Nearly two decades after Gladiator premiered in 2000, Connie Nielsen is back in Rome. She and her cast-mates, Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix, reunited for an anniversary screening organized for Rotary's End Polio campaign.
The anniversary of the film (which won five Oscars, including Best Picture) was an occasion for reflection for Nielsen. Much has changed for Nielsen since the role as Lucilla, the savvy daughter of Marcus Aurelius, launched her career as a movie star. For one, Nielsen doesn't just play characters ancillary to warriors, as she did in Gladiator — she now plays warriors herself. Last year, Nielsen appeared in Wonder Woman as Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (she did her own stunts, just like Crowe did). It's fitting for Nielsen to appear in movies about fighters, because she's a fighter herself. Nielsen has established herself as a Hollywood truth-teller and a crusader for justice. For recent evidence, look to Nielsen's brilliant and cutting Variety op-ed about Harvey Weinstein, casting couches, and structural inequality against women in Hollywood. We had an enlightening interview with Nielsen about Gladiator's timelessness and what motivates her to take action in her personal and professional life.
Refinery29: Gladiator is a movie about male warriors. Nearly 20 years later, you starred in Wonder Woman and were a warrior yourself. How are these two roles representative, perhaps, of how Hollywood has changed for women?
Connie Nielsen: "I wouldn’t go that far yet. I went to see Deadpool 2 the other day. There are two female characters who are both dead wives. One is about to be a baby factory and the other is a baby factory. They are the cause of their husbands’ animosity and their excuse to get them into a fight. I don’t know if they had one single woman in that room, either when they were writing it or producing it. It must not have been fun to be a female actor in it.
“I think Hollywood hasn't necessarily changed, and I don’t think it will until you’re sure you have at least two women in the room. I’m saying two women for a reason, because there’s research that you have to have more than two women in order for the female presence to make any difference. Wonder Woman created an authenticity around the female characters, including the female warriors, that you would not have had had it not been for that female presence and extraordinary personality and vision of Patti Jenkins.
"I will say that Ridley Scott really likes women, and really likes strong women. You can tell. I felt very comfortable when I did Gladiator being that strong woman."
At the end of your Variety op-ed, you identified concrete structural changes that need to take place to better protect women in Hollywood. What are your thoughts on the work has been done since October? What would you still like to see happen?
"I think there’s something missing from the conversation: What will it take to provide a legal framework for prosecuting sexual crimes? The framework, as it stands right now, provides an insurmountable burden for the victim. The victim has to be able to have specific proof that this was not consensual. We don’t have the framework for providing an easier experience for a victim to access justice.
"I think we need to have a serious conversation at the legislative level. NGOs that work with survivors of sexual assault – both men and women —need to come together with the legal community and find out how, exactly, do we set about protecting victims. There is a problem in the way in which we are setting the burden of proof for sexual crimes. There is a technical issue here that we have not found a solution to."
In the past months, we’ve seen a movement of actors using their platform to enact change. As an actor and public figure, what responsibility do you feel to give back?
"I’m really focused on what I would call justice, whether it’s environmental justice, social justice, or in this case, what we spoke of earlier, sexual justice. In our project in Africa — Human Needs Project — we see basic services and the ability to build a life as a human right. You have a billion people who are living in slums. Within the next 15 years, Human Habitat is estimating that number will double as people move from rural areas into cities. There is no plan to provide services to those billion people who have now thronged to our cities. At Human Needs Project, we’re trying to provide a module, a sustainable way, that puts no more burden of debt on the poorest and the least able to provide those services. "
Clearly, you’re very focused on justice and social change. How has that focus on justice in your personal life impacted the roles you’ve chosen to take over the past two decades?
“It’s a hard balance to be an artist and at the same time to be dedicated to the ideals and the solutions to issues that you desperately feel the world needs to confront. Obviously, it has brought me to a certain type of roles and a certain type of project. I tend to fall in love with films that hold within them the possibility of changing things.
“Our films are not just entertainment. Any kind of content — whether it’s a painting, or a film, or a book, or a music video — doesn’t just reflect our society. It reinforces negative issues in our society when it does not confront those negative issues. If we are unconsciously carrying forward and holding within our storytelling and within our representation of people on screens a world that says we are populated by 75% white males, we’re reinforcing that reality in the world. We have to demand that films and any kind of content reflect our reality and the way it really is in its manifold and beautiful aspects.
"I have a lot of sons. I take care that my sons don’t feel that they’re the enemy as we’re dealing with this. I always say, don’t think of yourselves as a white male. Think of yourselves as part of this beautiful world that ensures a space for everybody here and celebrates the many kind of expressions that is has. See yourself, rather, as that kind of person."
Right, you have four sons. When I think of a movie that has impacted so many young men I know, Gladiator tops the list. What do your sons think of the movie, and your role in it?
"I think they’re very proud of the film. The film is an aesthetic triumph. Gladiator also held within it an understanding of what kind of community we want to be living in. People — from famous songwriters to people in the street — would come up to me with their favorite quote. Invariably, they were quotes about the republic, the proud idea of the democracy. It was a dream of a place in which every individual had a vote that mattered and that you could not put the power into one single human being.
"Gladiator was also a film that pointed out we, as a people, can be easily seduced into complacency when we turn to simple entertainment and violence as entertainment. It pointed to the fact that the emperor was able to connect all of Rome by creating this diversion all the time with the gladiatorial games.
When you put it like that, the phenomenon in Gladiator seems so relevant.
"It’s still happening."
You’ve been acting for decades. What are your thoughts on the opportunities for older women in Hollywood?
"It’s clear from Big Little Lies and Wonder Women that when women are able to set the tone and tell the stories they care about, they are rewarded. The producers are rewarded with success. It’s clear that women want to see stories that reflect their thoughts, their lives, their feelings, their issues. It’s clear that there is a lot of money to be made from that."
Finally, you speak eight languages. Do you have any tips for anyone who wants to become a polyglot?
"I happened to be born during a time of incredible education in Denmark. We were given the opportunity of learning four languages in school. That created a huge opportunity in my life. I grew up in a village so small it wasn't on the map of the country, in a country so small you couldn't see it on a world map. And yet I got the opportunity to be exposed to the whole world through the very qualities and talents I was able to develop inside a sensible and well-executed educational system. Every child should have access to those things. Go to your local school board and insist that the arts and music and language get the funding they need. Every child has the right to have all of its faculties developed and not just a few."