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The Gunman Actor Peter Franzén on Being a Global Artist (and Working with Sean Penn)

Above Dark Waters

“Peter Franzén – remember that name,” is what I told everyone who asked me if I’d made any big discoveries covering the Finnish Film Affair in Helsinki in September 2013 — I’d even called this talented thesp “Finland’s ridiculously charismatic answer to Guy Pearce” in my coverage. But unlike that Australian actor, Franzén also writes and directs. His woefully underexposed directorial debut Above Dark Waters is based on his semiautobiographical novel, told through the eyes of a child living with a loving police officer father who happens to be a violent alcoholic.

When I learned Franzén would be attending the closing weekend of last year’s Palm Springs International Film Festival – in addition to his own film, he was supporting two more Finnish selections in which he starred – I jumped at the chance to pick his brain while the A-list-chasing paparazzi had all returned to L.A. Who knows how long the under the radar tranquility will last? I thought. Franzén, who speaks flawless English, will next be seen onscreen in Pierre Morel’s upcoming The Gunman, starring alongside Sean Penn and Javier Bardem. Like I said, remember that name.

Filmmaker: You’re quite famous in Finland. When I was in Helsinki, everyone at the festival was like, “Of course we’ve heard of Peter Franzén – he’s been around forever!” But I don’t think you’re that well known here in the States. It wasn’t until I looked up your IMDB page that I realized you’re in The Gunman. Then I got really excited because I was like, “Yes! He’s going to break big over here, so now I have to interview him!” I’m curious, why did you decide to relocate to Los Angeles in the first place when you’ve already got this huge career in Finland? It certainly seemed like you kept popping up in every film I saw over there.

Franzén: I did the transition back in the ’90s. I moved here in 1999. Of course, it was an experience of a lifetime. My wife [actress Irina Björklund, probably best known for her role as George Clooney’s lover in The American] and I got green cards from the lottery, so we thought, what the hell? Let’s try it out. California, of course, in our minds was an interesting place workwise. We’ve always loved an adventure – and this was more like an adventure than anything we’d planned.

Filmmaker: So you had never even been to L.A. before?

Franzén: No. We were just like, let’s do it and see what happens. We’ve been really lucky. We’ve been offered film parts both in Europe and here in the States. Interesting things. It’s kept alive our dream of being global actors – we’re not after fame, per se. We want to meet interesting people and portray interesting people in our roles.

Filmmaker: It’s funny because after I saw Above Dark Waters, and realized that you’re an actor-writer-director, I wondered why you didn’t end up in NYC. I mean, I’m probably biased because I’m a NY’er but –

Franzén: (sighs) Hmm. You know what? I’m from the countryside myself, and I had the pleasure to do a theater play in New York. Off-off-Broadway at a small theater called La MaMa.

Filmmaker: Of course! Ellen [Stewart, La MaMa’s founder] died not too long ago.

Franzén: Yeah, she died when we started production – like the second week, unfortunately. But we had a great time there working on a Finnish play, which was actually made into a movie, Purge. So we did that and I realized I loved New York – but it was just too overwhelming for me. The levels of excitement, too many subway lines and too many people living stacked on top of one another – mixes up my energy fields, I guess. (laughs) I love being there and working there. I can’t really live there. I love being close to nature.

Filmmaker: So you live in L.A. where there’s tons of nature? It’s freeway city!

Franzén: No, if you live in the hills you can be there in 40 minutes. I can park my car, put a backpack on and fish for trout.  Which is kind of weird. No, don’t get me wrong. I love the energy in New York – and I’ve always loved a challenge in my life. And [having moved recently to] France is a huge challenge for me since I don’t speak French very well. It’s another step. It’s wonderful to be there.

Filmmaker: So how do you audition for roles in France if you don’t speak French?

Franzén: I’m not auditioning there at all. I’m trying to get a couple projects off the ground that would take place in France, and hopefully meet some people who’d want to coproduce an American or Finnish coproduction there.

Filmmaker: So writing and directing – that’s your focus now?

Franzén: Or acting.

Filmmaker: Above Dark Waters wasn’t a one-shot deal?

Franzén: No. It was wonderful! I thought it was really interesting and, of course, challenging to be helming something — being in the lead, yet being responsible for everything. I love acting, I’m gonna die an actor, but I have a second novel, a sequel to Above Dark Waters, and now I’m writing a script based on that novel. It takes place in a different era, about different subjects, but still about people recuperating from difficult experiences.

Filmmaker: I know Above Dark Waters is semi-autobiographical. Where did the impetus come from? Did you have a police officer father?

