Joel Kinnaman’s having a busy week. The gravel-voiced, Swedish-born 36-year-old is on movie screens across the world, playing Colonel Rick Flag in the commercial smash–slash–critical horror show that is Suicide Squad. But he hasn’t had much of a chance to dwell on that much-discussed blockbuster because he’s out promoting his lead role in the terrifying indie thriller Edge of Winter, which hits theaters today. In it, he plays a divorced dad who gets stranded in the middle of a snowy forest with his two sons, then goes more than a little nuts. We caught up with Kinnaman to talk about Squad’s awkward rollout, functioning as a makeshift assistant director, and the proper handling of guns.
You’ve been out promoting Edge of Winter. Have you paid much attention to the reception of Suicide Squad?
No. It opened, and that was great, but I’ve just been in Edge of Winter world. There were so many more actors in that film, so they didn’t need me to talk about it in any way. I think the catering department on Suicide Squad had a bigger budget than we had on Edge of Winter. [Laughs.]
Have you read any reviews of Suicide Squad?
I read a couple, but I didn’t enjoy reading them, so I stopped. They were not kind.
How’d they make you feel?
You always hope to get good reviews. It’s always nicer when people say nice things about you. But on a film like Suicide Squad, it really only has an ambition to entertain. There’s no big political aspirations about the film; it doesn’t take itself that seriously. The only way it takes itself seriously is portraying these characters in an honest way. I really think we did that, and I’m proud of my work and everyone else’s work in that film, too. So, on a film like this, that has those kinds of ambitions; it becomes even more important what the fans think. We made this film for the fans.
I can’t remember ever seeing a bigger disparity between reviewers’ and fans’ response to a film. It really was night and day. We’ve just been showered with love and appreciation for this, so it’s been pretty phenomenal. Sure, the film is not perfect. But the kind of vitriol that it got? [Laughs.] It sure as hell didn’t deserve that. I think it actually might’ve been good for the film. Now people don’t have too-high expectations for it. It reset that a little bit, and people went into the theaters and just got entertained by what they saw. So I was really happy with how that whole thing turned out.
You were happy with how it turned out?
Yeah, with how the fans responded to the film after what the critics said.
You play a pretty horrifying character in Edge of Winter. What made the role attractive to you?
I felt like there was an opportunity, with this character, to portray a man that most people would find completely irredeemable. I mean, he’s a man who becomes a threat to the lives of his own children. It doesn’t sink much lower than that. I felt that we need more understanding, in general in life and our society. Even though we cast the sharpest judgment, the more we understand, the more we can learn from our mistakes and help prevent horrible things from happening. That’s the way I generally look upon people who have these kinds of mental problems. So I felt like this film was a chance to do a character who was very complicated, very challenging, and to give some kind of understanding to where he was coming from and how he could end up in a situation where he basically feels that the only way out is to kill himself and his children.
What was your most challenging day on set?
There’s not one day. We had 19 days to do this film, which is the shortest amount of time I’ve ever had to make a film. Every day was just packed with emotionally heavy scenes. That’s challenging for a veteran, and even more so for a rookie — especially with the cast being one kid and one young man. Channeling that kind of energy, it takes something out of you. You go back to difficult times in your life. Part of the job is not letting wounds heal. You go back to them and you sorta live through it again. You’re constantly in this emotional state that is not your happy place. I’m back in the worst episodes of my life every day. Especially on a shoot like this, which is so short, you’re in there all the time.
How did shooting in the cold affect your performance?
The elements were so demanding on this film. The majority of the scenes we did were in nighttime, and the average temperature was below negative 30 degrees. So you’re constantly freezing, and you’re constantly feeling the oppression of the elements. It seeps into the film, into the harrowing emotion of the film. Nobody’s ever comfortable. You’re constantly uncomfortable and a little bit unhappy.
There’s a rifle that forms a central part of the story. As an actor, how do you bring gravity to the act of carrying a prop and making it feel like a real gun?
Oh, well, it is a real gun.
Yeah, yeah, of course. It’s a real gun. And the first rule that anyone teaches you about guns is, Treat every gun like it’s loaded. Don’t point it at anything you’re not prepared to kill, including yourself. I’m sure I was a real bad role model for these kids, because sometimes, when I’ve been holding the gun for a long time, I’ll be leaning on it, pointing it to my own head. I’d be giving everybody lessons about how important it is to be careful with these guns, and then, at a tired moment when I’m not concentrating, I’m leaning it against my own head and pointing it under my own chin. The gun person’s just looking at me from behind the camera and wishing he was some other place.
This interview has been edited and condensed.