Whether as the sinister, streetwise Detective Holder in The Killing or the supremely charismatic and formidable Governor Conway in House of Cards, there’s one thing we can all agree on about Joel Kinnaman—the Swedish-born actor is extremely flexible in his craft and can throw down some impressive acting démarches through a variety of roles. Reductive as it may sound, Kinnaman’s appeal as an actor largely lies in this very versatility as someone who can dissolve his ego and subsume his character’s persona to the fullest, which gives breathing room for the litheness of his craft to play out so well in such varying genres. As he prepares for the release of Suicide Squad, one of his biggest film projects to date, we talk to him about his journey into acting, what keeps him from creatively burning out, and some humiliating but laughable experiences on set.
I read that you grew up in Sweden, but your father was American. Could you tell us what it was it like growing up there and what kind of influence that bicultural exposure had on you?
Growing up in Sweden, I went to an English school where there was a huge mix of kids with different nationalities from all over town. Some of them were wealthy diplomatic kids, and some were from the ghetto suburbs. Going to school in that sort of context around so many different ethnicities and walks of life made me feel that I wasn’t completely Swedish, but that I was more a part of this global, second-generation immigrant community because my father was American.
As a kid, who would you say inspired you to begin acting and why?
It was a combination of things. My sister was an actress, so I saw her do her thing and understood that it was a profession that I could take seriously and do for a living. It also helped that she found a lot of success at a young age and got to work with all the great Swedish film directors such as Lasse Hallström, Ingmar Bergman, and Bo Widerberg, so that really sparked my interest. I also had a good friend of mine that was really into acting, so I was surrounded and exposed to the craft from a pretty young age.
How did you begin your acting career?
After high school I decided I was going to travel for 7 years to make up my mind about life. So to save up money, I planned to work in construction and do all these odd jobs while traveling, but I only got through 1.5 years of that [Laughs.] and decided to apply to the Swedish National acting school. I didn’t get in right away though. It took a while because in Sweden, you have to prepare monologues to apply, and they only accept about 10 applicants out of 1,500. But as I began preparing these monologues, I was able to viscerally experience the material in a way where I could shape the words and move through the scene as if I was actually there. I had this feeling that I might actually be good at this and became hooked. Needless to say, I got accepted to the program.
So you started acting in Sweden and were hugely successful, where you starred in something like 9 movies in 14 months. Why did you decide to move here to America when you were doing so well in Sweden?
There's this glass ceiling working as an actor in Sweden. It’s a country with only 9 million people, so there’s not enough production; we only make about 30 movies or so a year. Even the most successful actors in Sweden can’t sustain a career just in front of the camera, so they have to combine it with theater because there’s just not enough work to go around. For the films that do make the cut, they’re usually aiming to appeal to the German Market, and I had this idea that since my dad was American, I could come to the US to work and not have to keep playing the same German Prison Guard character and actually get to play some real roles.
Besides, you can’t deny that Hollywood is the world's stage when it comes to filmmaking. Even though they make incredible films in different countries like South Korea and France, Hollywood is where the best in the world come to play. So I was drawn to it and felt that since I had found such success in Sweden, I could replicate that success in America.
How was that transition like for you?
When I look back during the beginning of my career in the American market, it was a short but intense period of failures and rejection. I first started out auditioning from Sweden—my first audition for an American film was for Thor. I was in the final four for that. The second film I auditioned for was Mad Max and I was the runner up on that one. So at this point, the general feeling was that i got this and this Hollywood thing was going to be pretty easy. So I moved out to Los Angeles riding high on these close calls with these movies and started doing auditions. Then I didn’t get a single call for 5 months, so that was pretty devastating. But thankfully, I finally heard back from The Killing and got the role for Detective Holder.
From what I’ve been able to gather, you’ve have been on a sort of a non-stop acting spree as of late, which has been good for us, the public, because we get the privilege of seeing your work. But how do you keep from burning out and move forward creatively?
I think the key is to do projects that you enjoy. I’ve had a lot of different jobs in my life so I know how fortunate I am to be able to do this for a living. I've worked myself to a position where I have some kind of choice and I’ve also had the confidence to say no to things early on that I felt wouldn't have been able to shine in, or where I couldn’t truly get behind the story that was being told. Of course there's some luck involved, but I’ve been able to be a part of projects that I believe in, so I always try to work hard and prepare myself really well to give myself the best opportunity to enjoy the work.
