Joel Kinnaman Likes His Heroes Messy AF

Photo credit: Sarah Kim
Photo credit: Sarah Kim

This article contains spoilers for the Season Three finale of For All Mankind.

There’s a little smirk on Joel Kinnaman’s face. It’s the kind of smile that’s both mischievous and knowing like he’s in on some private joke. He’s talking about the small beard he’s grown for a movie with Nicolas Cage, which he describes as “just me and Nic in a car.” He insists that if you’re going to do a movie with Nicolas Cage, “you’ve got to rise to the occasion.” Some actors remind you of their famous characters, but Kinnaman isn’t like that. He’s just a guy hanging out, desperate to geek out about theater. “Coming from a European theater world, I think about the world of ideas so much,” he says. Then, he adds that he wishes his beard was a little fuller. “I guess that’s something I got from my dad.”

Since 2019, in the Apple TV+ hit series For All Mankind, Kinnaman has played the astronaut Ed Baldwin at a variety of ages. Now, as Season Three has ended, and Season Four gears up, Kinnaman is having to “pull out all his theater tricks” to become a much older version of Ed Baldwin than the version we first met in the first season, set in a cracked-mirror version of 1969.

In 2019, For All Mankind’s greatest trick seemed to be the creation of an alternate sci-fi history, one in which the USSR landing on the moon in 1969 actually jumpstarted a more robust and progressive American space program. But as fans of the critically acclaimed series know, the time jumps at the end of each season are sometimes even more shocking than the alternate history zig-zags. Season One ended in 1973 but then jumped ahead to 1983 for most of Season Two. The just-completed Season Three unfolds in an alternate 1990s, spanning 1992 to the edge of 1995. Now, Season Four is set to jump ahead to 2003.

When the series started, Kinnaman was playing Ed at 37 years old, roughly Kinnaman’s own age. In most of Season Three, Ed is in his sixties, and in Season Four, he’ll be well into his seventies. “Next season, I’ll be closer to my dad’s age,” Kinnaman admits. “In a way, I think I’ve been playing my dad at different ages throughout the show.”

Born as Charles Joel Nordström Kinnaman in Stolkholm in 1979, Kinnaman is, in some ways, the ultimate chameleon. His father is an American-born Swede, while his mother, a Swedish citizen, has family lineage from Ukraine. He’s been a model, a soap opera child star, and now, in Hollywood, he’s an instantly recognizable face, even if you don’t know why right away. Kinnaman’s handsomeness is perhaps what an American version of Daniel Craig might look like, fused with a guy who’s going to be super fun on a fishing trip. Lately, Kinnaman has emerged as one of the most convincing on-screen ciphers for a very recognizable type of conflicted American masculinity. In Season Three of For All Mankind, as Ed thinks he’s going to die on the surface of Mars, he regretfully decries his chest-beating brand of machismo. Sobbing, possibly dying, Ed recounts all the moments he told his late son to “be a man,” a sentiment he repeats to Danny Stevens (Casey W. Johnson), and then later feels horrible about.

But Ed doesn’t die regretting his masculinity, toxic or otherwise. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Season Three of For All Mankind is that Ed makes it. After heroically saving his pregnant daughter Kelly (Cynthy Wu) from the surface of Mars, it seems that Ed Baldwin will live to fight—and fly in space—another day. Just before the airing of the game-changing final episode of For All Mankind’s third season, Esquire caught up with Kinnaman to talk about Ed’s journey so far, his thoughts on conflicted heroes, and why playing a character’s “entire lifetime,” is so much damn fun.

Esquire: From RoboCop to Rick Flag in The Suicide Squad movies to Ed Baldwin in For All Mankind, you’ve pretty much nailed these heroic dudes who have issues. What’s the secret Joel Kinnaman cocktail to accessing that kind of troubled male hero?

Joel Kinnaman: Personally, I'm not so drawn to just a straight-up hero. That's just not my sensibility of what's interesting with acting. It’s some sort of pursuit of understanding yourself and understanding humanity. Of course, it's great to get a good life and to be able to buy a house and all those things—those are great outcomes—but there’s also a deeper search and trying to understand what it is to be a human.

Coming to America and building the majority of my career here, you get to play different kinds of characters, for sure. But what really drew me to Ed Baldwin is that he’s this American archetype. He’s like Don Draper in a way, insofar as from the outside, looking at him, he was a very typical American idea of a successful man. But then the writing takes us to places where we’re shown he’s anything but that.

As a theater actor then, what did you draw upon to build Ed? What defined him back in Season One?

I think what really drew me to him was that he was this square American who then has to deal with the loss of a child. And then, over the course of the series, loss is almost the central theme of his character. How does he deal with loss? What happens to this kind of man when he breaks? Who does he become when he tries to put those pieces together? It’s been a fascinating ride to follow and try to portray that. We're very fortunate to be guided by some incredibly insightful and sophisticated writing.

