Skype Dates and Ski Jumps: Johannes Kuhnke on the Role of a Lifetime

Force Majeure is a brutal film, and not just because of the avalanche. Johannes Kuhnke stretched himself for this awards season buzz pick, and often in very surprising ways.

Force Majeure

Director: Ruben Östlund
Cast: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren
MPAA Rating: R
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Year: 2014
US Release Date: 2014-11-06

Force Majeure opens with a family having their picture taken during the first day of their ski vacation in the Alps. Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their children Harry (Vincent Wettergren) and Vera (Clara Wettergren) are all toothy smiles and rosy cheeks as the photographer asks them to put their arm around each other, or to look this and that way.

The absurdity of the scene setting the unique tone with which director Ruben Östlund will deconstruct the very core of this family, for this might very well be the happiest moment they will share during their vacation. The following day a controlled avalanche, sets off an uncontrolled emotional downfall that will have the parents pitted against each other, making the film feel like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf meets The Shining.

Östlund expertly cast his film and gives Kuhnke the role of a lifetime, allowing him to play a character who goes through an entire prism of emotions, most of which films don't usually allow male actors to display. We see him completely humiliated, emasculated and wondering what the meaning of his life is, which makes a brilliant contrast with Kuhnke's matinee idol looks. A modulated work of comedic brilliance on several levels, he gives the kind of performance year-end awards should remember more often. We had the opportunity to discuss the film with Kuhnke, who talked about his process, Ruben's directorial techniques and how having played a transgendered rockstar might have affected his work here.

* * *

Once you read this screenplay, did you make up your mind about who was right and who was wrong?

I was trying to defend him, but it wasn't that easy. When I read the screenplay I could understand that he runs, but why doesn't he say anything? I think it was because he lost all forms of communication with her, and for example the first time she talks about the incident, it's with other people and then, because of social codes, he lies and pretends he didn't run, and he just sinks deeper and deeper.

Were you a fan of Ruben's work before making this film?

Yeah, I like them very much.

Do you think they represent Sweden well in terms of all the issues under the polished, civilized facade we're used to think about when we think of Scandinavian countries?

Of course. I think he's trying to dissect the sociological patterns in a very interesting way.

I found it quite interesting that you and Lisa both studied theater in New York City. Did that make it easier for you to develop these characters together? What was the process like?

Since we're playing a couple who has been married for ten years, and we only met during the casting process. She's very attractive, but these characters shouldn't be attracted to each other anymore, the audience couldn't see that. So we decided to Skype in the three months leading up to the 60-day shoot. We Skyped every day for one hour. At the beginning we would sit and fix ourselves, look nice, set up a nice area, but after a month it was more like "Oh fuck, I have to Skype with her again!" [laughs] Then when we finally met again, we were bored of each other, which was really good.

You played the leading role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch in Sweden, who is a transgender woman and your role in Force Majeure requires you to completely break down all the stereotypes of a macho, tough guy. Did playing Hedwig, in any way help you play this part?

I'm not sure. I feel quite free as a man, I don't think that I'm very macho. I don't feel like I have to prove anything, but in this movie I found out that even I who feel free, am a slave to the male norm, because the most reproduced picture is the male hero you see in movies. Often you have the opportunity to play someone nicer, sexier or manlier and this movie was the opposite, I had to play the kind of person I would hate. So many of my friends who see the movie tell me they don't wanna get married, have children or ski.

The film really made me crave cigarettes. It is so tense ...

Yeah but it's also because during this age, we're living in social media and producing a picture of ourselves on Instagram and through status updates and in front of our children. We are not human, we don't show who we are because we're trying to be perfect.

Ruben's films are very interested in the future of children, which made me wonder if you explained the themes of the film to the actors who played your kids?

Yeah, Ruben shoots one scene a day, but in this one we had two camera positions every day because there were so many co-producers, which made Ruben wonder how he would cope with working like this, "Two camera positions each day? Fuck me!" I'm used to doing two or three takes and then the producer screaming "Next scene!" even if you didn't think your work was good in that particular take. So with Ruben you really squeeze out everything about the scene.

There were also a lot of digital additions to the film, including the famous avalanche. Were you surprised about how everything looked when you saw the final cut?

We were very open. We would do 15 or 20 takes, then paused and did an evaluation. We looked at the rushes, took some fresh air, so really I'd seen most of the scenes before I saw the movie, but we also shot a lot more scenes than you see in the movie, which you might see on the DVD.

Do you ski as well?

Yeah, I'm from the north.

Ruben makes this skiing resort look so alien. When you saw the movie did you notice how weird everything about this world looked?

Yes. It's like somebody has decided that in this wild nature they will drop a hotel, build lifts ... and they have people working at night to tame nature, making these controlled avalanches.

How excited are you about the film possibly being nominated for the Oscar?

I'm so glad they chose our movie [for Sweden's Foreign Language submission]. Before we had the premiere in Cannes I was worried about the humor not getting through, because it's very Swedish humor, but I'm so happy it worked so well abroad. Also, since America is such a family-oriented country, from the politics to society, I was worried the movie would be hard to "get."

Since you brought up families, how do you feel the film would've played out with a gay couple instead of a heterosexual one?

I have a lot of gay friends who said this film was like advertising endorsing homosexuality [laughs]

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