BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.
When Joel Kinnaman enters a room, you half expect him to be wearing a hoodie, so closely is that garment associated with Detective Stephen Holder, the scruffy, street-talking cop he portrays so memorably on the TV series “The Killing.” But the actor dresses fashionably when not in character, wearing a charcoal-gray shirt and black jeans for a recent lunch interview.
A recovering drug addict seeking redemption, Holder is among the most compelling characters on “The Killing,” which concludes its second season June 17 on AMC. That’s saying something, given that the show — a broody drama that probes the dark nexus of politics and the law in Seattle — boasts one of the strongest ensemble casts on television. But although Kinnaman, 32, may remain best known as a badly damaged cop to the show’s die-hard fans, he is starting to emerge from Holder’s long shadow. He appears in two movies this summer — Fox Searchlight’s “Lola Versus,” which opens June 15, and the Weinstein Co.’s “Easy Money,” opening Aug. 10 at Landmark E Street. And although filming has yet to begin, he’s signed for the starring role in the reboot of “RoboCop,” tentatively scheduled for release next summer.
His perfect English notwithstanding, the strikingly handsome, green-eyed Kinnaman was born and raised in Stockholm, the son of a Swedish mother and an expatriate American father (an Army deserter who fled Vietnam). The actor moved to America in 2009.
“I was struggling,” the actor said of his first few months in this country, making his way through a steak salad and two glasses of pinot noir poolside at the Beverly Hilton. “I wasn’t really getting anything.”
He arrived in the United States with high expectations. He’d attended theater school for five years in Sweden and afterward played Raskolnikov in a nearly four-hour Swedish stage adaptation of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.”
“The reviews were very good,” he recalled. “That gave a lot of directors and producers the confidence that I could carry projects. I went on an insane work streak, filming nine features in 16 months.”
The last of them was “Snabba Cash,” which the Weinstein Co. has titled “Easy Money” in America. (A sequel, “Snabba Cash 2,” also starring Kinnaman, recently screened at the Cannes Film Festival.)
“In Sweden, we only make 25 to 30 movies a year,” Kinnaman said, “so to have been the lead in so many in a single year is high exposure. I thought it was the right time to come to the States. I thought I could be believable in various roles. I didn’t think I’d have to play the guard at Auschwitz. You know, the evil German — or the corrupt Russian. I did the whole go-round when I arrived, the auditions and the meetings with people who had no idea what I’d done.”
Then, while in Sweden for New Year’s, he made an audition tape for “The Killing,” without much enthusiasm. “I wasn’t that hungry for it,” he said. “But my agent said, ‘Put yourself on tape.’ I said I would and then almost forgot about it.”
That tape – hastily assembled, by the actor’s own admission – stunned those casting the show. “From the moment I saw him, I knew he was right,” said Veena Sud, the creator and showrunner of “The Killing.” “I knew he was Holder, and we had to have him.”
Sud lauds Kinnaman’s uncanny ability to invest Holder with aspects of himself. “When I see Joel do something, I wonder if maybe Holder does that, too,” she said. “He brings so much lightness and humor to places of extreme darkness. The series overall benefits when he does that. But he can also go into this really dark place. As played by Joel, you can believe Holder was a former meth addict who stole from his young nephew. Those qualities — strength and humor but also genuine darkness and real damage — it’s hard to find that in an actor.”
Like others who have worked with Kinnaman, Sud mentions his unforced charisma. “You can’t write that into a character,” she said. “You can only hope that an actor has that. The greatest pleasure for a writer is to find an actor who can elevate the words you write — to go ‘Wow!’ when you’re on set watching him. I have gone ‘Wow!’ many times with Joel.”
Kinnaman says he didn’t plan on adding comedic touches to the dark story lines. It happened naturally.
“Some of the directions we went in are not entirely on the page,” he maintained. “Like being that guy who sticks out like a sore thumb, who is who he is no matter where he is. Holder can’t adapt upward, only downward, into the lower sphere. I did improvise some things in the pilot and noticed that after the show got picked up the writers incorporated that tone. It’s cool to be in a living process like that. They gave him funny interests, stretching the role but still making it believable. So of course Holder’s going to make breakfast burritos with habanero-jelly eggs, and of course he’s going to make Spam sushi and have books on butterflies and know where they migrate to.”
Beyond being a gifted actor, Kinnaman has earned his colleagues’ affection. “I think he’s remarkable,” said Mireille Enos, whose flinty characterization of Detective Sarah Linden, Holder’s single-minded partner, belies such warmth. “He’s one of the loveliest people I’ve ever worked with. He works so hard and is so committed to honest storytelling. Plus, he’s so generous to everyone on the set and is such a team player.”
The two actors enjoy intense – but decidedly unromantic – chemistry on the show, making them among the most watchable couples on the small screen. Yet that compatibility emerged accidentally. They didn’t even test together before “The Killing” went into production.
“We met on the airplane up to Vancouver for the pilot,” Enos remembered. “And in that three-hour flight, it was clear we were going to be great pals. We had immediate trust and respect. And it’s just grown and grown from there.”
Kinnaman plays an entirely different type in the indie rom-com “Lola Versus,” where he appears as Greta Gerwig’s seemingly perfect fiance. Rather than suppress his good looks, the film uses them to enhance his character.
“It’s surprisingly hard to find a drop-dead handsome man,” Gerwig said. “Most men are goofy looking. The first day on set, people felt they couldn’t look Joel in the face, because he was so handsome. He’s a classically trained actor who looks like an Olympic swimmer.”
She says they got along “super well,” praising Kinnaman’s sincerity, good humor and work ethic and calling his intensity “disarming.” Having done some sex scenes with him for the movie, she mentions a tattoo on his right biceps that quotes Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” in Swedish. “He’s very serious about what he does,” she added. “That’s something you don’t always expect with handsome men. But he wants to be a really great actor. And that’s a special thing, especially when someone looks like that. You kind of think, hey, ‘You could have just moved to Los Angeles and had a career without the drama school.’ ”
Daryl Wein, who co-wrote and directed “Lola Versus,” first spotted Kinnaman while casting the film. “We had just started watching season one of ‘The Killing,’ and it was like, ‘Who is that guy?’ We didn’t actually test him. We just went after him. He has this look that is unique and a little less Americana than the Chris Pines of the world. What drew me to him was that he was edgy and understated.”
Agnieszka Holland, the Oscar-nominated Polish writer and director, has directed three episodes of “The Killing.” She predicts a bright future for the actor. “I think he will be star not because he is a celebrity, but because he is a very fine and deep actor,” she said by phone from Prague. “Such actors have something more, some surplus, something that makes them magical in some way. I don’t want to be a prophet, but Joel has these qualities. He has great potential. ”
What Kinnaman does with his talent remains to be seen. But he seems unlikely to take the easy road. Though big-budget action movies like “RoboCop” will probably be part of the mix, so will serious fare. And the actor insists that he will return to the theater, perhaps even in this country – but not until “The Killing” completes its run.
“I’m way overdue to go back on stage,” he said. “And the longer I stay away, the harder it is to return to. Right now, I’m petrified to go back, but I need it. I have a physical longing. It’s the true actor’s medium, because there we have complete control of the performance we give.”
One thing is clear: Complacency is not an option. “It’s pretty easy to keep doing what you’ve been doing successfully,” he said, “but the risk of stagnating is high. I think I was pushing the bar in Sweden, but I wanted to do it here, because here you get paid enough so that you can prepare for three months beforehand. In Sweden, you can’t do that.”
David Mermelstein is a freelance arts and entertainment journalist.