Photo credit: Apple
Photo credit: Apple

There are times in this topsy-turvey alternate history show where Ed seems very conservative, but other times—like this season, when President Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) comes out as gay—where he’s clearly supportive. Does Ed represent a way for perhaps prejudiced straight guys to do better?

I think Ed is many, many things. Film and TV often show you two-dimensional characters. I think, in general, in the news and everything, we get bombarded with a push to put things in black and white. But I think the absolute majority of people are perhaps conservative about some things and very liberal about other things. Ed is just like that, too. In some ways, he’s probably a very conservative man, and in some things, his life and his pain and loss have made him understand that some old-fashioned things just aren't that important. Love and being who you are are much more important to him.

What was the best thing about working on The Suicide Squad? Did you feel like you got to reclaim Rick Flag?

The best thing was working with James [Gunn]. His take on the character was something that I just really enjoyed. And for me, it was fun stepping into a little bit more of a comedic realm. I don’t get to do comedy very often. But, in my mind, I think I would be great in comedies. That’s how I view myself. I think of myself as a person who is telling funny stories and coming up with weird characters. But, obviously, my career hasn’t really put me there.—yet. People ask me sometimes, “You really haven’t done comedy?” And I say, “Well The Killing was kind of funny…”

With Suicide Squad, I got to work with a bunch of other funny people, and we found comedy in these crazy moments where the characters are being pursued by something. I was a little nervous at first, but then those great people made it really comfortable. It was a lot of fun.

For All Mankind is such a unique show. Especially for science fiction. Why do you think it’s resonating so much right now?

First of all, it’s the most grounded sci-fi show of all time. I mean, it almost doesn’t reveal itself to be a sci-fi show until midway through Season One, when we build the moonbase. But it’s still very low-key sci-fi. With a ten-year jump per season, we really get to see the societal progression, how innovation is speeding up and giving humanity these tools to reach deeper into the universe.

I think the other thing is that it’s an optimistic show. We’re bombarded with bad news. We’re bombarded with grim predictions of the future. This is a serious show, and not every single moment is rosy and optimistic. But overall, it’s a very hopeful show, and I think that’s part of why it’s found an audience. People lose hope when there are too many problems. I think this show is ultimately about hope. We have an underlying optimism, but without losing the characters' truths. It never teeters over and becomes too preachy or sappy.

But, in the finale, Ed does fly his pregnant daughter into space to save her…I mean, I cried! That was pretty emotional! Not sappy. But very emotional!

Well, if Ed had been just happy all season, we may not have earned that moment, you know?

Joel, you’re 42. You’ve played Ed at 37, in his early 50s, and now in Season Three of For All Mankind, he’s pushing in his 60s pushing 70. How do you do it?

It’s a very unique experience that we get to do on the show, and it's getting even more interesting. We're about to start shooting the fourth season where we continue these jumps in time; that’s sort of the signature for the show. But I think you have to look at it in this way: when ten years have passed, in many ways, you have become a different person. So you have to reinvent the character for each season. There are some similarities, of course. The inner perception will always be that you're the same person, because your consciousness just works that way. But for all other purposes, you basically have become a different person. Your sense of humor has changed over ten years. The way that you talk, even the rhythm of your voice, it changes. The human experience just does that to you. So I try to have that in mind. Of course, the writers do a lot of that work.

Right, but some jumps are bigger than others, right?

Right! From 40 to 50, that’s physically not that big of a difference. But from 40 to 60, then you start to see some real changes. Then we really start to see those physical differences, and that’s when it becomes fun for an actor, because playing old is one of the most difficult things you can do as an actor. Usually, when you see someone play 30 years older than their age in a film or in a series, it's usually in a sort of epilogue scene. It's one or two scenes at the end of a film. You don’t generally see anyone play a whole season where they are 30 years older than what they are.

So now, with Season Four, it’s really exciting. It starts to become really flashy. I'm super excited about this because I get to pull out all my old theater tricks. It's all about how the walk is different. It's an old-man-walk, and the voice has really changed.

Photo credit: Apple
Photo credit: Apple

Ed is a father, and presumably, in Season Four, he’ll be a grandfather. You’re not a father, but do you channel any of your relationships with your own dad to pull this off?

All the men in our family get really angry, and that's something that we all have to work with. So that was an avenue to explore with Ed, too. I had some issues with my dad growing up. I was a very difficult teenager; I was constantly breaking all the rules and all the laws, getting arrested and running away from home. I think my dad's way of dealing with it was probably not ideal. But when I was on my way to becoming a professional young adult, we had several conversations about what went wrong in my upbringing. Those conversations led me and my father to completely reconcile. Now we have a beautiful adult friendship.

I was actually worried Ed would be killed-off because of the possible time jump. I thought, are they going to keep him alive or recast him? How long can you play Old Ed?

Well, back in 2018 [the showrunners] pitched a five-season arc. We’ll see how long it goes. I can't wait to get started on Season Four. This is going to be one of the most exciting acting challenges of my career. It's such an opportunity to get to show a whole life like this, the whole course of a life. It's amazing.

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