RoboCop Star Joel Kinnaman on Life, Lola Versus, and the Pursuit of a Hollywood Career
Following a whirlwind rise to fame in his native Sweden, actor Joel Kinnaman is beginning to make his mark on American audiences thanks to a breakout turn as Detective Holder on AMC’s The Killing and his high-profile casting in the upcoming RoboCop remake. For the Stockholm-born 32-year-old, who breaks Greta Gerwig’s heart at the start of this week’s Lola Versus (but manages to remain sympathetic — a rarity in romantic comedies), setting out for Hollywood couldn’t have come at a better time. And according to him, taking risks — in work and beyond — is what living is all about: “Nothing is more important than the choices we make and the life we choose to live.”
Over the course of a decade, the blond, strikingly handsome Kinnaman has emerged as one of Sweden’s most promising talents. Crossing over to Hollywood, he appeared in The Darkest Hour, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Safe House, while his 2010 Swedish crime thriller Snabba Cash — set to be remade in English with Zac Efron — will debut stateside this summer. In Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister Jones's Lola Versus Kinnaman takes a slight detour from the “darkness and grittiness” he’s embraced for years, playing Luke, the NYC artist who gets cold feet and breaks his engagement to Greta Gerwig’s Lola, forcing her to re-examine herself and her fairytale expectations of life and love.
Kinnaman rang Movieline from London for a wide-ranging conversation about living without regret, leaving Sweden in time to avoid waking up at 45 years old “doing auditions for the third swordsman on Game of Thrones,” why he quit Twitter but can’t help Googling himself every now and then, and (of course!) our robot future.
Hi there! Where are you calling from, by the way?
I’m walking around in my robe in a hotel room in London.
What are you doing in London?
I’m shooting an H&M commercial.
Aha! So, let me get this out of the way right off the bat: I got hooked on The Killing and watched all of the first season, on demand, in a matter of days.
[Laughs] That’s the way I like to watch stuff, too!
Given that most folks here know you as Holder from The Killing, Lola Versus is an interesting project to come out for you now that you’re starting to cross-over from Swedish film and TV into Hollywood. Was it appealing, the variation?
Well, yes — it was a very welcome light side step from all the darkness and grittiness that I’ve been involved with, pretty much throughout my whole career. I’m a pretty light and light-spirited person; I’m not a depressed guy. I think that in Sweden and a lot of European countries there’s this whole mythology of the wounded artist, that you can’t really do any great art unless you’re suffering. And I always thought that was bullshit, I thought it was out of not being able to trust yourself to dive into those deep waters, so you create this persona of a struggling person that in turn would make it believable that you could portray these characters. But I’ve usually been cast as these dark, complex, struggling people.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. Of course I have that in me, too, but that’s not what I nourish in life. I don’t think that anybody that is depressed wants to be depressed, and that’s often what you see from performances with actors like that; it’s a depressed character from the first step onstage or the first frame of a movie and it’s like [sighs] and there’s no real journey to it.
Does this make you a sort of anti-method actor?
Well, I’m not a method actor per se, but if I’m playing a character that at its core of its persona has experiences I don’t have, I try to search out and get firsthand experiences of similar sorts so I have something to fantasize about. I think my technique is always evolving, and I think every character has its technique, but the thread through the way I work is that I usually try to get myself real experience doing what the character does so I have something real to fantasize about.
Along those lines, you did ride-alongs with police officers to prepare to play Holder on The Killing, so I’m assuming you’ll spend some time with robots for RoboCop…
[Laughs] Yeah, I’m going to Japan and spending time with [real life robots]. Have you seen those? Pretty cool.
I have, and it blows my mind that a RoboCop-like future may not be too far away.
It’s not. Have you seen these Japanese hospital droids, or humanoids, or whatever they call it? They’ve perfected the skin, and the skin looks so real. They have these motors between the eyes for when they smile. It’s just mind-blowing. We’re pretty close already. You can find it on YouTube! It’s spooky.
Lola Versus is a relationship movie, an alternative romantic dramedy, but it’s surprisingly balanced and complex as these movies go — your character is a character who in any average rom-com might be written as evil, so we can hate him off the bat for dumping Lola. But we can’t really do that here.
