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This Charming Sadist

Peter Wang

Joel Kinnaman’s brilliantly disturbing behavior


Photography by Peter Wang

"I kind of miss him," says Joel Kinnaman, referring to Stephen Holder, the streetwise, hoodie-wearing detective (and reformed addict) he played in AMC's absorbing crime serial, The Killing, based on the hit Danish show Forbrydelsen. "He could be both very mature and deeply immature, very angry and vulnerable."

Of course, the fact that Holder could embody such contradictions simultan-eously was due, in no small part, to the depth that Kinnaman brought to the role. A rare example of an American adaptation holding its own against the European original, The Killing was compelling in large part because of the chemistry between Holder and his pensive colleague, Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos). Their dynamic -- playful, prickly, and emotionally complex -- was the most striking difference between the two shows. "The Danish version of the role I played wasn't a particularly interesting one," concedes Kinnaman. "He was more of an antagonist that wanted to do it by the book, [whereas] we were able to create a character that felt like he could do anything."

After a roller-coaster ride in which the series was canceled, then uncanceled, then canceled again before Netflix swooped in to pick it up for a final season that aired last August, The Killing has definitively left our screens. Thankfully, Kinnaman has not. The actor, who enjoyed a meteoric rise in his native Sweden -- where he made nine movies in a 16-month period from 2009 to 2010 -- can now be seen in the big-screen adaptation of Child 44, a Soviet-era thriller by gay novelist Tom Rob Smith. Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2008, the book is a masterful evocation of Stalin's Russia, in which murder is viewed as a product of Western decadence, a crime imputed to homosexuals, the mentally ill, and other "deviants." Inevitably, this ideological myopia comes with gruesome consequences.

Kinnaman plays Vasili Nikitin, a sadistic party loyalist ("There is no crime in paradise" is his mantra) determined to derail Tom Hardy's Leo Demidov, who is working to expose the corrosive culture that has enabled a child killer to run rampant. Nikitin is not meant to be likable, but Kinnaman succeeds in making him more intriguing than the novel allows. "In the opening sequence, it was written [in the script] that he was just standing there, looking with sinister eyes, but we created a situation where he was being picked on," explains Kinnaman. "He'd been a weak, frightened, abused boy, and that's where the evil came from. The challenge was to find colors that weren't just sociopathic, or ambitious, or greedy."

Although set 62 years ago, Child 44 offers some striking parallels with the current upsurge in violence towards Russia's LGBT community, a real-time echo that Kinnaman is all too attuned to. "I've been following what's been happening with these [guys] who go online and set up dates, pretty much as they do in the movie, and then they almost kidnap people and beat them, and post the tapes on YouTube," he says. "It's disgusting."
Joel Kinnaman
Child 44 is not the first time the actor has found himself having to channel the mind-set of a Russian sociopath. Daniel Espinosa, who directs the movie, first spotted Kinnaman playing Raskolnikov in a four-hour stage adaptation of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. That, in turn, led to a principal part in Espinosa's Easy Money, a galloping Swedish drama in which Kinnaman starred as a working-class business student turned criminal.

As in Easy Money and Crime and Punishment, Kinnaman's performance in Child 44 encapsulates his skill in walking the line between light and shade. It's the kind of duality the actor can trace to his teens, a period of intense anxiety and fear scored through with petty crime and bullying. "It was never really a band of brothers -- there was just always this constant terror," he says. "When we'd hang out, you'd try to find somebody else to pick on or rob, because otherwise you might get picked on or robbed by one of your friends. I developed a nervous feeling for a couple of years after breaking off from that whole group. But at the same time, I feel like almost every role I play has something to do with those years."

Child 44 opens in theaters April 17. Watch the trailer below:

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