Eye on Emmy: The Killing's Joel Kinnaman on Humanizing Holder and Making Robocop Real

In the past two seasons, AMC’s The Killing may sometimes have zigged where it should have zagged, but fans of the polarizing drama have always been able to rely on one constant: Joel Kinnaman‘s enthralling performance. As the rough-and-tumble Detective Stephen Holder, the 32-year-old Swedish-American actor brings a unique vulnerability and likability to a part that could easily have been a stereotypical, one-note member of Seattle’s finest. 

Despite The Killing’s still-uncertain fate, the underrated thesp’s critically acclaimed turn has him poised for a possible Emmy nod — if Academy voters take note before it’s too late to recognize him for the role. The big screen beckons, as well. With a future in features ahead of him (he’s set to play the titular crime fighter in the buzzy RoboCop reboot), Kinnaman is just eager for — and open to — whatever comes next.

TVLINE | This season, your character, Stephen Holder, seemed vastly different than the man we met in Season 1. More human, even. Would you attribute that to your choices as an actor? Or did the writing allow for it?
Season 2 was more fun for me to play because the framework [of Season 1] was that they wanted to put the audience in the place where they didn’t know if they liked Holder; they didn’t know if he was a good guy or a bad guy. That’s great from a series standpoint, but for me as an actor, wanting to play out all the colors of my character, that was a bit limiting. I couldn’t really respond 100 percent in the way that I wanted to… I couldn’t be charming, because they wanted to keep the audience on the fence. It wasn’t until Episode 8 [in Season 1], after my Narcotics Anonymous scene, that I could really spread my wings with the character. There’s also that thing when you come back to a character you’ve played and have had some time to set it aside and let it mature… When you come back, you get that sensation that you’re expressing more, but you’re doing less. That’s how I felt with Holder. It felt a little bit more centered; I knew the character better and didn’t have to push it. It was also more fun because they centered a little more of Holder’s life outside of the police station… [and] that’s what I was most looking forward to; that arc of seeing Holder slipping and sliding and really getting [close] to falling back into the dark side.

RELATED | Joel Kinnaman Weighs In on a Killing Season 3: ‘It Would Have to Reboot Itself’

TVLINE | There’s no arguing that Holder has, since mid-Season 1, been the series’ most dynamic and stand-out character. That said, it’s really the tender relationship between him and fellow detective Sarah Linden that kept viewers coming back for more.
Yeah, [Mireille Enos and I] had that chemistry from very early on, almost back to the pilot. Fortunately, we’re two actors who have the same instincts, [and] the strongest trait in both of our acting is our listening. Mireille is just an exceptional actress and human being. We both work without ego and vanity, and we just like each other as people… Mireille put it really nicely once, and I agree with her: The awkward, ugly moments of life are what’s most interesting. That’s something we’re both looking for [in roles]. In the first season, the main dynamic between these characters was this big amount of distrust that didn’t end until Episode 11 — which was still one of my favorite weeks of my career, shooting that episode. It was the one where Linden and Holder go looking for her son, Jack. It’s an offbeat episode. That was the first time where the characters were allowed to trust each other and lean on each other. And then this season, after Linden understands that Holder was not a bad cop and sabotaging the case, that he was actually a victim of it, they bonded… That’s actually the common note that we’ve been getting from directors throughout the series: ‘Maybe you guys should tone it down — you don’t like each other that much.’

TVLINE | Do you mean the sometime sexual tension between the two characters? Because there are definitely fan groups out there just waiting for Linden and Holder to make out already.
[Laughs] No, no. I think it was more like brother and sister, that kind of feeling.

TVLINE | Some of Holder’s dialogue and off-color comments seem so natural. Is any of that your own improvisation? Or was the page just that good?
The writers came up with a lot of funny s–t for my character. But I always have that inclination to add a little something; when you’re in the moment and something comes up — you just say it. I would always add stuff and improvise, and a lot of time it wouldn’t make the cut. But I could feel that it was starting to influence the writers in a way. They were starting to write more and more stuff like that, giving Holder more and more eccentric traits — which I really loved. Then there’s the casino scene [in Season 2], where I did a lot of improv. There are three or four lines in every episode that sort of come up in the moment.

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TVLINE | Let’s talk a little about your impending move into features. You’re starting big, with a pretty coveted role in the high-profile RoboCop remake.
It really became a coveted role when it was [announced that] José Padilha [would be] directing it. A remake of RoboCop could really go both ways; that doesn’t have to be something interesting just because it’s a high-profile thing. And when I first heard of it, I thought I’d watch the movie, but I didn’t know if I wanted to be in it. When I found out who was directing it, all of that changed. After meeting José, I knew that it was super-interesting and really something that I wanted to sink my teeth into. We had a really good meeting. He was talking about not wanting a “star” [for the project]; he wanted a real actor to play it. He was also explaining what the character was going through, and it’s really challenging stuff. The script is still in process, but I’ve read a couple of the versions along the way, and that’s really what it is: very challenging actors’ work, and very interesting to portray. I’m a restless person, and I was tired of meeting with directors who were telling me that they’d love to have me play the lead in their movie, but there’s no way they could cast me because they needed a big name. After that, I started to chase a bigger movie so I could get in a position to do those things. And I’m so happy that the one I chose and that I got was one that also carries a core of substance.

TVLINE | And on top of all that, it’s got to be a pretty physically demanding role, too. Much more so than The Killing.
Yeah, I enjoy that kind of stuff. I’ve done action movies in Sweden, and I try to do most of the stunts myself. I don’t do stupid stuff, but I enjoy that kind of physical part of it. It’s not really acting, but I still enjoy it. [Laughs] It’s fulfilling in a completely different way than acting is; it’s more of a boyish thrill that I have. The stuff that I get to do for this [movie’s] preparation, I could spend a lot of my saved up money to do. And now I get to do them for free! It’s pretty awesome. After we finish this phone call, I’m going to out in the desert and we’re going to shoot guns for six hours and run around and fire rifles… It’s pretty awesome.

TVLINE | RoboCop also boasts a pretty exceptional cast, with Samuel L. Jackson, Hugh Laurie and Gary Oldman. Is there anyone you’re particularly excited to work with?
No, not really. It’s kind of a mid-range, mediocre cast… [Laughs] Are you kidding?! It’s like, what the f–k? [Laughs] I mean, I love watching Samuel L. Jackson do anything, but for me Gary Oldman is the grandmaster of the game. His role [in 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy] made the Oscars look like a silly popularity competition when [Jean Dujardin] won [Best Actor] for The Artist and Gary Oldman didn’t win. Anyone who knows what acting is about knows [that] Gary Oldman disappeared in the character; he did something that is very difficult and so subtle. I’ve followed Gary Oldman his whole career… I’ve watched the movies he’s directed, like Nil by Mouth — I’ve seen that five times! I’m really looking forward to being around such a true and great artist, and I hope to pick up a few things. And, you know, I also think it’s going to be going to school for Gary, too. I’m going to show him a couple things. [Laughs]

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