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Joel Kinnaman for GQ Hype

This isn’t a drill, we got a new shoot! Joel’s looking so good (as always) on the cover of the latest issue of GQ Hype. The interview was done through a Zoom call and it’s mostly focused on the upcoming The Suicide Squad. Check out the interview below and outtakes in our gallery!

BRITISH GQ – When Joel Kinnaman answers my Zoom call, he’s walking briskly through the streets of Venice Beach with his dog, Zoe, a rescue mutt from Mexico. He’s wearing a blue baseball cap and a T-shirt adorned with a baby picture of his fiancée, model Kelly Gale, the sleeves of which are just about obscuring a tattoo of the word “Skwad” on his bicep, which was administered on the set of the first Suicide Squad movie by Will Smith with Margot Robbie’s tattoo gun. (He does not regret it. “It’s a good story,” he says.) 

He’s telling me about the play that saved his career. The sole reason he’s here today, promoting a different, better Suicide Squad movie – an unorthodox, quasi-sequel, quasi-reboot of the 2016 DC Comics film about a group of supervillains manipulated into fighting the good fight – is because of an obscure one-man show called Howie The Rookie by Irish writer Mark O’Rowe. 

In his twenties, three years into a degree at Sweden’s most prestigious drama school, he began to experience debilitating stage fright. He would have panic attacks while on stage and vomit or black out before performances. “I thought maybe I don’t have the constitution to do this, maybe I can’t handle this pressure.” He resolved to overcome his problem through a sort of self-made exposure therapy. He would find the most terrifying stage performance for himself and do it over and over again just to prove to himself that he could. Enter, Howie. It was a gruelling, 90-minute piece, in which he would embody 16 different characters. “Everything hinged on this working and there was something in me that just would not let it fail.” He became obsessed with it and performed it over and over again in front of live audiences, slowly chipping away at his anxiety over time. After that, nothing would ever seem quite so daunting. “It became the foundation of a new kind of confidence that I had, or that I built with that.”

In many ways, that baptism of fire prepared him for much greater stresses he would deal with in his career, from playing the emotionally destroyed lead in a four-hour stage adaptation of Crime And Punishment in Gothenburg (his first proper gig out of acting school) to his first role in America in the beloved drama series The Killing and more recently shouldering the hopes of millions of comic book fanboys. Working on massive blockbusters – The Suicide Squad, he tells me, is the most expensive R-rated movie of all time – comes with its own very particular kind of anxiety. When you’re acutely aware that a shoot day costs £220,000, there’s a truly high-stakes need to perform, knowing that if you fudge your line or miss, you’re letting multiples of most people’s average wage slide down the drain. It can get a little tense. “There are so many moving parts and I don’t want to be the one that sucks.”

The Suicide Squad represents somewhat of a second chance for Kinnaman. Twenty sixteen’s Suicide Squad was considered a creative failure by most of those involved in its making. This time around, Guardians Of The Galaxy mastermind James Gunn takes over for original director David Ayer. Kinnaman reprises his role as military man and Suicide Squad leader Rick Flag, alongside fellow returnees Margot Robbie (Harley Quinn) and Viola Davis. Idris Elba and  John Cena are subbed in for Will Smith and Jared Leto as co-leads.

Despite its impressive box office takings ($746.8 million), Ayer’s 2016 film was considered a missed opportunity to kick-start a star-studded superhero franchise at DC Comics. Kinnaman, too, was disappointed with the final product. “The thing that we made wasn’t something that we felt great about,” he says. “You could feel that there were conflicting visions in the cut.” The shoot was chaotic from the beginning: the script was unfinished and they filmed the ending knowing that it would likely have to be scrapped entirely at a later date. They wound up reshooting it twice. Kinnaman was disappointed with his own performance, too. “I worked as hard as I could, but I never really felt loose in that character.” 

When the actor, 41, heard that Gunn was on board to steer the franchise in a new direction, it “felt like a victory”. Gunn was given free rein to reimagine the franchise, to blend his trademark toilet humour with bombastic action sequences, top-tier character development and bursts of genuine emotion. Crucially, his vision remained constant throughout and he created an environment in which the actors could thrive: “We were allowed to be silly and take chances.” Kinnaman reckons they nailed it on the second go around. “I think what surprised me when I saw the film was first how well it flowed. How he [Gunn] was able to create these little bubbles of emotional sincerity and some moments of real poetic beauty and they felt earned.”

He’s not wrong. The Suicide Squad manages to do what the original film failed to do: create interesting antiheroes, put them through the ringer in funny and engaging ways, and, most importantly, make us care about what happens to them. Kinnaman is in good company alongside Robbie’s oddly sweet psychopath Harley Quinn, Elba as classically gruff antihero Bloodsport, and Sylvester Stallone as King Shark, a moronic, anthropomorphic fish who chomps on people’s heads for fun.

After taking on his first acting role at the age of ten in a Swedish soap opera (“It was an awful, awful show”), Kinnaman returned to the normality of adolescence for another ten years. As a teenager, Kinnaman felt lost. He fell in with the wrong crowd and thrashed out his anger issues in fights with strangers. “I had a period where it was kind of in the balance where I was going to end up,” he says. But after a few years spent trying out different careers – sweeping roofs in Oslo, tending bar in the French Alps – he found solace in acting when he was encouraged to return to it by friends. While preparing a scene with a partner from Long Day’s Journey Into Night for his drama school audition, he had an emotional breakthrough that crystallised his desire to make acting his primary focus in life. In the scene, Kinnaman’s character unloads all of his emotional distress about his relationship with his father. “Like so many of us, I had gone through difficult times with my dad during my upbringing and I became overwhelmed by it.” Sitting in silence afterwards, with tears burning in his eyes, he realised that he had found his calling. 

Kinnaman chalks his ability to commute his own emotions into his performances up to the influence of his mother, Bitte, a therapist. “My mother helped me form a language to talk about emotions, to understand that sometimes the emotions that you feel are a result of something else.” During Crime And Punishment’s run in Gothenburg, he would find himself feeling borderline euphoric after his performances, having explored every inch of the emotional spectrum – madness, despair, guilt, grief. 

While The Suicide Squad may not sound like the kind of movie that will require this kind of proper, full-gamut acting, fans of the series might nonetheless be surprised by Kinnaman’s performance. 

“I had to look at it in a way that I had never looked at a character before,” he says. “It was a very different take on Flag. I felt it was a much more idealistic and less cynical version. It felt like he had much more emotions available. In some ways, it felt closer to myself.” Silly as it may sound, The Suicide Squad has arguably a greater emotional crescendo than any other film of its kind. Kinnaman found himself moved when during a read-through they saw animated conceptual art paired with Gunn’s song selection for the film’s climax, which is somehow a remarkable pay-off to both a protracted final battle and a joke from the very beginning. “I got emotional watching that,” he says. “I was like, ‘OK, this guy really knows what he’s doing.’” 

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