Thank heaven for modern technology, well, until there’s a glitch. We now have the Internet (yes, I know it’s hard to believe but I was around before personal computers), where there is entertainment available 24-7. I love to binge watch and I’m hooked on several series—mostly in the international market. There’s Canada’s Schitts Creek, Spain’s Velvet, and Mexico’s House of Flowers.
…and straight to the top goes Denmark’s Hjørdis—about a lovable quirky dowdy public school teacher, played by Lise Baastrup. The series is a spinoff of Denmark’s Rita, another top-notch show, where Lise was a cast member. Both series tackled HIV, STDs, self-esteem, bullying, coming out of the closet, and, naturally, sex.
Like Lise’s character, she’s a caring individual. She’s quite vocal about the AIDS epidemic during interviews, whether on TV or in magazines, speaking out for youth to be educated on the topic. Lise is ambassador for EMS (electronic muscle stimulation), and also ambassador for Learn for Life, an organization that provides tutors and TLC to children from vulnerable families. The actress lectures to children and young people who have had a challenging life, providing support and care so they don’t take a critically wrong turn in life.
Late last year, the actor played the Kathy Bates’ part in Stephen King’s Misery on stage in Copenhagen. For her performance, she’s been nominated for an award equivalent to the Tony, and at this writing, she is in first place for Best Danish Actress in Broadway World online. Lise also has a trained singing voice and you can listen to her sturdy pipes in various productions on YouTube.
She’s quite familiar with the American way, as during her sophomore year Lise lived in Reno, Nevada, for a year as a foreign exchange student. Since then she’s returned for a visit, and took a tour along the West Coast.
For me, I just completed a one-week cruise on the Baltic Sea, and I disembark in
Copenhagen, spending a few days in this charming Danish capital. The Danish folk are oh-so gracious. Lise and I prearranged to meet-up before I left Los Angeles, which would follow my visit to the oldest AIDS organizations in Denmark, AIDS-Fondet (AIDS Fund).
While there, I learn about Dr. Grethe Rask. She was a Danish surgeon working in the Congo and developed symptoms of an unknown infectious disease. It turned out to be AIDS. She returned to her cozy home on a fjord and was cared for by her long time female partner, a nurse. Grethe died of pneumonia. She was one of the first non-Africans to die of the disease—and this was 1977!
The history of the epidemic is so fascinating. I think in time, we’ll learn more and more about its true chronology.
Lise, who lives here in Copenhagen with her boyfriend, Jacob, has invited me to her favorite eatery. Gemyse is located in the famous amusement park/garden, Tivoli Gardens, which opened in 1843. Right before we meet, Lise texts that she just found out that she’s pregnant!
Ruby Comer: Congrats, Mama! How wonderful for you guys. Do you have a name picked out yet?
Lise Baastrup: Thanks, Ruby. No name yet!
Okay. Just asking! Well…I have to ogle a bit. I simply love your creation of Hjørdis! I’m such a fan.
[Her lily-white complexion morphs into a ruddy blush.] Thank you so much, Ruby.
What does Lise have in common with Hjørdis, and is she based on anyone?
I try to stay as positive as Hjørdis in all situations but other than that we are not alike. I love wearing makeup and high heels and never wear clothes of that style or in all those different colors. [She cutely tilts her head to the side, similar to Hjordis.] The character is not directly based on anyone, but she’s our version of Phoebe from Friends, who’s the odd one out but can handle anything.
Quick question: What celebrity who has died of AIDS-related causes do you think of most?
I am a big fan of Queen so of course Freddie Mercury.
Oh Lise, count me in! What a talent, what a life. I did an interview with Lesley-Ann Jones, who wrote the quintessential Freddie biography [A&U, September 2016]. [I profoundly inhale and glance around the low-lit restaurant.] I must say, Lise, I’m quite envious of Denmark’s authentic and liberal view on…sex. I find the U.S.A. so un-evolved. You were lucky to be raised within an environment of such healthy attitude. Also I’m quite envious that Denmark has free medical!
As a woman born in the eighties, living in Denmark, I am blessed with the fact that HIV and AIDS was not a taboo subject as I grew up. We were given a lot of information and taught not to alienate people who, unfortunately, were infected.
