Right after Force Majeure, I was offered quite a lot of roles concerning a weak man—a coward.
If you recall, 2014’s critically acclaimed Force Majeure—Cannes’ Un Certain Regard Jury Prize winner and the predecessor to Ruben Östlund‘s The Square, which is up for the Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars—was by no means a traditional disaster movie. Starring Sweden’s Johannes Bah Kuhnke as Tomas, a husband and father of two who decides to leg it at the sight of a spectacular avalanche while on their family vacation, the film painstakingly—and comically—examined the aftermath of a man’s split-second decision to save his own skin, instead of his own kin. Tomas was forced to consider the very real ramifications of his cowardice.
Kuhnke once again confronts the elements in Ben Parker’s debut feature The Chamber. The world is teetering on the edge—so says the film’s opening passages. Highlighting the fragility of international relations, the precarious yet somewhat ambiguous global situation concerns a small submarine surveying the Yellow Sea. The McGuffin: data from a sunken aircraft off the North Korean coast. When a small team of US military operatives board a private ship that’s looking to establish oil rigs nearby, civilian captain Mats (Kuhnke) becomes a pawn in their covert mission. The horrors begin to unfurl at the seabed and Mats fights back, leading up to a catastrophic event.
The Chamber hits selects theaters, On Demand, and Digital HD on February 23.
How are you doing today, Johannes? It’s been a long time.
I’m good! Are you standing on the beach right now?
Oh I know—this connection sucks!
So I had a chance to speak with Ruben Östlund, long after you and I first met in New York City. He had very fond memories from Force Majeure. Do you guys still keep in touch?
Yeah, we’re still very good friends! We talk on the phone. We got really tight because we traveled around so much with Force Majeure, for almost a year and a half filming it and then traveling around doing all of the promotion for it, including the Oscar race and so on.
I’m guessing you saw The Square.
Of course I saw it.
I think this is Ruben’s year. I think he’s going to win Best Foreign Picture.
You think so? I really hope so. I think it has a good chance of winning also. It’s a very good film.
The last time you and I spoke, you were telling me that your background is in musicals and theater. I know you went to a performing arts school. Did you have any idea back then that you’d be making the kinds of movies you’re making now?
Oh no, I wouldn’t have dreamed of that. If you have the opportunity to work in both theater and movies, it’s amazing. In Europe, they’re airing The Bridge. Do you know that show?
I know it’s Scandinavian and really popular over there. I watched it when I was visiting Munich because it was on all the time. I had lunch with your co-star Thure Lindhardt.
Oh yeah? He’s extremely nice and a very good actor.
I hope you weren’t claustrophobic on The Chamber. You were all huddled together in that confined space for pretty much the entire movie. Was that very difficult?
I realized that it’s the director’s worst nightmare. [Ben Parker] is claustrophobic so he wrote the piece about his biggest fear: being trapped in a very small space underwater with a bunch of strangers that you don’t trust. Sometimes when we were shooting it, he didn’t give us any notes! I was like, “Why aren’t you giving us notes??” He was silent. We filmed inside a tank because we’re supposed to be underwater in a submarine, right? Once we stepped out of the tank, he was talking a lot. He just couldn’t stand the confined space.
What about you, though?
I’m not afraid of small spaces. I like small spaces. [Laughs]
And you filmed this choronologically?
Yeah, we had to because of the water.
That’s a rare luxury in film.
It is! It’s very nice to be able to do that sometimes. It’s extremely nice.
How did you get involved with this? Did you have to audition for Ben?
Well, Ben had seen me in Force Majeure so I think that’s why he wanted me for the part. He called me and asked me to read the script. He wanted to know if I was interested.
This is his first feature. Are you taking a bigger leap of faith in that kind of scenario?
Ah-ha! Well, you don’t have any references to look at. But a lot of first-time directors can be extremely good to work with. I think every great actor ends up making a film with a first-time feature director at some point anyway.
You’re very outgoing and quick to laugh in real life. How important is it to you to not only do the work as an actor but also have fun on set as much as possible?
