Interview with ‘Trapped’ star Ólafur Darri Ólafsson

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Find out more from behind-the-scenes of the hit crime show from Iceland as we interrogate the Chief of Police.

The UK reactions to premiere of Trapped and the world exclusive screening at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in 2015 generated a global intrigue surrounding the largest funded series from Iceland. The magnitude of the show and its international acclaim can rival the scale of the detrimental blizzard that has captivated a UK audience since the series launched on BBC Four in February. Just as the crime has shattered the serenity of the fishing village, the mystery of the new Icelandic series Trapped has been assaulting our senses. The unfathomable weather of the new Nordic Noir setting has grabbed us with an irresistible chill, on par with Ólafur Darri Ólafsson’s tour de force performance.

 

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Ólafsson is notably the co-founder of the Icelandic theatre company Vesturport, performing on-stage with Trapped co-stars Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson. He has also appeared in English-language cinema, including supporting characters in Hollywood movies such as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014), and The Last Witch Hunter (2015). We spoke with the star of Trapped to find out more from the mysterious new Nordic Noir emerging from the shores of Iceland.

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Ólafur Darri Ólafsson shared with us a little bit about his central character and what attracted him to play the role of Andri. “It has been about two years since I was first approached by the creator of the show – director Baltasar Kormákur,” admits Ólafsson. “When he told me about Andri, I immediately liked him and really wanted to be a part of this. After the scripts started coming, it felt like a no-brainer because it was such an interesting story.”

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Andri appears to be deft at keeping it together and maintaining a cool composure, even when he experiences challenges all around him: from his family, the police in Reykjavik, the mayor, and especially the Danish ferry captain. “I think as the series progresses we discover that Andri has more experience than we originally thought,” says Ólafsson. “It seems he has a history with the Reykjavik police department which might have led to him moving to a town to take on this job as the Chief of Police, that he is almost over-qualified to be doing. We wanted people to get this impression; Andri has seen quite a lot and the situation is not as new to him as it is to his colleagues around him.”

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Ólafsson has previously collaborated with Trapped’s creator and director Baltasar Kormákur from theatre to cinema, in films such as The Deep (2012), Contraband (2012), and 101 Reykjavik (2000). We wondered what it is like working under Kormákur’s direction and his unique vision as a filmmaker. “I love working with Baltasar; he is completely fascinating. There are many reasons but first and foremost he just does not compromise on quality,” the actor explains. “He immerses himself completely into what he does and that has been my experience in film and theatre with him in the past. He’s a pleasure to work with. Plus, he has this great ability with the cast. Of course, being an actor himself, he knows so much about the craft of acting. He is one of those directors who engages you only when he has to. He puts a lot of trust in you. Otherwise, all he needs to do is come over to you and say two words and you immediately understand – “Yes! You’re right. You’re absolutely right!” Which is really nice.”

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As well as the turbulence of the Icelandic climate, a striking part of the show is how the performances from the ensemble cast of Trapped all seem very grounded and rooted in reality. Despite the extreme fictional circumstances of the blizzard and murder investigation, the drama feels as natural as the weather. “When we were discussing the character of Andri in the beginning, we realised that he represents a very Nordic, male characteristic to not show how you feel!” Ólafsson quips: “I may be generalising a little. We really do not give away a lot about our emotions. We thought that was very important for this character to make him interesting; you don’t really know where he is going to go. From watching the series, I love that there are moments when you think Andri is going to get really angry – but he just doesn’t! This really keeps the audience on their toes.” Perhaps his inner feelings are reflected by the environment so he doesn’t really need to show his emotions? “That’s true.”

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From looking back at Ólafsson and Kormákur’s film The Deep, the actor is no stranger to tackling the elements on-screen. The scenes in the snowstorm and the low temperatures add to how challenging and physical the series has been to film. Viewers may be surprised that, to a large extent, the effects of the weather were real, rather than entirely computer generated. “We didn’t actually have a huge budget for the SFX. We really sought out as much bad weather as we could!” Ólafsson confesses: “If there was a snowstorm coming, then “Woo-hoo! Thank God!” [LAUGHS] But, having said that, the SFX department have done an excellent job. I would say that the most physically demanding scenes to shoot took place during the avalanche. That whole sequence was just tough to technically put together and I think it’s been really well done.”

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In addition to the research and training to become the Chief of Police, Ólafsson draws attention to taking on the challenge to play the show’s main character. “It is the first time I have ever played a lead character in such a big television series,” comments Ólafsson. “There was a realisation that it felt like a marathon; you’re shooting ten episodes over approximately six months, and filming quite a long journey. As an actor, you have to be very focused on where the character is at which point in their journey. Like I mentioned before about Andri’s character, you also have to not give away too much too early on. Of course, you have a director and show runner to help with that but I feel it is my responsibility to keep track of that.”

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Ólafsson describes his experience in gaining a background in law enforcement. “I did also spend a great afternoon with a police officer in Iceland who took me around the police headquarters. He walked me through interrogation techniques and I got to ask him anything and everything I had on my mind! Being an actor makes me curious about all kinds of stuff so we actually ended up having a very long, nice chat about different things police officers go through. Also, when you’re doing ten hours of television, you’re not going to be able to rehearse everything. You have to be on your toes and focused.”

