Hennie slowly tiptoes into the limelight

Not heard of Aksel Hennie? You soon will courtesy of Headhunters, a genre-busting Norwegian thriller in which the quietly spoken 36-year-old emerges as a mesmerising talent.

But who is he emerging to? The answer is to the UK and the US. Headhunters is already lined up for a US make-over with Mark Wahlberg stepping into Hennie’s shoes in a film that will likely be but a colourless imitation of the original that spawned it.

The film, based on a novel by Jo Nesbo, explores similar territory to Stieg Larsson’s books but it is a deliberate hybrid of genres combining black comedy with film noir, cat-and-mouse road trip with paranoid thriller.

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Hennie plays Roger Brown, a grasping corporate headhunter who also moonlights as an art thief, stalking his rich job candidates and robbing their homes when they are out of town. He meets his match in a high-powered businessman with a shady background. Suddenly Roger is out-manoeuvred and clinging on for dear life as the corpses mount up.

I meet Hennie in London. Almost immediately he tells me of working with Sean Bean in Age of Heroes, a so-so Second World War drama about the birth of Britain’s elite forces. His comments pre-empt my question: is he prepared to be suddenly “discovered” by the Americans. Hennie smiles a wary smile.

“I have a fantastic career where I’m at. I’m getting to do movies like this. Why do people want to go international? It’s because you get a broader audience base. It’s the same thing when people ask me ‘What do you think about the film being re-made?’ I love it!

“If you want to work internationally you have to drop your ego and start thinking ‘Hey, I’m starting all over again’. If it’s just me saying [he mimics Schwarzenegger] ‘I vant your gun’ then I’m not even close to getting into it. The journey is long but still I have fantastic things to do in Norway.”

Headhunters marks Hennie’s second collaborations with director Morten Tyldum after their 2003 film Buddy. Since then the pair have been hunting for the ideal second project. They found it in Nesbo’s book with its shades of Jim Thompson thrillers.

“I said yes even before reading the script,” he recalls. “We were searching for projects to work on and he said ‘Aksel, I have it. It’s a Jo Nesbo book.’ ‘But he doesn’t adapt his books.’ ‘This one he will.’

“So basically we have this killer thing. When I read the script – I was five pages in – I hated the guy and then I started to love him, then I started to root for him and then I wanted to be him.”

Headhunters takes Roger on a murderous odyssey into his own personal heart of darkness. For Hennie, a self-styled storyteller for whom the telling of the tale is the most crucial aspect of the job, it was all about connecting – with audiences, with the character and with himself.

“For me a movie is beautiful when it touches me, when it takes a hold of me both emotionally and physically, and when it has scenes that I can relate to,” he says.

“This movie has that. That’s one of the reasons that I’m proud of being part of the project. I can eat popcorn with my friends and see the movie and laugh my ass off. Then I can see it with my girlfriend and cry because I want to be as honest as Roger is in the end.”

He laughs about some of the content. As Roger’s world unravels and he is pursued by the man he robbed he accidentally shoots a man, is forced to engulf himself beneath the contents of a latrine in a desperate attempt to hide, messily kills a dog, momentarily escapes via a tractor and is captured by police.

There then follows a breathtaking piece of stuntwork involving corpulent identical twin cops, a police car, a truck and much gore as the story fires off in yet another new direction. Hennie laughs.

“When you read the script you think ‘This is fun’. He jumps from tractors, he kills dogs... what’s going on? People are always rooting for the dog but not in this one. In a cinema there are 600 people and they all wanna kill the dog!

“Then you put the script down and say ‘Okay, it’s about Roger Brown’s journey towards honesty’. We make a lot of decisions based on fear and Roger does that as well. If you’re afraid you always make bad decisions. It’s when you let go of your ego and go with that fear that you can go on and be honest.”

On concluding the interview I wander across the street for a drink. Moments later Hennie slips out of his hotel and into a nearby shop. No-one notices him. For an actor, anonymity is a blessing. For Aksel Hennie, burgeoning superstar, the days of anonymity are fast running out.

Headhunters (15) is on general release from today. See page 14 for a review of the film.