Joel Kinnaman interview: RoboCop, remakes and more

We chat to the new Alex Murphy, actor Joel Kinnaman, about the RoboCop remake, and making a political studio movie...

Taking on the role of Alex Murphy in a RoboCop remake could be seen as something of a poisoned chalice. Following up Peter Weller’s stunning performance as an ordinary cop turned mechanical future of law enforcement? And in one of the most brutal, incisive genre films of the 1980s to boot?

It’s little surprise, then, to learn that Swedish-American actor Joel Kinnaman hesitated before taking the lead in director Jose Padilha’s RoboCop remake – just like the rest of the planet, he had doubts as to whether a 21st century take on the original could possibly measure up. Yet as Mr Kinnaman explains himself in the interview below, the new RoboCop doesn’t try to ape the classic original – instead, it uses the notion of a man fused with a machine as a jumping-off point for current themes about technology and warfare. And it was this ultimately tempted the actor to finally agree to serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law…

I was just speaking to Mr Padilha [the director] next door, and within ten minutes our conversation ran the gamut from philosophy to politics to technology. Was he that dynamic to work with on set?

Yeah. From the start of this movie, we set out to do a big-scale action movie that is a popcorn movie, but also holds a lot of this subject matter, and brings up a lot of interesting philosophical ideas, and also has a lot of drama. So it’s a unique film in that regard.

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There’s one particular scene I was struck by, which is the one between you and Gary Oldman where you wake up as RoboCop for the first time. That could have been a special effects moment, but it wasn’t – it was a performance-led moment, an emotional scene.

Yeah. It’s my favourite scene in the film, but also my most difficult scene in the film. It was particular difficult because, what the character’s going through, and what I have to portray, is the deepest existential anxiety and despair. And I couldn’t move. I’m in this docking station, so I had to be completely still, and that was difficult. It’s hard to be emotional and still, because usually you’re doing some kind of movement – you’re using your body.

I wasn’t allowed to use my body, so that was really difficult. When you’re bringing out these emotions, you’re drawing on these physical memories where you’ve had similar experiences, and you’re usually very connected to your body. You might be curled up in a foetus position or rocking back and forth, but here I didn’t have that option at all.

At the same time, you wouldn’t get the time to prepare in the same way. I had someone jerking my head – they put a copper wire behind my head, through the helmet, that they attached to the chair so I couldn’t move. Because as soon as I moved my head, they couldn’t use the shot. So it raised the difficulty level quite a bit. It required even more patience and mental preparation – I had to do it all in my imagination.

The big help in that scene, that made it possible, was having Gary Oldman, which is always an incredible experience. 

What did you think of the themes in the script? Because as you said, it is political and existential and so on.

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I was fascinated by it. At first I was bit hesitant – well more than hesitant about the idea of a remake or RoboCop. Because there are a lot of films being remade because there’s a built-in fanbase, and they’re an easy way to make a couple of dollars. So actually, when I was first given the opportunity to pursue [RoboCop], I turned it down.

And then they told me that it was Jose that was going to direct it, and that changed my whole idea, because he’s such an impressive filmmaker to me. His films always carry such a strong social and political point of view. He’s just one of those filmmakers who always has a great idea behind his films. So I knew that if he was behind RoboCop, he would have a very strong idea.

When I met him, and he told me what he wanted to use the concept of RobCop for, and the story he wanted to tell through that concept, I thought it was brilliant. Particularly when we see what’s going on today, and where technology has led us, with all the possibilities that it gives us, but also the dangers that come with that.

I think that our societies – all the different countries and the UN – are going to have to make some difficult decisions about how we’re going to wage war, what’s going to be legal, and when it comes to our national securities, what’s going to be the consequences if we automate the illegal violence.

Verhoeven made the correlation between violence and fascism, and I think that’s very valid. And I think today, that is really relevant. That’s why it was such a great opportunity to do this film. 

I remember reading an interview with Peter Weller, and he said as soon as he met Paul Verhoeven, he knew he wasn’t going to be in an ephemeral film. It wouldn’t just disappear. Did you feel the same when you met Jose?

