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Alex Wolff & Oystein Karlsen On Capturing The Spirit Of Leonard Cohen In ‘So Long, Marianne’ — Series Mania

Leonard Cohen had a huge impact on generations of fans, and So Long, Marianne star Alex Wolff is one of them.

Speaking exclusively to Deadline ahead of So Long‘s worldwide premiere at Series Mania this week, Oppenheimer and Hereditary actor Wolff paid tribute to the late singer-songwriter. “His contribution to my life has been so substantial that whatever words I have don’t sum up what he’s meant to my working life and to me personally,” he said.

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Wolff, who is himself a musician and recording artist, plays Cohen in So Long, Marianne, which is one of the buzziest international series at Series Mania, which is Europe’s largest scripted television festival. The NRK and Crave series is the International Competition category against the likes of Peacock’s Apples Never Fall and the ABC’s House of Gods.

In the eight-part series, Wolff appears opposite Thea Sofie Loch Næss (The Last Kingdom) as Marianne Ilhen. The series tells the legendary love story between the Canadian singer and poet and his muse, Ihlen, showing how two lonely people falling in love during a period of their life when they are trying to figure out who they are and their place in the world, while one is becoming one of the most famous singers of all time.

In his first interview about the series, Wolff recalled how his older brother had given him a book of poetry containing Cohen’s words, inspiring him to begin thinking about lyrics and musicality. “That was essential to my teenage years,” he added.

New Yorker Wolff described spending a year researching his life, copying his mannerisms, learning a Canadian accent and even hiring a handwriting expert to coach him to write like Cohen, and spent most of his time on set in character. “I tried to sink into that reality as much as I could,” said Wolff. “Leonard Cohen said if you don’t become the ocean you’ll be seasick every day. I applied that and if I didn’t, it would have been a nightmare.”

The series, which we first revealed nearly two years ago, is primarily set on the Greek island of Hydra where the pair met before starting a chaotic relationship that inspired the late singer-songwriter to pen songs such as ‘So Long, Marianne’, ‘That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’ and ‘Bird On The Wire’. Buccaneer Media, Redpoint Productions, C3 Media and Tanweer Productions made the show for for NRK in Norway and Crave in Canada, with ITVX in the UK, ARD’s Fabfiction in Germany, Cosmote TV and Star Channel in Greece, and Movies Best HD in Cyprus also attached. The budget sits around the €17M ($18.5M) mark and Cineflix Rights has the international distribution.

Wolff paid tribute to co-star Loch Næss and So Long, Marianne writer and creator Oystein Karlsen, saying the latter was “one of the great directors” and comparing him to Christopher Nolan, with whom he worked on Oppenheimer. “Never have I felt as safe on a set — he is in a league of his own,” added Wolff.

Karlsen’s series include Norwegian series DAG, feature film Fuck Up and season 3 of Netflix’s first ever foray into original programming, Lilyhammer. More recently, he has been working on Exit, the NRK series that won the International Panorama award at the 2019 Series Mania.

As for Loch Næss, Wolff described her as “one of the great actors of our generation.” Both leads are in their 20s and So Long, Marianne marks a key point in both their careers.

“You can prepare all you want with books and dreams, but when you are with people like that, all you have to do is be totally present,” added Wolff.

‘Providing a playground’

Karlsen, who was today announced as creator of Netflix’s Nordic Harry Hole detective series adaptation, said he had “tried to provide a playground” for cast and crew. “The story is so character-driven and people would turn up every day with their heart in their hand. We had to make an atmosphere that allowed them to do what they wanted. It was a unique experience and it was lovely.”

Karlsen said he grew up a “a huge Leonard Cohen fan” and had tried to write poetry after reading his third set of poems, Flowers for Hitler. He called writing the series “the most difficult thing I’ve ever written,” thanks to Cohen’s unique speech patterns and turns of phrase. However, after “watching every documentary interview he did and reading every quotation,” and conversing with Cohen’s son, musician Adam Cohen, he began capturing the voice.

Karlsen and Wolff both recalled how the locals of Greek island of Hydra, which has a population of under 2,000 and no cars, played a pivotal role in creating an authentic setting. Many of the inhabitants knew Cohen and Ilhen — and in such a small community, everybody knew everybody else’s business. Some appear as extras.

“You realise that everyone knows everything the next morning,” said Karlsen of both his and Cohen’s experiences on the island. “It’s a very strange psychological bubble.

In Montreal, where Cohen grew up, Karlsen met with the star’s neighbors from his early years, who would join him around the monitors and offer advice about the shoots.

As for Wolff, his Leonard Cohen, Oystein paid tribute to how he had embodied the character even off camera. “I never met the fast-talking New York street kid until the wrap party,” he added.

Cohen passed away aged 82 in 2016. Delegates and fans at Series Mania will be among the first to see his television resurrection.

Wolff is repped by WME, Untitled and Definition Entertainment. Karlsen is represented by Salomonsson Agency, WME and Range Media Partners.

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