You may not immediately recognize name but Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman is on the brink of Hollywood greatness. His talent and good looks are scoring him parts in some high-profile gigs as of late, such as on THE KILLING, LOLA VERSUS, SAFE HOUSE, and shortly with the highly anticipated ROBOCOP reboot. However, perhaps the biggest treat for American audiences will be to see him act in his native tongue in EASY MONEY (or, if you prefer the far better international title as we do, SNABBA CASH). At the film’s press day, we sat down with the powerhouse to talk about his schooling, his stage work, and stunt work on ROBOCOP.
How would you describe how you’ve progressed in your acting, and what you learned from EASY MONEY that you take with you into your current roles?
Joel Kinnaman: Well, a big moment for me was when I did a play that was a new adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and I played Raskolnikov. It was actually the first thing I did, when I got out of acting school. In Sweden, and a lot of Europe, there is this old romanticized idea of the wounded artist. In Sweden, a lot of the acting community are afflicted by that idea and gave themselves the right to be alcoholics because they are a wounded artist. I always felt that that idea was just such a stupid thing that I felt came from bad confidence that you can’t access those areas or experiences of your life, or that maybe you hadn’t had those experiences, so you’re trying to create it by yourself. So, I’d gone through four years of acting school and was like, “That’s just bullshit!” The people that were in that whole world of being a wounded artist and presenting themselves that way to the world, I always felt that their performances were usually very limited and you could never see the struggle in the person because they were actually trying to be depressed. A depressed person is not trying to be depressed, they’re trying to be better. Somebody who is mentally ill is striving to feel good and be normal, and I could never see that strive in their performances. So, it was up to me to prove my point with Raskolnikov. It’s a character that I read as borderline schizophrenic, who’s starving himself to death, and then he goes through this severe psychosis, while he’s finding true love for the first time. It’s an incredible journey. I really tried to implement this idea, and it really worked. I was really happy with that performance, and people said that they’d never seen more light in that character and not as much depression. That’s how I think it is. If you raise the high, the low is going to be lower. Usually, when you meet a person, you get an idea of who they are and you place them in a cabinet. It’s not until that person does something that completely contradicts that, that’s when you get the feeling of, “Oh, that’s who you are.” Then you see the whole span of that personality. That’s something that I try to bring to my performances. You can make an interesting character in a small portion of a movie, for a character that doesn’t have that much on the page, if you just find the contradictions. You have a lot more leeway to be contradictory than most of the scripts have in them. That’s how we all are. We have so many different sides of ourselves and we’re so different, in meeting with different people. The audiences relate more to that and find that more believable.
How do you view your character JW? Is he a victim of circumstances or his own machinations, or is he just naive?
I think he was a lot of those things. My first ideas around JW were based on the idea that he had a complex nature that is contradictory. He’s a very confident person, but with very low self-esteem. I think that’s an interesting combination. It’s more common than we think. And then, he’s also a chameleon, in many ways. I read it as that he has this void within him. For him, it’s often been enough to seem [a certain way]. It’s not as important to him to be something real. The choices of his life have led him further and further away from who he, himself, is. At this age that he is at out, he has no idea who he is. That leads a person with initially a very good heart to make extremely bad decisions. That was very fun to play. It’s also very fun to play a character that is an actor in his reality – that he’s a chameleon. Part of the performance that English speaking audiences won’t pick up on is that I made a big effort to have his dialect change with every person that he meets. When he’s with the upper-class, he talks like they do with their dialect. When he’s with the criminals, his way of speaking and his cadence changes. That was quite difficult. It took a lot of work and research, but it was one of those fun things to do.
With EASY MONEY, were there any extremes you asked to be put in there?
Me and Daniel, we have a very good work relationship. The battles that me and Daniel [Espinosa] had in many of the scenes was he had such difficulty liking this character. And me too. I grew up in a working class neighborhood in Sweden which, during my teens, was gentrified and is now completely middle class and upper middle class. The atmosphere of that neighbor was the kids from the East side – the rich side of the inner city – we hated them We would go there and beat them up and take their things. From somebody from my neighborhood to aspire or revere a person from the upper class, that is the most pathetic behavior you could do. And Daniel is from the suburbs that is even more, they feel the same way like all of the people from the inner city. This working class kid that JW is, that comes to Stockholm from the North.. Another aspect of the movie that gets lost is he sort of represents Sweden in many ways is the North of Sweden is very socialist and poor. They feel left out and despised by Stockholm in many ways because Stockholm has become new liberals and it’s much more Americanized. That whole ‘Strife mentality’ is not a Swedish mentality. That’s a sort of imported mentality. And he represents that. Daniel thought it was going to be really difficult for this character to be liked by the audience. I didn’t have that fear. I was sure they would find him compelling. But Daniel’s way of making sure of that was to make him vulnerable – more than I wanted to. I wanted to make him more capable. So that were our battles. I think we won half of them each.
