Interview: Joel Kinnaman gets into ‘In Treatment,’ and the difference between James Gunn and David Ayer’s direction of ‘Suicide Squad’
Whether he’s in is a crime drama, science fiction, drama, or even comedy, Joel Kinnaman thrives while delivering an impressive level of authenticity. Not bad for a guy who after high school decided that he wanted to travel the world and paid for it by working three jobs. Kinnaman never sought out stardom at the beginning of his career. He was most concerned about finding a consistent job. It didn’t matter what role it was. He graduated from Malmo Theatre Academy in 2007 and started working at the Gothenburg City Theatre. Many credit his performance on stage in Crime and Punishment as his big breakout performance.
The world took notice of Kinnaman in 2011 playing Detective Stephen Holder in the AMC series The Killing and he was a finalist for the lead in Thor which ultimately went to Chris Hemsworth. RoboCop, Altered Carbon, For All Mankind, and Hanna are just some of his more known performances but most now associate Kinnaman as a member of The Suicide Squad, which returning with its second film, this time directed by James Gunn, in August. Most recently, Joel has been turning heads as Uzo Aduba’s love interest in Season 4 of In Treatment which is out now on HBO Max.
We were lucky enough to talk with Kinnaman about In Treatment and The Suicide Squad recently. He went in-depth about his approach to acting, how he strives for authenticity, and why The Suicide Squad is going to catch audiences off guard.
Dewey Singleton: Joel, can you just tell me everything I need to know about The Suicide Squad because I can’t make it until August?
Joel Kinnaman: (Laughs) Dewey, you know I can’t do that. I will say this , I hadn’t read something that was that funny on every page, man it was a ride. I was really struck with how James was really able to find emotional depth, emotional poetry, it’s crazy, it’s super silly, it’s gory and it plays well on so many levels. I am very biased. I was so happy that this movie is coming out now. I think it’s going to be one of those communal experiences. It’s really that film. It’s why I wanted to make movies.
DS: Now, obviously, when you watch this movie with your fiance, you had to be astonished by someone’s performance, and you probably turned to her and said, “This person stole the show,” and you don’t have to give me context why, you don’t have to give me a spoiler, but I think you’re safe to at least say, “This person stole the show,” or will steal the show without telling me why and letting us kind of figure it out on our own. So I ask you, sir, who steals the show in The Suicide Squad?
JK: It’s really hard to tell. When we were shooting the movie, I was dead certain that it was John Cena just stole it and ran away with it. After seeing it, he’s fucking phenomenal in it, and then really, really funny, but there’s a lot of people that are really delivering. I thought that Idris was fantastic too. Yeah. He nailed it, but also some newcomers, like Daniela Melchior, she’s almost like the heart of the film in some ways. Look, I really can’t give you one. David Dastmalchian also killed it in the film.
DS: Well, he kills it in the trailer, Joel.
JK: He does.
DS: He has that one line where you guys are in the meeting.
JK Oh, yeah. (laughs)
DS: See, my money was on Stallone, okay? I thought Stallone voicing King Shark, which I know you can neither confirm nor deny, but let’s just say hypothetically that’s who is the person voicing the shark.
JK: (Laughs) Yes. Yes. Yes.
DS: And you are not giving this away, I’m just saying maybe it’s him.
JK: Yeah. (laugh)
DS: I thought it was him that maybe stole it.
JK: He’s really good. He’s really good.
DS: Yeah. For what part he plays, but we can’t really get into what that is, perhaps.
JK: Oh, is that a secret? I didn’t even know that that was a secret.
DS: Oh Joel, listen. I just don’t want to get in trouble, man. I don’t think it’s that big of a secret, but I’m just trying to play within the rules. I guess the bigger secret is Taika, but I know you ain’t going to give me anything on Taika. We know he’s involved…
JK: Nope. (laughs)
DS: …and we don’t know to what extent he’s involved.
JK :Yeah. Yeah. (laughs)
DS: For all I know, he could be a tree in the The Suicide Squad.
JK: Yeah. Yeah. (Laughs)
DS: Can I just say this? Can I ask you this? And you can completely ignore my question Will Taika’s presence be felt in the film?
JK: Yes, Absolutely.
DS: So we’ll be able to point and say, “That’s him.” Okay, all right.
JK: Oh, for sure and it’s going to be emotional. I can tell you that. It’s going to be emotional.
DS: Well, James keeps talking about people biting it in this movie. Like, “Oh, don’t get too attached.” Who the hell knows? James is crazy. His films are nuts.
JK: He is. (Laughs)
DS: How does the experience of working with James Gunn compare to working with David Ayer?
JK: Well, two very, very different directors that have very different sensibilities, but two great writers as well, but couldn’t be more different in tone. And I think a big difference here is that I think when the script for The Suicide Squad was … James’ first draft is very close to the film that we shot. And it was very clear what that film was. And so, everyone that was making this movie knew exactly what movie they were going to do. And I think for any kind of business, any film, anything that you do, when everyone knows what they’re doing and is pulling in the same direction and wants to go there, it’s always going to give a better result. I think that the way that David makes films differs in the way that I think some of his technique is to sort of discover the film while he’s shooting it. So he changes directions on-set and it’s a different kind of discovery process for him while he’s on set, where I think James has his vision clearer from the beginning and then kind of executes, but then also he discovers new things, but very much of his film is … there was a lot of improvisation going on while we were shooting James’ movie. And there are little things that ended up being in the film, but it’s pretty much the script. So I think the problem that we ran into on the first film was I think that there were conflicting visions of what the movie was going to be. And I think that that became more of an issue in the editing than actually while we were shooting it. So re-shot the ending twice on the first film, and they were working on that a lot in the editing. And I think there were different visions going into the editing process, whereas this was very clear. But I really enjoyed making both films, and David had an incredible preparation process where we really dove deep into these characters. And it was a big reason why the cast bonded so much was because of this almost five-week prep process that we had together. And it was sort of this almost Bootcamp that we went through. And I loved all that stuff.
