There is a delightfully sinister quality to Stephen Holder, the new detective assigned to the homicide case at the center of AMC’s crime drama, The Killing. Played by Joel Kinnaman, Holder skulks around Seattle, his skinny neck sticking out of an oversized sweatshirt. He rejects old-fashioned, rigorous police work in favor of more unorthodox information gathering. Like, say, giving a couple of soccer-playing teenage girls pot and asking them where they “party” so that they might help him figure out who killed their classmate, Rosie Larsen. In his review of The Killing for Slate, Troy Patterson rightly describes Kinnaman as a scene stealer, but I didn’t realize how thoroughly he had embodied Holder—the languid movements, the general swagger—until I saw a video of Kinnaman out of character. He is almost unrecognizable.
This is a breakout performance for the half-Swedish Kinnaman (his dad’s American), and there will be more opportunities to watch him in the near future. He’ll appear alongside Emile Hirsch and Olivia Thirlby in an alien invasion flick called The Darkest Hour later this year. Kinnaman spoke to Slatefrom Cape Town, South Africa about growing up in Stockholm with his big hippie family, what it’s like to be a celebrity in Sweden, and the makeup magic behind Detective Holder’s deeply sketchy look.
Slate: What are you shooting in Cape Town?
Joel Kinnaman: It’s a movie called Safe House, with Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington—it’s like a CIA thriller. I’m a CIA agent. It’s not a big part but it’s an interesting part.
Slate: How well-established were you in Sweden when you started auditioning for American projects?
Kinnaman: We only make about 30 movies a year in Sweden. The year that I left I played the lead in seven or eight of them, and they were quite high profile. It was kind of intense with the attention there for a while, so it was a perfect time to get the hell out. I moved to the U.S. before all of those movies came out.
Slate: Is being a celebrity in Sweden like being a celebrity in America? Are you in the Swedish equivalent of Us Weekly?
Kinnaman: I guess I’m pretty well-recognized there. Swedes are a really humble and shy people in many ways, but I think it’s pretty much the same as in the U.S. Little girls want to take photographs with me at lunch.
Slate: Were you attracted to The Killing because its DNA is Nordic? [ The Killing is based on a Danish TV series.]
Kinnaman: That was just pure coincidence. I was really attracted to the series because of the writing, the story line and the characters. It had a really solid, quality feel to it at a first read. My intuition about the project was dead on. As an artist it’s a blessing to be a part of it. A lot of the time that sort of layered feel is only in art-house projects that 25 people watch, and those 25 people like it, but it doesn’t reach a larger audience. The Killing has a really great combination of qualities: Even though it’s very sad and deals with mourning and grief, it’s still exciting. It’s about real people and it doesn’t shy from the painful points of life.
Slate: Stephen Holder’s a pretty squirrely character—you look so different in real life. Don’t take this the wrong way, but Holder has a sort of Kevin Federline quality about him.
Kinnaman: (Laughs) K. Fed!
Slate: You really get that sketchiness dead on! It’s such an American character. Since you’re not from here, did you base your portrayal or anyone or anything specifically?
Kinnaman: I went to high school in Texas for one year, my senior year. My parents wanted me to get out of Stockholm because I was running with the wrong crew. They wanted me to get back to my roots. In Sweden, I went to an English school, where there was a mishmash of people from all over the world. Some were diplomatic kids with a lot of money, some were ghetto kids who came up from the suburbs, and I grew up in between. There’s a community of second generation immigrants, and I became part of that because I had an American father.
Early on I knew I wanted to give Holder a feel that he grew up with a variety of people, kind of the same way I did. And he’s got some issues that he’s dealing with that get explained in episode eight of the series, and that was a huge part of my preparation for the character. I wanted Holder’s physical movements to show that he came from a socially unpolished background. It looks like I don’t have any make up on, but that’s because Charles Porlier is the best makeup artist I’ve ever worked with. He always fixed it when it looked like I’d had too much sleep.
Slate: How did your American father end up in Sweden?
Kinnaman: When he was 20 years old he was shipped off to Vietnam. He was stationed in Bangkok. He was a young kid who had no idea about anything, and he spent a lot of time with European backpackers and started to get a lot of realizations about what this world was about. I inherited his temperament, that can be pretty hot sometimes, and he was very vocal and made a lot of enemies in the military community and in his barracks. He jumped out of the barracks at night, and hitchhiked into northern Thailand and Laos, and was on the run in Laos, living in monasteries and doing carpentry work for food. He met my sister’s mom (she’s not my mom) and she became pregnant. Then they found out that there were some military intelligence people looking for a tall American. Sweden was the only country that accepted military deserters at the time, and after a pit stop in Russia, he came to Sweden and has been living here ever since. We’re all a big hippie family so I got five sisters and a bunch of different mothers. Not really, but my sisters’ mothers are all good friends with my mother. We’re a big family, 25 people.
Slate: Do you plan to stay in America indefinitely, or do you miss your big hippie family?
Kinnaman: That’s the problem when you go chasing a career that is not at home. I’m going for the most interesting work, and I’ve been getting a lot of interesting stuff coming my way in the U.S. But I am going back to Sweden this summer to do a Swedish project for a month—a continuation of Easy Money.
Slate: In an interview I saw from when you were promoting Easy Money, you said that you have to relate to the characters that you choose. What do you relate to about Holder?
Kinnaman: He’s morally complex. That’s the kind of work I look for. It’s really boring to do a character that is only one way, that’s not how we are as people. We show a different face to everyone that we meet. I try to put that in, even if it’s not in the scripts. For some reason I’ve been playing a lot of characters that are like actors in their reality. My character, J.W., in Easy Money, is a Talented Mr. Ripley kind of character. He’s selling drugs to finance an upper-class lifestyle, and he impersonates the criminals he worked with. He’s a chameleon in that sense. Holder is also an undercover guy who is sort of an impostor. I think the most significant resemblance between the characters is they all have a good heart but their actions aren’t always so good. It’s very human. No one likes anything perfect, with perfect white teeth and a perfect white smile.
Slate: Finally, what’s the best thing you’ve seen on the Internet this week?
Kinnaman: My Internet game is really strong, so I want to come up with something that’s worthy of my game. The funniest video I’ve seen recently is a rap video from Stic from Dead Presidents. It’s called “Back on My Regimen.” I watch it every time I want to laugh.
Interview has been condensed and edited.