When you google “Joel Kinnaman,” the search engine finishes your sentence for you. Didn’t you mean to write “Joel Kinnaman shirtless”? Or “Joel Kinnaman girlfriend” instead? Clearly, the half-American, Swedish-born actor has the looks to be America’s next big crush. But after seeing his performance in AMC’s The Killing, and now, in the Swedish crime-thriller Easy Money (released stateside this week by the Weinstein Company and flaunting Martin Scorsese’s imprimatur), any doubts about the thirty two year old’s acting ability should be put to rest. Kinnaman can play both dreamy and (a little) creepy at once—an amazingly deft combination to pull off. Like with Jonny Depp or Matt Damon, you always sympathize with his characters (in Easy Money he plays an aspiring business student who ends up in the cocaine trade) but you’re never entirely sure if you should.
When I talked to Kinnaman, he was in LA prepping to lead the new Robocop reboot. With a career poised for take-off (and ass-kicking, and heart-stealing), he was nevertheless relaxed and thoughtfu, telling me about his upbringing on the Stockholm streets, what he loves (and hates) about America, and what it’s really like inside the Robocop suit.
First off, congratulations on Easy Money, it’s an awesome film. I know after that project Daniel Espinosa went on to make Safe House and you started work on The Killing for AMC. How important was the buzz around Easy Money for launching your American career?
A lot of people think that, but I actually came to America before Easy Money was released. I did the rounds here and nobody had a clue who I was. And then I got cast in The Killing, and a month later Easy Money came out in Sweden. But it didn’t really catch that much international attention until they had the market screenings in Berlin. Then all the buzz picked up, which certainly didn’t hurt my case.
The Stockholm of the film is this seedy, neon world of thugs, strippers, and heavy-thumping electro. Totally different from most people’s postcard image of Scandinavia. Is that a Stockholm you recognize—or knew growing up?
Definitely. I grew up on the south side of Stockholm, which when I was young was a working class neighborhood. Now it’s completely gentrified, kind of like the Lower East Side. But when I was young it was pretty rough.
Did you hang out in nightclubs a lot as a teenager?
Yeah, I started working in clubs when I was sixteen. Spending time in that world you see a lot. I knew Stockholm and the nightlife very well, which is very close to what we see in the movie.
So you didn’t hobnob with yuppies like your character?
Well, I came from the South Side, and we hated the kids that came from the East Side, the rich kids. So yeah, it was difficult for me to play someone aspiring to be like those people. I personally didn’t know anybody from the upper class as a kid. Part of the performance that is missed in the subtitles is that JW changes his dialect with everyone he’s around. He’s like a chameleon, and can impersonate both the street and upper class dialects.
Did you always want to be an actor?
It was something that came to me when I was around twenty. Gustaf Skarsgård, Alexander’s younger brother, is my best friend. He got into the national acting school when he was young. Meanwhile, I had been traveling; working odd jobs in construction or bartending to make enough for the next trip. I’d been away for about two years, and when I came back he was deep into this acting thing. I just had a feeling it was something I wanted to try. He helped me and I applied to the school. I didn’t get in, but I got to the final round of auditions which gave me enough courage to keep going. Then I got into another school and I got a part in a movie.
And coming to America, has that been in your sights for a while?
I got out of acting school in 2007 and was starting to get confident in what I could do. I got a lead in a big play, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment at the National Theater; I played Raskolnikov. It got really good reviews, and after that, a lot of directors wanted to work with me. I went on a pretty insane work streak; I did nine features in sixteen months. This in a country that only releases twenty films a year. Easy Money was the last one I worked on. After that, I kind of understood it was time for me to try something new or I would saturate the market! It was the perfect time to come to the States. My father’s American, so I didn’t have to play the German campguard who says “You go to ze left!” (Laughs) Coming here was an inspiring experience, and at the same time I knew I left Sweden in a good position there.
Is there anything you love or hate about this country?
I really love the States. It’s a country of contrasts for me. There’s a lot of things that frustrate me here. People here need to pay more taxes, for one. You can’t take property taxes and base education on that, it’s just going to cement the class system. So a lot frustrates me politically here. But I love the people. It’s a land of opportunity.
You just got cast in Robocop and I have to ask you, have you tried on the suit yet?
I have. It feels a little itchy (laughs). I’m joking. It looks pretty fucking cool, and I know it’s going to look even cooler on screen.