Joel Kinnaman on the Grief and Ambition of 'For All Mankind'

Joel Kinnaman For All Mankind Season 2
The actor also looks at his time on 'The Suicide Squad' and how he rethought his character after reading the script.

For a young Joel Kinnaman, being a Swedish kid spending year abroad in Texas came with challenges. Coming from a non-religious home, going to Sunday school was an adjustment, and his host parents seemed a little unusual.

"They should not have been having exchange students staying with them," Kinnaman says with a laugh.

But in the end, all that Texas experience paid dividends. The actor now spends much of his time playing Houston-based Astronaut Ed Baldwin in For All Mankind.

"The year that I spent in Texas really made me understand the heartland and the beauty of all these different shades of America," says Kinnaman, who found his way after joining the football team. "I really love Texas. It was a difficult time in life in some ways, but it was also a magical time in life in many ways." 

When For All Mankind premiered on Apple TV+ in late 2019, its full scope wasn't yet clear. The alternative history series, in which Russia beats the United States to the moon and sparks a never-ending space race, was generally well-received by audiences but was something of a slow burn early on.

With season two, which premiered Feb. 19, there's no question that a larger, more ambitious plan is in motion, and that's something Kinnaman has looked forward to thanks to conversations with creator Ronald D. Moore.

"One of the things that got me hooked on the idea of doing this is the bigger picture of this series," says Kinnaman. "Where it goes after three, four, five seasons. … As the timeline progresses we go more and more into sci-fi territory, but in a very grounded way." 

For Kinnaman, season two presented challenges, not only because Ed Baldwin is a decade older due to season two's time jump, but also because he is a decade into grieving the death of his son, Shane (Tait Blum), who died unexpectedly in the first season.

"We find (Ed) at the opposite place of where you'd imagine. He actually seems a little lighter and more at peace at any points than we've seen him before," says Kinnaman. "Then you find those wounds and that pain is there, it's just not on the surface."

To prepare, Kinnaman spent time watching interviews with parents who had lost children.

"You feel this responsibility to these people," says the actor, who credits co-star and on-screen wife Shantel VanSanten for helping him find those moments. "I have this responsibility towards these people to portray that with the utmost honesty that I can muster."

Kinnaman has been involved in a head-spinning amount of big properties in the past few years, including Suicide Squad (2016), House of Cards (2016-17) Altered Carbon (2018) and James Gunn's upcoming The Suicide Squad.

He still recalls his first big project that was under the microscope in America: 2014's RoboCop. While doing press for his AMC drama The Killing, Kinnaman happily chatted away when a journalist asked him about the RoboCop reboot. Soon, he'd made headlines by confirming it would be R-rated. Only, the studio had other plans.

"'Of course it's going to be R-rated! Only an idiot would make a Robocop PG-13,'" Kinnaman recalls saying, laughing at the memory. "Cut to the next morning and 47 missed calls. They had gone the PG-13 route there and I had no idea. They weren't too happy about that. You learn to be a little bit more thoughtful before you do your answers."

With The Suicide Squad, at least, he doesn't have to worry about speaking out of turn about the rating. That's already confirmed.

It will be "heavily R-rated," notes the actor, who returns as Rick Flagg after the 2016 outing directed by David Ayer. The original film was a box office success with $746.8 million but faltered with critics. Ayer has even said he would prefer to release his own cut of the film someday.

This new film, written and directed by Gunn, is being described as a soft reboot, and as such Kinnaman didn't feel bound by what he'd done before.

"It's a major shift in how he acts and relates to other characters," says Kinnaman of his character. "I didn't let anything that had happened in the first one dictate what I was going to do."

Kinnaman describes Flagg, who in the 2016 film served as an on-the-ground handler for a team of supervillains, as having a different feel in this one.

"It just felt much lighter and more comedic — it was just written so differently," says Kinnaman. "It feels a little bit warmer of a character."

Kinnaman filmed The Suicide Squad at the same time as season two of For All Mankind in a feat of scheduling that could never be done during COVID-19. He'd spend a few weeks in Los Angeles on For All Mankind, and a few in  Atlanta or Panama for Squad. Such a schedule is always risky for a production, where the prospect of an actor not showing up due to travel delays could cause lost time and money.

"Both sides were generous and willing to work it out," says Kinnaman. "But now when you have to take a COVID test and you have to quarantine, forget about it — you do one thing at a time."

Kinnaman is gearing up for season three of For All Mankind, which Apple ordered in December. As someone who has had some of the grander plans laid out to him, he's excited the show has made it this far.

"You never really know when you take a show, is it going to hit? Or is it going to be one or two seasons?" says Kinnaman. "It's a great feeling to know that the audience is going to get to see the ride."