My 2016: Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson

Cinema Scandinavia: This year we saw you in the American film Autumn Lights. What was it like working with the American director and lead actor?

 Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson: It was interesting to act in English for the first time. The challenge was to get the expression away from the analytical brain process of understanding a foreign language and into the emotional heart of a scene, especially when my emotional heart speaks Icelandic. My method was to translate each sentence into Icelandic and then realise how I’d interpret the feeling, nuance rhythm and so on. I then literally walked the feeling down into my bod. I walked the flood and tramped while I moved through the text to embody the feeling. When it came to acting in front of the camera, I had an emotional and physical place to go without the language shortcut that we rely on when using our native tongue.

It was great to get to know Guy, the actor, and Angath, the director. We come from completely different worlds. Their world is California, they are both well-educated and well versed in film history, but American Hollywood standards are different than what we are used to in Iceland. It’s interesting and challenging to experience both. I love to act in films and I prefer a natural style of acting, whereas in theatre I am usually involved in avant-garde and experimental productions where acting bows to completely different laws.

CS: You are also in Heartstone. What do you think has made this film so special and successful at film festivals? 

SÓG: While I have not seen it yet, it’s premiering here in Iceland at Christmas and it’s safe to say I am very excited to see it. From our first script reading I was confident that this would be a great film. I have seen and appreciated Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson’s earlier work, and I also know and respect the work of Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, the cinematographer, in fact we worked together in Rams. The casting was brilliant, especially with regards to the kids’ roles. Most importantly, the script was fascinating and written with respect and knowledge of the life in an Icelandic fishing village and what rural life is like for teenagers.

To sum it up, the ingredients were all these to make this film special. Also on a personal note, my grandmother was born in the magical village of Borgarfjörður Eystri, where filming took place. So, it has a special place in my heart.

CS: What are your thoughts on the current Icelandic film industry, especially considering the success abroad?

SÓG: When young screenwriters and directors tend to make a film in Iceland, they have to make a choice whether to make a film they intend to sell at the home market, aka the local box office, or an arthouse film that is almost certainly a fail at the box office but has the possibility of fame abroad.

The Icelandic landscape lends itself perfectly to the screen; it is so diverse and magnificent, dramatic and empty. Sometimes it becomes a strong influence and can even act as a character in the film.

This remote island community in the North Atlantic sparks curiosity and people are interested in the stories we have to tell. We stand on the verge of two worlds, America and Europe, just south of the North Pole. As an industry, we’ve been taking giant steps in the last 10-15 years and it’s all coming along nicely.

CS: What has been your favourite Nordic film this year?

 SÓG: Rams. It’s a big story about a small community. I like it because it’s such a strong story and resonated deeply. It’s a film about two estrange brothers who are sheep farmers. Their farms are on the same land but they don’t speak to each other. The films visual narrative is of such good quality, and the story unfolds without many words. Unlike many films of this type, it was an intense experience throughout.

CS: Where can we see you next year?

SÓG: My next role is in a rather large film production, at least by Icelandic film standards. I’m also acting in a television series as well but, as always in this business, I can’t share the details just yet.

There is a new and exciting television series premiering on the first of January called Prisoners. It takes place in a women’s correctional facility. It’s directed by Ragnar Bragason, who I worked with on the film Metalhead. I played a small role in the series, but regardless of my participation, I am very excited to see the series – it looks so promising!

Prisoners will be shown on all the Nordic national television services: DR in Denmark, NRK in Norway, SVT in Sweden and YLE in Finland.


Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.