Joel Kinnaman has a lot on his plate.
Photos by Blair Getz Mezibov
Also at Mr Porter
Joel Kinnaman is on a mission. Before the light turns red, the six foot two Swede is striding across Main Street in Downtown LA, straight into the first restaurant he sees. Baco Mercat? Fine. Table for two please. And I’ll have the steak medium rare, the Hamachi crudo, the shrimp and the lentil salad.
The waitress smiles. “OK then! That’s plenty for two. Now you know that everything here is meant to be shared…”
“No, that’s just for me,” says Kinnaman, giving her a blank stare. “I’m really hungry.”
He’s not kidding. Kinnaman is trying to bulk up. It’s 5.30pm, and time for his second lunch, just a couple of hours before his first dinner which will be a pound of meat or fish. It’s a weight training thing. The lanky undercover cop from The Killing – the role that made his name – is now broad chested and thick necked. “I need to make 215lbs by November,” he says. “That’s when we start shooting Altered Carbon. It’s Netflix’s biggest show so far, their answer to Game of Thrones. I have to be ready. In my opening scene I come out in a loin cloth and fight six people!”
So you’re shaving I assume, like a serious bodybuilder.
“Totally. All about the shaving. And baby oil. I carry a jug with me just in case.”
Altered Carbon is a hard R-rated sci-fi set 500 years in the future – bodies are dispensable, our personalities are held in microchips and the rich are crushing the poor. A classic dystopia. “A lot of comparisons with Blade Runner,” he says. “But with lots more sex, violence and dismemberment!”
It also goes to show just how high Kinnaman is flying these days. “I was the first one to be cast,” he says. “Projects are being cast around me now.”
We’d never heard of Kinnaman till his breakthrough in The Killing in 2011, as the amiable rough-hewn cop Stephen Holder. Movies followed, notably Robocop, but also “a couple of others that didn’t pop”. And then last year the tide turned. He made the indie thriller Edge of Winter, playing an unstable and dangerous father. He joined the House of Cards ensemble. And this August, he’ll star in The Suicide Squad, a DC comics extravaganza with nine leads, including Will Smith and Jared Leto. He plays Rick Flagg, the head of the team of villains, a part that was originally meant for Tom Hardy, but he was too busy making The Revenant.
“I’m happy to take Tom’s leftovers,” he says, wading into the skirt steak. “There’s a lot of tasty food on that floor.”
It’ll mean global fame. Action figures. Little Mongolian kids chasing him down the street.
“Oh I’m ready,” he says. “I’m going to go full colonial, and start saving people by touching their foreheads. I’m going to wear long white robes.”
Kinnaman wasn’t born to acting. He doesn’t have one of those Mickey Mouse club stories. Twenty years ago, when he was 16, he was dropping out of high school and hanging with a gang of petty criminals in what he jokingly calls “Southside Stockholm”. He grew up in a sprawling hippyish family. His American father was a military deserter in the Vietnam war who sought refuge in Sweden, where he had a number of children by a number of women. Kinnaman grew up with five sisters.
But it was tough. His dad used to beat him. “We’re good now. I’m actually working on a film about his life with a Swedish director. I’m going to play him! But see, he was beaten by his parents too. And in my teenage years, I was definitely testing the boundaries, so…” He shrugs. “You know, hanging out and smoking weed. I had a lot of anger in me, and I was insecure. I was really skinny so I used to get bullied. So it felt good to bully other people, that made me feel stronger.”
The beatings at home are why he gravitated to such a rough crowd at school. “I wasn’t afraid of getting hit, because my head got rung at home,” he says. But his friends were serious about crime in a way that he wasn’t. And when he wanted out, they wouldn’t allow it. “Every time I saw them on the street I had to fight them,” he says. “And if they saw my new friends who I played soccer with, they would rob them and beat them up but leave me alone. It was really hard. I had a lot of anxiety. I couldn’t eat.”
So his parents sent him to Texas for a year as an exchange student. He was out of the frying pan and into the fire in some respects. His new school, outside of Austin, was “pretty ghetto, like 10% white and lots of gangs”. And his host parents, Terry and Tina Turner, were a peculiar couple in their late 50s. They had 11 sausage dogs and a bizarre marriage. “They never spoke to each other! And Tina was like, ‘we got a whole cabinet full of movies over there!’ When I opened the cupboard I’ll never forget, there were like 150 films – and I wish it was porn, honestly. But they were all cartoons.”
Nevertheless, his year in Texas kept him out of trouble (his old Swedish friends meanwhile ended up in prison). And a few aimless years followed. The plan was to worked mindless factory jobs in Norway, save his cash and go travel the world for seven years before figuring out what to do with his life. He lasted 2 ½ years before the money ran out. “Mostly chilling on the beach in South East Asia. You know, smoking weed and eating these tasty little mushrooms!”
When he got home and gave acting a shot, it was a revelation. He had talent. He won a place at the National Theater School in Stockholm, and quickly, his shiftless, loafer life found direction and focus. Through his twenties, he shot to instant stardom in Sweden, scooping up lead roles on stage and screen. And when he threw his hat in the ring for Hollywood casting calls, he came awfully close. Months after he sent a cellphone video of himself to the Thor auditions he got a call from his sister. “She saw my picture in the Guardian – I made the last four. That’s how I found out!” He came similarly close to playing Mad Max in Fury Road. “So I was like, ‘this Hollywood shit is easy. You just go there and get jobs!’”
Cut to: a small apartment in Koreatown, in central Los Angeles, where the phone hasn’t rung in four months. “Yeah, it’s not that easy! But it’s cool. I’ve had a chance to mature. I know who I am much more now. And I can spot the fake-ass people better!”
LA was alienating at first – a common story. “Everything is a plan here, it’s not spontaneous, so I felt I was always visiting,” he says. But then he moved to Venice, and life started to fall into place. “I’m on foot, I got my bike, I got my spots, people know me at my favorite restaurant. It’s more like home.” So he settled. He married his girlfriend, Cleo Wattenstrom, a stunning tattoo artist. And he spends much of his time at home.
“I like to treat myself to dressy sneakers, that’s my luxury,” he says. “I just got some Valentino’s for like $800 on Mr Porter actually. And fancy sweatpants. You know, leather ones?”
Not a suits guy, I take it.
“I only wear those if it’s disrespectful not to. Like custody battles!”
It’s a glamorous life, and a far cry from where he came from. But Kinnaman never forgets his misspent youth. He remains Straight Outta Stockholm at heart. “Those years play into every role I’ve done, no exceptions,” he says. “It was so much about power, insecurity, dominance, and vulnerability.”
In fact, there was one period in particular to which he credits his entire career. He’d just returned from Thailand and had been accepted at the National Theater School in Stockholm. It was the first time he’d ever found something he actually wanted to do. But there was a problem. His stage fright was so extreme that he would throw up every night and even black out on stage.
“My body was screaming ‘no!’, but I just couldn’t accept it. Acting gave me confidence in my regular life. I wasn’t so insecure anymore. So really, I was devastated. I thought I would have to stop.”
So he chose to perform a monologue of 1hr 45 minutes, playing 16 different characters. “It was a really high difficulty level. And I didn’t stumble on a single word. The school had me do it twice, and the local theater picked it up. My life changed that day. I got so strong from that. I never threw up or blacked out again.” He pushes his four plates away, all polished clean, and stands up. “Sorry, I got to run. I’ve got dinner plans!”