[The following interview contains spoilers for The Suicide Squad.]
A lot has changed since Joel Kinnaman last played Rick Flag in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, but after five long years, the Swedish-American actor is truly savoring his second bite of the apple in James Gunn‘s The Suicide Squad. After all, there was a period of time where Kinnaman’s return was up in the air since his critically acclaimed Apple TV+ series, For All Mankind, was shooting at the same time as Gunn’s Squad. And because Gunn’s schedule was locked in place due to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Kinnaman’s team had numerous hurdles to overcome.
“My manager, Shelley Browning, and my agents, Boomer Malkin and Andrew Finkelstein, definitely won the agent Oscar for this because it was a really, really tricky scheduling situation,” Kinnaman tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And I also have to thank [For All Mankind creator] Ron Moore so much and everyone at Apple for helping out. Warner Bros. was in first position, but they couldn’t budge because it was such a big cast. So it was a really tricky scheduling thing, and it took them several months to figure it out. There were actually people at Warner Bros. that told James, ‘We might have to rewrite this because the scheduling is not going to work out.’ So I was definitely on edge, but then they figured it out.”
While there’s a sense of shared history among Kinnaman’s Flag and other returning characters, including Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, Jai Courtney’s Boomerang and Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller, Kinnaman opted to treat Gunn’s version of the character as a completely different person.
“When I read The Suicide Squad, it felt clear. This isn’t really the same guy. It just does not feel like the same guy,” Kinnaman explains. “So pretty early on, I decided I was not going to treat it like a continuation of what I did before. And then I had a chat with James, and he was completely supportive of that idea of just letting this be its own thing. The script was so much its own thing, and I just felt like it would be more of a burden to be bound by what I did in the first film. So I just decided to reinvent the character and let him be what he wants to be in this.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Kinnaman also addresses his key scene with John Cena’s Peacemaker and why it was particularly special from the moment he first read it in Gunn’s script.
[Spoilers for The Suicide Squad will be noted ahead of each question.]
So when you first heard about James Gunn‘s The Suicide Squad, did you always assume you’d be back in some capacity?
Well, I was aware that it had gone through a couple of iterations with other directors and writers that had taken a crack at it, but they couldn’t really figure it out. It just didn’t work out, and that’s why it took a long time. I think it’s been five years between the first and second one. So I wasn’t really considering the fact that I might not be in it; I assumed that I was going to be. But we were stoked when we heard that James Gunn had jumped on board. That was really big news for us. So once James jumped on board and wrote a script, he sent us the script. (Laughs.) So that was pretty much it.
Did you treat Rick like he was the same character from the previous movie? Or did you wipe the slate clean?
Coming back to a character is something I’ve done several times now. And it’s actually a really nice process because once you’ve played someone and you take a break from them, it sort of marinates in you. And often, when I come back to a character, I have this feeling that you’re expressing more, but with less effort. So you just sit a little deeper in the character. But when I read The Suicide Squad, it felt clear. This isn’t really the same guy. It just does not feel like the same guy. So pretty early on, I decided I was not going to treat it like a continuation of what I did before. And then I had a chat with James, and he was completely supportive of that idea of just letting this be its own thing. The script was so much its own thing, and I just felt like it would be more of a burden to be bound by what I did in the first film. So I just decided to reinvent the character and let him be what he wants to be in this.
It sounds like you gained a lot of confidence on this set, especially with comedy.
Yeah, it was really fun, but it was also a scary process because I’ve never really been asked to say lines that are intended to be funny. So it was definitely out of my comfort zone, but I’m always telling myself that that’s where you need to be in order to evolve. It’s so dangerous when you get a little success because it’s so easy to go back to the well and try to recreate it, and that’s a recipe to stagnate as an artist and as a human. So this was a really good challenge for me. But I also felt very safe to do it, in a way, because James was such a great guide and he knew the tone so well. So I trusted him completely. When he said, “That was perfect,” I wouldn’t worry about it. There were a couple of times when I maybe did eight or nine takes of something, but I didn’t let that stress me either because I knew that there was something to be learned there. I needed to find that tone that he was looking for, so I felt like I learned a lot.
You were shooting For All Mankind at the same time as Squad. How complicated and exhausting was that to pull off?
