How Skam’s Isak and Even revolutionized teen TV
The third season of Norwegian teen series Skam dismantled stereotypes, coerced schoolkids into skiving off classes and turned homophobes into rainbow flag-waving defenders—and it first began airing one year ago today. It was the “gay” season, charting the blossoming relationship of Isak Valtersen and Even Bech Næsheim, both coming to terms with their sexuality against a cutting background of teenage angst. Taking every fan poll I’ve ever come across into account, season three was by far Skam’s most popular. It broke streaming records in Norway, and television viewership records in neighboring Denmark and Sweden. Throughout its 10-episode run, it hardly left the list of worldwide trending topics on any given social platform.
With a short promo clip that could have been a stand in for a gay snuff film—jockish throbs in a locker room being showered with milk in slow motion—the series wasn’t afraid to shy away from explicitly homosexual subject matter. Or any hot button subject. Homophobia, bullying, mental health—nothing was off the cards for series creator Julie Andem.
Only a few episodes deep and the series’ popularity reached a fever pitch. Its progressive narrative rested squarely on the sinewy backs of two hunky young actors. Tarjei Sandvik Moe, 18, and Henrik Holm, 22, who embodied these characters for several short years. The monumental shift from tiny Scandi show to international hit uploaded to Google Drive with bootleg subtitles didn’t go unnoticed. “While we were shooting it, we were kind of living in the Skam universe, and suddenly there were people trying to take pictures of us,” remembers Holm.
A fourth season came and went centering on the Muslim character, Sana, and though it garnered both debate and praise, people couldn’t help but ache for the return of Isak and Even. Then the series ended, seemingly without warning. Fans were left reeling. Pillows were cried into. And the explanation for its conclusion was a bit weak. However, Holm and Moe pulled it off, providing a thrilling true-to-life coming out story that was neither navel-gazing nor embellished. It felt real, which is why fans—gay and straight alike—have rallied behind this show and reevaluated their attitudes toward sexuality and mental health. Now, the show is headed for the impending doom of an American remake. And Tarjei Sandvik Moe and Henrik Holm are teetering on the precipice of intensely promising careers, leaving their beloved characters behind. But we’ll always have Isak and Even.
TREY TAYLOR: Can you tell me how you got the role on Skam?
TARJEI SANDVIK MOE: It was an open audition and they announced that they needed people born between 1996 and 1999. So the casting guy came to our school and 1,000 people or more came to audition, and I just signed up. In the last round [of auditions], I got told that I was going to audition for Isak. I also auditioned for the role of Jonas but I got the Isak role. I was watching a movie when I found out I got the part. They said it would take a couple of weeks to find out, so I wasn’t stressing at all because it had just been one week since the audition. They called me and told me they wanted to offer me the part of Isak and I didn’t know what that was but I was happy because nobody had cast me professionally before that. It was only my second audition so I didn’t think it would happen. I didn’t want to tell my mom so I just walked into a room where I could be by myself and I just screamed “Yes!” [laughs]
HENRIK HOLM: I was introduced in the third season. Skam had its breakthrough in Scandinavia in its second season. Everybody knew what Skam was and there were so many people that wanted to join the “Skamily”.
They had open auditions for the third season. They were looking for someone between the ages of 17 and 19. I was thinking about [auditioning] but after two days they had a press release in the Norwegian media where they said, “Hold up, we can’t take anymore resumes.” A few months later, during summer vacation, I found out that my mother had sent in my resume for me and they had tried to contact me through messenger on Facebook. But I wasn’t friends with the girl who was casting so it was in the message requests folder. So I hadn’t seen it and I checked the message and it was dated two months ago. So I got so stressed and messaged her back saying, “Hi, please let me know if you have any more chances!” I put my phone in my pocket and went to work at a local café. On my lunch break, I took my phone out of my pocket and realized I hadn’t pressed the lock button, so I was basically pocket texting her for two hours and sending her voice messages. I was so embarrassed. I thought, “This is the end of me. I’m not going to get any more jobs in this industry.” But for some reason she was very cool and was like, “This could happen to anyone.” And they brought me in for the last week of auditioning. I think it might have been the last day.
