Actor Joel Kinnaman

The Swedish star shares his feelings on crossing over internationally and his role as an action hero in the RoboCop reboot.

Before becoming a sought-after actor in Hollywood, Joel Kinnaman was a star in his native Sweden—known for his role in the Johan Falk film series and earning a nomination for a best supporting actor Guldbagge Award, the Swedish equivalent of the Oscar. He's since landed roles in a variety of films, including the romantic comedy, Lola Versus, the action-thriller, Safe House, and a supporting role in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He also had a starring role in AMC's crime drama TV series, The Killing. A graduate of the prestigious Swedish Academic School of Drama, Kinnaman is next up as the title character in the remake of the sci-fi action film, RoboCop.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Joel Kinnaman first came to American television from his native Sweden starring as a Seattle-based cop with significant personal demons in the critically acclaimed series, “The Killing,” which will complete its final season, by the way, on Netflix this summer.

Now he can also be seen in the title role of “Robocop,” a reboot, of course, of the 1987 futuristic drama about a time when men and robots are meshed together to create an elite police force. We’ll start by taking a look at a scene from the new “Robocop.”

[Clip]

Tavis: So you already are and have been for some time, Joel, a huge star in your native Sweden and everybody is now predicting that this is going to put you in that same frame stateside here. Does it feel that way for you?

Joel Kinnaman: I don’t know. You know, I don’t think about it like that. But, you know, I feel incredibly blessed to get to work with people like Gary Oldman and Sam Jackson and Michael Keaton. So for me, it’s a dream come true, regardless.

Tavis: Yeah. I read an interview that you did the other day in preparation for our conversation. And I was fascinated by a particular line and I want to kind of explore it in this conversation ’cause the article didn’t give you space to do this. And that is this notion that putting on this suit for “Robocop,” you thought initially was going to be heavy and burdensome and tiring and it may have been all of that.

But you said something fascinating, for me at least, which is that when you put the suit on, though, wearing the suit day in and day out spoke to you about the humanity of the character.

Kinnaman: Yeah.

Tavis: What did you mean by that?

Kinnaman: Well, I mean, it was more the contrast of emotion the character was going through, and I didn’t expect to find that from the suit. I mean, I’d put the suit on and it was, you know, uncomfortable and all that and it made me feel like a bad ass. But it also revealed something of the vulnerability that the character was going through.

Because when I put that suit on, I didn’t, you know, have any real clothes on underneath. You got this unitard underneath. So I’m not wearing any clothes and I’m hanging out with all these people and there was this sort of naked feeling to it.

I spent a lot of time, you know, thinking about how the character – I mean, he gets amputated from his throat down and that, I think, must be an incredibly naked feeling, horrifying naked feeling. And wearing the suit sort of led my imagination down that line. I didn’t expect to get that from this, you know, bad ass suit.

Tavis: I don’t want to get too philosophical here, but did playing the role say anything to you during filming or since about the relationship, increasingly the relationship, between man and machine?

Kinnaman: Yeah. I mean, I think so. Or, you know, a lot of the thoughts that come to when do you stop being a human and when does the machine take over?

In philosophy, they talk a lot about humans being actual organic machines and the idea of free will is something that we’ve made up. We actually don’t have free will. We’re acting according to our programming as organic mechanisms.

And I think this movie – you know, it’s a big, fun action movie, but it also has some of these philosophical questions imbedded into it.

Tavis: For you, the fun in playing in one of these big blockbusters is what? And I ask that because I’m looking at the course of your career and everything you’ve done.

You know, you’ve made some interesting choices. They’ve not all been major blockbusters, but what’s the fun when you do get a chance to play in one of these big films that you know everybody’s gonna go see?

Kinnaman: Well, I mean, it’s the scale of it. You know, we’re shooting in this huge rundown, I think it was a power plant that was completely run down. It was just this massive broken-down place with just tons and tons of concrete everywhere and it was like four football fields.

And we had this whole thing staged and choreographed with all these stunt guys dressed in their jumpsuits and they were playing drones. And you’d run around like shooting them in different choreographies. And just the scale of that, you know, that brings out the boy in you.

Tavis: What’s the turn-on, do you think, for a movie like this, for people who are not necessarily a sci-fi fan? What do they get out of this when they go see it?

Kinnaman: Well, you know, if you like action, there’s a lot of action in this movie. But I think it’s got a little bit for everyone. You know, we do explore the drama of the situation of a man that, you know, gets amputated from his throat down and then gets this incredibly powerful body.

But at the same time, I mean, he can’t make love to his wife, he can’t fully connect with his son. And there’s sort of the psychological and emotional aspects that that means.

