Arts & Entertainment

‘Altered Carbon’ Star Joel Kinnaman on Mortality, Humanity, and Living More Than Once

We speak to the star of Netflix’s next big show.
IMAGE Netflix
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What would happen to the world if human consciousness could be distilled into a physical disk and transferred from one body to another? Such is the premise of Richard K. Morgan's 2002 sci-fi novel, Altered Carbon, which Netflix has adapted as a ten-episode series for 2018.

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The big red N is placing a lot of bets on this cyberpunk saga—one of their high-production originals, like last year's Bright—and on the front of it all is Joel Kinnaman, who plays Altered Carbon's lead character, Takeshi Kovacs. Kinnaman, who you may recognize as Will Conway from House of Cards or Rick Flagg from Suicide Squad, has found himself in the shoes of a franchise protagonist, and at the center of a sprawling dystopian universe that could well be Netflix's next big thing.

Weeks before the release of Altered Carbon, Kinnaman sat down with Esquire Philippines to talk about his new show and its deeper themes.

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ESQUIRE: What drew you to Altered Carbon?
JOEL KINNAMAN: I’ve always been a fan of sci-fi and dystopian tales of the future—that’s always been one of my favorite genres. And to be honest, I wasn’t looking to do a new TV show; I just finished my stint on House of Cards, and I was more looking to films. But then when I met with [executive producers] Laeta Kalogridis and Dave Ellison, they filled me in on what the ambition of this show was—the scale of it. I realized that this production was trying to do something that hasn’t been done before: a hard, R-rated sci-fi show on the scale of a big-budget Hollywood movie. After that, I understood that the tone of the show was going to be both dark and intellectual but also light and comedic. I thought it was going to be something that would be very thought-provoking, but also very entertaining. So when I understood what the ambition was, I was all in.

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ESQ: The story of Altered Carbon revolves around a technology that allows people to “resleeve,” or transfer their consciousness into another body, which raises a lot of philosophical and existential questions. Would you choose to do it yourself, if that technology were real?
JK: This is a question we’ve all been asking ourselves, everyone that’s been working on this show. I mean, it’s extremely tempting, right? The idea of being able to continue to live and to get to see where human innovation takes us—that’s incredibly tempting. But I think it would have to be something that’s available to everyone. Because otherwise, I think you’ll see that the result is going to be similar to what happens in the Altered Carbon universe: Humanity starts diverging into two species, the rich and the poor. The rich live three, four hundred years longer and they have cloned bodies with special abilities. Their life existence is so vastly different from the poor people, who can live one, maybe one and a half lifetimes in a reused sleeve. I think the central thesis of the show is that if we lose our mortality, we also lose our humanity—that our humanity is completely connected to our mortality. That makes me question, though. Maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe the joy of life is that it has an end. That’s the real value; that’s what makes it special.

ESQ: Would you say that the themes of Altered Carbon carry over to our current situation, in the real world?
I think it absolutely has something to say. And that’s what I love about sci-fi. I think the best sci-fi always carries lessons and warnings. They’re warning tales: If we don’t change paths, then this is where we’ll end up. And I think Altered Carbon is definitely one of those tales, where we see an exaggeration of the income inequality that we already see in the world today. What happens if even more money and power is concentrated to the ultra-rich? How powerless and denigrated will the poor become?

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ESQ: Can you tell us about how you prepared for the role of Takeshi Kovacs?
JK: I spoke to Richard [K. Morgan] and I read the book, of course. I trained for about six months before we started shooting—I was training for about three to five hours a day, a lot of different kinds of martial arts and physical training to get into shape and to get to a point where I could do all my stunts. The goal was to do all of the stunts on my own, and I think I did like 99 percent of them.

ESQ: Tell us more about Kovacs. What sort of character is he?
JK: I’m playing a character that’s been in a lot of different kinds of bodies. He was born half-Asian; his mother is Japanese, and his father is of Polish descent. But he’s been in a lot of different bodies. So when he gets to choose what body he gets, then he’ll take something that’s close to the body he was born in. But here, he doesn’t get to choose; he got my body. But I think he should be grateful—I worked hard on this body! (Laughs) Takeshi wakes up 250 years into the future, where everyone he’s ever loved is dead, and everything he’s ever fought for is lost. At first, it’s just overcoming his initial longing to just…die. To find some reason to live. That was [my] first challenge: to portray that struggle. Then, over the course of the show, it’s about letting his relationships in the here-and-now become important enough so that he starts living for those relationships instead of dwelling on his memories of the past.

ESQ: Before playing Kovacs for Altered Carbon, you were on Suicide Squad, and you even got to be RoboCop. Are you consciously carving out a niche for yourself as a sci-fi/fantasy action hero?
JK: I mean, I like to do as many different things as I can. And I love doing drama as well. I think for drama, I’ve done more on TV before. And for films, I’ve done more big action kinds of films. I like watching these kinds of films—dystopian, sci-fi films, some of my favorite films are in that genre. And I like to do the kinds of movies that I like to watch. But also, as an actor, I liked to challenge myself to do things that I haven’t done before. So I think after Altered Carbon, I’m moving a little bit more towards drama, now.

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ESQ: What’s the best thing you learned, both personally and as an actor, from your experience of working on Altered Carbon?
JK: I think it’s a little bit of what we talked about before. The idea of living forever, eternal youth is actually a trap. My wife, I was always asking her, “Wouldn’t you want to live forever, if you could?” And she said “Absolutely not.” Then I was like, “Well... I would!” And she said, “Well, you’re going to need a new wife, because I’m only going to live once.”


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Catch Altered Carbon when it drops on Netflix Philippines on February 2, 2018.

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Miguel Escobar
Assistant Features Editor for Esquire Philippines
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