MOE: You were the last one! I think you were the last person to audition.
HOLM: Wow, that’s so cool. First I auditioned with another guy and the second round I got to meet Tarjei and we started talking and it was a good fit. The same day I was at the audition with Tarjei they wanted us to do a [role-playing] test. Tarjei was going to tell me that he slept with my girlfriend and I walked out of that room. I really felt that part went bad. I was so down and I was like, “Oh my god, he actually slept with my girlfriend.”
MOE: Because I was so cocky when I was saying it! [laughs] I was like, “Sorry man!”
HOLM: Yeah, you were a douchebag! [laughs] So I started walking home with my head hung, because I was so depressed—I thought I blew my last shot! I got home to my friends that I lived with and I was like, “It didn’t go well.” I was really depressed for like two hours and then [Skam creator] Julie [Andem] called me and was like, “Henrik, how would you feel if I told you you were going to play the part of Even?” and I immediately started screaming. It went from the bottom to the top.
TAYLOR: Tarjei, you said you wanted to play the part of Jonas and not Isak. Why?
MOE: I didn’t know anything about the series and we got to read about all the characters. So I got to read about Yousef, Isak, Mikael, William, Chris … and when I read about Jonas, he seemed like the coolest dude ever! We didn’t know who was going to be the main character, and I was like why can’t I play the cool dude?! I want to be the cool dude, the dressed up guy. In the information about Isak, it said he was manipulative and stuff like that. It also said he was gay and I was like … hmm. There was no problem with that, I just thought that Jonas was the coolest guy ever. I think Marlon [Langeland] did a good job of it. So it was a good thing that they cast me for Isak and Marlon for Jonas, that was the right choice. But back then I wanted to be Jonas so much.
HOLM: Did it really say in the description that your character was gay?
MOE: Yeah! The last sentences of each character’s description included the biggest secrets of that character. Isak’s secret was that he liked boys. So I knew it from the start.
TAYLOR: I thought it was decided later on when characters in the show kept making comments that Isak was gay.
MOE: Even though I knew it the whole time, I wasn’t thinking about it. I don’t know how it is but I don’t think that gay people walk around [thinking about how] they’re gay. My job was playing Isak, not playing “gay”—you know what I mean?
TAYLOR: I also heard that you asked Julie if your character could hook up with Vilde on the show.
MOE: Yeah, that was Ulrikke [Falch]. She was the one hoping for that. I was like, “Yeah, that would be cool,” because I like Ulrikke. She’s so fun and cute, so I thought that would be cool.
TAYLOR: Why did Julie say no?
MOE: I don’t know. I think because she had her own plan for everything. That was just a secret thing Ulrikke and I [shared]. We were just like, “Oh my god we should hook up on the show!” Julie was more like, “How about you guys hook up outside of the show?” [laughs]
TAYLOR: Tarjei, how did you find out that you were going to be the main character in season three?
MOE: She called me from the start of season one, so I knew then. But I didn’t take it seriously. I said, “Julie, this thing is not going to work for three seasons.” I doubted there was even going to be a second season. When we got to season two and [the show] started to get big I thought, “I have a big responsibility.” I wasn’t sure if I could do it. Julie said, “You can do it, if you couldn’t do it I wouldn’t have chosen you to be a main character.” So I trusted Julie more than I trusted myself.
TAYLOR: Have you heard any particular stories that people have told you about how you helped them come out, or helped in dealing with their mental illness?
