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.