Franzén: Yeah, my stepdad was a cop. The film is more autobiographical than the book. It’s through my eyes, so it’s more subjective. The book’s in Finnish only. The film is a way for it to be more universal, since it’s told through a child’s eyes. The book is like that, too, but the second book is told through three main characters.

Filmmaker: What most surprised me about the film was the nuance. In a Hollywood version the violent father would have been a villain, but you really didn’t have any villains. He’s trying to be a loving father, he’s doing right by his family, he’s providing for them and trying to do the right thing – yet alcohol is this demon that’s just kicking him down. It’s interesting that you blame the disease more than you blame the person. I thought, “Hey, that’s really refreshing!” But it’s reality.

Franzén: Well, thanks. Yeah, it is reality. That’s what it is. I still think of my childhood, even after writing about it, pondering the circumstances and who’s at fault. I still think that I had a great childhood, a giving childhood. And I’ve said in interviews, when people say that my childhood’s been tough – yeah, it’s been tough at times. But those times were spots in white light. Of course, those black spots were extreme, but those same things have affected my existence, my adulthood, my artistry, everything.

Filmmaker: I think you caught that roller coaster of what it’s like to be around someone that’s an alcoholic or a drug addict or any addiction. Life can go along perfectly and then all of a sudden out of the blue – boom! That’s where the horror comes in. That situation is actually much scarier than what most films depict it as – as an addict being this horrible person all the time. So was it at all therapeutic to write the book and make the film?

Franzén: No, actually – when I got into the theater academy in Finland, I was 19 after the military. That was the first time that I understood that something had been wrong, or rather rough, in my childhood. The tools that the theater academy gives everybody – acting as a cliché –

Filmmaker: Did you do Strasberg method there?

Franzén: Yeah. Stanislavsky and Strasberg. It opens you up, rips you apart, puts those things inside in front of you. You can pick the tools, pick the parts you want to use to become this artist that you want to be. Basically, you can do it only once, I think. Then you can build the artist – or build the person up again – only once in my mind. So then you can say, “OK, that was my past. There’s a humongous mound of stuff that I can use. I can put that inside the part. Thank you very much!” And goddamn it, it was sometimes horrible. But that was the healing part, the understanding – but not necessarily forgiving anyone. Maybe forgiving me as a child, feeling guilty for something I wasn’t guilty of. That sort of liberated my sense of artistry – sense of “actor-hood.”

Filmmaker: That’s interesting – because it could work the opposite, too.

Franzén: Absolutely.

Filmmaker: I’m always wary of Strasberg, because I also did two years of Strasberg when I was 19. It’s great for certain people, and for other people it can send them to the mental institution.

Franzén: I’m not saying that any of the methods themselves could heal anyone. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to use myself as a vessel for deliberately transmitting and portraying people who have problems. It’s always been my cure. There are a lot of people who say my movie and my book are psychotherapeutic – is that the word?

Filmmaker: Yeah.

Franzén: Or psychodrama?

Filmmaker: Psychodrama? I don’t see it like that.

Franzén: No, no, it’s nothing like that. People have asked whether I felt empathy when I looked at the actors in the situations, especially the young boy. I was like, I was the director in that and I knew what to look for in the scene because I lived it – but I was working as a director. Nothing Freudian in that.

Filmmaker: After watching that, and all the films I saw you in while I was at Helsinki’s fest, and then learning that you’re in The Gunman, I’m wondering if maybe part of the impetus for leaving Finland was to work with a different level of talent. Not to put down any of the Finnish actors or anything – but I just feel like Javier Bardem and Sean Penn are working at, I don’t know, a higher level than what you’ve been accustomed to.

Franzén: Well, they’re legends.

Filmmaker: Then again, you’ve worked with the Kaurismäkis – so I could be totally wrong!

Franzén: Of course you always want to work with the best people – and it’s wonderful to work with the best people. You learn the most with the best people and sometimes you get recognized better, but mostly – I love working in Finland.

Filmmaker: So you like working in Finnish, your native language?

Franzén: Yup. That’s a huge thing. It’s not that English or any other language is a problem –

Filmmaker: Yeah, because you speak perfect English. You barely even have an accent.

Franzén: I’m always open to life and, of course, working with — well most of my scenes were with Sean Penn, and Mark Rylance from Great Britain. It was wonderful to watch. I’ve been in a lot of films myself, but of course when you see people at that level working really, really hard still after making so many successful movies, it gives you a new spark, a kick in the ass, pushes you to work harder.

Filmmaker: But I think you’re kind of in that position in Finland. I think a lot of the younger actors might be looking to you in that way, seeing what a successful actor from Finland is accomplishing.

Franzén: Maybe. (long silence)

Filmmaker: I’m guessing. Maybe not. I could be totally wrong.