What was it that initially attracted you to the character of JW?
It was a best-selling book in Sweden, and I was in the last year of acting school when I read it. At that point, I had done three movies, one small part and two medium-sized parts, and only one of those movies was successful. I wasn’t a name in Sweden, at all, but I was feeling pretty confident. I read this book, and then I started to say to everybody, “I’m gonna play this character.” The book had just come out and it hadn’t even been adapted, but I was like, “I’m gonna do this. This is gonna be me. I’m just saying, this is gonna be me!” And then, me and Daniel had become friends. I got to know him when I auditioned for his first feature. I was up for a part in that movie, but then I had to turn it down because I got into the acting school that I had been trying to get into for a long time. It was a four-year commitment that was very prestigious. It’s actually the second most expensive education in Sweden, for the government, ‘cause all our colleges are free. That’s how it should be here, too. So, when I finished acting school, we started to develop this script together and were trying to get the funding for it. The movies in Sweden are at least 50% financed by the government, so we were trying to get that approval to get that money ‘cause then it’s really easy to get the other part. But, the script wasn’t 100%. And then, Daniel got SNABBA CASH – he got EASY MONEY. He had just seen me do CRIME AND PUNISHMENT on stage, so he said, “This is you, man. You’ve gotta do it! Do you wanna do it?” I was like, “Are you kidding?! Of course, I wanna do it! I got it?” And he was like, “Yeah, you got it!” I’m such a fucking idiot that I went and told everyone I knew. I was bragging for five months, “I’m gonna do JW! You know who’s gonna play JW? Me! I’m gonna do JW!” I’d started to get more movie parts and was on a roll, but I was not a name. He was really naive when he gave the role to me, and then he realized, “Wow, that’s gonna be a huge battle to just tell the producers of the biggest Swedish movie of that year that this guy is going to do the lead.” So then, he came back to me and was like, “You’re gonna have to audition for it.” It was six months later, and I was like, “What?!” I had told everyone. Now, all of a sudden, I had to audition for this movie that I had already thought I had gotten, and it made me so nervous. I had to audition seven times. It was mine to lose, and it was really traumatic. I was an emotional and psychological wreck, after that. But then, finally, I got it.
In the three episodes of the first season of THE KILLING, you’re pushing us away. We keep learning things about Holder that keep disappointing us and make us want to give up on him, but then you draw us back in. That seems to be a tightrope to walk. How far can you push an audience away, as in the case of JW, and have us care what happens to him?
In THE KILLING it was something that was really frustrating to me too, as an actor, even though I’d been longing to be a part of a TV series much longer arc because I really hadn’t done that before. I was really frustrated because I wasn’t allowed to play all the colors of the character. They wanted to manipulate the audience to feel that they didn’t know if they liked this character and then he’d come around. I can understand that and maybe that helped people like me again later because they wanted that to be a dramatic arc in the series. Here he’s laughing and charming and gonna crack a joke, and they were like, “No, no, no. He’s gotta be serious.” In the second episode, when he’s offering those young girls weed, I thought that was fantastic writing. I thought that was really brave writing. That’s just something you automatically have to take a stand. You challenge the audience there. I love giving Tony Soprano as an example because that’s a person who does so many horrible things – and you’re rooting against him – but you’re still with him on this journey. You understand him. I used that when I’ve been in discussions with scripts when we need to go further.
What can you say about EASY MONEY 2?
Well, it picks up where the first one ends.
Do you know if there will be a Season 3 of THE KILLING?
No, I haven’t heard a thing.
What can you tell us about your next film, ROBOCOP?
It’s a re-imagining. There are parts and ideas from the first movie that have been remade in the second one, but it’s a completely new take on it. We have a fantastic director, Jose Padilha, who reminds me of Daniel Espinosa in some ways. He’s a very confident, bold director. He wrote, directed and produced ELITE SQUAD and ELITE SQUAD 2, which he also distributed. They’re both the two highest-grossing films in Brazil, which is an audience of 150 million people. You need that kind of a strong force in a director that’s going to do his first movie with a big studio. You need a person that can stand his ground on certain things, and know which battles are worth fighting and where you compromise. If you’ve seen his movies, you know that he’s a very talented actor’s director. The acting is superb in his films, and the action is very, very believable. He also has a history of being a physicist. His knowledge of where robotics and neuroscience is now is a complete understanding of where the cutting edge is. He’s working with the writers on a plausible version of 2041, and that’s going to be very interesting. The core of it will be something of substance, and then you have the fireworks around it.
Are you going to do your own stunts?
I won’t do any stupid things. I won’t jump off buildings. But, I’ll try to do as much as I can.
There are much bigger effects there too…
Yeah. It’s a big movie. The cool thing is the core of it will be something of substance and then you’ll have the fireworks around it.
EASY MONEY (SNABBA CASH) opens in limited release in New York on July 11 and Los Angeles of July 13.