I like to bring a certain energy to set, especially if we’re not shooting close to home. If we’re not shooting in Stockholm and shooting somewhere less familiar with the whole team, the whole crew and everybody, I think it’s good to bring positive energy to the set. Also, we were really trapped in that small boat [in The Chamber] so we got to know each other very well.
It looks like you’re heading back out to sea with Afterlands. Have you started filming that?
No, I haven’t started filming that yet. We’ll see what happens with that. It’s a great story.
Does excitement override the anxiety you have when you’re going into new projects?
Yeah! It’s extremely nice to be in the title role. It’s nice to do theater and movies and television at home in Sweden, and then also do a leading role abroad. I’m really excited to be in that position.
Looking at your other projects like Black Widows and The Rain, you make really interesting choices. Is it important that you’re always doing something very different?
I like to do different stuff. Before, when I was asked to do roles in television and movies, I couldn’t afford to say “No” in a way—both money-wise and career-wise. But now I almost feel like, with some parts, I’m in a position where I can’t afford to say “Yes” because the part doesn’t get me going or I’ve done it before, and so on. Right after Force Majeure, I was offered quite a lot of roles concerning a weak man—a coward. [Laughs] I was like, “Don’t you casting agents have any imagination? Should I be playing this part all my life?” So I turned a couple of those down. And I don’t think it’s the actors’ fault. They play a part or role very successfully and the casting agents are like, “He’s so good in this movie” and you get stuck. We’re actors. We can do many things. It’s also the actors’ responsibility not to say “Yes” to the same kind of parts all the time. Especially in movies today, actors aren’t playing the way that theater actors do with ground training. Some actors are more interested in playing a better version of themselves on camera all the time and not necessarily doing a characterization or doing the work to create a character.
Do you have a preference between theater and film work, or is that hard to say?
I really do love film. I watch a lot of movies and love watching them. You can make great movies with amateur actors. You can make great movies without people using just animals. But if you do theater with amateur actors, it will die. You have to be really, really good to do theater. I prefer to do film and then go back and do a play to get to the core of my work, and then I can do film again. It’s almost like you’re filling your car with gas when you do theater. It’s necessary.
What about music? Are you still playing in your punk rock band Haag?
Unfortunately not. We haven’t played for many years. But I do perform sometimes.
I know you’re from the north of Sweden and you’re an avid skier. I remember you telling me, “That’s what we do!” Are you following the Winter Olympics right now?
Oh yeah, I am.
I think Sweden has four gold medals so far.
Yeah, it’s going good for us. We’re heading towards winning that Oscar as well. [Laughs] Also, speaking of The Chamber, it takes place in North Korean waters. I play a civilian captain of this ship and he gets kidnapped by the Special Ops. He later finds out that they’re crossing the 38th parallel into North Korea. I was in North Korea 15 years ago while traveling around.
What a great country it was.
Isn’t it so strange that a place like that exists on our same planet? It’s pretty wild.
Yeah, yeah. It’s like reading Tintin. Do you know Tintin?
It’s like being in one of his adventures. [Laughs] It’s a really strange country.
Well, that’s where I was heading: They threaten us with nuclear war one minute and then Kim Jong-un’s like, “I’m sending my sister to the Olympics.” What do you do with that?
Yeah, yeah. They’re trying really hard to make this political win with the Olympics now.
What was it like shooting The Chamber entirely in English? Was that a fun challenge?
It was fun. They wanted a Scandinavian actor for the part. At some point while we were shooting it, they would say, “No, no, no! More ‘Scandlish’!” [Laughs] It was fun.
Do you have any ambitions to write and direct a feature film of your own?
Yeah! I hope I will direct sometime in the near future. It’s only an idea right now, but I’m working on a project. I don’t know if it should be a theater piece or a book or a movie, but it’s going to turn into something. A friend of mine described filmmaking this way: It’s like building a house. Someone else builds most of it, but actors are the electricians. They go, “Come in and take care of the electricity.” Then they send the electricians home and they build the rest of the house. It’s a very important thing to have electricity in a house, but you don’t see the whole project through. They don’t work on the whole thing: the writing, the editing, and putting everything together.
I like that analogy. Is it too early to discuss that project of yours?
I would love to talk to you later about that.