05.25.12

Joel Kinnaman: ‘The Killing’s’ Scene-Stealer

Whether you like or loathe the AMC mystery, you love Holder, the shifty cop played by Joel Kinnaman. Tricia Romano talked to the Swedish actor who will soon star as Robocop.

The man who portrays the most compelling character on AMC's murder drama The Killing is standing on the docks in Vancouver's Yaletown neighborhood inhaling an electronic cigarette. Joel Kinnaman, 32, the Swedish actor who stars as Det. Stephen Holder is waiting to shoot a scene with Annie Corley, who plays Regi Darnell, his partner Sarah Linden's former social worker. Though it had briefly snowed that March morning in Vancouver, which stands in for Seattle, it had not actually rained. Still, the docks had been freshly doused with water to give it that “It's Always Rainy in Seattle” look the producers of The Killing love so much.

As The Killing winds down its second season, having lost viewers, critics, and possibly even the plot, Kinnaman-as-Holder continues to fascinate. This weekend's episode—the 10th—finds the actor in a central storyline, while [spoiler alert] his partner, Detective Linden (Mireille Enos), is seriously sidelined.

Ever since he first appeared on screen last season, Holder—a hip-hop-lovin' former meth addict who has a way with a one-liner—has captivated audiences, at first repelling them, then winning them over. Alternately skeevy and lovable, the critics agree: aside from learning who killed Rosie Larson, he's the main reason to continue watching the floundering show.

Once an unknown on these shores, he has already appeared opposite Denzel Washington in last summer's Safe House; can now boast his own Tumblr meme titled, appropriately, Fuck Yeah Joel Kinnaman!; a starring role in a summer blockbuster (as the title character in the remake of RoboCop, slated for summer 2013); and if rumors are to be believed, a hot actress girlfriend, Olivia Munn. In Hollywood terms, he's arrived.

On that frigid day, I waited for the show’s publicist's delayed flight to interview Kinnaman. I watched as he and Corley ran through their scene seamlessly—shooting three or four different versions over the course of several hours. In between takes, before heading back to his trailer to warm up, the actor was friendly and forthcoming, but as the witching hour neared, he strolled up in full Holder regalia—thick chain necklace, dark circles under his eyes, and the requisite Holder hoodie—and said, "Yo, we better do this soon." (I don't remember if he actually said, "yo," but I like to think he did.)

In a heated tent, Kinnaman talked about his character's arc, from hated bad guy to beloved good guy, to possibly shady guy, and back. While the rest of the audience was left scratching their heads at the end of the controversial Season 1 finale in which it appeared that he was a dirty cop who had stabbed his partner in the back, Kinnaman insisted, "Oh, I've always known he's a good guy."

This season, Holder lovers have rejoiced as he has become even more important—he's a co-lead character, rather than second fiddle to Linden. "As Sarah is starting to break down, their roles kind of reverse," he said. "So, he becomes a teacher. And he's trying to hold her up. So, they have like opposite curves, which I think is really beautifully written."

"If it's a character that explores an area where I don't have any experience by myself, then I try to get myself some experience so I then have something to fantasize about."

In the original Danish show, Forbrydelsen, the cop was a typical hotheaded macho goon, all guns and glory and ego. Holder is something different: a product of hip-hop's subculture, he's effortlessly cool in a way not native to most law-enforcement officers. But he also seems shifty—a trait he uses to his advantage. Holder almost dares you to underestimate him.

That Kinnaman was able to turn what's usually a stock character into a scene-stealing, star-making turn is testament to his dedication to his craft, not to mention the charisma he naturally exudes. Before The Killing, Kinnaman's profile was rapidly rising in his native Sweden, starring in Snabba Cash (Easy Money) and the Johan Falk series, when he sent in audition over the Internet to showrunner Veena Sud.

"We had to see a lot of people before we hired the character Holder," said Sud on the telephone from Los Angeles. Her casting directors emailed her. "They said, 'There’s this Swedish actor, he’s the Brad Pitt of Sweden. He’s phenomenal, and he’s put himself on tape. And here it is, check it out,' " recalled Sud. "And I opened up the file and I was just immediately blown away by Joel. He’s funny. He’s charismatic. He’s everything I wanted Holder to be."

Once Kinnaman flew out to Los Angeles to do a screen test, Sud said, they knew they'd found their man. "And all of us felt it in the room. We were all just blown away by his charisma and magnetism and his funniness. And the great thing about Joel, too, I think, you know, it’s so hard to have those two qualities of lightness and darkness—to go to the extreme kind of as quickly as the character does. And he does it in a blink of an eye," said Sud.