What kind of advice would you give to someone pursuing your line of work or anything creative?
My advice would be to go all in; in the case of acting, you have to start from the stage and know the profession. In Sweden, if you pursue a career in acting and you're a young adult, you start in theater because that's what everyone does. Theater is the basis of the acting profession, and I believe there's a huge advantage coming from the stage first then going straight to film. Because a lot of the problems that arise from shooting and playing in front of the camera have the same answer to the problems that you find in theater, like when the material isn’t working for a certain part of the scene or things aren’t gelling between characters. If you come from theatre, you've been honing your craft in a way that provides different solutions to these problems that you learn from your stagecraft. I think a lot of people start out from the wrong end of the spectrum; they start out wanting to be famous instead of wanting to fall in love with a profession and craft that's been around for thousands of years. If you fall in love with the process of honing your craft and love your work, then everything else will come.
You’ve portrayed a really diverse range of characters in your work—from superhuman cyborg in RoboCop to the charismatic Governor Conway in House of Cards. Are there certain roles or genres of film that you are usually drawn to or how does that work for you?
I mainly look for interesting roles, so I'm not as concerned what genre they appear in. So if i find a character that's illustrated well, has a lot of interesting contrast, and is in an exciting setting, then I'm drawn to that. At the same time if I were to be honest, I really enjoy sci-fi and action movies because I love watching them myself... I’m very drawn to the physical kind of work that's required of those action roles.
How do you usually prepare for these roles? Do you have certain methods that you live by or is it just different every time?
I have one method, and it’s that every role has its own method. Every time I take on a new role, I'm always trying to see what my intuition is bringing to me in terms of what kind of preparation I want to or need to do for it. Obviously, there are some components that are always a part of it: there’s the physical component, where I have to make judgment calls on things like the character’s physical appearance and so I work to make my body match the idea I have. But when it requires me to find inspiration and dig deeper into the actual complexities of the character, that process is always going to be different and have it’s own set of methods.
So we’ve been hearing a lot about about your upcoming movie Suicide Squad, I saw that the movie rocked Comic Con and that people were raving about it.
I’ve been a part of a couple big movies now but it’s been amazing to be involved with this because it’s like nothing I've experienced before. The awareness of this film is on such a different level and people are so excited about it. Everyone that's been a part of this project had so much fun making this film. We really enjoyed each other’s company and all became friends. We still stay in touch everyday. So having something that’s a work of love and being this anticipated is really gratifying.
Your character in Suicide Squad, Rick Flag Jr., is a somewhat of a sober contrast to the other more off the wall personalities in the movie, but we get that he’s not without his own complexities. So what was it about Rick Flag that initially drew you to his character and ultimately, to this project?
In this case, I was actually tracking this project from the sidelines very jealously and seeing cast members were being added and basically were assembled. Nobody called me! (Laughs). But when Tom Hardy had to bail on the film because he was shooting The Revenant and they opened up the books again, I met with the Director David Ayer, had an audition, and they offered me the part. I wasn't necessarily drawn to the character for the sake of who he was, though he was in many ways the lead of the film, but more so happy to be in the mix. It was one of the most high profile projects in Hollywood so right from the get go everyone had a feeling about this one, that this one was going to be good.
Could you talk about the challenging and enjoyable aspects of bringing Rick Flag Jr. to life
First of all, David set the table with all these fantastic people that were helping you to dig deeper into your character. I worked with these three real life Rick Flags, who were Navy Seal/Delta Force Sniper/CIA Operatives, in order to get into the military mind and learn the tactics and techniques with the guns.
We also had very long discussions with David and with his friend who was a 24-year veteran of LAPD, and we would get into these really intensely personal discussions about my biggest fears and shames. In the case of my character, Rick was faced with a series of humiliations, so David thought it would be a great idea to be completely violate that trust and betray me in front of everyone and humiliate me (Laughs) in order to get a unique reaction. Acting is just a series of humiliations. I obviously never shared anything with him after that. (Laughs)
So what’s next for you after Suicide Squad? We hope it’s a well-deserved vacation.
I’ll be shooting season five of House of Cards and starring in a new Netflix show that’s part R-rated, Sci-Fi noir movie, with comparisons to Blade Runner. I’m really psyched about it—It’s their biggest show so far with a high budget to match, sort of like their answer to Game of Thrones in terms of ambition.