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To match the UK fans of the show, the reactions to Trapped in Iceland have also been positive. “They seem to be really good,” cites Ólafsson. “I always knew there would be a lot of excitement for the show; it has the biggest budget of anything we have ever done in Iceland and it’s a big series with a lot of actors. It was pretty amazing how many people watched it. I don’t know if they loved the whole series but they definitely watched it! [LAUGHS] Which is really great. We’ve received good reviews. Personally, I hope this is just one of many series that we will produce of this size.”

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Trapped also seems to be making quite an impression in the USA. The series is the first Icelandic, subtitled programme to be broadcast on an American network. The actor talks about why he thinks the series is translating so well to an English-language audience. “I think there is a natural curiosity about people that live on a small piece of rock in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean,” contemplates Ólafsson. “I feel, from travelling as an actor, that people are genuinely interested in Iceland as a place and the culture. I also think we owe a lot of thanks to British television, as well as Danish and Swedish series. It has to be said that great shows, such as Borgen and The Bridge, have really ploughed the field for us to come in.”

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“I remember acting in the theatre in the UK and I had friends working alongside me who told me, “I have to be home at this hour.” Why? “The Killing is on!” [LAUGHS] I was like, “Whoa!” I get it, it’s a great series – fantastic! Then I realised people were actually interested in seeing a good story no matter where it comes from. With a little globalisation and the world getting smaller, great stories are being told in all these languages. Right now, I’m watching a lot of South Korean films and I absolutely love them. I think that a good story is a good story; wherever it comes from and however it’s told.”

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Nordic Noir series include socio-political narratives. This arguably adds to what makes it a full genre and not just a style. Trapped seems to be quite daring in its approach: the series has a big budget, it references the financial crisis of 2008, and the weather can also be interpreted as a metaphor for the country’s past instability. “I think that’s a good example with the crash of 2008. At first, that was almost the tipping point for us,” Ólafsson points out. “We were so close to being bankrupt and in a situation that you couldn’t come back from. Luckily, the best thing that happened in Iceland is that our banks failed right away so we had to deal with the situation immediately. Whereas, other affected countries were able to go on for a few more years and experienced an even bigger problem. Honestly, that is a big point in history for us and we have really been trying to deal with that as a nation.”

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Ólafsson suggests: “The crash does play a part in the series, which is also a ‘whodunit’ with a family drama at the heart of it. Maybe from a bigger perspective it is a village having to deal with what is going on; looking at where the corruption lies and why there is a lot of anger that resides in the village. Maybe that is also a metaphor for a country having to do the same; dealing with big questions which is not always easy!” This adds to the show standing out as an Icelandic Noir with its own signature in the Nordic Noir genre. “Absolutely. If we have managed to do that I am really proud; to use the experience of our neighbours from the UK and Scandinavia but add our own spice to it.”

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This indigenous identity seems to be apparent in crime fiction with Ragnar Jónasson’s ‘Dark Iceland’ novels –Snowblind and Nightblind. The individuality of each Nordic country is prominent in their own series. Ólafsson discusses his own favourite Nordic Noir TV series, films and books. “I am a huge fan of the Danish series Borgen. It’s a fantastic political series!” exclaims Ólafsson. “I’m a huge fan of The Killing and The Bridge – I think they are both just wonderful. Book-wise, I have read a bit of Jo Nesbø but in my later years I have moved into reading non-fiction. I try to see as many Nordic films as I can. Last year I watched the Swedish film Force Majeure and I really loved it! And, of course, Dead Snow – we have to remember the Norwegian horror film Dead Snow!”

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Having been born in Connecticut, USA and growing up as an Icelander, the actor shared his passion about living in Iceland. “Iceland is an incredibly beautiful place. It’s really strange to be raised in a country and never get over how incredible it can be. It’s also a beast! [LAUGHS]” Ólafsson muses. “Which is a weird thing to say but it is something you need to respect. Iceland is still a place where you can die from hypothermia if you take a walk and can’t find your car on the way back. It can be a dangerous place but at the same time there is a lot of beauty and mysticism that comes from that. I always identify so much with that place, as much with the country as the people and the culture. It’s just a fascinating place and it still blows me away. I’m quite proud to be an Icelander. I would also like to see us grow up and take more responsibility of our place in the world.”

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Can we expect a second season of Trapped? “I really hope so! [LAUGHS] I think we would love nothing more and the response has been really positive. In many ways the reviews have been more positive than we thought it would be so that makes it all the more likely. If it makes sense financially, we’ll definitely be making a second season.”

While we wait for news on a second season, we can see the actor in the upcoming science fiction drama The White King, opposite Greta Scacchi, Olivia Williams, and Jonathan Pryce, as well as being a part of Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG.

Interview by Antony Smith

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Trapped concludes on BBCFour on Saturday 12th March from 9pm. Trapped is released on DVD and Blu-ray Monday 11th April through Arrow Films and Nordic Noir & Beyond. Pre-order your copy on DVD and Blu-ray now!