hungover – the night before he was out late at a strip club with Lene from the pop group Aqua.
Aged 42, Møller recently played his first lead role as sergeant Carl Rasmussen in Land of Mine (Under Sandet). Set on the west coast of Denmark in the immediate aftermath of WWII, his character is tasked with overseeing the demining of a Danish beach by young German POWs. Rasmussen’s hate of his former German occupiers slowly gives way to empathy for this team of adolescent Germans who are mistreated and starved as they risk their lives clearing the beach of mines.
“When I read the script, I immediately felt it was my story – a guy walking around in the darkness. He’s taking care of these boys, who we didn’t feed and then died or lost their limbs. Can you just imagine that? These boys were barely born when Hitler came to power; they never had the chance to be kids. My character hates them, these German monsters. Nietzsche said, ‘he who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster … when you gaze long into the abyss the abyss also gazes into you.’ He’s fighting monsters, but can he avoid becoming one too?”
Møller doesn’t really want to talk about his time spent in the darkness. It’s a story he’s told dozens of times before, and he worries that he lacks the enthusiasm to do it justice. But after washing down headache pills with a strong coffee, he shares the story of how he turned around a life of crime in Odense, to become one of Denmark’s most fêted actors.
The short story is that of a young man sucked into the criminal underworld in Odense. He was an enforcer and in the process racked up ten convictions for violent behaviour, for which he served around four and a half years in prison. He is eager to stress that he never hurt anyone outside the criminal community.
After his tenth conviction, aged 30, he decided it was time to start anew. He was offered parole on the condition he leave Odense and got a job, which he found working with his friend the Danish rapper Jesper Dahl, aka Jokeren, as a songwriter on his new record label in Copenhagen.
Møller’s first break in cinema was as a screenplay consultant for the 2012 prison drama R, which was set in the recently decommissioned Horsens prison where Møller had served time. He was brought in to teach the actors the right words and body language. But after seeing Møller on-set directors Tobias Lindholm and Michael Noer saw in him potential for more. His role as Mureren (the builder), a gang leader who manipulates and humiliates younger inmates, earned him his first nomination as supporting actor at the Bodil Awards, the Danish Film Critics Association Awards.
Møller’s breakthrough role was in the prison drama “R” where he played brutal convict Mureren.
“Looking back at my criminal past, I realise that the reason I am such a good actor is that I’ve always been acting,” he says, adjusting his baseball cap and leaning back into his chair. “I’ve never really been an asshole, I just acted like an asshole. I’ve always had a good heart.”
Møller was also nominated for his role as the machine engineer in Lindholm’s pirate drama A Hijacking (Kapringen), before winning the award as a gang leader in Noer’s gangster film Nortwest (Nordvest). He is unnervingly convincing in tough roles, his hardened features and gravely voice seem bereft of empathy. But his roles in A Hijacking and Land of Mine show that he can do more than channel his criminal past. His latest character is an angry man, but the film’s most moving scenes are when he lets his guard down and begrudgingly bonds with the young men.
But while critics have appreciated his performances, his colleagues in the Danish Film Academy seem less convinced, and have yet to nominate him for a Robert award.
“I don’t blame them, I mean who the fuck am I? They went to school together after all,” he says.
Møller is certainly an outsider in an insular and protective industry. Most major Danish actors, producers and directors attended one of Denmark’s exclusive acting or film schools. While his peers were in school, Møller was living as a violent enforcer with a lavish lifestyle – they were scraping by on student grants, while he had a nice house, jewellery, cars and motorbikes.
Back then, he could not have imagined he would become a critically-acclaimed actor, without a car and a home.
“Right now I’m homeless. I put everything in storage and instead I’m couchsurfing. I have the key to three different apartments. I think it’s healthy to try because I discover a lot of things about myself. When I had a lot of flashy possessions they formed my identity and when I was sent to prison I lost them all and had to earn them all back again. I felt stressed out and felt like I couldn’t breathe. But the day before I moved to Copenhagen and gave them away, I suddenly felt free. I started realising I was a sensitive guy, that I had a lot of energy. Until then I had been playing a role.”
Paying it forward
Møller got into his first fight because of his love of Hip Hop. In the 1980s, rap crews, break dancers and graffiti artists started popping up across the country. He still wears his clothes baggy and has a baseball cap cocked to the side. Some older boys in his neighbourhood weren’t fans, however, and they bullied him for listening to “black music”.