And then, you know, there is also some interesting political ideas of where we are today when it comes to, you know, coming further and further away from the impact zone of the violence that we – you look now, we have drones and we have somebody with a joystick in Atlanta controlling that drone.

But what happens when that drone has its own programming, its automatic? And what happens to the accountability and what happens to society if we went down that line, and it explores that as well.

Tavis: When you do a film like this that is a remake, I wonder whether or not on the part of the actor, you in this case, there’s any trepidation about whether or not something can be made better. Am I stepping into a role – clearly, I’m stepping into a role that’s already been done before.

Kinnaman: Yeah.

Tavis: Can I make this better than it was the first time? Is the screenplay better than it was the first time? To the point of a moment ago, is it relevant to this generation in this moment? Did you have to walk through that maze of figuring that stuff out? Or when you first saw it, you’re like, oh, this is great?

Kinnaman: I mean, I think that was sort of the hesitation that I had when I was approached about the project at first. But then after I had a meeting with Jose Padilha, the director, all those fears just kind of vanished. I realized that the story that we’re telling is a very different story, so it doesn’t really compare in that sense. It’s much more an exploration of the humanity inside of him.

And the big difference with this film and the original is that when Alex Murphy wakes up and has become Robocop, he’s completely aware. He has all of his cognitive abilities, he has all of his memories and he has to deal with this nightmare that his life has become. So the character arc was much clearer in a sense.

And then I come from the theater and, you know, I’m quite used to playing roles that have already been played [laughs] by, you know, great actors before. So I think if you go down that line of thought, then you’re already screwed, you know.

Tavis: Yeah. Before I ask how you got into this, you know, and how acting became your chosen field of human endeavor, “The Killing.”

Kinnaman: Yeah.

Tavis: You want to say a word about this? This thing, it’s been here, it’s been there, it’s been up, it’s been down, it’s been on the air, it’s been canceled, it’s back and Netflix is finally – yeah.

Kinnaman: Yeah. It feels like the real zombie show on AMC. It just keeps coming back from the dead [laugh]. I mean, I just feel so happy that we’re able to give a conclusion to the story of Linden and Holder. I feel like they’re the people that stuck with the show. They were quite passionate about it, so I feel real happy to be able to give them a conclusion about it.

Tavis: And Netflix ain’t the worst place to be these days [laugh].

Kinnaman: No, it’s not. And for once, I’m gonna be able to, you know, talk like the character really would talk. I think like the first scene is gonna just be an avalanche of cuss words that’s coming out of Holder’s mouth ’cause he’s been pent up for three seasons [laugh]. It’s gonna get nasty.

Tavis: Yeah. That will be on Netflix, not PBS. You can rest assured of that [laugh]. But we’ll all be watching it on Netflix. So let me close by asking how all this – I’ll end by asking how all this began.

For those who are already fans of yours and for those who are going to become fans when this thing becomes a huge hit, they’re going to want to know the backstory to Mr. Kinnaman. How did this all happen for you back in your native country?

Kinnaman: Well, I had this idea that I was, after high school, that I was going to go traveling for seven years. I was going to go, you know, work, save money and then go traveling for seven years and then decide what I wanted to do.

Tavis: Why seven? I’m just curious.

Kinnaman: I don’t know. It was just a number.

Tavis: Just a number, okay [laugh]. Go ahead, I’m sorry.

Kinnaman: And I did that for three years and then I had a couple of friends that had gotten into acting school and they were telling me about it and I was fascinated. I also had a sister that was a stage actress. So I sort of knew that it was a profession and I gave it a shot.

Then I tried to apply to this biggest theater school in Sweden. You know, I didn’t get in, but I did get pretty far and I learned something while I was applying for it. And I had this feeling that I’d never really had before that I think I could be really good at this. I hadn’t had that really about anything before.

I felt that I was, you know, okay at a lot of things and sports and whatnot, but this was the first thing that I felt that I could be good at. It became also the first thing that I put all my energy into and I didn’t give myself a Plan B with it.

Tavis: Yeah. That’s the key thing.

Kinnaman: I think so, yeah.

Tavis: That’s the key thing. I mean, I find that over and over and over again, that if you really believe in something and you dedicate yourself to it and you don’t give yourself a Plan B so that failure is not an option, it tends to work out.

Kinnaman: Yeah. It’s scary as hell, but you might get some results.

Tavis: You’re getting results. You’re getting a lot of results. “The Killing” will be seen in its final season on Netflix this summer, and “Robocop” will be everywhere starring one Joel Kinnaman as Robocop. So the journey and the ride continues and I hope you enjoy it.

Kinnaman: I hope so too.

Tavis: It’s good to have you on the program.

Kinnaman: Thank you. It was really nice to be here.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: February 17, 2014 at 1:59 pm