By Paul Risker.
“The great thing about being an actor from Iceland is that usually you know most of the other actors because it is just a small community,” explains Ólafur Darri Ólafsson. “And so it is an awesome playground to be a part of and to be able to be in.” For Ólafsson who plays the lead detective in Baltasar Kormákur’s Icelandic crime drama Trapped (2016) – and in spite of lead roles in feature films that include Börn (Children, 2006) and Djúpið (The Deep, 2012) – the experience of acting in a television series presented a new challenge. “The interesting thing with Trapped for me was that I had never played such a big role in such a big series. It was just over six months of shooting, which is something I have never done before.” And as fun as the “playground” may have been, the fun for the actors would offset the angst that weighs down its characters as a brutal murder interrupts the peace of a small town. As suspicion grips the inhabitants during the search for the killer, Trapped becomes the traditional (if lively) prolonged affair in which past shadows of town inhabitants are revealed – the inevitable key piece to complete the puzzle. But the success of the series for its lead actor lies in the “iconic set up” where “If it is done well, then it really works by just creating such a stir in the environment.”
Ólafsson also stars in the upcoming dystopian fable The White King (2016), the World Premiere of which takes place at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on Saturday June 18th. It is nominated for the Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature Film and The Award for Best Performance in a British Feature Film.
In conversation with Film International, Ólafsson reflected on the delayed realisation that a career in acting lay in his future, the changing perspective of performance with each new experience, and the contrasts between theatre, film, and television. He also discussed the nature of the whodunnit and crime genre, comparisons of Trapped to classic films centred upon “people versus nature,” and the philosophical nature of life itself.
Why a career in acting? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
That’s a good question and for me that moment didn’t really come until after about a year of drama school, when I finally admitted that this was what I wanted to do with my life. I think before that I was a little bit hesitant because to be honest there was a family relation that used to be an actor, but who dropped out of it because of drinking and stuff. And so for me and my family it was whether there was any future in being an actor. This is very grim, but I would say it took about a year of drama school and then and now I really love what I do; it’s fantastic.
Over the course of your career how have the various characters changed your perspective of acting and performance?
Well that’s one of the most interesting things about being an actor because I would say everything I think now is something I didn’t think five years ago, and five years before that I thought something different. Also having said that, when you come by experience you realise the incredible value that it has in everything, and I feel when you look back at yourself at twenty – I’m forty two now – I see someone that just didn’t know anything about almost anything. But like I said acting is just so much fun to gain experience and especially when you work with young actors. When I was a younger actor I had great older actors that let me benefit from their experience, and so I try to do that for younger actors that I work with too.
Having performed across theatre, film and television, how do you compare and contrast the mediums, specifically the way in which they impact your process as an actor?
Acting for theatre is in many ways completely different than TV and film because everything is in real time, and the audience are right there with you. But at the same time you get this wonderful period of rehearsal with the other actors in the theatre, whereas very often with film and TV you don’t get that great rehearsal period where you meet everyone in advance. For a series like Trapped you have to interact with maybe forty or fifty actors and you’ll meet some of them, but you’ll never meet and rehearse with them all because it’s just not possible.
I have played leads in feature films, but at the most that has been maybe two or two and a half months of shooting. This was twice that and it was almost like shooting five films. So the learning curve for me on Trapped was that it was a marathon, and you have to pace yourself and make sure you have the energy for the whole thing. It’s interesting when you are shooting ten hours of stuff because you have to have a broad focus on what happens to your character and how he develops.
What was the appeal of the character and the story when you first read the script for Trapped?
I have always been interested in people versus nature and one of my favourite films is Alien (1979), or John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) where you put people in this situation that have nowhere to go and you basically turn up the heat. What I love about the series is that at its heart it is a drama dressed up as a whodunnit. There is a family drama, but then in a larger sense there is a drama about what it is to be a part of a small community, and what you are both allowed and not allowed to do.
When I think back to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939) and Murder on the Orient Express (1934) the isolation compliments both of these stories, as it does with both Alien and The Thing. What do you attribute as the reason for this ability for seclusion and isolation to imbue a story with a unique sense of feeling?