Yeah, so my manager, Shelley Browning, and my agents, Boomer Malkin and Andrew Finkelstein, definitely won the agent Oscar for this because it was a really, really tricky scheduling situation. And I also have to thank Ron Moore so much and everyone at Apple for helping out. Warner Bros. was in first position, but they couldn’t budge because it was such a big cast. So it was a really tricky scheduling thing, and it took them several months to figure it out. There were actually people at Warner Bros. that told James, “We might have to rewrite this because the scheduling is not going to work out.” So I was definitely on edge, but then they figured it out. So it was a lot of flying back and forth, but they were able to make it so that, most of the time, I shot in blocks. I shot three weeks in Atlanta and then two weeks in L.A. And then a month in Atlanta and a month in L.A. But some weeks, it was back and forth. So it was tricky. It was especially tough because I was training so much and trying to be in tip-top shape, but that’s not easy when you’re constantly on a plane flying back and forth. You have to have food set up in both places and stuff like that. I was also in Panama for a couple of weeks.
The Suicide Squad is clearly the unadulterated vision of James and James alone, but as I watched, I couldn’t help but feel bad for David Ayer. His suffering under a previous regime led to this new regime that trusted their new filmmaker. So as great as this latest experience has been, is it somewhat bittersweet when you consider the David of it all?
It’s hard for me to say because my experience on set was great on the first Suicide Squad. We also had an incredible prep time. David had this bootcamp that he built in, and it was several weeks of diving into these characters and really exposing ourselves to each other. We really put ourselves through both a physical and emotional bootcamp, and that really bound that group together. And many of us are still friends to this day, like close friends, so that experience was a big part of that. And then there were some conflicting visions of what the film should be, and that’s never good, you know? That’s never good. I don’t know why that happened or what should’ve been done; that’s above my pay grade. But what was clear was that the script was evolving while we were shooting the first Suicide Squad, and then there were things that were changing while we were shooting. But this time around, the film is really close to the first version of the script. So with any business venture or movie, the more people are aligned behind a clear vision when you set out to do the film — and the less questions that need to be answered when you start — the better it is. I’ve speculated on what might’ve happened and I’ve certainly heard rumors, but most of what happened is above my pay grade.
So tell me about your fight scene with John Cena’s Peacemaker. You clearly became quite close to him on this set, and fight scenes certainly have a way of accelerating that process.
(Laughs.) Yeah, we spent a good two or three weeks prepping that, I think. And when you have a big fight like we had, then it becomes like a little capsule project of the film. We put in a couple of hours a day together with the stunt team, and they just worked with the two of us. So it’s a good opportunity to get to know each other. Cena is such a nice guy and such a professional. I grew up in Sweden, and if there was one thing that did not make any sense to me growing up, it was the WWE’s kind of wrestling. (Laughs.) I did not understand the appeal of it or what the hell was even going on. I was like, “It’s not real! They’re not actually hurting each other. Why are these people so excited by it?” (Laughs.) So I just never paid any attention to it. But once I got to know John and we started talking about it, I really dove into it. It’s such good storytelling. It’s so clear, and the roles are so clear. They’re archetypes. And the audience is so in tune if someone is real or not, or if someone is just doing it for a paycheck, or if someone is really invested in the world that they have all created together. Those guys are on the mic in front of 15,000 people that are booing and cheering, and while they have some idea of what they’re going to say, they’re very much performing then and there. So you’ve got to have big balls. And John has massive balls, which became very clear in the film’s tighty-whities scene. (Laughs.) So there you go.
Back in the day, you and Ryan Reynolds had a knock-down, drag-out fight scene together on Safe House, but Cena must’ve been a whole different animal.
Yeah, he’s definitely a different animal. (Laughs.) I can hide behind his biceps, and there is a vein on his right arm that is bigger than my right arm. (Laughs.)
Was it complicated to get the helmet reflection shot just right?
Yeah, we taped up what we would see. So we knew exactly what the lens and the reflection would be, and everything had to be choreographed within that space, which was cool. When you put those types of restrictions around it, you have to be creative within those boundaries. So it was fun.
[The next two questions and answers contain spoilers for The Suicide Squad.]
To me, “Peacemaker, what a joke” is one of your best moments on-screen. Everybody knows that Peacemaker is full of it, except for Peacemaker himself, but Flag’s last line is when it finally seemed to dawn on him. So Peacemaker may have had the kill dagger, but Flag’s last dagger cut him just as deep and will probably haunt him for a long time.
That’s very cool. I love that you thought about that. That whole fight scene and those last moments really surprised me. Without story, a fight scene is just a bunch of movements where two people hurt each other; it doesn’t mean anything. So I was really happy with how much story we infused into that fight sequence, and in those final moments, it was very much a battle for life and death. There was a very strong and intimate connection right at that moment. It’s always sad to go, but I thought it was pretty brilliant of James because it just raises the stakes while being very surprising. So it serves as a poignant and weighty moment for this film. And for a film that has so much irreverence and so many silly jokes, it really helps if you can create those moments of weight. Daniela [Melchior], as Ratcatcher 2, had a couple of those moments as well. So James was really able to anchor the film in some real emotion, and it helped elevate everything else. That way, it’s not just fun and gags, you know?
