Joel Kinnaman never needed to leave Sweden to become a movie star. In 2009—the year he moved to the United States—he appeared in eight films in his home country. One of them, the first installment in a straight-to-DVD series, would earn him an unprecedented nomination for Sweden’s prestigious Guldbagge film award. Another, Easy Money, shot for early 2010, would go on to win him the award for Best Actor. Kinnaman was carving out a niche for himself; he could play the bad guy and make you root for him—and he did it well. One Swedish critic called him a “natural and convincing” scene stealer. But as anyone who’s ever met the street-smart upstart from innercity Stockholm can tell you: This isn’t the kind of guy satisfied by a Guldbagge Award. And when a half-assed cameraphone audition nearly landed him the lead in Thor, he couldn’t turn back. “My impression was, this Hollywood thing doesn’t seem too hard,” Kinnaman says. “I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’ll give it a shot.’”
Kinnaman, 34, is a lone wolf. Raised in what he calls “lower-middle-class inner-city Stockholm” by a Swedish mother and an American father, the only son of four children attended an English-speaking public high school. There, his classmates—often the spoiled kids of diplomats and wealthy expats—would come and go with the seasons. Attempts at attachment were futile. Those on whom he could count to stay, a raucous local crew, were unpredictable in other ways.
“It wasn’t a band of brothers in any way,” Kinnaman says. “It was always a case of somebody getting picked on within the group, and you never knew if it was you.”
He tells me about how one day he suddenly found himself on the defensive after the ringleader of the group accused Kinnaman of stealing somebody’s watch. Kinnaman insists that it was “bullshit.” He stood up for himself and the situation quickly escalated. “I don’t really remember the actual fight,” he says. “But I know that I knocked him down. Then all my other friends pulled me to the ground and started kicking me while I was down.”
He learned to keep his guard up, and it appears never to have dropped since. Even in team sports, he found ways to single himself out from the pack, playing goalkeeper on the soccer field and, later, placekicker for his football team during a yearlong cultural exchange to the United States when he was 17.
When I meet Kinnaman for the first time, on a gray November day in New York City, he’s sitting on a black leather sofa in an otherwise bare, white-walled Brooklyn photo studio. He’s just wrapped a photo shoot for the foreign press, to meet the inevitable demand for photos that is sure to surge once this year’s RoboCop reboot is released—Kinnaman’s biggest role yet. The actor doesn’t look quite like his character in The Killing, AMC’s critically acclaimed crime drama that has been cancelled as many times as it has been renewed—twice—and is now entering its fourth and (apparently) final season. Kinnaman plays the male lead, detective Stephen Holder, a drug-addicted cop-turnedhomicide detective, who ups the entertainment value of the show with his snappy comebacks and a blatant disdain for police dress code. Today Kinnaman gets to wear whatever he wants, and his style is simple but tasteful: blue jeans, a gray knit sweater, and a muted pair of casual Valentino sneakers. He’s traded Holder’s signature messy hair and goatee for a close buzz cut and a clean shave, too, and his accent is slightly different as well—distinctly Nordic with hints of American influence creeping in.
Kinnaman’s arms are stretched out along the sofa’s back rest with his lanky legs out in front of him—his left shin teetering atop his right knee like a piece of contemporary Swedish architecture. He’s relaxed, but his gaze is focused and present. He rarely breaks eye contact, and it has the almost unsettling effect of making him appear skeptical of every question I ask. When he speaks, every word that comes out of his mouth seems loaded with heavy, somber undertones.
“A lot of the friends I had went on to become criminals,” he says. Kinnaman was able to avoid a similar fate. Reinvention is a theme that comes up often during our conversation. Kinnaman never wanted to be like the friends he had in high school, but getting far enough away to truly start over was challenging. “The new friends that I was making after that, when they would meet my old friends, my old friends would pick on them,” he says. “They’d rob them and take their stuff and their money. The new friends I was making didn’t want to hang out with me because they didn’t want to get picked on or robbed or beaten up. It was a really difficult time.” It’s interesting, I tell him, considering that his two most critically acclaimed roles in Sweden were criminals, and since moving to the United States to start a new life he’s chosen to play cops, primarily, most notably in The Killing and RoboCop. He waves away the observation, but I suspect he just hasn’t thought about it.
I ask Kinnaman about a cultural exchange program he attended in the United States when he was 17. “Someone suggested it—it might have been my dad or my mom,” Kinnaman says. His parents had grown worried about him. He had started running away from home and was constantly getting into trouble. “I was an angry teenager trying out everything,” he says. “For me, the cultural exchange program was the perfect way to get out of Stockholm and dealing with all the bullshit that was going on.” He had always dreamed of packing his bags and traveling, maybe even leaving Sweden for good. Kinnaman had been to the U.S. before, briefly, to visit relatives on his father’s side. Now he would spend an entire year there, living with a host family and attending high school. The program wouldn’t allow him to choose the school, city, or even the state he’d end up in, but he was excited just to be going. He could, however, select a preferred region—he chose the West Coast—but even that would ultimately be out of his hands, as he would soon find out.
“My dad woke me up one morning and was like, ‘Joel, you’re going to Hell Valley.” I was like, ‘Hell Valley!?’ ” It turned out to be Del Valle, TX, a quiet town in Travis County, not quite hell, but not exactly Santa Monica, either. “I stayed with this really strange family, Bill and Sue Taylor*,” he says. “It was just this really odd couple. They said they had a 25-year-old son; I never saw him, never heard anything about him. They lived out in the boondocks in a house with 11 dogs inside of the house. They never spoke. They had nothing on the walls in the whole house. There was just white everywhere and red sand on the floor from all the dogs dragging it in. In the movie cabinet, all they had was cartoons, and they wouldn’t let me hang out with friends.”
Students could switch out from a family if they were able to make a case for themselves, but Kinnaman wasn’t so lucky.
To read the rest of "Joel Kinnaman: Bad Boy, Lone Wolf, Robo Cop," pick up the March issue of Men's Fitness magazine.