How Joel Kinnaman Became a Sci-Fi TV Star (and Lived to Tell About It)
In the first episode of Altered Carbon, Netflix’s bid for a big, dystopic sci-fi-blockbuster series, Takeshi Kovacs, played by Swedish-American actor Joel Kinnaman, drops to the floor, his naked body oozing out of body bag full of gelatinous preservatives that have kept this new corpus intact. With a fit of gag-inducing gurgles and coughs, he pulls from his throat an endoscopic feeding tube. Disorientation and paranoia soon set in and he lunges after his lab-coat wearing overlords in search of a fragment of mirror to see his face, and someone to explain to him when it is, why he’s here, and what, exactly, happens to him now. It turns out, Kovacs’ consciousness has been “imprisoned” for the past 250 years, yet he still possesses superhuman fighting abilities.
In the year 2384, bodies are skins, or “sleeves,” that are mere vessels for cortical “stacks” that contain the self in a kind of stone-shaped glowing hard drive that looks as if you could skip it across a lake with a perfect throw. The problem of death has been solved, as long as you can continue to find new sleeves (a.k.a., bodies) to animate the stack that makes you, you. In other words, the human body has basically become a protective OtterBox for your iPhone’s SIM card, but way more expensive. Damage the stack implanted at the base of your cortex and you’re toast, sleeve or no sleeve. Call it an Achilles’ neck, if you will, but even when death is solved, drama still demands its possibility, or why keep watching?
What ties all of this neon wilderness to the present day is the idea that if or when we can achieve a kind of immortality, only a tiny population of the world’s most wealthy individuals will be able to afford it. This, as it turns out, is what drew Kinnaman to the show.
“That was the part of the story that really spoke to me,” Kinnaman says. “We see the extreme exaggeration of that trend of [income inequality] that we’re already seeing now, so devastatingly, with 80 percent of the world living in poverty. This generation of Americans is the first one projected to live shorter lives than their parents. At the same time, the wealthiest among us are projected to live longer than any humans have ever lived before. We’re already seeing these advances in technology and healthcare that have the potential to do so much good, but they’re only doing good for the richest segment. In some respect, you can almost say that rich people have become a different species.”
Kinnaman is wealthy at this point in his career, but it doesn’t define him. His father and mother were not much interested in the creature comforts of a secure job and sound every bit the global vagabonds their own son has become. When his father fled the Vietnam War for Sweden and met his future wife, Kinnaman’s mother, their family didn’t have much. Kinnaman has four sisters and a half-brother.
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When it’s suggested he wasn’t born with that elusive silver spoon dangling from his infant hand, Kinnaman laughs. “Why would you say that? You don’t think I talk sophisticated?” But he agrees, explaining that his parents never focused on a career. “They weren’t careerists in any way,” he explains. “I don’t think they were really interested in material wealth. Their focus was always the family. We got by. There was never anything really lacking, but there was never anything extra. There was food on the table, but if I wanted some new clothes, I had to make my own money to get them.”
He describes his education at an English school in Stockholm as a weird time, where he would move in and out of different circles of friends, get into a trouble, not quite fit in anywhere, and brood. His father suggested a year abroad, just to get away, regroup, and see some of the world
“I did have a really strange year. I was getting into a lot of trouble back home in Stockholm. My whole group of friends, when I tried to leave them, they turned on me. Then, all of my new friends, as soon as they ran into any of my old friends, then my old friends would beat up my new friends and rob them. They would leave me unscathed, just to really rub it in. Then, no one wanted to be my friend. It was a very lonely time.
“It was a period of a lot of anxiety and I developed this weird eating disorder,” Kinnaman continues. “I was not feeling very good. So, we came up with this idea that I could go be an exchange student for a year.”
As with nearly everything Kinnaman describes, he appears equally as interested and grateful for the awfulness of something as he does his own personal triumphs. He’d hoped to be placed somewhere in California, with Oregon a close second. Instead, he got Hell Valley, Texas, a suburb of Austin. (Later, he found out it was actually called Del Valle, but “hell” is all about perspective, so what’s in a name?)
“They picked me up from the airport,” he recalls, referring to his Texas host family. “They were both under five-foot; they were really short people. They just did not talk. I mean, she talked the shit out of me while I was in the car. He didn’t say a word for the entire hour from the airport. It was really stressing me out when we got to the house. When they put the key in the door, it was like a zoo inside.”
Kinnaman begins howling to impart just how many animals were contained inside this prefab home, that once inside, revealed slippery floors covered in desert sand, a bedroom with blank walls and a mattress, and about a dozen long-haired sausage dogs – the source of the beastly bedlam he heard while outside the door.
“I felt like Indiana Jones when he was lowered into the snake pit,” he says, laughing. “And this was my big adventure to get away from all the trouble? I remember when the airplane was coming in to land, I was looking at all the houses and there were so many swimming pools. Coming from Sweden, having a swimming pool was super exotic. I was like, ‘Oh, god, I hope they have a swimming pool.’ They were so far away from having a swimming pool, you have no idea. They were just really odd people. She was like, [putting on his best Texas accent] ‘If you wanna watch a movie, just go look in that cupboard and you can watch any movie you want.’ They had about 150 films in there. They were all cartoons.”
At school, with kids his own age, things picked up. He loved going, even when 40 percent of the students were allegedly gang-affiliated. It’s when he caught the attention of the high school football coach, with his performance at a soccer practice, that his entrée into Texas life came to full flower.