I also loved the smile that Flag and Harley exchanged in the rain. So even though Flag worked for Waller (Viola Davis), it was quite heartwarming to see how much this team of villains respected him, both before and after his death. Were you pretty emotional on the day of your death scene?
A little bit, yeah. I started playing this character such a long time ago, and he’s someone who’s been with me for a long time. Even though I’ve died many times in movies, there was something special about this one. It felt more special because I sensed that the film was really going to be something special. And even when I read it in the script, it felt like such an important moment in the film.
So you and Will Smith became friends on the first film, so much so that he gave you a “SKWAD” tattoo. You also hung out at his house while he was filming his YouTube vlog. Since scheduling was cited as a reason for why he didn’t return, did you let Will know what a great time this Squad was?
(Laughs.) Actually, I haven’t talked to him about it. He’s been very busy as well. I haven’t seen him since I shot this movie.
Is it true that Hollywood’s Swedish contingent have regular get-togethers?
(Laughs.) There were some a while ago. Maybe seven, eight years ago. Alex [Skarsgard] had been here for three or four years, and me, Daniel [Espinosa], Noomi [Rapace] and Alicia [Vikander] all have a bunch of friends in common. So we would hang out every now and then and have dinners. It just ended up that everyone sort of congregated. But we’ve all been here for such a long time now, and everyone has their own lives. So right around the time when I moved over here ten years ago, and a couple of years after that, there was this wave all of a sudden. We were six or seven actors from Sweden who suddenly made pretty decent careers over here. So everything felt big and magical. And it was great to have each other because we could talk about it all and help each other out. But now, we’re all so established, and we all live our own lives with our own groups of friends. But we still run into each other, and I’m friends with almost all of the Swedes that work over here. So even though there’s no official support system anymore, I think everyone’s doing fine on their own. (Laughs.)
Speaking of friends, last time we spoke, you had just given Mireille Enos’ kids a surfing lesson. Have you guys caught up lately?
Oh, we’re friends for life, but I haven’t seen her in a minute, actually. But we’re always going to be close. Sometimes, we go a few months before we catch up, but she’s a dear friend for life.
The downside of being a film journalist is that my time to watch TV is very limited, as there always seems to be a pile of film screeners hanging over me. So this is my roundabout way of confessing that I’ve yet to watch For All Mankind, even though everyone I know raves about it. Has the reception of this show been a pleasant surprise for you?
Yeah, we’re just about to start the last block of season three. The last two episodes. So when we shot the first season, it was on a brand-new platform that hadn’t launched yet [Apple TV+], but it was exciting to be a part of Apple’s latest push. The writing was fantastic, I loved the cast, and it was this very mature, thoughtful, character-building show that was everything I would’ve wanted from a show. And when I watched the first season, I was like, “This is really solid.” But then it opened to crickets, you know? Apple hadn’t really figured out their marketing, and people hadn’t found the platform yet. So it really felt like we did this project as a work of love. Everyone really enjoyed the experience and really believed in what we were doing, but it just felt like no one was watching. (Laughs.) There was zero awareness. So I was like, “Okay, I guess it’s just going to be a good experience and one of those things that people don’t see.” Of course, I was quietly hoping that more people would find the platform by the time they started marketing the second season. That sort of thing has happened to shows before, but I wasn’t really expecting this groundswell that came around for the show’s second season. I’ve had some of my most emotional moments as an actor on this show, and the show and the character became really important to me. We dealt with the loss of a child, so we were really digging into these deep emotions, and it felt like we had a responsibility towards people who have gone through that horrific loss. And at the same time, the show was kind of revealing itself. The concept is so unusual on this show, and the first season doesn’t really reveal what the actual format of the show is. And by the second season, you start to understand it, but in the third season, you’ll understand and say, “Okay, this is what the show is.” The show jumps ten years between each season in this alternate universe, alternate timeline, and I think we become the most grounded sci-fi show ever made. It goes so slowly, but it’s grounded in this sci-fi territory that really takes the audience with you. So it’s been really, really rewarding, and I’ve forgotten what it feels like to be on a show that people are watching. (Laughs.) I haven’t done a multiple season show since The Killing. And now, while we’re shooting season three, it feels really good to be shooting something where everyone on the show can feel like they’re part of something that people are not only watching but also appreciating. So it’s a really fun experience now, and everyone feels really good about it.
The Suicide Squad is now playing in theaters and on HBO Max. This interview was edited for length and clarity.