DS: Now, the thing that stood out to me is that I could see you in The Suicide Squad, I could see you in these other films you’ve taken on, and then I see you in In Treatment and I’m like, “This is a different guy altogether.” Do you thrive on being able to show your versatility on-screen?
Joel: Yeah. That’s how I view my profession in many ways and I think I did that, even more, when I sort of was starting out. I think there’s this sort of European view on the acting profession that sort of the highest expression of the art is when you’re very, very different in each role. So I’ve been trying to find different kinds of characters that kind of contrast each other. You look at House of Cards, very different from The Killing or Brothers by Blood, those kinds of characters are very different. And so I like doing that, but then I think when you go in and start playing more sort of leading mankind of roles, they tend to have a little less extravagant features of the characters. They’re usually a little more centered and maybe a little closer to me, but yeah, that’s my original view on the profession of trying to be as different as possible. And it excites me too, to try to transform myself.
DS: So you’re telling me you don’t walk around in army fatigues carrying an M16 in your everyday life, that you are closer to your character in In Treatment when comparing the two? Am I to assume that?
JK: Oh, no. I mean, yes, you can assume that I’m not walking around in army fatigues, but I don’t know how much closer I am to the character in In Treatment. Probably, yeah. Probably a little.
DS: What about your cast? You couldn’t ask for a better cast. When you work with those types of actors, it has to elevate you when you’re filming those particular emotional scenes.
JK: I basically only played with Uzo, and she’s a phenomenal actor. And our stuff was basically a two-hander. It was this very original love story, I felt like. And yeah, she was an incredible partner to sort of discover that through.
DS: When you’re preparing for scenes like that, do you have a discussion with Uzo, or do you just go into it and it organically occurs?
JK: I rarely like to talk about a scene beforehand, unless there’s something I don’t understand. I like to do my preparation and I like to prepare pretty extensively on my own, and then I like to experience the scene with the actor or actors that I’m playing with. And then if there’s something that’s not working, then it could be good to talk, but I don’t really like to discuss that much beforehand. I rarely get anything out of that. I love for it to just happen, and then you react to what happens and what the other person gives you.
DS: Is that just always been your process, or is that a process you’ve kind of over time gotten into?
JK: Yeah. I think that was my natural instinct when I started out. And I remember being in acting school and working in the theater, and I always got so bored with all these conversations about a scene, and I felt like it didn’t result in anything other than maybe … excuse me, making people a little more self-conscious in the scenes because they were thinking about all these analyses of the scene instead of being in the situation. And I felt like it was much better to sort of do that work on your own. Of course, if there are some bigger philosophical themes that you are touching on in the scene and you sort of have to grasp the grander idea of the storytelling for it to fit in the scene, of course, you have to discuss it and know that everyone is on the same page and that you’re telling the same story. But otherwise, when you just go into a situation and a scene, the beauty of it for me is to experience it, not to sort of talk about it and discuss it in detail before it happens.
DS: Well, I think that’s why fans kind of have an attachment towards your character in In Treatment in a way. It’s kind of almost like a cult following kind of developing online of just how much people love what you’re doing. And I think it’s because of the organic nature of how you two are on screen. Very authentic. And I think that’s what you’re shooting for when you shoot these scenes, I imagine.
JK: Yeah. That’s always the goal, for it to be real. And I think that for it to be real, it has to happen at the moment. And I come from the sort of Robert De Niro model of preparation, that the more you prepare yourself, the freer you are to improvise. And I think some actors, they don’t want to over-prepare because they want to improvise, and to sort of get that improvisational spark of naturalism. But for me, it’s the other way around. I feel like when you are super prepared and really know the scene in-depth, that’s when you’re completely free to off on a tangent, or pick up on something that happens at the moment that’s not scripted and be able to respond to that, and then be able to fold back into the scene as it’s written, and you incorporate it. Because often, other times when you start to improvise, then it just becomes something, and then it trails off, but then you sort of lose the scene. You’re not able to fold it back into the narrative, and then it becomes useless. And so, that’s why I come more from the over-preparedness side of things. And by being over-prepared, then, first of all, I feel completely relaxed because I know the scene so well, so I don’t have to think about anything except for what is happening with my co-star. And then also, I get the ability to just pick up on every nuance that is happening and let myself go with that flow. And that is, I think what creates a real presence in a way, and it’s what creates that feeling that it’s happening now because it is.
DS: So you’re probably going to want to take a break from hearing my inane questions because you’ve probably answered these a billion times so, Joel, thank you for your time.
JK: Awesome. Thank you so much. It was a pleasure talking to you.
All episodes of season four of In Treatment are available to stream on HBO Max. Joel Kinnaman is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series.
Photo: Suzanne Tenner/HBO