PHILADELPHIA — Decades of touring — with and without Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band — have helped make rocker/actor Steven Van Zandt at home all over the world, but he says he never expected to be quite so big in Norway.
Lilyhammer, the show in which Van Zandt plays an American mobster in witness protection who asks to be relocated to Lillehammer, Norway (because he liked what he saw during the 1994 Winter Olympics), returned Friday for a second season on Netflix.
It’s still a hit in Norway, where it’s produced and where the Season 2 premiere in late October attracted a 51.9 percent share of the sets in use.
The show, Netflix’s first original, represented a leap as well for Norway’s state network, NRK, where “they tend to favor putting a camera on the front of a ship and people watching it for 24 hours at a time,” Van Zandt said, laughing, in a phone interview this week.
Don’t assume he’s exaggerating. Earlier this year, an NRK show about firewood reportedly included eight hours of continuous footage of a burning fire.
“It’s radical, the content,” Van Zandt said of Lilyhammer, in which his character — who’s decidedly less circumspect than Silvio Dante, the mobster Van Zandt played in The Sopranos — struggles with local customs while building a criminal enterprise. “You know, any kind of violence, they really are quite averse to. And, you know, that type of criminal behavior, especially from the star, is quite unusual.”
I confessed I’d learned more about Norwegian society from Lilyhammer than from any other source: Was I being led astray?
“Well, we are having some fun with it, but part of the concept was to make Norway one of the characters of the show. Because it is such a mystery and people know very little about it, so I thought that would be fun to use that,” said Van Zandt, who’s one of the show’s writers and producers (and this season is also producing the music).
“Mostly what you see is ... close to reality. It might be a little bit exaggerated here and there, but a lot of the eccentricities are accurate.”
The show’s dealing with more than eccentricities this season, including an episode focused on racism and immigration.
“It’s a wonderful sort of way to express that sort of racism that is cleverly hidden, or not even cleverly hidden,” Van Zandt said. “The culture thinks it is above it and immune to it. But, of course, no culture is.”
Work on the show had kept Van Zandt off the road with Springsteen for a while, but “I will be going with Bruce to South Africa and Australia,” he said, after which he hopes to be filming a third season. (Will he be on the new album? “Bruce is recording all the time, and so I’m not quite sure if I’m on there or not,” he said, laughing.)
The tour will be Van Zandt’s first visit to South Africa “since my research (for the protest album “Sun City”) in 1984,” said the organizer of Artists United Against Apartheid. “I turned down the offer to go down on Air Force 2 to the inauguration of (Nelson) Mandela” in 1994.
“I just felt we’d done our job, you know? Our job was to speak when he was in jail, when he couldn’t speak. And now that he was out ... it just felt inappropriate to me, to take any credit for what was just doing the right thing.”
He’d gotten to meet Mandela earlier, at a fundraiser in New York not long after he was freed from prison.
“I didn’t get the chance to have a lengthy conversation with him, but what an aura,” he said. “More like meeting a religious figure, you know, running into John the Baptist in the old days or Buddha or somebody of that level, that’s the kind of aura he had.”