“One day I had enough and I just knocked one of the older guys out. It’s when I realised that everyone wants respect. But there’s two types of respect: what you earn and what you take. And I took respect. When I got passionate about something I would raise my voice, stand up and wrinkle my nose and suddenly everyone would agree with me. I thought I was smart, but they were actually just afraid I was going to knock them out. That took me along time to realise.”
Møller can thank his rehabilitation in part to a judge who only granted him bail on the condition that he left Odense and found a job. But before he moved to Copenhagen he spent some time at Den Rytmiske Højskole, a musical school typically for students between high school and university. And it was here that he started to leave behind his existence in a parallel society, following a moment of compassion.
“It was a new start for me, nobody knew me over there. I scared them by being older and having tattoos, but no one except the principal knew about my history. My street reputation didn’t count for anything there. One night we had a party and I got really drunk. We lived in small houses with eight people and when I got home I starte breaking stuff. I broke down the door, smashed the beds, took down the blackboards, woke up the guys and forced them to break plates on our heads. When I woke up the next morning with a headache, I couldn’t remember anything from the night before. But the other guys were just looking at me like ‘what the hell is wrong with you?’ I said sorry and told them my story and said maybe it was because of some inner frustration. I prepared myself to get kicked out of school, but these kids forgave me and we cleaned everything up and bought new plates and agreed to keep it quiet. It really did something to me. It was so humbling,” he says, before pausing and finishing his second coffee.
“I always say you’re not put in prison, you’re taken out of society. It’s the fight to get back into society that’s the hard part, getting over that feeling that society doesn’t want to accept you. Those kids were the turning point for me.”
Møller acknowledges that his rehabilitation rests upon the investment of people around him – from the judge and his fellow højskole students, to the rapper Jokeren and directors Lindholm, Noer and Zandvig. He now uses his position to influence the political debate and change lives. He appears weekly on the Radio24Syv radio show Politiradio (Police Radio), where he talks about crime and punishment, and mentors young people who are at risk of being sucked into criminal communities.
“It takes a whole village to raise a kid. It’s not just the government’s job, we all need to go out and give people a chance. I wouldn’t be here if no one did that for me. I definitely feel the need to help these guys. Instead of pointing our fingers at single parents who can’t control their kids, we should knock on their door and offer to take the kids to play football, go to a museum, read a book. There are a lot of doors out there, but these kids need to learn that they have to walk through these doors on their own. We have to show we want them, otherwise they’ll just end up in a parallel society.”
Land of Mine sparked a debate over its historical accuracy. Some argued that the boys weren’t as young as those shown in the film, as young as 15. But Møller says graves in Western Denmark confirm the film’s portrayal. Some historians argue Denmark committed a war crime by using the young men.
“Our history is wrong – we see ourselves as the good Samaritans when we are just as fucked up as everyone else, we just don’t talk about it. And because it’s not in the history books, so we build an identity on false grounds. I was taught we were always the good guys in WWII, helping the Jews cross to Sweden. Sure many Danes did, but the resistance fighters were also brutal, but we don’t really talk about this bad story. The resistance fighters sometimes remind me of the bikers in modern Denmark. They were mobsters and opportunists. But can you blame them?”
Either way, Møller argues we have an interest in questioning whether Danish soldiers oversaw the brutal treatment of young Germans – it would weaken the war’s good versus evil narrative. But of course Danes were also guilty of committing atrocities during the war, says Roland. During his research for the role he drew from the experiences of a Danish officer who oversaw demining activity, who confirmed that they mistreated the boys.
“He didn’t want to tell me and he skipped over it at first. But I understand why, you can’t always do the right thing in war. You do what you do to survive. I know this because I’ve been in gang wars and it brings out the worst in people. Power attacks the worst and corrupts the best. You can’t blame freedom fighters who became mobsters after the war, or soldiers who starved boys on the beach. But we can blame historians for not telling the true story.”
Møller is clearly a born performer. Even after appearing annoyed that yet another interviewer wanted to delve into his past, he recounted his story with gusto and enthusiasm. He’s reflective and smart, condensing his experiences into lessons, quick to give others credit, and always returning to the big picture. He wants a better Denmark, but argues a lack of honesty and fear of hypocrisy is holding us back.
Before he gets up to do another interview, he shares one final lesson he uses to keep on walking in the light.
“I listen to my stomach, I use my brain, and I follow my heart – in that order. If these three things line up, then I’m good to go.”