Swedish-American actor Joel Kinnaman speaks a number of languages fluently. He surprised viewers when he spoke German in the Amazon Prime series “Hanna” but does he really speak German?
Joel Kinnaman does not speak German. He speaks Swedish, English, Norwegian and Danish, though he isn’t as confident speaking Danish. While making “Hanna”, Kinnaman suggested that his character should speak German, leading to him having to speak the language in many scenes alongside native speakers.
For more on Joel Kinnaman’s ability to speak four languages and his experience speaking German, read on.
Joel Kinnaman was born Charles Joel Nordström on November 25, 1979, in Stockholm, Sweden.
His mother, Bitte, is a Swedish citizen of Ukrainian-Jewish descent, while his father, Steve (originally David) Kinnaman is an American with Irish and Scottish ancestry.
Steve was drafted into the military during the Vietnam War and, after arriving at his base, voiced his opposition to the war. He received orders that he was being sent into combat, which he viewed as a punishment for speaking out, and deserted the military.
After living as a fugitive for four years, he settled in Sweden, where he met Bitte. They lived together for 14 years before marrying, producing two children, Joel and Sandra.
These unusual family circumstances gave Joel some of his extensive language set. He was bilingual from infancy, speaking Swedish with his mother and English with his father, as well as being educated in an English-speaking school.
His parents sent him to high school in Texas for his senior year, fearing that he was falling in with the wrong crowd in Stockholm.
In addition to his two primary languages, Kinnaman also speaks Norwegian and Danish, the latter of which he employed on the US version of “The Killing”. Kinnaman says that he speaks Danish well enough to get by, but that any native speaker probably wouldn’t think he was speaking the same language.
Kinnaman believes his American father and complete fluency in speaking English helped set him up for his career in Hollywood. He felt that there would be limited role opportunities for a European but that he could at least compete for major roles.
He was almost proven right even before moving to the US, as he was strongly considered for the role of Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe before the part ultimately went to Chris Hemsworth.
Kinnaman was cast as German Erik Heller in the 2019 Amazon Prime adaptation of “Hanna”, the 2011 action-thriller starring Saoirse Ronan.
Erik and his daughter, Hanna (here played by Esme Creed-Miles) share numerous scenes together during their time spent hiding in the European wilderness.
Kinnaman says that the original plan for the scenes was for Erik and Hanna to speak English with German accents, for the English-speaking audience’s sake (as well as the actors’). It was apparently Kinnaman himself who suggested that it would be more authentic and immersive if they actually spoke German onscreen.
At the time, he didn’t anticipate the amount of German he would be expected to recite in scenes. He says the task was made even more difficult by the fact that he was not only speaking German but playing a native speaker, so he couldn’t get away with the same imperfections as if it were the character’s second language.
Kinnaman spent a lot of time with a German dialect coach to ensure he was able to recite his lines convincingly. He says the breakthrough came when he realized he could say the most difficult German sounds, then the rest fell into place.
He also believes that being bilingual helps him learn how to speak other languages more easily, even if he’s nowhere approaching fluency. It seems he did well enough to act in scenes with native German speakers, which must have been an intimidating prospect.