Yeah, it feels more balanced and not so formulaic in that sense. And I like that it starts out where most rom-coms end. And the message of the movie was one of the things that drew me to it; this message of ‘freedom for solitude.’ But at its main core it says, don’t throw your life away by living your life by a formula, like how things are supposed to be done. I think that’s what freaks Luke out — he’s realizing that life is a precious thing and maybe he hasn’t given it everything he could. It’s like being a little bit of a coward. One of the things that came to mind when I read the script, and something I think about a lot, is I believe that this life is everything that we have, and nothing happens after it — nothing is more important than the choices we make and the life we choose to live. There was this, I think, Danish documentary where they did interviews with old people, in their 80s, all over the world, from different classes and histories of wealth, different ethnicities, different religious backgrounds. Interviewing them on life; how they looked upon life. And of course the answers were all across the board, because everyone has such a different outlook on life, because of where they’re from. But there was one question that had a much higher resonance of the quality of answers, all over the world, in different classes and ethnicities, and that was, “What is your biggest regret in life?” And the answer that was common was, “That I didn’t take more emotional risks.”
I’m turning 31, and having been thinking about those kinds of questions lately, I’ll be honest with you — watching Lola Versus at times was a little too real for me.
[Laughs] Those are the kinds of reality checks that we need! If you got that feeling, that’s the best thing that can happen to you. I think that being a coward within yourself and not exposing yourself to life, giving yourself an opportunity to be everything that you can be — giving yourself the opportunity to evolve fully, to the furthest extent of where you could come — that’s a crime to yourself. You have to be brave.
Speaking of such things as bravery, the leap you made from Sweden to Hollywood seems like a challenging transition to make. You’ve talked about going out for auditions, having to deal with not having a big enough “name”…
I got out of acting school in 2007, and I had two very intense years — I did nine features in 16 months, where I played the lead in all of them, and at the same time I was playing the lead, Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment. It was like a three hour and 45 minute play that was a big success in Sweden. So I had a very intense two first years after I got out of acting school, and it was after that whole period before those movies had come out, that I made the decision to move. It was a good choice, and I was aware of my situation, [thinking] it’s a good time to go now, because in three or four years I’ll be established in a way, in Sweden, where I’m going to be used to being treated in a certain way and that can be difficult to change. So it was very easy to come over to the State without having an ego about things like that.
You were afraid that a few more years of success in Sweden and you’d be too famous?
Maybe you get too used to not having to fight for stuff. It’s more difficult when you’ve been working as an established actor for 20 years and then as a 45-year-old, everyone respects you and knows your body of work, and then all of a sudden you come to the States and nobody knows who you are, and you’re doing auditions for the third swordsman on Game of Thrones. That can be humiliating, but… so it was a good time for me to come over.
You’ve got The Killing and Lola Versus out and, soon, American audiences will see you in a Swedish film, Snabba Cash. And then, Robocop. When I spoke with Jose Padilha about his Elite Squad films, he shared his take on RoboCop and why it was compelling on a human level and it was really interesting to hear his philosophical approach.
I mean, he’s a young master, and a very strong visionary. He wants to make something with a lot of substance. And if you’ve seen Elite Squad, you know that the action sequences are a walk in the park for him. He can portray action very realistically — and that’s how he wants to do this movie. It takes place in the future, and it’s RoboCop, but it’s still going to feel like a gritty, down to earth movie… with a lot of fireworks around it.
You’ve described a difference in your acting approach to the character, that this RoboCop would be more of an “acting piece” than the original. How so, and why?
It just comes from the realization of, as we were talking about robots earlier, our vision of a robot 30 years from now is very different from what a robot was in the future in 1987. That is the main thing, and then there are obviously some things in the script that lead into that that I can’t talk about.
Lastly, you spoke about your fame in Sweden and there is certainly a wealth of admiration online for your work there. Now that you’re carving out a career here, do you go online and read what's written about yourself? Are you tempted to be on Twitter, as some actors and filmmakers are?
I did have a Twitter account, but five episodes into The Killing I terminated it. [Laughs] I felt that it’s enough of a struggle to keep my narcissism at bay, I don’t need to know what everybody’s saying about me. It’s just not healthy. But of course, I’ll Google my name time and again. But I try not to dive too deep into it. Of course, it’s always tempting, and it’s always there and it’s fascinating to hear what people say about you, but my experience of doing that is it’s like Russian roulette. You won’t stop looking until you find somebody saying something really nasty about you, and that’s the only way you’re satisfied. It doesn’t matter if there are 200 people saying great things, you’re only going to remember that one person that said something horrible about you, and there’s no point in that.
Lola Versus is in select theaters today.