Joel Kinnaman’s Leading-Man Evolution

The star of the new Apple+ series For All Mankind has long specialized in offbeat characters. Now he’s shifting to more heroic material.

Presley Ann / Getty / Nasa / The Atlantic

As an actor, Joel Kinnaman used to think of himself as a weasel. Not a rodent, per se, but a weasel-like human, the kind of guy who plays drug dealers and police informants and creeps. He was not, he thought, leading-man material. “I thought I could play like a weaselly snake,” he told me, perching precariously on the back frame of a couch in a New York hotel suite, so his besocked feet rested on the cushions and his rangy figure loomed over the room. His oeuvre was full of characters like Stephen Holder, the laconic, jittery, lovable secret meth addict Kinnaman scored for his first American role, in the AMC drama The Killing. Or Rodion Raskolnikov, the starving, disaffected failure in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, whom Kinnaman once played in a four-hour stage production in his native Sweden. These were his people: the oddballs and losers, their torsos etched with tattoos, their undereye bags dark and voluminous.

Things have changed. This month, Kinnaman plays Edward Baldwin in the new Apple+ series For All Mankind, a character so wholesome and uncontaminated you could put him on a cereal box. Edward is an astronaut, a husband, and a father, in that order. He’s the kind of man who wears a short-sleeved plaid button-down to a bar. In his spacesuit, the curved plastic of his helmet lets the light refract off his angular features. When the Soviet Union wins the space race in the show’s alternative timeline, beating the United States to land a man on the moon, Kinnaman’s Edward glowers at the TV screen he’s watching, shimmering with patriotic rage at the idea that a Marxist-Leninist superpower can embarrass America.

In the 10 years since he moved to the U.S. at 29, Kinnaman hasn’t stopped working for more than a blink, doing big-deal movies (a RoboCop reboot, Suicide Squad), big-budget Netflix series (House of Cards, Altered Carbon), a high-concept Amazon assassin series (Hanna), and even a Terrence Malick film (Knight of Cups). In Sweden, he’d trained as a theater actor, but somewhere along the way the uncanny combination of his regal Scandinavian bone structure and outsider edginess spawned a new kind of action antihero. Over the same time period, the balance of economic power between film and TV shifted, allowing Kinnaman to demonstrate his versatility in a breadth of unconventional projects.

When I met Kinnaman, he was entrenched in For All Mankind’s publicity tour, a multicity extravaganza involving a VIP event at the National Air and Space Museum in D.C., countless interviews, a semi-flirtatious conversation with Ellen DeGeneres about his pectoral abnormality, and an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, where he told Jimmy a story about accidentally Instagramming his penis. Wearing a yellow hoodie and black sweatpants, with woolen socks pulled up mid-calf, he has the gentle rambunctiousness of a Labrador, and the same tendency to find unorthodox ways to sit. He generally likes interviews—“I’m a narcissist,” he joked, leaning over a plate of lobster ravioli that he only had time to pick at—but gets nervous before big TV spots, which come with a lot of pressure and the assumption that you’ll be cute and funny. For this press tour, he said, Apple provided him with three security guards, so every time he went outside and they rushed toward him, his first thought was that he was being arrested.

This rebelliousness, the subversive energy that makes his most compelling characters feel a little like ticking time bombs, is embedded in Kinnaman’s origin story. His father, an American draftee during the Vietnam War, deserted rather than fight, burning his passport in Bangkok and spending the next five years among hippie communities in Southeast Asia. He eventually ended up in Sweden, where his son was raised. The younger Kinnaman first started acting at the age of 10, in a Swedish soap opera, but found the experience underwhelming. By the time he was 20, after fooling around for most of his high-school years, he decided to revisit it. He describes preparing a monologue from A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a scene where Edmund “lets his dad have it, and it all comes pouring out of him. And I’d gone through a lot with my dad during my teens, and there was a lot of built-up anger, and something grabbed me, and everything became different. It was just me saying it, and I started screaming, and got really emotional, and everything came out jumbled and together. I realized later that it was the first time I got flow and connected with a text.”

Kinnaman’s goofiness is one of his dominant qualities, so it can be disconcerting when he sits still long enough to launch into a thoughtful dissection of, say, Russian literature. (One of his ways into Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, he told me, was to consider that the character might be schizophrenic, given that the root in his name is the Russian word for “divided.”) In acting, Kinnaman said, he finally found something he felt he could excel at. He got into a two-year theater program at what he called Sweden’s second-best acting school, and while he was studying he got a role in a movie, and then another one. By 2007 he was working at a frenetic pace, performing in Crime and Punishment in Gothenburg while simultaneously shooting a movie in Stockholm, sleeping only during the hours he could snatch on the train. Sweden’s film industry isn’t huge: It typically produces about 25 movies a year. In 2009, Kinnaman was in nine of them. Six of them were part of a series, he said humbly, as if to apologize for his overexposure. Still, it was a lot of work to be getting, and a sign, he thought, that he might be able to break into America.

It was in this moment that Kinnaman’s heritage came in handy. He’d grown up speaking Swedish with his mom and English with his dad, and though his natural speaking voice has a slight Scandinavian inflection, he can affect an extremely convincing American accent. “I had this feeling that since my dad was American I could probably go to America and compete,” he told me, dryly. “I wouldn’t have to play, like, a German prison guard. I could do more than Nazi or Russian roles.” The first job he was considered for, before he moved, was the role of Thor in the Marvel franchise, and though he didn’t ultimately get it, the audition process was affirming.

The first major role he scored, though, was a world away from the ligneous composure of the comic-book deity. In 2010 he was cast as Stephen Holder in The Killing, a remake of a hit Danish show about the murder of a teenage girl. Kinnaman’s character was a homicide detective and a recovering addict, and though the show emphasized Holder’s most weaselly elements—he wore a spindly mustache and goatee, and generally looked malnourished—Kinnaman’s endearing performance won him a devoted fan base. “I still feel to this day that the people who know me from The Killing, they’re a little fonder of me than other people,” Kinnaman said. Despite the edge he brings to more conventional roles, something about the erratic magnetism and vulnerability of Holder still sets the character apart.

Since The Killing, Kinnaman has bounced back and forth between film and TV in a way that few actors of his generation have emulated. What he seems to bring to his roles is counterweight: He can layer a creation like RoboCop with human nuance (The New York Times called his performance of a human cyborg “intensely sympathetic”), while hinting at the underlying animalism of a buttoned-up Republican like House of Cards’s Will Conway. His characters often feel palpably like outsiders, people whose exteriors don’t quite align with their true selves. In Netflix’s futuristic sci-fi series Altered Carbon, Kinnaman played a detective who wakes up in a brand-new, totally unfamiliar body. Even in For All Mankind, Kinnaman conveys flashes of Edward’s barely smothered rage.

To him, there’s no big difference in the medium of the projects he signs on for. A movie from a major studio takes about the same amount of time to film as a television series, he said, and the TV projects now tend to be the ones with the bigger budgets, compared with the passion-project indie films he still stars in. (He has three—The Informer, The Sound of Philadelphia, and The Secrets We Keep—on track to be released over the next year, shot between Apple+ projects and DC Comics tentpoles.) What he really wants to do next, after a 10-year break, is a play, hopefully in New York. “Definitely balance plays into it,” he said. “I don’t want to be too repetitive. I try to do different kinds of characters and to challenge myself in that way. But the character is really important.” And on that note, he has to leave for Fallon, without the yellow hoodie, pasta unfinished, but with the three security guards by his side. The weasel—to misquote a line from For All Mankind—has landed.