When Sony Pictures announced Joel Kinnaman would replace Peter Weller in Jose Padilha’s remake of the Paul Verhoeven classic, I was a little worried. Mind, you the idea of remaking one of the great science-fiction films of the ‘80s was already fairly scary, but with only The Killing and only a handful of minor film roles, including Safe House and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, among his American credits, he had much to prove. But the young actor conquers the challenge and then some in RoboCop, playing a decidedly different kind of hero in a decidedly different kind of film, with only the name really connecting it to its predecessor.
Kinnaman spoke to journalists at the recent Los Angeles press day for RoboCop, and discussed the prospect of playing the character in a new film for a different era. In addition to talking about the physical and emotional challenges of the role, he explored the characteristics that distinguish his RoboCop from Weller’s, and offered his perspective on why remakes in general are not necessarily such a bad thing.
Talk a little bit about the challenges that you faced in this role, in particular dealing with the costume and what all that entailed.
Joel Kinnaman: First of all, it was a bit of a challenge to put on this suit. The first time I put it on we were out at Pasadena – it was a hot day in L.A. It took one hour 45 minutes to put it on and it was so uncomfortable, it was digging everywhere, pressing down in my shoulders and I was just sweating like a pig. After 20 minutes I said, I’ve gotta get out of this. Then I was thinking to myself, it was a daunting idea that I would have to wear this for 14 hours a day a week for five months. Actually, the suit became one of the first seeds that lead my imagination into the vulnerability that Alex Murphy felt after he became RoboCop. It was an interesting contrast because he’s got this body that is so powerful, but he feels very uncomfortable. He’s amputated from his throat down. He doesn’t know who he is anymore. My little level of uncomfortability sort of led me to think of what Alex might have felt, times a thousand. I was surprised to think that the suit that should make me feel so powerful actually makes me feel vulnerable. That was interesting.
How tough was it to be able to find all of the reactions and emotions using, essentially, just your face?
The difficulty that many of the most emotionally demanding scenes, I had to be completely still. Especially in the scenes when I wake up and when Dr. Norton reveals what’s left of me. Usually I think if you all think back to the moments when you’ve gone through the most pain in your life or the most severe anxiety, your body is very much involved in that. Your body is experiencing emotions. So when we as actors try to go and access those feelings, the body is a great tool to use. You clench your stomach or you do something physical so that sort of helps your emotions along the way. In this instance I didn’t have that luxury so there was that little higher level of difficulty, but what helped me out during most of these scenes was when I was looking into the truthful eyes of Mr. Oldman so that would always help. So that helped me out. But that was one of the difficulties of wearing the suit.
Did you adopt any sort of physical regimen either to wear the suit or for any sort of action choreography? And did they give you a part of the suit to take home as a souvenir?
I did get the guns that I have in a frame at home. I was very happy about that. After putting on the suit for the first time and I felt how taxing that was going to be, I realized that I would have to be in good shape and there wasn’t going to be much time to train while I was shooting because it was going to be long days. So just getting in shape, but also because of how we were discussing the programming and the software behind RoboCop’s movement patterns when he was in battle situations, and our idea of that was that it would be more of a special forces. I was hoping to do the most of those movement scenes, so I trained with Swedish Special Forces for three weeks, some guys that I trained with previously for other projects, and I also trained with the L.A. SWAT team.
There’s a lot of die-hard Wire fans everywhere and Michael K. Williams is very iconic. How was it working with him as your partner?
When I heard that the idea was that was raised that Michael was one of the names discussed for the part, I jumped on José and said look, if we have an opportunity to get Michael, we’ve got to get him. I’ve seen the whole series of The Wire twice, and he’s a great guy, and we had a lot of fun on set. There was a couple of times when we had scenes when we were undercover, and I was like Mike … come on. We were about to go into a house and I was like “give me a whistle.” Give me a whistle please! He was like all right and then he gave me the whistle. I was like I’m in The Wire! I’m in The Wire! So that was a great moment for me. We had a lot of fun and he brings so much flavor to it and so much heart. It was a great thing.
This film has a special place in pop culture and in cinema, in cinema history. Could you give your initial thoughts when you first heard about it? Were there any second thoughts at all about taking a part in this?
Well, when I first heard them, I got a call from my agents and I heard that there was a movie of RoboCop being remade. My initial reaction was that I might see that in movie theaters. I don’t think it’s a great fit for me, at least where I was at the time. And then I found that José Padilha was going to direct it, and I’ve seen his documentary and his two Elite Squad movies, and that completely changed my perspective of what the possibilities of a remake could be. There’s a lot of wrong reasons why you would make a remake, and there are some good ones. When I heard that José was going to direct it, I was pretty certain that it was going to be one of the good ones. I sat down with José and he told me the vision of the story he wanted to tell by using the concept of RoboCop. I thought it was a brilliant idea, and it brought me back to the sort of … you know, I think it’s human nature in many ways that we retell our favorite stories. In the theater we do that all the time. I’ve seen four different Hamlets, every one has given me something different. In this case it feels like in 1987, when this film was made, it was a futuristic vision that felt very much like fantasy. It was an incredible film. But in 2013 the technology has had an exponential curve and we’re so far into the future that I think in 1987 we couldn’t imagine where we could be right now. And for us, where society has come today, the concept of RoboCop really made sense to revisit, because it was one of those great opportunities where you could meld a big scale exciting action movie, but at the same time get the opportunity to get some very interesting philosophical and political questions.
The film has so many iconic lines. You used several in the film but how did you chose which ones would work, and how many would be too many?
There was a couple of versions of the script where there was so many of the catchphrases in it. We all had a discussion that you know what, we’re doing a reboot of RoboCop, but we’re not doing Verhoeven’s RoboCop. And Verhoeven is a film director that I have a lot of respect for, and he had a very specific tone. José is a phenomenal film director that has a very specific tone to his films. So I think it would be a disservice and actually disrespectful to the original to sort of keep every line in there. We kept like one or two, maybe three sort of as an homage to the predecessor to what we love so much, but more than that would be a mistake. And it felt pretty cool to say a couple of those lines.
RoboCop is in theaters now.