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Photo: Daniel Sahlberg
Photo: Daniel Sahlberg

Hollywood’s hottest player – Meet Joel Kinnaman

After the international success of Easy Money, Joel Kinnaman has been rapidly rising through the Hollywood ranks to be become a global star.

Name: Joel Kinnaman.
Age: 36.
Lives: Los Angeles, intends to get a pied-à-terre in Stockholm
Family: Wife Cleo Wattenström
Movies/tv-series: Easy Money I-III, In Your Veins, The Killing, Run All Night, Suicide Squad, Edge of Winter, House of Cards
Upcoming: Altered Carbon

A recent run of attention-grabbing roles in movies such as Robocop and Run All Night and in TV series The Killing and House of Cards have made Joel Kinnaman, already well known in his native Sweden, a star in the US too.  

We meet in New York, in a large building close to Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Although Kinnaman’s home these days is in Los Angeles, where he and his wife, acclaimed tattoo artist Cleo Wattenström, have a house by the ocean in Venice.

“I’m firmly rooted there now. But I’m going to get an apartment in Stockholm too. I don’t want to stay in a hotel when I’m there,” says the 37-year-old actor.

The couple got married in 2016. Kinnaman shows me a tattoo on his left arm – done by Wattenström.

“It means that I have to spend 90 minutes in makeup every day when filming to cover it up,” he smiles.

Kinnaman’s rapid rise in Hollywood is due to the international success of Easy Money, based on Jens Lapidus’ book about a young man who’s enticed into the world of organized crime in Stockholm. The movie was released in 2010 and there have been two sequels.

The year before Easy Money came out, Kinnaman had been critically acclaimed as a drug addict in the drama In Your Veins, and when he reprised the role of police informer Frank Wagner in the TV series Johan Falk, it raised the series several notches. His intensive acting was the best thing about the series, and the reason why many people watched it.

Born Charles Joel Nordström Kinnaman in November 1979, his father Steve Kinnaman was an American who deserted from the war in Vietnam. After five years on the run in Laos, he came to Sweden where he met Bitte, who was to become Kinnaman’s mother. The actor has four full siblings and a half-sister, Melinda Kinnaman, who played one of the leading roles in Lasse Hallström’s Oscar-nominated My Life as a Dog.

Having an American father is the reason why he speaks fluent English without a Swedish accent, which is obviously an advantage for someone trying to forge an international career. Kinnaman says that his relationship with his father is what attracted him to the action movie Run All Night a couple of years ago.

Photo: Daniel Sahlberg

“I’d been looking for a movie with a father and son theme for ages, and as it was also a good script, I obviously had to say yes to it.” 

The same day as I met Kinnaman, I also met the gnarled veteran Liam Neeson, who played his father in the movie. I asked him how high he thinks Kinnaman can climb in Hollywood. Neeson laughed and said, “Joel is not about to establish himself in the American movie industry. He’s already established here. He’s going to go far.”

Many people I speak to say “he’s still very young,” and you can see that he personally, consciously or otherwise, looks for role models. Will Smith became one such influence during the shooting of Suicide Squad.

“It’s fascinating to see someone who has been so successful for so many years,” says Kinnaman. “He’s been at the top for 25 years, yet he’s still the most humble, pleasant and professional person you could wish to meet. If he’s a minute late, he comes running. He’s forever concerned that everyone should be happy. He’s a real inspiration as a person. I’m not embarrassed to say that I take after him a great deal. It’s important as an actor to always learn new things and to be insistent on rehearsing and rehearsing.”

I call his father Steve and ask him how his son became interested in acting. He says, “He simply made up his mind one day. He came home and said, ‘I’m ­going to become an actor.’ That was in his late teens, and he called every theater and eventually got a job on a theater boat. Once he’d made that decision he concentrated all his efforts and all his focus and interest on it. He applied to drama school in Stockholm, didn’t get a place, but was accepted in Malmö. And in the meantime, he played minor roles in movies.”