“I played a lot of sports in Sweden, so I soon became the captain of the soccer team,” he says. “While we were doing drills, I was kicking the ball pretty deep. The football team was playing on the field next to ours. The football coach came over and was like, ‘Hey, you! Are you that Swedish guy? You think you could kick a real football?’ They just shut down the soccer practice and I walked over to the football field and I started kicking the football and they kept moving the ball back and they were like, ‘Well, you just broke the school record. So, you wanna be a kicker?’ Then, I was the kicker on the football team. I was OK. I kicked a some 45-yard field goals, but I also missed a couple.”
After his year abroad, Kinnaman returned to Stockholm. According to his former classmate and actress Noomi Rapace, she never saw the adolescent awkwardness that would put Kinnaman in a less than flattering light. His rough side appealed to her. By her own admission, she was an “uneducated, punk rock girl from the countryside, and a good drinker” who became fascinated by this kid who was “skinny, tall, and totally hip-hop.”
“I was like, ‘Damn, he looks cool,'” Rapace says, laughing, calling from a film set in Europe, knowing it’s for a piece not about her, but Kinnaman, which speaks volumes about his likeability and strong friendships. “He was part of the cool kids. I was part of this lonely planet and everyone probably thought I was really bad ass and really tough and hardcore, but I was actually nervous and wanted to be a part of that group. Normally, the talented people are not cool in high school. But Joel was cool and talented.
“We officially met later on,” Rapace continues. “He went to a theater school in Malmö down in the south [of Sweden]. I knew a lot of people around him, and I started to hear rumors about him doing an amazing show, a play he was in – I think he was Dostoevsky. And I heard rumors about his amazing performance and I was like, ‘What? The hip-hop kid? He’s a serious actor now?’ I became amazed more and more by him and his journey. Normally, I just want to be alone, but I Iove being around him and Cleo [Wattenström, tattoo artist and Kinnaman’s wife since 2016). They’ve been like family to me when I’m working in L.A. I’m so happy to have him in my life. He’s like my brother.”
Kinnaman went on to great success as an actor in Sweden, but his restlessness, possibly inherited from his father, or his peripatetic childhood, left him wanting more. Instead of staying put, Kinnaman soon decided he should give America another go, not to revisit the pack of Texas dachshunds, but to expand the range of his work.
“The way my career was going in Sweden, I got about as far as I could go,” he says, about his decision to abandon his growing stardom in Stockholm. “There was sort of a glass ceiling in Sweden and I could have kept doing it, but I felt I had reached the pinnacle. I think the natural aspiration – well, maybe not natural – is to surpass that. When I moved to the States, eight or nine years ago, there were no Swedes here. Since my dad was American, I had this feeling I could go and do it for real.”
Although the Skarsgård clan has been cast in film and TV roles for years, Kinnaman felt free of expectations. “There were Swedes that came to Hollywood, but they would play like German prison guards. They would have dialogue like, ‘You, there. Go to the left.’ That was their contribution. I thought I could play American characters and have a real career. Then, when I tried, it all went pretty quickly and I was encouraged to keep going.”
Most viewers were likely introduced to his work Stateside in The Killing, the AMC detective procedural that benefitted greatly from the chemistry between its costars, Kinnaman and Mireille Enos. He followed that by giving it his best in the RoboCop reboot – another project that focused on reassembled bodies with A-list potential – and his biggest project to date, as military officer Rick Flag in Suicide Squad (he’ll also be in the sequel slated for a 2019 release). Then he returned to TV when he starred in House of Card‘s fourth and fifth seasons as Will Conway – the sexy, young political rival pitted against Kevin Spacey’s sinister Frank Underwood.
The partnership that made The Killing so appealing will hopefully reemerge when Kinnaman and Enos reunite for Amazon’s forthcoming series adaptation of Joe Wright’s 2011 film, Hanna.
“To work with Joel Kinnaman is to have an ally,” Enos explains via email. “He’s someone who allows you to live in his pocket and is happy to live in yours too. He knows how to be a partner. If there were ever disagreements on set, he always took my side knowing we could figure out the details later. It’s a trait that builds total trust. He manages to give performances that are totally compelling, charming, and lovable, while also being without vanity or ego.”
For Laeta Kalogridis, Altered Carbon’s creator and showrunner, it was Kinnaman’s emanation of worldliness that appealed to her most, considering his character on the show is, according to his cortical stack, an Asian revolutionary merely housed inside the body of an extremely fit Swede. “I ate kale leaves with my own tears as dressing,” Kinnaman quips about his physical preparation for the role.
“I didn’t have a fixed idea in my head of who the actor should be,” Kalogridis says. “I really felt like we needed someone who had a feeling of being a little bit outside of any culture he’s in, and Joel has this. I think it’s because of the Swedish thing: He’s multilingual; he has such an affinity for world cultures; and he doesn’t exist in a small, very defined cultural space. He’s a citizen of the world, and you feel it. You feel it as an actor, you feel it in his performance, you feel it in your interactions with him as a person. And he was such a joy to work with. A true team player.”
As for Kinnaman, he’s going to keep himself on this side of the Atlantic for the foreseeable future. Recently married to tattoo artist Cleo Wattenström and living in Venice, California, the overcast Nordic winters are becoming a distant memory. But as rumors of a second season of Altered Carbon have inevitably begun (and whether he’ll be returning), Kinnaman might be ready to look elsewhere, per usual.
“I love science fiction. I gravitate toward those kinds of stories when I’m looking for my next thing to watch. I think I have done enough science fiction for a while now. I think might go play someone with a terminal disease, or something,” he says, laughing. “I have way too little body fat and too many abs in this show. Now I’ve got to go do something to get my credibility back.”
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