The Secrets That We Keep is a chilling look back at the horrors of the past, but it’s also a piece that deals with the power of memory. As Maja (Noomi Rapace) takes vengeance on her neighbor Thomas, whom she believes committed grievous sins against her in World War II, he himself instead she’s got the wrong guy.
Joel Kinnaman, who plays Thomas, shared with Screen Rant just how difficult the shoot was for him and how true and false memories play an important role in the storyline, which was originally based on the film and play Death and the Maiden.
I know that you were attached to this project from the start. What was it about The Secrets We Keep that drew you in?
Joel Kinnaman: Well, me and Noomi have actually known each other for a long time. We went to the same high school in Stockholm, and even though we weren’t really friends back then… She was way too sophisticated, I wouldn’t be allowed to be around her and her cool friends. But we became really close friends during the course of our careers over here, and we both sort of knew each other from the theater days in Stockholm and Gothenburg. And we both knew of each other’s stage work and knew where our artistic journeys originated from.
We had some scenes together in Child 44, and we loved playing off each other. We really come at it in the same way. So, we were looking for a project to work on together. We found The Secrets We Keep, and we loved a lot of aspects of it. We both felt that it needed work, because the iteration that we had didn’t draw the right conclusions. But it was a great chamber piece that just felt like this tight little play. We felt like it was going to need a rewrite and to find a great director.
Noomi didn’t let it go. She kept working on it and really took a producer’s role on it. Then she found Yuval, and he was like, “The script is 50% great. You’re great, Joel is great. The rest of the script is shit. I’m in!” Then he took the script on and wrote a completely new version of it; did a very heavy rewrite of it.
And, actually, I shifted roles. I was initially going to play the husband. But he really did a lot of work on the character of Thomas and really shifted him. Originally in the first version of the script, Thomas was more of a chameleon. He spoke perfect English, and you couldn’t recognize that he had European descent.
What he did was make the film much less something that felt like a post-holocaust movie, and made it into something that we thought was much more relevant today. Dealing with sexual assault and dealing with the memories of that, and what are the ways forward. Can you trust your memory? And what is the way to salvation? Is it through vengeance? Is it through forgiveness? All these questions that aren’t really tied to any epoch or any specific time.
It’s something that is very human, but we as a society are really going through and having a reckoning around these questions and these topics right now. I feel like our film really came into these questions and subjects from a different angle, and it becomes an interesting piece of the conversation.
Speaking of Thomas being a chameleon, I feel you’re very much like a chameleon as an actor. Can you talk to me about playing Thomas, and how rewarding it is to dive into a role like that?
Joel Kinnaman: I loved it. There are some things that are hard to answer [in order] to not reveal things about the film. But I think, for a person that has been accused of the things that Thomas is being accused of, there’s so many different factors. Assuming it’s true, there are people that are so successful in suppressing what they have done – both victims and perpetrators can suppress what they have done.
There’s so many different things that we as humans do to our minds. There’s so many different things that happen in the mind of a person that has gone through a traumatic experience, and what happens with their minds is really interesting to explore.
It was a f***ing tough shoot; I think it is the toughest shoot that I’ve had. It surprised me, because I’ve done a lot of emotionally demanding stuff before. But I’ve never done this, where I’m spending days on end just being screamed at, being physically abused, being tied up. There’s something so vulnerable about being tied up for days on end. And then Yuval is a very, very demanding director. That’s absolutely what I wanted, but while going through it, it really was tough in a way that I haven’t really experienced before.
I didn’t handle it the way I was hoping to handle it. It’s always very important to me, and I also thrive in an environment where the energy on set is very warm and generous and humorous even when you’re doing heavy things. A warm and creative atmosphere, I personally thrive in that, so I always see it as one of my jobs to co-create that environment. And here, I just could not do that at all. It was probably the opposite. I was really agitated, and I had a super short fuse. Me and Yuval got into real arguments; we were screaming at each other. I sort of lost control a little bit, and I just felt really angry all the time.
The captive victim is a role that that has a long history in film, like in Academy Award-winning film Misery. How do you prepare for a role that requires such minimal verbal communication and subtle physicality? And how were you able to get yourself mentally ready to perform this role?
Joel Kinnaman: Yeah, I wasn’t really mentally ready. I didn’t deal with it so well. But I think a lot of actors have – and I know I definitely do – a little bit of this masochistic side. You want to dive into it and you want to feel it. So, even though I was not dealing with it so well and wasn’t really creating a great environment for the people around me, I really felt like it was really coming out in the performance in a way that I hadn’t felt in a while. I really didn’t have to dig for anything; it was all there on the surface, and all the emotions were right there.
When you’re going through this kind of thing and you’re playing against someone like Noomi, and also Chris – they’re really, really talented actors. Noomi just has so much depth and darkness in her. Noomi’s going through all these emotions of vengeance and rage, but also switching to compassion and vulnerability. When you’re playing opposite someone that has such capacity, everything just becomes compounded and the energy in the room becomes really strong. And everything feels very real. It sometimes can be a little tricky how real it can feel, so we had a couple of moments there where it was too much, you know?
I thought the writing and performances were brilliant, because they take you to a place where the intensity level rises every second. This film will keep a lot of viewers questioning every character’s motives. Can you talk to me about the film’s attempt to keep the audience off balance until the very end?
Joel Kinnaman: Yeah, I think that’s where the tension is. And being able to you create sympathy for this man – Yuval and I were joking about it, like, “We’re trying to get the audience to feel sympathy for this guy that is accused of being a Nazi rapist.”
Of course, we need to keep the audience not knowing if he actually did it or not, or if he is who she thinks he is. I think that is the whole tension of the movie: you don’t know. Because there’s so much that can happen in a person’s head and in their memory – even for a victim of these kind of horrible experiences. The memory is a very fickle thing, and even though you know you believe something, the mind can also create memories. We know that. It’s not an open-shut case. It’s a very interesting thing to follow.
Last question I have for you: DC FanDome happened, and The Suicide Squad has a lot of fans anticipating it. What can we get expect regarding the evolution of Rick Flagg from the first film?
Joel Kinnaman: Well, it’s the James Gunn iteration of Rick Flagg, and it was so much fun. It’s like a new character, in many ways. Of course, I carry what happened in the first time with me in some ways, but because the writing is so different, I felt like it was the first time I did a comedy.
To me, the script really reads an action comedy. I was laughing at every page of the script. It’s really funny. And [James Gunn] has such creative certainty, for the genre as a whole, but also in the comedy and knowing what is funny. I have done very little comedy. Even though I have a lot of comedian friends, and I’m a big fan of comedy, I haven’t done that much of it.
When we started, I told him right off the bat, “Work with me on this, and just see me as an open book here. Don’t settle just to be nice. Let’s keep working; I can take it.” I think he thought as a little bit of a personal project to get me there. Sometimes, he would have me do something like 10 takes on a simple line, just to get the right kind of tone. And then after a while, we got into the groove, and then it’d be an important comedic moment and I did it in one take. He’d be like, “That was it,” and we’d move on.
But it’s a very different tone of the character. Very different tone. I felt a lot more free in doing it. I had so much fun doing it. In the first one, I never really got loose. It is what it is, but I never felt creatively free. And here, I just had fun with it. I had so much fun with it. The whole experience was really fun, light, and easy. He just knew exactly what he wanted.