Is there any stigma at all in Denmark?
Some people may still lack enough education on how HIV is spread, but generally I get the feeling that a person with HIV is equal to a person with a cancer disease. Neither chose their illness and it is not their fault. Of course it helps a great deal that Denmark is a country of very little stigmatization of homosexuals.
Okay, I’m moving to Denmark. That’s it! I’m so bored with Americans’ prejudices and bigotry. I was raised in the sixties when civil rights were a gargantuan issue. Tragically, bigotry is rising again. Of course, it all has to do with people being based in fear. I think a lot of people today are just stuck in stupid! [Lise nods, smirks, and arches one eyebrow.] Do you know anyone close to you who’s living with HIV?
No, but my mother who has worked as a medical laboratory technician for forty years had several needle stick injuries working with HIV-positive people. She was tested many times because it was a labor risk. She always kept an open dialogue with us at home.
Lucky you. How did you first hear about the epidemic?
When I was about five, I saw a music video on national TV. It was the new number-one hit from two of the hottest musicians in Denmark, Thomas Helmig and Søs Fenger, backed up by many other great singers. It is called “Den jeg elsker” (“The one I love”), and was actually made as a commercial for condoms and was pro-homosexuality. It was a monster hit. That’s when my parents told me about the issue of HIV and AIDS. The video is on YouTube, maybe even with subtitles.
I’ll check it out! Say, how old were you when you first got tested?
Our welfare system in Denmark gives us free medical; therefore it is routine to get a medical check for HIV and every other STI at the age of eighteen.
Vidunderlig! [Wonderful.] While I’m here I’m picking up some Danish words. Did you go through any kind of anxiety about getting tested?
I’m convinced that almost all people have some kind of anxiety when their doctor wants to run some tests, even though they are just routine. However, it always creates anxiety when an authority has your destiny on a piece of paper.
Oh boy, indeed. When you and your boyfriend started dating, how did you bring up the topic of STIs with each other?
We were very open from the beginning. I think it is really common in Denmark that you openly ask one another if you have been recently checked.
Bingo again! How natural all this seems—it could be…. You say that nearly every opportunity you get, you speak out about STIs. Why?
I find it very important to talk about sex, STIs, and self-esteem—and most importantly to get rid of any myths and make it a normal thing to talk about.
My gosh. [I toss my flame-red hair and bob my head in earnest.] What motivates you do so? Why do you care?
Every time I shot Rita or Hjørdis I got to know all the kids. In the series we addressed many subjects regarding sex, STDs, self-esteem, and just being you. It was interesting to talk with the kids off-screen and get a feeling on how it is to be a child or a teenager nowadays…reality surpasses fiction.
In one scene Hjørdis has to take off her clothes and be the first in the locker room shower to get the female students to follow her lead. Between takes the girls told me how current this situation is. They rarely shower together because of insecurity. That’s a wrong step back from when I was fifteen….
[Grinning widely] I precisely remember that episode, Lise, oh-my-god! Well, with this current administration of ours, that sounds, sadly, quite familiar. [I change gears, almost yelling.] Self-esteem…is…utterly…essential!
Self-esteem is the one thing that fertilizes open minded and educated conversations so we all can learn from one another and never discriminate!
Hear, hear! What was the most difficult scene you had to shoot playing Hjørdis?
I had some class scenes with twenty children. At the age of seven they are very hard to control when they are tired, had sugar, and have had twenty takes or more. I guess it’s the same way a real teacher feels. [She smiles knowingly.]
Give me a backstory about working on your series.
Here’s a fun fact. The vest Hjørdis wears is the private vest of the greatest Danish actress still alive, Ghita Nørby. She’s an icon and has starred in movies and on the biggest stages in Denmark since the fifties.
I love it! Let’s fantasize. How would Hjørdis have responded and reacted to the epidemic?
I’m sure she would be terrified at first. But she always sticks to facts. She would dig deep to learn everything about the subject—and never stigmatize or discriminate anyone.
Amen, Hjørdis…oops… I mean Lise!
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].