"If I play a villain I try to find his lightness and his good side. And if I play a hero or a good guy I'll try to find his darkness or his flaws. Because I don't believe in good and evil," said Kinnaman. "I believe in grays."

Kinnaman was attracted to Holder's intricacies—the fact that the same guy can make a great breakfast burrito for Linden's son, whom he affectionately dubs Little Man, can also have a soul-searching moment during which he nearly goes off the rails, staggering between fast-moving cars on a crowded highway. "I also found it really intriguing that he's battling with this addiction as the same time as he's getting this promotion at work,” said Kinnaman. “It's just a good contrast."

Displaying a flash of that trademarked humor, he added, "We need to state that anyone who doesn't like Holder is a bad person. Just a bad person."

To prepare himself for the role, Kinnaman went all-out. He didn't change his clothes for five days and he didn't brush his teeth. He went on a ride along with an undercover cop from Compton whom Sud partially based the character on, and went to NA and AA meetings in character as Holder.

"He committed to being Holder," said Sud. "He lost weight. He was wearing these super baggy outfits. His hair was greasy. He had dark rings around his eyes—he really went there."

He hesitates to call what he does method with a capital “m” ("I'm kind of the method of 'swallow the pill that works,’ ”), but he said, "If it's a character that explores an area where I don't have any experience by myself, then I try to get myself some experience so I then have something to fantasize about."

Unlike many Hollywood ingénues who depend on their dashing good looks, Kinnaman has formal acting training. After a brief stint in acting when he was 10, he didn't come back to the craft until much later, after he’d graduated from school and traveled for two years, going to Southeast Asia and Argentina. At the encouragement of his longtime friend, Gustaf Skarsgård (True Blood's Alexander Skarsgård's younger brother), he applied to The Swedish Academic School of Drama. It took him four tries before he was accepted. "It's the second most expensive education of Sweden," said Kinnaman. "It's fighter pilot and then this."

After he graduated in 2007, Kinnaman quickly became a working actor. Surprisingly, it was a play that nabbed him his first few movie roles. "It was Crime and Punishment. It was like a three-hour, 45-minute play where I was on stage the whole time, so I think there were a lot of producers and directors that kind of felt that I could carry things, so because the upcoming 16 months I did nine features. Where I played the lead in all of them. So it was a lot." He paused. "I'm not doing that again."

While Kinnaman has never been a strung-out meth addict, there are certain similarities between him and Holder: he spent one year in Texas as an exchange student because he was a misbehaving teen (it's where he says he got the inspiration for Holder's distinctive accent, in part, modeling it after his African-American friends down South). And his iPod plays music that he says his character likes—hip-hop (strictly old-school and '90s) and dancehall.

It seems clear, too, that Holder's acerbic sarcasm is as much informed by Kinnaman's generous sense of humor and his crack delivery as it is by the script. (When asked about what qualities he shared with his character, he quipped: "We have the same beard—at least five months a year.") He tells stories using different voices, recalling that year in Texas, living with a family and their 10 daschunds ("sausage dogs"), he imitated his Southern hosts' drawl: "She was like, 'You just look so nice, I snatched you out of the pile!' "—stretching out the last word—pie-ul.

Self-effacing, he talks about working with Denzel Washington and pokes fun at his own fallibility: "He's so present in everything he does. I had one scene when he's sort of walking up and I had a gun to my head, but I'm just watching him walk up. And I caught myself just staring at him in awe, like, Wow, look at how he walks."

When he tells the story, you can almost see it happening in slow motion. He laughed: "Then I was like, ‘All right, I'm also in this scene.’ ”

As the day ends, and it actually finally begins to rain for real, Kinnaman sits in the makeup trailer getting the fake stitches and bruises removed (left over from his brutal dustup with the casino's Native American tribe), and ponders his likely very bright future, when he'll be working with Jose Padilha on RoboCop, a director he called, "sublime." ("This, is, you know, a big challenge for an actor," he said. "A real actor piece.")

Beyond RoboCop, he said he wanted to work with auteurs, including Woody Allen, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Darren Aronofsky: "I want to do everything, and I want to have the opportunity to do everything. I was getting a little frustrated here when I was meeting with directors and seeing really interesting projects and then you were hearing that, 'Well, they have to have a name to finance the movie,' " said Kinnaman. "So then you can't do those movies. You have to sort of acquire that to be able to be able to make those choices."

Perhaps by the end of The Killing's run, that pesky problem of name recognition will be solved.

"I think he’s got so many directions he can go in," said Veena Sud. "I’m really excited to see him play the very opposite of Holder and do all sorts of other things. He’s more than capable of it."