As I speak to Joel Kinnaman about “Suicide Squad,” one of his castmates, Jai Courtney, walks by. He stops a long, serious response about getting into the role to give him a “Whazzup.” The “Suicide Squad” junket is not just a chance to sell a wild, renegade comic book movie, about a team of villains forced by the government to save the world. It’s a chance to reunite. The actors have been through something. Before shooting, director David Ayer (“End of Watch,” “Fury”) had weeks of rehearsal in which his ensemble cast — which also includes Will Smith, Margot Robbie and Viola Davis — shared group therapy sessions and were asked to do crazy things. For Kinnaman, who plays a soldier tasked with keeping the baddies in line, it meant getting called mean names by Davis, his superior.
It sounds rough, but it made them closer, and not just because they’d been through something crazy. Indeed, the Swedish actor, 36, says they still, all of them, hang out and call each other as often as they can.
Ayer has said that one reason he had this unusual prep for the film was not only because it would make everyone close but it would be an experience you would never forget.
He really succeeded with it. He almost had this menu for character deepening preparation that he opened up to everyone. I talked to this guy David knows named Jamie, who was a former LAPD officer, a 26-year veteran of the Rampart division. Both he and David would initiate these conversations where we’d go really deep. They had big questions like, “What is your biggest fears?” “What are you most ashamed of?” You answer them truthfully and you go really deep. You get to the bottom of yourself in a very therapeutic way. The difference is a therapy session is for your own personal gain. This was so David could get information, so at the right time on set he would completely betray our trust, in front of everyone. [Laughs]
That sounds like it’s hard to deal with.
Not to sound too pretentious, but being an actor, my passion is getting a different understanding of yourself. By doing that you get a deeper understanding of all people. You train your empathy to go much further than it would normally. To do that you have to be really honest with yourself. You have to be brave, emotionally brave. Very rarely do you get challenged in the way David would challenge you. It’s not a cushy ride. It can be a little dangerous and it can hurt and it can be embarrassing. But that’s all part of it. Very rarely do you have a director that dares to go on that journey with you, to take you in those territories. Never would I have expected that to be on a superhero movie.
Superhero movies now are a lot more open to dealing with real-world horrors or exploring characters.
They have to do that, because directors like David Ayer and Patty Jenkins [director of “Wonder Woman”] are now doing superhero movies. They’re going to be more interesting. The material is getting better and, with at least some of them, character development is being taken more seriously. It’s not just a bunch of fights strung together. The most difficult thing to do is be emotionally serious and have real vulnerability that demands you take it seriously, and at the same time have a world where a character has a pink unicorn as his spirit animal. [Ed. That would be Jai Courtney’s Boomerang.]
Ayer is an outside-the-box choice for a comic book movie, given that his films are gritty and dark and earthbound.
With the films he’s done, you can see where his interests are. They’re always in the characters. He has a real ear for blue-collar characters, street characters. He understands the back alleys of big cities. He knows that world because he’s from that world. It was interesting to see that sensibility brought into the fantastical superhero world. If you’re going to take this seriously, that people have these kinds of abilities, then they’re coming to come from all walks of life. You’re going to have some criminals who were gangbangers. What would happen if a badass gangbanger could f—king incinerate people, like El Diablo?
During the preparation process, did you keep your distance from the Suicide Squad actors, since your character is policing the team, not being one of them?
No. The thought occurred to me. But it looked like it would be too much fun. And there are so many ideas you get when you’re in a collective. There are nuances to the relationships that we wouldn’t have occurred to me. Even though we’re playing enemies, we could find a way to play that antipathy with a sense of humor. We found all those little nuances to the relationships. There are a lot of benefits to working the way Jared [Leto, who plays the Joker] did. It was the perfect character to do that with. But you do lose a bunch of things going that route. You lose the creative process that you gain from a collective.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge