Norwegian-born, Los Angeles-based Tonje Kristiansen is living lesson in not judging a book by its cover...
With her picture-perfect hair, enviable wardrobe and beautiful family, it would be easy to assume she is living the good life. And while it certainly is a life that’s good, it’s not one that has been without immense challenge.
As Tonje says, “I feel like my life was divided into two times – before and after I had children.” Following traumatic premature births and her children’s complex health challenges, Tonje transformed her life professionally, creatively and personally.
As well as working as an actor, filmmaker, photographer and journalist, she went on to launch her own online platform – Notebook by Tonje Kristiansen – where she has set about sharing stories and revelations of women and mothers, in the hope that we can inspire and connect with each other. This then sparked the launch of Her Platform, an event series that was born out of, “The isolation experienced in the rebuilding of my life when moving to LA. The breakdown of my marriage. The experience with my son’s birth, the hospitalisation and the aftermath. Working my way into the world and creating our new normal, shifting the narrative I thought my life would follow.”
If you’re wondering how she has the motivation and drive to keep going, you’re not alone. Tonje says that she is inspired by, “People who dedicate their life to help others, people who have overcome and dealt with medical challenges and serious illness, people who speak the truth and stand up for one another, young activists, entrepreneurs who have the persistence to execute their ideas and stay true to their vision in this competitive market, mothers everywhere and great artists within the visual arts.” But we think she needs to look no further than herself.
For a story that is moving, heartbreaking and ultimately incredibly inspiring – look no further than Tonje Kristiansen.
Tell us a little bit about your childhood...
I grew up in the countryside of Norway with parents who were famous filmmakers. The films they made were quite controversial; my mother was in charge as a writer, director and sometimes actress, while my dad produced. My mother fought intensely for women’s rights through her movies. Her approach was publicly praised, wildly criticized and always provocative. She was probably one of the most talked about personalities in Norway in the late seventies and eighties. When growing up, I thought my mother’s activism was intense and a bit intimidating. Today I find her journey quite fascinating as she went to that after being a fashion model in the sixties, photographed by the likes of Helmut Newton, discovered by Fellini and hanging out with the Beatles around Europe. She soon decided she couldn’t stand being an object in the direction of others. She moved on to the 70s becoming active in the women’s rights movement as a film director. After meeting and marrying my dad, they moved to the countryside where they had a post-production studio in the garden so that they could work close to my sister and I while we were growing up. I would say I had a very free and idyllic childhood. But because of my family, I did feel a bit like an outcast. We also travelled a lot and I did spend a lot of time away on movie sets and acted in my mother’s films from an early age. There was a strong division between my regular life in school and my experiences on movie sets. I loved the fictional part but every time I went back to school, I felt lonely because I could never share any of my experiences. It was obvious that my mother was a hot topic in people’s homes, and the children were picking up on it. I dreamed of my mother being a housewife who could bake and make me a lunch box that looked like the ones the other kids brought to school. The ones who seemingly had normal mothers. To me, it meant little that my mother was brave and resilient and special. That didn’t make me popular in our little community. Looking back, thinking about the families in our community, I just wish that I had seen or been made aware of the fact that differences are something valuable and completely normal. I started horse riding when I was 10 and got into competitive horse jumping which meant a great deal to me. I actually think the discipline, responsibility, commitment and caring for my horses taught me a lot that I’ve later benefited from as a mother raising my children. I’ve always felt I am drawn to nature and the big city life as a combination; that’s what I like about California.
How does your own upbringing differ from how your own children are being raised?
As all mothers before me, I’m trying hard to make up for what I wanted but didn’t have, to create our “normal.” At times I have been guilty of trying to create a less eccentric childhood than I had myself, but I think at the end of the day I am creating another type of eccentric life for my children after all – looking at the type of life we have! I rely on my gut feeling and knowing my children very well has always been a focus. I find motherhood a very natural thing, a role that fell easily into place for me despite unexpected hardships we’ve been through. The biggest difference in my children’s upbringing is that I have been raising them as a single mother – my daughter since she was five and my son since birth. My own parents were always doing everything together and operated as each other’s support system – especially in raising children. Coming from parents who have been able to stay together for 40-something years and finding my own path as a single parent – not being able to rely on the ideals I grew up with or believed I would have – has been a challenge and something I’ve worked through. That, combined with the fact that I have been raising my children in a different culture, and I also had a lot of restrictions put on me when my son was born prematurely. I wasn’t able to work full time or pursue my personal ambitions for a lot of years, which has been very different from how I grew up with my mother. In our upbringing, she was the centre and my dad naturally participated in her career. Here in LA, I see mostly the opposite, where a woman usually revolves and gives attention to a man’s career. The US is still very conservative and way behind when it comes to equal rights for women and men and then in particular, mothers.
What did your career involve before children?
After a short modelling stint in Paris and attending The Lee Strasberg theatre school while living in New York for three years, I returned to Norway to work in television. I quickly decided I wanted to go to film school. After I graduated I made the short documentary “Kjell” about an old gay man reliving his past as a young model in the 50s. To my surprise, it became a big success in Norway and won Best Documentary in 2005. I followed up with another documentary/fictional piece, “Love Lessons,” about three generations of women and how their romantic expectations had changed over time. As I was finishing that film, I ended up moving to LA because of my ex-husband, even though I had settled quite well into Norway after years of living abroad. I also worked as a writer and journalist for a variety of publications, which is work that continued after my daughter was born.