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Yeah, for sure. The only concern I had after meeting Jose was, how the hell is he going to get a Hollywood studio to pay $120m plus to make a movie like this? Because it doesn’t usually happen. I can’t think of another movie that really carries these topics and questions. Not in these big films. 

How do you think he managed to get away with it?

Well, I know exactly why. They wanted Jose because they thought he was an incredible filmmaker. But when the movie starts to come together and there’s a lot of money involved, there’s a fear of alienating different parts of the audience groups. And that’s why so many of these big films can appear a bit bland, because they want them to be available to everyone.

They’re a compromise.

Yeah. But when they do these big movies, they do a test screening. And in the first test screening of RoboCop, it tested very high. Then they asked the people why they liked it, and the first answer was, “I liked it because it was political.” And the second answer was because, “It feels like it deals with current affairs.” And the third answer was, “Because it feels emotional.”

So all these things the studio might have wanted to tone down – maybe tone down a bit of the drama, tone down the political aspects of it, tone down the implications of current politics – that’s what the audience liked. So that’s why the movie that we’re seeing is the director’s cut. And that’s very rare.

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To talk more broadly about acting in Hollywood for a moment – and I know you’re a US citizen as well as a Swedish citizen – but there seems to be more opportunities these days for actors outside Hollywood to get leading roles. Do you think that’s fair to say? I mean, we have a British Superman, a British Spider-Man, an Australian Thor.

Well, I think it’s a combination of foreign actors becoming better at American accents, and maybe Hollywood realising that id doesn’t matter where someone comes from. For me, I feel that if I didn’t know I could play an American character… because there aren’t many Swedish actors who could play lead roles in American films or TV series. The accent’s very tough to get to a level where it’s believable.

Many can make it believable that they’ve lived in the United States for a long time, but that they’ve grown up there? That’s the difficult thing. So I knew that if I went to the States and tried to make a career there, I wouldn’t have to be the German prison guard that has to say [adopts German accent] “Left!” you know? I could play a real role.

The American film market… it’s a place where you now get to work with actors from all over the world. If you look at RoboCop, it has a Brazilian director, a Brazilian photographer, a Brazilian composer, I’m Swedish and half American, Gary [Oldman]’s British, Abby [Cornish] is Australian. So it’s an international film. 

So that melting pot of a cast and crew, what was the atmosphere like during the production?

Jose creates a really fun environment. He creates a feeling that the story is what matters. You feel that there’s no room for ego. Part of creating that was, before shooting, we had a three week rehearsal process, where all the actors, every little part, was there. We’d rehearse and walk through the script. We’d rework the script. We’d tweak scenes and completely change the dialogue, and that creates a feeling of ensemble, and I hadn’t had that feeling since I was in the theatre.

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I thought it was really impressive. And first of all, that helps the actors in smaller parts really come into a movie. That’s one of the most important things you can do. It’s easy to be a lead actor. That’s the easiest thing to do in a film. The hardest thing is to come in, with five or six days of shooting spread out over a schedule, and you have to find that character – you have to do all that work at home.

And it can easily be a case of doing your job and then get out of there. But with that kind of rehearsal process, it really feels like you’re part of an ensemble telling a story together. I think that his energy spread to the camera crews, too. He’s not going to do a shot because it’s cool. He’s going to do the best shot for the story.

We’d be sitting in the rehearsal, and you’d have Gary Oldman saying, “This whole monologue? It’s not helping the story. Let’s get rid of it.” Very rarely would you find an actor making his role smaller. But that’s part of the intelligence of an experienced, genius actor like Gary Oldman. He understands that it’s better not to say something that doesn’t help the story, and to give each other lines. “It’s better that you say this line.”

It was a good, creative process, where there was no room for ego.

Your next film is Child 44, isn’t it?

I’ve finished it!

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Ah, it’s finished. What can you tell me about your role in that, because that’s another dark, potentially difficult film.

I play a semi-sociopath. It’s a story about living in Stalin’s Soviet Union. I play a member of Stalin’s secret police, called the MGB – his version of the Stazi. There’s also a serial killer…

Yes, Andrei Chikatilo.

The Butcher of Rostov. So that’s the motor of the story, but it’s very much about how that society shapes its people and relationships.

Joel Kinnaman, thank you very much.

RoboCop is out on the 7th February in the UK. You can read our review here.

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