MOE: I’ve had those experiences when people are so surprised when they meet me and they start shaking and saying stuff like, “You saved me”. Also people who are really deep and serious and are like, “Man, I came out of the closet because of Isak.” That’s big. I think it defends the work of making TV and doing acting. It can change people and it’s such fun work. When I’m acting I’m thinking like, “Oh my god I get paid to do this.” But when you see it could change the world like that I think, “Okay, I deserve my paycheck.” [laughs]
HOLM: I’ve met people who understood that they were bipolar by watching our performances. I’ve also met people that have gotten the courage to tell their families that they were gay, but also so many young people who have struggled with their mental health, for years, and they found something that wasn’t only glamorous and pretty to look at but also very raw and understanding. There aren’t a lot of series that have such a deep level of understanding of homosexuality and mental illnesses.
MOE: I’ve also met straight people—straight people have said like, “When I first saw Isak and Even kissing, I thought that was disgusting, but after watching it and understanding the characters I realized it’s actually not disgusting. They’re just loving each other like everyone else.” So it’s not only gay people accepting that they’re gay but straight people accepting that other people are gay.
TAYLOR: So you have met homophobic people that have changed their mind?
MOE: Yeah they stopped being homophobic because they saw that it’s not the worst thing [to be gay].
TAYLOR: I want to talk about that kardemomme scene—you said it was mostly improvised. I heard you rapped the entire “Express Yourself” song by N.W.A. but it got cut.
HOLM: [laughs] What did happen that day?
MOE: I did rap the whole thing and it got cut out because my rapping was too long. That would’ve made people turn off their TV and be like, “What the fuck is this?! If I wanted to see rapping I would go see rapping!”
HOLM: With my bad beat boxing.
TAYLOR: When you were making the toast was that improvised?
HOLM: We were shooting in Marlon [Langeland]’s apartment. Even’s room is Marlon’s room in real life. They didn’t know what kind of herbs were in his kitchen cupboard, so they just threw out a lot of herbs.There were so many strange names of spices that we had never heard of before.
TAYLOR: Did they let you smoke weed? Was that real?
HOLM: Oh, no! [laughs] I didn’t even get to roll my own joint! I really had a big dream that I was going to get to roll my own joint as the character. But then I got on set, and the costume boss had one of her friends roll up the whole pack; it was like seven joints or something. I was so depressed because I really wanted to do it myself, and personally I didn’t think it was very well rolled, so I wasn’t too satisfied with the joint—but it wasn’t real weed. We had to smoke herbal cigarettes.
MOE: Yeah, it wasn’t tobacco. We smoked some herbs or something. It wasn’t good!
HOLM: It was worse than cigarettes because it made you feel glossed over, and you felt really weird in your mouth and you got a bad taste and a headache. I wish it was real weed but it wasn’t.
MOE: Earlier that day I also shot the scene, which is the first scene in the episode, when I’m laying in the bath and I smoke from that bong. So I did so much smoking that day, I was depressed afterwards. [laughs]
TAYLOR: Henrik, did you have to learn the lyrics to Gabrielle’s “5 Fine Frøkner” for that kitchen scene?
HOLMS: I got a text from Julie the day before and she was like, “Henrik you need to help me find a cool song and it’ll be the song that Even will sing to Isak. She proposed “Ah-Ha” by Take On Me, but that was going to be too cliché. So she proposed Gabrielle, and I personally like Gabrielle, but I haven’t listened to much of her songs, and that special song, “5 Fine Frøkner” is a song that was on the radio all the time.
The whole summer it had been playing and people were kind of sick of it, like “Despacito.” So my immediate response to Julie was, “Please no, don’t make me do that!” I sat down and listened to the song about three times and started dancing and was like, “Yeah, I really dig this song now!” I had to rehearse the lyrics but when we got on set I had only rehearsed it like three times, so it made it more natural that I didn’t know all the lyrics.
TAYLOR: That’s funny because when the show came out and that song played, everybody started downloading it and it became even more popular. [“5 Fine Frøkner” saw a 3,018 percent increase in listening on Spotify after the episode aired, with over 13 million streams].
MOE: I think that Gabrielle owes us some money… [laughs]
TAYLOR: Did you guys have a favorite music moment from the show?