Kinnaman made his film debut in Stockholm in 2002, playing opposite his close friend Gustaf Skarsgård in The Invisible. This was followed by roles in movies such as Hannah med H and Arn – The Knight Templar. In 2010 came Easy Money, which became a global hit, and Hollywood soon came knocking for both Kinnaman and director Daniel Espinosa.

Photo: Daniel Sahlberg

However, not everything that he has done since has turned out well.

In fall 2010, I visited Kinnaman in Moscow where he was shooting the sci-fi movie The Darkest Hour in 3D. We met in the middle of the night in what was supposed to represent a bullet-riddled American Embassy.

Kinnaman said, “I love all kinds of movies, including American popcorn movies and sci-fi. And ever since I saw Avatar it’s been a dream of mine to be in a 3D movie. It’s challenging and fun. I’ve never been in a movie with so much technical acting before.”

The shooting may have been fun and the level of ambition high, but when the movie came out it was mercilessly panned, and it flopped at the box office.

After two more Easy Money movies and The American Safe House, with pal Espinosa in the director’s chair, Kinnaman was signed to play the lead role in a remake of the classic action movie Robocop. It was an ambitious film, but was criticized for toning down the violence compared to the original. Kinnaman laughs.

“That caused me trouble. In the first interview I did about it, I said it definitely would be violent and that it would get an R rating in the US. I then got 25 calls from agents saying ‘you can’t say that, the movie will have a PG 13 rating.’ It was an honest attempt to do a good remake, but they didn’t get what the fans loved about the original. The ultra-violence was a key part of the movie, it was a statement. It should have been made more like Deadpool.”

Kinnaman gets plenty of offers to make action movies.

“Obviously, I make loads of action movies and thrillers, but that’s what I get offered most, and it’s where I’ve found the best scripts. I did do a rom-com that was not that good and I was in a ridiculous sci-fi movie.”

As we know, we’re in the golden age of television and Kinnaman plays an active part in this. He was in The Killing, the American remake of the Danish series Brottet, and in House of Cards he appeared as a presidential candidate trying to beat Kevin Spacey’s manipulative Frank Underwood. He reprises the same role in the current season.

“The storyline in House of Cards has been so dramatic, but there was also the real election campaign alongside it. So we needed to raise the bar. I personally found it really fun to come back to this character. The character had landed and has a fun arc.”

I ask if he’s politically active. “I follow politics, I’m very interested. I must get more involved now, ­perhaps. It’s possible that in a few years time, people are going to look back and say ‘what have we done?’"

“What’s happening in the world is a bit reminiscent of the atmosphere before World War II. Having said that, people lived through the Cold War during the 50s and 60s, with the threat of nuclear war hanging over them. It’s been calm for 15-20 years now.”

He went straight from House of Cards to six months training for the Netflix sci-fi series Altered Carbon.

Photo: Daniel Sahlberg

“It’s far and away the most demanding thing I’ve ever done. It’s heavy drama with long scenes and loads of dialogue, and there’s plenty of action. I’ve taken the action part more seriously than previously and do all my own stunts. I love that.”

Will he come back in the next season? Everything’s top secret. “In the world in which the series is set, physical bodies don’t have the same significance. Everything is stored on a chip, so you can switch bodies.”

Kinnaman is shooting in London over the summer, and hopefully this coming fall/winter he’ll be able to make the movie about his dad’s escape from the US army, for which the actor is writing the script.

“We’ve received development support from the Swedish Film Institute. It’s brilliant that they believe in the project. I hope we can do the filming on location in Laos. It looks the same today as it did 40 years ago. And I want to shoot it in documentary style, a bit guerrilla style.”

Kinnaman has to go back to the film set. My final question – has he got any new tattoos?

“Yes, I’ve got one on my other arm too. So now I’m symmetrical. But that will be it. I have to get into the makeup department even earlier. I’m naked from the waist up in pretty much every scene.” 

Thanks to:
Assistants: Mike Mann and Henrik Christoffersson.
Stylist: Tara Nichols.
Grooming: Harper “Harper for Exclusive Artists using Oribe Haircare”.
Light Technician: John Collazos.
Location:  Brentwood Los Angeles, California

Text: Gunnar Rehlin

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