MEN’S JOURNAL – In person, Kinnaman actually has plenty to say—at least when not demolishing crawfish. He’s an engaging and funny storyteller, though it helps, obviously, that he’s got a good story to tell. There are many paths to stardom, but not many as picaresque as Kinnaman’s.
We begin before his birth, at a wedding in Laos while the Vietnam War slogs on nearby. Steve Kinnaman, Joel’s father, is an American GI stationed in Bangkok. He has snuck away on a three-day pass to witness the marriage of a friend to a woman who is half-Laotian, half-Vietnamese. It is his first contact with the people his government has been fighting, and the love-filled ceremony confirms some of the niggling doubts he has already been starting to feel about the war. When he returns to base, to the news that his unit is about to be deployed, he decides to go in a different direction. Steve burns his passport, hitchhikes north, and lives on the run in Laos for five years, centered at the Blind Eye, a Vientiane bar that plays host to a Casablanca-like cast of hippies, journalists, drug dealers, CIA agents, and other assorted expats.
It would all make an incredible movie, and in fact Kinnaman and his father, now 74, have been discussing making one. “I’ve been toying with the idea of playing my father,” Kinnaman says. “But I’m getting a little too old, so I might just direct. It’s really a young man’s story.” The tale is still emotionally fraught in the family, too. Steve neglected to tell his family back home where he had gone until two years after eventually fleeing to Sweden, which offered asylum to deserters from the war. The wound lingers still—which is another motivation for maybe making a film, Kinnaman says.
“I see it as a sort of reconciliation project, too,” he says. “Even though I don’t live there”—he moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago—“everything I do is to create a base of both economic security for my family and also arenas where they can all come together.”
Each of Kinnaman’s arms is covered with elaborate set-piece tattoos. On the left is a chiaroscuro of women’s faces, flowers, and vines. It is, he explains, a cover-up of an older piece of ink. “I walked into a parlor in the 1990s and literally thought this exact sentence: ‘Obviously I’m getting a tribal tattoo because they are definitely never going out of style,’” he says, wryly.
A similar spirit of jovial self-mockery is evident on his other biceps, where the last line from The Tempest, written in Swedish, has been crossed out and replaced. “It was supposed to say sleep but it said dream,” he shrugs. Beneath the corrected quote is a stylized tableau of Sodermalm, the Stockholm neighborhood where Steve Kinnaman ended up after decamping to Sweden and where the younger Kinnaman was raised. Now one of the city’s most gentrified districts, it was, in those days, a working class neighborhood and bohemian stronghold. Family life there was complicated and colorful. Kinnaman sat in the middle of five sisters from various mothers, often moving around from house to house. “My family’s a mess,” he says. “But it’s a beautiful mess.”
He describes it as a happy childhood, but nevertheless, from an early age, he was attracted to more dangerous company. By 10, he was hanging out with a rough group of friends, robbing people, stealing cars, dealing low-level drugs, and engaging in the ritualized group violence of soccer hooliganism, in which bands of supporters of opposing teams would meet in hand-to hand combat on the streets. “It was an incredible, powerful group dynamic,” he says. “Being in a group and just rushing toward another group.”