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Joel Kinnaman on RoboCop, Getting Taunted by Michael Keaton, and His Weird Day With Terrence Malick

Joel Kinnaman. Photo: Getty Images

Joel Kinnaman is, if nothing else, about to have an interesting few days. The first of his two movies out this week, RoboCop, is Brazilian director Jose Padilha’s surprisingly philosophical and intense “reboot” of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 action classic. In it, Kinnaman plays Alex Murphy, a Detroit police officer who is maimed and rebuilt to become the titular futuristic lawman for a dystopian future. The other film is a little lower on the radar. Easy Money: Hard to Kill is the second installment of the Swedish crime franchise Easy Money (original title Snabba Cash), in which Kinnaman plays a former business student embroiled in the world of drug smuggling. The two films offer a telling glimpse of Kinnaman the actor: half-Swedish, half-American, splitting his time between European films and shows like Easy Money and the Johan Falk series, and American ones like RoboCop, Safe House, and The Killing. He spoke to us about the challenges of playing a half-man, half-robot, what it’s like to star in a remake, and that one day he spent acting for Terrence Malick in Knight of Cups.

When I first heard they were remaking RoboCop, the first thought that went through my head was, Ah, crap. Here comes another lame studio remake of an iconic action classic. Did you feel any added pressure because of how beloved the original was?
I actually counted myself among the skeptics. The original is so dark and unique — it’s really kind of a tragedy. When my agent told me about the part, I wasn’t interested at first, because I didn’t think they’d be able to do the original any justice. But then I found out Jose Padilha was directing, and I knew he was an incredibly talented filmmaker. All of his films have a very strong political and social point of view. A filmmaker of that caliber wanting to take on something like RoboCop? I knew it was going to be something interesting and not a run-of-the-mill remake where you sort of just exploit the preexisting fan base to make a little extra money.

The film actually feels very much in line with Padilha’s other films. It could be an Elite Squad sequel.
Of course this is a much bigger film, and it’s also, in my opinion, a fun, action ride of a movie. But I knew he was going to fill that with a lot of ideas and a lot of emotion. I love these big-scale action movies, but when they turn into cartoons, I kind of lose interest. It’s not really about anything, and it’s kind of an excuse to have these big action scenes. And here we have the big action scenes, but they’re about something. We really go in and explore the consequences of what’s happening onscreen for the person and for his family.

Were you surprised when you got the lead? Obviously you’ve become known to audiences in the U.S. with The Killing, and the Easy Money films are very popular in Europe. But this is a big movie.
Yeah. [Laughs.] But when you’re an unknown, this is the kind of movie that you can get, because the franchise is bigger than the person. For these kinds of films, they want somebody that’s not too well known, because that would take focus from the character, in a sense. So I knew that I had a shot, and I just worked my butt off to prove it to everyone that I was capable.

I imagine this performance was a challenge, because you have to show some emotion while also playing, essentially, a robot. How much did you have to work on withholding, while still somehow also conveying what’s going on inside?
That was the challenge. And also portraying the transitions — when they’re manipulating his dopamine levels, for example. How much emotion is he feeling or can he even feel at any given point? What about when his soul starts taking over and wins over the artificial intelligence implants? But the biggest challenge was the more emotional scenes, where I had to — for example, the scene where Dr. Norton, Gary Oldman’s character, reveals to Alex Murphy what’s left of him. That was a scene where I really needed to portray a deep, existential anxiety and despair, and I had to be completely still while doing that. That’s particularly difficult; because when you want to portray those kind of emotions, you really have to use your body, but here I couldn’t really do that.

Has your American accent always been this good, or did you have to work at it?
It’s sort of evolved. When I first came to the States, I thought I had a perfect American accent, and then I was abruptly becoming aware that it wasn’t. So I did have to work on it a little bit, but I was hesitant working on it because I thought it was good. But then when I heard myself speak, I realized that “Oh, my” — the melody is wrong, and I got to work on it like any other dialect. So I did put in a little effort to it.

Peter Weller is not a fan of the idea of a RoboCop remake. Did you try to get in touch with him at all?
No, I never met Peter. I’m a huge fan of his work in both RoboCop and Naked Lunch, and I think he’s just a terrific actor. So you know, it was an honor to step into his big shoes.

Your co-star Michael Keaton played Batman for two movies. Did he give you any pointers on how to act in a really constraining suit?
No, no pointers. He gave me a lot of shit, though. You couldn’t be complaining about uncomfortableness around Michael. He’s like, “Ah, you guys today got it easy. They had to glue my suit on, glue it to my face, you know.” Michael needs to let go of this Batman thing, what was it, 30 years ago he played it? His suit didn’t even have nipples.

So how flexible was that suit? What was it like being in it?
It made me feel like a badass. I felt like I could take out an army, walking around in this suit. And I also found — and this was surprising to me — I also started understanding the vulnerability that Alex Murphy was going through while wearing the suit. I mean, this is a guy who’s been amputated from his throat down. He can’t make love to his wife. I imagine that must feel like the most horrifying, naked feeling that you can have. And since I wasn’t wearing any clothes underneath the suit really, just a unitard … You know, when we weren’t shooting, I was feeling a little awkward on the set in the suit. It was hard to relate to the other actors and tell stories or whatnot. So, I also came to understand that kind of awkwardness and vulnerability while wearing the suit. That contrast in emotion, of both feeling like a badass and feeling vulnerable, both of those feelings came from the suit, wearing the suit.

So, The Killing. It keeps getting canceled. Is that the most nerve-racking thing in the world or what?
[Laughs.] I know! It’s not really nerve-racking, but I’ve just been following it: Oh, we’re doing it again! Oh, we’re not doing it again! Oh, we’re doing it again! I’m just really happy that the fans of the show have been sticking with it.

What can you tell me about Knight of Cups, the new Terrence Malick movie that you acted in? Do you think you’ll end up in the final movie?
I have no idea. [Laughs.] I had a one-day shoot, and I had a 17-page monologue. It was a crazy day. It was great to get to be part of the Malick world for a day. I have no idea what the movie’s about. I barely know who my character was. We’ll see if I’m in it or not. I remember, we’d be shooting, and I’d be on page 12 of my 17-page monologue, and I’d turn around and see that he was 100 yards away, shooting a pink dog. So it was a very original experience. I’ve never been part of anything like it. He’s very poetic — he collects a lot of material, a lot of images, slices of characters. Then he makes his film in the editing room. And I think he probably also finds his narrative in the editing room. It’s a very free-flowing process. It was interesting to be a part of it. But I couldn’t tell you anything other than that.

Joel Kinnaman on RoboCop and His Day With Malick