Actually those films are a better example than I initially thought because The Thing takes place in the Antarctic. It deals with these guys who I would say have pretty mundane jobs. They are just working on some research in the Arctic and nothing happens, but nothing is supposed to happen because they are supposed to be completely cut off from the world. And Alien is basically the same. You have people that are just doing their jobs, and you even have this wonderful banter in which the guys complain about how little money they are getting for the trip and all that. And Trapped is the same because it is a very small village in the middle of winter and people mostly stay home, and so you don’t really see people in the streets. They are just getting on with their lives and waiting for spring or summer, and then suddenly this incredibly gruesome body is dropped into the setting. Also the police force doesn’t deal with anything like this, except maybe Andri. There is some information later in the series that suggests Andri is over qualified as he comes from a more experienced background having been a police detective in the city. So he might be the only person who has ever seen anything that resembles this. But I just think it is such an iconic set up and it is so iconic because if it is done well then it really works by just creating such a stir in the environment, and I think Trapped does that pretty well.
The first episode is full of drama, but what compels our interest in the series from its opening is Andri who possesses an outer calmness, yet the inner pain and emotional undercurrents of his character can clearly be sensed. How did you approach lifting Andri off the page and fleshing him out onscreen?
Andri is a hook; the glue of the story and he has to be interesting. But at the same time when you are faced with playing a lead character that has a journey for the ten hours, then you have to watch because he can’t give to much away. So that was a pretty easy choice and the director/creator Baltasar Kormákur, Sindri Páll Kjartansson the show runner and I had good conversations about what kind of person he was, although I also have to say he is a pretty standard Nordic guy. He doesn’t show much emotion and everything he has he tries to boil it down as much as he can. He’s going through a very hard time where he is basically looking at the dissolution of his family and his life. He’s living with his in-laws and he’s over qualified for his job. It is an interesting place to be in, and that was the fun of getting to that character because there is so much stuff to work with; so many great relationships and there are also a lot of good actors to work with.
The crime genre is built upon a game of cat and mouse in which questions are asked and things are revealed amidst acts of concealment. This is not only a game being played with the audience, but one within the story itself. Is this game of cat and mouse being played out on multiple levels something you enjoy?
I absolutely do, and being on set I was one of the few actors for the last two or three episodes that actually got the full script. So we had actors that didn’t have the information of who did what for the entire thing until we were shooting it. You would be with people in rooms and you would have to be careful about what you were saying, which was a lot of fun.
I honestly think that Trapped is a very classical whodunnit, but which also adds drama to this formula that always makes it work well. There is a personal and family drama to the characters, but at the same time there are interesting moral questions of what you can do and how you will go about doing it. Can you break the law to make sure someone is guilty? And the family drama along with the drama in which the characters are not sure about what’s happening makes it interesting.
Picking up on your point about a formula, if narrative is a common language whereby stories are being retold time and again, then each individual can bring something new and find a way to use that language while instilling it with a slight nuance. Can you discuss how you approached taking the language of the whodunnit and tried to add something new to this familiar formula?
I can’t remember where I heard: “Global be local”, but what I can derive from it is that if you are true to the story and you do it in your environment, which is to say if you are doing an Icelandic series that takes place in the small village in the north of Iceland and you have a car chase, then it can actually be a very run down ugly RV and a jeep. If it were an Hollywood film it would probably be much more exciting, but that’s how it is done in the north of Iceland and which actually becomes something quaint, nice and believable if you know what I mean. If you are true to the story you are telling then that’s why you can go and see Hamlet for the fifteenth time and still do exactly what you are talking about. You see a version and you are: Wow, and that’s because it is done by people who believe what they are saying; who believe in the story. It’s amazing that you are able to see something like Hamlet for the fifteenth time and still discover new things in it. And this is why whodunnits are fantastic because if you put your heart and soul into telling a story, and if you are not trying to pretend that you are doing something Hollywood in the north of Iceland, then I think that actually helps you. But the funny thing is with my fellow Icelanders when there is an RV being chased by a jeep they will say: “Oh God, this is so typically Icelandic”, whereas everyone else in the world will say: “Oh my God that is so cool. It is such a quaint car chase.” [Laughs].
German filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” How do you view the way in which Trapped has shaped you both personally and professionally?
I have the greatest job in the world and being an actor is being allowed by society to enter the shoes of all kinds of people. Sometimes you play murderers or rapists, but other times you get to play hardworking family men like Andri who sees his world falling apart, and you hopefully learn something from that. This is getting a bit philosophical, but for me life is exactly like that. The only reason I can see for life and existence is that we are meant to have more information about what is to be human when we end it, and you have to be conscious to pick up on it. Being an actor is such a fantastic way of being able to do that and yes I agree. If you are doing your work for the right reasons and with the amount of heart that has to go into it, then you come out a different person and with more knowledge than you did when you entered it.
Trapped was released on DVD & Blu-Ray Monday 11th April through Arrow Films and Nordic Noir & Beyond.
Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an Editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.