Joel Kinnaman On His Love of Jiu Jitsu

In his teens, Joel Kinnaman left his home country of Sweden for a small town near Austin, Texas. He worked as a beer factory line worker and roof-sweeper in Norway, and as a bar manager in the French Alps. And yet—little known fact about Kinnaman—he is can’t-walk-down-the-street famous in Sweden, in part due to his breakthrough in 2010’s Easy Money—at the time, the highest-grossing film in the country’s history.

These amalgamations explain a lot about him. No more precise mix of steely Swede, movie star charisma, and good ole boy has ever existed in one skin. Such juxtaposition explains how audiences could simultaneously buy him as a futuristic robot (in the remake of the 1987 classic Robocop) just as well as a southern-drawling-shotgun-wielding Colonel Rick Flag (DC’s pair of behemoth Suicide Squad movies), a morally-conflicted detective (The Killing), an astronaut (For All Mankind) or as the White House bound, Kennedy-esque Will Conway (House of Cards). You could project a lot of varying ideas of manhood on to that square-jawed canvas. 

There’s a confidence and ease seeping from the actor that only someone who has been successful for much of his adult life could exude. However, in person, his genuine demeanor is that of a jovial, laid back buddy you could find yourself throwing back beers with at some hole-in-the wall joint. And as with so many of the great throwbacks, Kinnaman has that glint-in-the-eye, quick-to-laugh, joie de vivre thing that hints he’s going to take life in stride and enjoy every bit it has to offer him. And, yes, that sometimes includes wrestling burly men to the ground. 

There is nothing contradictory about the fact that Kinnaman has been training for the last four years in the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu—a martial art and combat sport that has become increasingly popular, certainly at least in part due to MMA’s and UFC’s massive success. Below, the action star breaks down what drew him to it, suffering through the pain, and facing the fear.


“Over the course of my career I had done a couple of action movies, but it wasn’t until prepping Altered Carbon in 2017 that I started to take the stunt work seriously. We touched on a lot of martial arts and I had previously trained in some Thai boxing but after a few sessions of Jiu-Jitsu I knew this was gonna become my thing. I started training regularly in 2018. I’ve been training for about four years.

I love to sprinkle a little Jiu-Jitsu into my fight scenes here and there, but it’s got to make sense for the character as well.”

joel kinnaman altered carbon on LEO edit
Altered Carbon 2018, Photo Courtesy of Netflix


“It’s my favorite game. I love that you build skills that are applicable in a real life altercation, so it builds confidence. It’s also a very cerebral and creative way of organizing your movements where you can dominate a much larger and stronger opponent. It’s also almost always humbling.

It’s challenging on so many levels. In the beginning, before you learn how to control your energy and breathing, you’ll find yourself in situations where you literally feel like you’re drowning. To give up and tap because you can’t breathe feels especially humiliating, so you find ways to suffer through and face that fear. It’s really difficult sometimes, but afterwards everything else in life feels pretty manageable.”

joel kinnaman easy money on LEO edit
Easy Money, 2010, Photo Courtesy of Nordisk Film
joel kinnaman suicide squad on LEO edit
Suicide Squad 2021, Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures


“I started training with Rigan Machado and then with his brother Jean Jacques Machado.

It has had a massive impact on my life. First of all, my general fitness level increased a lot. I never really enjoyed cardio training, but Jiu-Jitsu really pushes your cardio. It inspires you to be more disciplined in life. I don’t want to go to class when I’ve eaten shitty, am hungover or haven’t slept, because I know I’m gonna suffer.

It’s really increased my body awareness and ability to move on the ground. Mentally, it’s huge. I’m just a much calmer and nicer guy when I roll [spar] regularly.”

rigan machado on LEO edit
Rigan Machado, Photo by Lani Cupchoy
jean jacques machado on LEO edit
Jean Jacques Machado, Photo by Octavio Villaneuva


“There’s so many great tutorials on BJJ Fanatics, but I like to nerd out on the best: John Danaher and Gordon Ryan.”

john danaher on LEO edit
John Danaher, Photo Courtesy of BJJ
gordan ryan on LEO edit
Gordon Ryan


“I’ve done most of my training in the Gi—the Japanese martial arts pajamas—but recently, I’ve been training more No Gi.”


bjj gi on LEO edit



As Colonel Rick Flag in DC’s Suicide Squad 2


As Takeshi Kovacs in Netflix’s Altered Carbon

As Erik Heller in David Farr’s Hanna

As Will Conway in Netflix’s House of Cards

As Stephen Holder in Netflix’s The Killing

As JW in Daniel Espinosa’s Snabba Cash, aka Easy Money