When Joel Kinnaman begins a conversation with you, it’s breezy—effortlessly so—while simultaneously intense. He engages in dialog sounding like a man outstretched in a recliner, speaking through a playful smirk with the ease of “the Dude.” He’s introspective and pauses before sharing, at times getting lost in thoughts that trigger old memories and a spill of anecdotes, that come coupled with impersonations and a boyish tittering laugh.
Charming people, it would seem, is something of a natural talent for the 35-year-old Swedish actor, as is his aptitude for brawling onscreen—in theatres on both sides of the Atlantic.
Perhaps best known for his title role in last year’s blockbuster remake of RoboCop, Kinnaman is fast becoming a staple in the action thriller genre. In America, it began with The Killing on AMC in the spring of 2011. In Sweden, it started back in 2007 with a critically-acclaimed stage adaptation of Crime & Punishment for the Backa Theatre and Kinnaman cast in the role of protagonist, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov. “After that, there were a lot of directors and producers that thought I could carry a production…because I was on stage for three hours and 45 minutes…I never left the stage,” recalls Kinnaman of his early beginnings. Not bad for a kid fresh out of acting school…though that school was the prestigious Swedish Academic School of Drama.
From the existential angst and moral torment of Dostoevsky’s characters, Kinnaman delved into the dualistic criminal underworld by way of director Daniel Espinosa’s thriller, Snabba Cash (Easy Money). The first in a trilogy seeped in drugs, violence and the pursuit of love (and consequently, money), the box office hit put Kinnaman on Sweden’s A-list and earned him Best Actor at the 2011 Guldbagge Awards, the Swedish equivalent of an Oscar.
With fame and critical acclaim directing the trajectory of his star in Sweden, Kinnaman decided to take a chance on the unknown: Hollywood. Crediting his transatlantic move to “an amount of progress” he “hadn’t expected,” the actor jokes about banking on his American accent (he grew up speaking English with his father, a U.S. ex-pat) to help ease the career transition. “I knew I could probably go to the U.S. and play American roles…I wouldn’t have to be like a German prison guard, and be like ‘you there, go to the left.’ I could actually play a real person,” he laughs, after finishing a squeaky German impersonation.
One cellphone video audition later, and Kinnaman found himself in the running for Thor (2011), though oddly enough, it wasn’t until his sister called him about an article in The Guardian that he learned he was up for the part. “Why am I in an English paper” he remembers asking his sister with a laugh. “I had no idea.”
Feeling encouraged by his first Hollywood audition, Kinnaman wagered his bets on Los Angeles. He recalls, “at the time, there were like no Swedes working out there, except Stellan Skarsgård and Alex Skarsgård a little bit, but he hadn’t really started yet either…so it felt like a big step.”
Judging from the list of movie credits he’s accumulated since waving goodbye to his hometown of Stockholm, it would seem Kinnamn’s gamble has paid off—which, as he shares, was something of a non-option for him. “I told everyone in Sweden, I’m going to Hollywood, I’m too big for this country,” chuckles the actor, before getting serious. “No, but I did say that in all the interviews because I wanted to give myself…no easy way out. I didn’t want to go home empty handed.”
While Kinnaman admittedly weathered rejection for a stretch, when first settling in the U.S., the actor has managed to endear Hollywood critics and audiences alike, in just under 5 years since the release of his first American film. His calling card? Dark cerebral thrillers.
In the role of the rebellious, yet reliable, detective Stephen Holder (a street smart officer and one-time meth head, owing to an undercover job gone awry), Kinnaman made The Killing a fan favourite, alongside actress Mireille Enos (Gangster Squad); enough so that Netflick picked up the haunting crime drama for one final season—aired last August—when AMC dropped it after Season 3.
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From the scrappy iconoclastic Detective Holder, Kinnaman went full action hero for his first starring feature role in an American film, RoboCop. Since then, he has been throwing punches and kicking up trouble on the big screen full throttle, while artlessly leveling out his characters with broody intellect.
High-octane action dominates the narrative in Kinnaman’s latest feature, Run All Night. Cast alongside Liam Neeson (A Walk Among the Tombstones), Ed Harris (Snowpiercer) and Common (Selma), the actor plays the disillusioned son of former mob hit man, Jimmy Conlon (Neeson). “Mike kind of grew up alone with his mom, really resenting his father and his father’s way of life,” says Kinnaman of his character. “So the way Mike lives his life is pretty much, to be everything his father isn’t.” Drama ensues when the sins of the father, bring danger to the son’s doorsteps.
