Emmys 2012: Joel Kinnaman on Going From 'The Killing' Detective to 'RoboCop'

Joel Kinnaman Headshot 2011
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

The 32-year-old Swede transformed himself from street tough into one of Hollywood's most talked-about actors thanks to the acclaimed AMC series and a starring role in MGM's sci-fi remake.

This story appears in the June 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

A question has plagued viewers of AMC's The Killing for more than a year (other than, of course, who killed Rosie Larsen?): Who is Joel Kinnaman? Playing streetwise Seattle detective Stephen Holder, the 6-foot-2 Swedish-American has enjoyed brisk success, landing a slew of diverse projects since breaking out in the polarizing AMC series, including the lead role in Brazilian director Jose Padilha's reboot of the iconic futuristic thriller RoboCop (2013) and playing Greta Gerwig's lover in indie rom-com Lola Versus. Kinnaman, 32, reveals the trauma he experienced as a child soap-opera actor, his oddball experience as an exchange student in Texas and the fellow Swede he's "really proud of."

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THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: How did you come to have dual citizenship in Sweden and the U.S.? Are you bilingual?

Joel Kinnaman: My father is American and deserted the Vietnam War. He came to Sweden to start a family. I grew up there, going to a public school where the education was in English and spoke Swedish at home with my parents. We are one of the only countries to not dub TV and movies, so I grew up reading English subtitles and learned the language really quickly.

THR: How did you get into acting?

Kinnaman: I was on a Swedish soap opera when I was 10. My sister was dating Ingmar Bergman's son, and he was at our house for dinner. He was directing a pilot for a TV series. I was being an obnoxious little kid, and he said, "You should come and audition." I got the part and finished the show when I was almost 11. At 12, I wanted to hang out with tough kids, but acting was pretty much like being a ballet dancer. I got into fights with everyone who called me by the name of my character from the series. It was horrendous. After that, I completely forgot about acting and was busy being a tough guy, getting into trouble. I had a really bad group of friends who wouldn't allow me to leave the group. They would beat up and rob my new friends and punish me. It was bad. I was 16, and I'd come home with a black eye every now and then. My parents were happy that I broke up with that group of friends. Half of them ended up robbing banks.

THR: So you were doing research for playing Detective Holder on The Killing and didn't even know it.

Kinnaman: (Laughs.) Exactly. So we thought it was a great idea for me to get out of Stockholm. I became an exchange student for a year in Austin, which was supposed to be the cool place in Texas, but after I got into this white Lincoln Town Car with these two very strange people, they just kept driving and driving to these rural trailer homes. They had 11 long-haired sausage dogs running around. My host mother asked me [in a Texas accent], "Which dog do you wanna sleep with?" I was like, "We don't sleep with dogs in Sweden."

THR: Sounds pretty miserable. What did you do for fun?

Kinnaman: I was the kicker on the football team and had some good friends who were mostly Mexican or black. Forty percent of the students were gang-affiliated, and the only white students were total rednecks. My host parents didn't like my friends. There was a lot of racism. I have an adopted black sister, so I was pretty sensitive to it.

THR: When did you return to acting?

Kinnaman: I didn't graduate high school in Texas -- I was too restless. So I decided I was going to travel for seven years and then make up my mind. I came home and my best friend, Gustaf Skarsgard, [True Blood actor] Alexander's brother, had just gotten into acting school. He was talking so passionately about it, and I was completely sucked in. You had to prepare four monologues to apply to the Swedish national acting school, which is a big deal. Our colleges are free, but the acting program is the second-most-expensive education, second only to fighter-pilot school. They only accept 10 people a year out of about 1,500 people. And I got in! I hadn't cried since I was 12, and it wasn't until I started acting again that I started to find those emotions. Now I'm a total crybaby.

THR: How did you end up auditioning for The Killing?

Kinnaman: I'd been in the States, trying to get the acting ball rolling but unsuccessfully. I think I had faced more rejection in five months there than a normal person does in a whole lifetime. So I went back to Sweden, and my manager in L.A. sent me the Killing script. I thought it was really good. She said, "You've got to put your stuff on tape." I sent it in, this was January 2010; they liked it and wanted me to come in to read. But I got the clothes all wrong. This guy, Holder, is a homicide detective, so he's gotta wear a suit, right? They said, "No. No. Can you wrinkle the shirt or something?" So bad. But then they had me come in one more time to read for Veena Sud and [director] Patty Jenkins, and I nailed it.

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THR: When did you meet your co-star, Mireille Enos?

Kinnaman: Actually on the flight up to Vancouver after we both got the roles. We had no initial "chemistry read," but it instantly worked. It's my favorite work relationship I've ever had. She's a remarkable person. She makes acting look so easy.

THR: Have you since established roots in Los Angeles?

Kinnaman: I'm going back and forth to Sweden. It's difficult to find the time to get settled. I tend to spend more and more of my off-time in L.A. while also looking for apartments in New York. It actually makes more sense for me to live there since it's halfway home to Stockholm. I like L.A., but it's just too many people in the same business everywhere you go. You lose perspective. In New York, there's a great art scene, fashion, Wall Street …people don't really give a shit about Hollywood. That's refreshing.

THR: You're currently prepping to play the lead in the RoboCop reboot. How does that feel?

Kinnaman: Yeah, we start shooting in September. It's going to be such a delight to work with Jose Padilha. There couldn't be a better director for this movie. It's gonna be a lot of action-futuristic stuff, but raise questions about what it is to be a human. Like Prometheus, which I just saw. I frickin' loved it. I'm so proud of [Prometheus actress] Noomi Rapace, who's a friend of mine.

THR: OK, so it seems that all Swedes who work in Hollywood know each other then?

Kinnaman: (Laughs.) Yeah. Noomi and I went to the same high school. We're all from the south side of Stockholm. It's crazy. Growing up, it was that working-class part of town where a lot of artists live … and junkies, too. Sometimes, those were the same people.