Six years into its run of original programming, Netflix has entered the world of sci-fi in a big way. Launching on Friday (February 2), its flagship Richard K. Morgan adaptation Altered Carbon brings a futuristic, Blade Runner-style world to our screens, with Joel Kinnaman in the role of shape-shifting protagonist Takeshi Kovacs. NME caught up with him to find out more.
So Joel, what exactly is going on in Altered Carbon?
“Altered Carbon takes place 300 years in the future where a technology has been introduced where you can store the human consciousness in a chip that can be placed in any body, and this has resulted in the rich becoming ultra-rich. These ultra-rich are called Meths, and because of their ability to clone they are basically immortal. After an attempted murder on him and his backup, one of the leading Meths employs a former envoy to solve the attempted murder on him.”
Your character gets reborn into a state-of-the-art, perfect body. Was that a lot of pressure?
“Yeah maybe a little bit! There’s definitely a little pressure, but I like pressure. My job is pretty demanding and I have constantly have to face my fears in different ways and be disciplined, so having pressure helps with all those problems. It helps being brave, it helps working hard.”
What was it that appealed to you about the story?
“I’m really drawn to these dystopian sci-fi tales of future. I think it’s very exiting to see where we would end up in the future and I love how, because of this technology that the story is based around in Altered Carbon, you are automatically drawn into these existential questions. We were constantly having existential debates to solve very practical problems concerning the story and I love that aspect of it.
“Also, I thought it was a fascinating tale – an exaggeration of the problems we have in society today, where there’s an extreme wealth inequality, and how that would look in the future in a very exaggerated form. I think we already now are seeing rich people almost becoming a different species, when you see what the possibilities of health care are for the rich compared to people that live in poverty that are uninsured. The gap in life span is drastically increasing between rich and poor.”
Is that the most disturbing thing about this universe?
“Yeah it is – but if you asked me if would I do it, like, resleeve myself and get to continue to live – I think I would have a really hard time saying no. I’d be really curious about what’s around the corner. But I really do think that it would be bad for society: it’s a world where Donald Trump would live forever, and if that ain’t a nightmare then I don’t know what is.”
How did the part come to you in the first place?
“It was funny. I started my production company and sat down with friends who weren’t all in the industry, but I just wanted to get some input of some projects and books that they liked and that I should pursue. A friend of mine told me about this sci-fi book series, and me and my assistant tried to find who had the rights for it, but apparently some big-shot producer that works with James Cameron had it, so I was like ‘Ok, fuck it’, and moved on.
“Then like a month later, this author bought this new show and I realised like: ‘That was the project I was looking for’. It was this super-odd coincidence. At first I was a little sceptical because I wasn’t really looking to do another TV project. And there was so much about this that when I did some research about the world, I was like ‘This really needs world-creation’. I wasn’t sure that a TV show was gonna be able to do that. That’s the kind of world-creation that usually only is done well when it’s a big-budget movie.
But then I met the showrunner, Laeta, and David Ellison who’s running the production company, Skydance, and they walked me through the ambition of this project, and the scale, and they showed me some concept art – and after that I dove headfirst in and was super excited.”
How does it feel now it’s finally coming out?
“It’s a long, long process – I’ve never had as long of a preparation period for any project as I had for Altered Carbon. I had the opportunity to train and prepare for this for six months before we started shooting – that was fantastic. My ambition was to take the physical aspects of this role and the action to another level and I was able to train you know six months, three to five hours a day. I wanted to do all my own stunts, so watching it now I’m really proud of that.”
How did you train exactly?
“It was very much about learning skills, so I would be training different types of martial arts: Taekwondo, jujitsu and kali fighting – like Filipino knife fighting – gymnastics, wire training. There was a wide variety of different kinds of things we did, but then there was also just physical training in the gym and being very disciplined with food and getting the aesthetic aspect of it right.”
Is this a show for Blade Runner fans?
“Altered Carbon definitely draws from the same pool of inspiration that Blade Runner was created from. Our show definitely shows Blade Runner some love – that’s undeniable. It’s cyberpunk. But I definitely think that fans of Blade Runner will like this as well even though Altered Carbon maybe is a little bit more accessible, it has a little lighter tone and a little more humour.
“It has a very distinct tone that does not feel Blade Runner, even though there are some visual markers that do remind you of Blade Runner.”
What’s your favourite thing about your character, Kovacs?
“Everyone that he’s ever loved is dead and everything that he’s fought for is lost, and he basically doesn’t have the will to live. I love starting a character at the absolute low and then you slowly start to live again and where people that he meets, new relationships that he forms in this new world – they start becoming more important than the wounds of his memories.”
What was unusual about shooting Altered Carbon?
“The sets were incredible. I’ve done a couple of big movies but I’ve never seen sets like this. We had a set that was three football fields deep, a full living, breathing city with 400 extras milling around with noodle shops and tattoo parlours and merchants and construction workers and police officers arresting people… there was like a 360º world, three different levels – people on bridges walking across – it was complete immersion into this world where the cameras could be anywhere shooting in any direction.
“I didn’t have to use any imagination whatsoever, I could just be in this world. For me that’s one of my favourite things about sci-fi, when you get to immerse yourself into this foreign world as an audience, but here I got to do it as an actor. There was very little green screen – a lot of practical effects, a lot of practical sets, and the action was also very heavily practical. I love that. Old school.”
What’s your favourite episode?
“I think episode four is my favourite. It’s just a episode where Kovacs goes through a lot of shit. There’s quite a cathartic end to it.”
Will there be a second season?
“Netflix policy, the way that they work, is they never discuss a second season until they have released the first one.”
But are you hopeful?
“I don’t know if I would be in a second season. I think there’s a big chance that Kovacs would be re-sleeved if there was a second season…”
What are you working on with your own production company?
“I’m gonna make a movie of my dad’s story. My dad deserted from the Vietnam War and went on the run in Laos for 5 years, and then escaped to Sweden. Like an original backpacker story but during the Vietnam War. I think I might play my dad.”
How about Suicide Squad 2 – is that happening? What do you know about it?
“Yes so as far as I know Gavin O’Connor and Warner Brothers are still working on the script and just really trying to make sure that there’s gonna be follow up, it’s in the works but a start date hasn’t been set yet. My guess is that it’ll come pretty soon.”
Altered Carbon launches on Netflix on Feburary 2.