Keeping in theme, hand-to-hand combat, manhunts and gun slinging rivalries are central to Kinnaman’s second spring feature, Child 44, based on the bestselling book by Tom Rob Smith. The film—which reunites the actor with director Daniel Espinosa for a third time, post Safe House—takes audiences inside Stalin’s Soviet Union, a bleak dystopia where villains, such as Kinnaman’s Vasilis (nemesis to the film’s hero, Leo, played by Tom Hardy), thrive. “He’s a little bit of a sociopath, definitely a broken soul,” explains Kinnaman. “It’s always interesting to see what kind of people will rise in an environment that Stalin created.”
Happy for the chance to work with Espinosa again, a close friend—“many times we don’t have to talk at all…you don’t have to communicate that much when you know each other like we do”—Kinnaman immersed himself into the role, pouring over USSR history and textbooks examining sociopaths of Vasilis’s breed, to understand “how they function and how they see the world.”
Not quite the sort of books one imagines a dancehall and reggae enthusiast to have his nose buried in. But, as it quickly becomes clear when talking shop with the actor, an interest in studying and portraying the manifold paradox of human nature is something that Kinnaman has carried over from his time playing out the complexities of Dostoevsky’s narratives, back at the beginning of his career on stage in Sweden. “I can’t remember the last time I read a book that was not connected to work,” he comments.
Badass action star though he may be, Kinnaman is packing heat up top too. And what’s more attractive than a man who can throw a punch and wax Russian literature? Well, maybe just one thing, and by the summer of 2016, Kinnaman will have that box checked off to. Look for it under the title: Comic Book Superhero, subcategory Rick Flag/Suicide Squad.
With back-to-back thrillers set for release this spring—Run All Night hits theatres March 13, while Child 44 comes out April 17—and a star-studded blockbuster certified by DC Comics around the corner, it would seem Hollywood has found a new action hero in Joel Kinnaman.
To start off, I’d love to know a little bit about how you first got into acting, you started at a very young age, no?
Well….I did have a childhood experience of acting when I was 10-years-old, but it was quite brief, and then I didn’t think about it anymore for about 11 years.
Oh, so there was a long break in there before you really started acting?
I was around 21…and I had finished high school…I actually didn’t graduate, I wasn’t in school enough to graduate but, I finished school anyway. And, then my idea was to make money to go travel. I think 7 years was my plan (laughing). I was going to travel the world.
That’s a long time to travel…and a lot of savings!
I got all these weird jobs; I worked construction, in factories and swept snow off roofs (laughing), and stuff like that. And then I went traveling, and did that for two and a half years.
Where did you go?
I went to South America, to South East Asia and traveled in Europe…and then I had a couple of friends, mainly one friend, he came from an acting family, he got accepted into the national theatre school, and he was telling me about it, and it sounded fascinating.
And I guess you already had a bit of experience too…
Because I had had a little experience when I was a kid, I thought, well, maybe it could be something I could do.
So then where did you go from there? How did you get into acting…or back into acting?
I got in touch with this older Swedish actor, and he agreed to read with me and help me out, he told me to gather a couple of these monologues you needed to apply for this school. And then while working with him, I had a couple of times, when I got a little lost in it. I started behaving in ways I hadn’t planned.
One time, I was doing this scene [with him] from Long Day’s Journey Into Night [when] Edmund lays it all day for his father…he just kind of rips into his dad, and he was like, “say it like it was to your own dad, ” and I kind of just…
Got lost in it?
At the time…I was quite angry with my dad, so…I just went in for it. And then when I was done, the guy just sat down, and he was quiet, and I could feel that that must be a good thing, but I was just waiting for him to say something. And then, he looked at me and said, “you know, if you want to do this, you can really do this.” It was the first time I felt that…I might actually be good at something.
Sounds like an amazing experience…a revelation, really.
Yeah…and then I kind of went with it. And it took a while to get into school and everything, but that was the starting point.
And then all the way from there, getting your start in Sweden as a twenty-something-year old, you ended up where you are now, in Los Angeles. What inspired your decision to make the move to the US?
Well, I think it was an amount of progress that I hadn’t expected.
You mean in Sweden?
Yeah. After I got into acting school…I didn’t get into the big acting school, I got into a smaller school…and then I got a role in a movie, and then the year after, I got into the big school, so I didn’t finish at the smaller school, I went to the big national school…very hard to get into…and then I got a couple more parts in movies while going there.
While still in school? You must have been pretty booked afterwards too then, no?
After I graduated, I had this crazy run. I got cast as Raskolnikov in the national theatre’s…it was actually the opening of a new national theatre…and I got cast as Raskolnikov in this massive production of Crime and Punishment. And it became hailed as the best production in 10 years…
That’s a big role to land right out of acting school.
Then, the next 16 months, I did 9 features…I played the lead in all of them.
Again, not bad for a new grad…very impressive.
And in Sweden, we only do like 30 movies a year, so it was a pretty crazy run in a way.
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