HOLM: I watched [Skam] when it aired on television, but I must say “O Helga Natt” was the first time I watched that scene and heard the song; I was getting goosebumps all over my neck.
MOE: It was so surprising to watch because as we were shooting it, it didn’t sound like that. I always thought it was good but I was just running around the streets of Oslo, and it was the scene where we meet each other and go to the school yard. They were playing this music—
HOLM: It made all the focus go away because we were doing maybe the most sensitive and fragile scene in the whole series. But the moment we walked out in the schoolyard, there was a party next door. It was very funny. I almost forgot that. [laughs]
TAYLOR: Have either of you ever connected with a piece of media or a piece of art as intensely as viewers connected with Skam?
MOE: Yeah in theater, with small theater things.
HOLM: But in the same way as fans who have traveled to see the place and meet the people and everything?
MOE: Well no, but I have also had those big experiences where I’ve thought, “Okay, I’m going to change my life and do things differently after seeing this.”
HOLM: There are so many movies that have changed my view on acting and my perspective of the world and everything, but what was most absurd to me was that these people were actually praising us, or coming to Oslo and walking in our footsteps. It was like, why are they doing this? But my mother explained it very well to me when she reminded me of my huge crush when I was a teenage boy. I was so in love with Jessica Alba, and I was willing to do anything to meet her. I was sitting at home the day I realized I was never going to meet Jessica Alba crying my eyes out. I was so down, and I actually had to go back to that place where I was idolizing who Jessica Alba was, and how she was going to be with me and everything—that made me understand how these people who really connected with Isak and Even’s story wanted to meet us and show us how much it meant to them. That made me open up my eyes to what this show has done for people and that it had a very positive impact on people’s lives.
TAYLOR: How old were you when you were obsessed with Jessica Alba?
HOLM: Oh I don’t know, I was not old at all. I was like 12 years old or something, 12 or 13. I was dreaming about her every night. [laughs]
TAYLOR: Why did the show end?
HOLM: Julie is such an artist that when she started thinking about this project, she was thinking about it and dreaming about it all the time. Doing that on and on for two years, I feel like that was enough. But at the same time I think she also thought about the actors. She didn’t want us to be too connected to our roles, in the way that many series go on for year after year, and the actors become more or less their role.
TAYLOR: Were you shocked when you found out it was ending?
HOLM: It was a shock, but it wasn’t a surprise.
MOE: She made four seasons of TV in two years and she wrote everything; she directed everything; she even chose the music! So the fact that she even did one season is impressive to me, and the fact that she made four is fantastic.
TAYLOR: I’m part of all these Skam Facebook groups. I saw in one of them that these two guys booked a trip to that hotel you stayed in and found the room and ate some mini burgers just like Isak and Even. How does it make you feel when people do things like that?
MOE: I hope they know that that’s not our life, it’s our characters. [laughs] It’s funny, I basically do that without trying because I’m attending [the school the show was filmed in], Hartvig Nissen, and I’m the same age as Isak, which is a total coincidence. But I’m still going to Nissen. I am basically on the set everyday. I also meet a lot of people who come to the school to take pictures of the school and also take pictures of me too. If someone told me two years ago that I would be in a series that would make people from China go to Oslo to take pictures of not that pretty of a school, I would be saying, “What the fuck?!” [laughs]
HOLM: I must say that the greatest part of it is that we achieved something of an impact on people. Skam has actually changed people’s lives for the better. That’s why I think people are trying to walk in Isak and Even’s shoes—their lives actually changed for the better. I’ve meet so many people that were affected by, not only the characters and how we portray them, but also the fan base and the warmth inside of all the fans that it became a family that started connecting with each other from across the world. They found something that they could enjoy together and can talk about as much as they wanted. It has much more than race and culture, it was something that was so real to people, irrespective of where you were from or what sexuality you were. Julie made a series that was possible for everyone to understand even if you were 14 or 90 years old. That’s what I think was so special about Skam.