Franzén: No, no – you could be right. Finns are sort of, like, we don’t like to talk about ourselves.

Filmmaker: You’re going to blame your country?

Franzén: (laughs) Yeah, it’s our nature. No, but of course it would be wonderful if I could be a spark to somebody else. I might have since I’ve been in so many films.

Filmmaker: But you do like working in Finland. So what’s that like as opposed to, say, L.A. productions? It must be culture shock. Or maybe Finland has this huge film industry I don’t know about.

Franzén: No, no, we don’t have a huge industry – but filmmaking’s the same all over. As an actor I just love being on movie sets, the energy that is honing on one shot at a time, one picture at a time. Everything is the same. The money is the difference.

Filmmaker: What was the financing like for Above Dark Waters – was it strictly Finnish financing?

Franzén: Yeah, our budgets in Finland are usually quite small. They’re like 1.5 million euros, 1.6, for a full-length feature.

Filmmaker: I assume the Kaurismäkis get international co-financing, though.

Franzén: Yeah, sometimes they do. Aki’s films, and Mika’s films as well, but sometimes even they do the same budget.

Filmmaker: I was kind of surprised there were even enough films to have an entire Finnish Film Affair during the Helsinki fest.

Franzén: Yeah! And last year was crazy. I think there was, like what, 38 films?

Filmmaker: Really? And there’s government money involved, right?

Franzén: Yeah, gaming money. From our gaming system, which is government based, so we’re not taxing everybody.

Filmmaker: When you say gaming, is this, like, the lottery?

Franzén: Lottery and everything that is gaming.

Filmmaker: Damn, we should be trying that in America. Instead of funding education we should be funding indie film. (laughs)

Franzén: No – education first – (laughs)

Filmmaker: Well, we already do education with –

Franzén: No, we Finns do the education. America doesn’t do education. (laughs)

Filmmaker: OK, OK. That’s true. America doesn’t really do education. I still like the idea of lottery money supporting indie film, though.

Franzén: Yeah, and then those filmmakers could give it back to the school system. (laughs)

Filmmaker: I don’t think they’d make any money back for that to happen. But, no, seriously – while I was watching the Finnish films I noticed that they were all very technically proficient. There weren’t any gritty indies shot for, like, 30 bucks. These were all really slick films, which surprised me.

Franzén: Yeah, Finns have gotten better in the 20 years since I’ve been involved in the business. It’s been wonderful to be able to be part of that process.

Filmmaker: And how early did you start working with Aki, or Mika, or both of them?

Franzén: I’ve only worked with Mika. We’re supposed to make a film this year now. So I’ve worked with Mika on two films, just little cameo things, but I’ve been friends with Mika for a long time. I’ve never worked with Aki. My first film was in – 1992? And ever since, basically it’s been two or three films a year.

Filmmaker: That’s interesting, because a country like Denmark, their filmmaking’s been on the international radar for awhile now.

Franzén: They’ve had it for a long time – and Sweden as well.

Filmmaker: Yeah, and I know there’s that weird rivalry between Finns and Swedes. Do you have trouble getting hired in Sweden because you’re Finnish or –

Franzén: No, no, I’ve been in Swedish films.

Filmmaker: OK, just thought I’d ask if there was some sort of blacklist or something.

Franzén: No, it’s nothing like that. It’s mainly because of our history in Finland, because Swedes ruled Finland for 500 years and blah, blah, blah. We have a small population of Swedish-speaking Finns in Finland. During the end of the ’60s and through the ’70s, we were portrayed as a working force for Swedish factories. Of course, people know us as heavy drinkers and heavy fighters – but heavy workers. And honest people as well. In Sweden we’re portrayed still as a minority even though we’re not anymore.

Filmmaker: As an outsider it’s kind of hilarious because to us, well, you kind of all look alike.

Franzén: Well, we have our tribes. That goes beyond the Viking era. Tribal things in Finland are different than in any other places.

Filmmaker: And your language is completely different from any other Scandinavian country. Only Finns understand Finnish. So, before we wrap this up, is there a director or directors you’d really like to work with?

Franzén: No, I can’t say I would prefer someone over somebody else.

Filmmaker: No one?

Franzén: Elia Kazan. (laughs) No, I’ve always been really fortunate. People have given me chances to try out different roles, different characters, sometimes very physically far away from myself. That’s my challenge; what’s always intrigued me is to be someone else. I’m OK with myself as a human being, but still, it’s wonderful to be someone else.

Filmmaker: To try on different clothes.

Franzén: Yeah. And it’s like Frank Zappa said, “A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open.” I try to put that into everything I do.

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