From The Court to Case: Star of dark drama on playing a tortured character, his acting technique, and the future of Icelandic TV.
An intense ride into the darker recesses of the human soul, Case is inspired by a real-life investigation. The latest Nordic import is a watershed moment which will transform the genre. The bleakest Noir series to reach our screens, it is not for the faint-hearted.
Set to become Nordic Noir’s most critically acclaimed drama yet, Case is a spin-off from Icelandic series The Court. The original series focussed on a trio of lawyers as they brought human traffickers, murderers, financial scammers, and leaders of religious cults to justice. Uncovering Reykjavik’s criminal underbelly in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, The Court was a timely and energetic series that made history as Icelandic TV’s first home-grown legal drama.
The Court‘s maverick lawyer Logi was a Promethean figure who famously never lost a case in his entire career. Moving away from Law & Court Inc’s city centre’s offices, The Court‘s spin-off series Case is set several years after the original. No longer Reykjavik’s top lawyer, Logi is now a booze-soaked broken man. His reputation in tatters, the investigation into an apparent suicide offers Logi a slim opportunity for redemption. Powerful forces conspire to conceal the truth and Logi is faced with the prospect of perpetual damnation.
Playing Logi since 2009, Magnús Jónsson is one of Iceland’s most accomplished actors. A renaissance man, he has recently directed his first feature film, is preparing to hold an exhibition of his paintings, and has recorded an album of his own compositions.
In a Reykjavik coffee shop Magnús Jónsson talked about playing Logi once again, his stage career, and the future of Icelandic film and TV.
When you were told you were going to play Logi again did you know he was going to be in a very different, very dark place?
‘Yeah, quite early. The first script was totally there. It changed a little bit after Baldvin Z came in and decided to do it. So yeah, I was quite aware in the beginning that it was going to be a totally different story and something had happened. We played with it that it’s like five, six, maybe seven years since the last one so we could have a fresher start with this new Logi as you see him in Case. He’s totally different and it evolves throughout the series that something happened. There’s still some kind of connection between him and Brynhildur. We learn pretty soon that he fucked up everything they had together and Benedikt, the older gentlemen at the office, he took her on because Logi fucked everything up and Logi was just on a streak of hate and vengeance. We kind of built up this backstory of what had actually happened. ‘
When you joined the project Baldvin Z wrote a mini story of what happened in those lost years. Did he tell you about it?
‘He told me a little bit about it. He told me enough because it’s good to have like some kind of imagination of how to go this dark. My technique, the older technique that I used for The Court, was totally different because he was a winner. He was a success. He was the best in the game. The technique that I have to try to work with to deal with this human tragedy that he is, he’s got this old murder at his back. He’s confused. Sometimes remembers it. Sometimes he doesn’t, like in The Court, but then it reveals in a different way then really I thought it was. So that story in itself is kind of complicated from this new approach. We kind of built up this sequence. He wrote this backstory, told me about it and I instantly related because of this five, six years that have passed.’
I noticed the difference in techniques in your performance between the original series and Case. In The Court he was a triumphant character and you physically dominate the scene. This time he’s a broken man and you’re acting a lot more with your eyes. You are giving the sense of a man who is physically crushed and can only communicate with the world is through his eyes.
‘I have a new technique as an actor. I have developed, as well, and I have the baggage of those two series behind me. It was really challenging to go into these deep, dark alleys with this character and be him instead of playing him. I think that’s a bit of a difference between The Court and Case, I was playing a more extrovert character but now I’m more introvert and more broken inside and the best way to perform it is through eyes.’
You’ve got a new creative team on board. It’s shot in a very different way. It’s more cinematic. Was it hard to get used to this fresh approach?
‘Of course, they are just different types of technique. We were more focusing on style in the first series so a lot of time went into just styling it or fitting the frames, fitting the surroundings. Now it was more lose. Totally different directors as well. They have totally different approaches of directing. For instance, Baldi he was very strict on working the script to the bones so I learnt three versions of the script before we came on set. They were all different. I had to learn everything basically before we came on set because there’s no extra time because this is such a roller coaster ride for this big role. Because of these changes, there was a lot of rehearsals. It kind of happened in that way because when we were shooting it we threw it all away.. So just so it was easier to just improvise the scenes because it was so alive in me. It wasn’t that strict to the script as it was in the first two series of The Court. They were very scripted, they were very produced in that sense, Now we were more lose. We would just get everything down. Throw it away, throw it away. Nobody says it like this. This isn’t Icelandic language. We never speak like this. Just like throw it, throw it. We were killing the babies just like that. It gave you the freedom of being instead of acting. It was just there. It was a tough character to play for the three months of shooting.’
Logi is a tortured character. He’s in a dark place at the start of the series and falls into a personal hell as it continues. How difficult was it at the end of the shoot to leave the character behind and go back to your friends and family?
‘It was quite hard basically because I’m such a, in a way, method actor so I was this character all the time. My family, they had to live with this guy and the mood swings that I was having just to keep him alive. In Court, for instance, that’s like an extreme character in a different way from the other one. I’m used to playing dark characters. In my career, I always get the murderer. I get the criminal. I get the dark lord or whatever. In a way, it was very suitable for my energy to feed on these forces.’
Logi is an alcoholic suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. As a method actor did you research these conditions?
‘My method is a mixture of Michael Chekhov technique and method. I actually have a school in Iceland with Þorsteinn Bachmann who is another actor. We have had this school for six years. I didn’t have this school and this technique when I was doing the first series. Now with this new technique, it’s easy to go into these dark forces without really affecting what I have lived or if I’m this dark character. I never have to relate to my dark sides. I just have to use my imagination and go from there. So in a way, when I shaved the beard off after the last scene it took me two or three hours to get back.’
When I interviewed Baldvin Z he said that on the last day of shooting just before the wrap party you shaved the beard off and left the character behind.
‘Nobody knew me at the wrap party. Then I had my happy face. In Europe or America, you always have a trailer. You have your place to figure out your technique and work your energies, In Iceland, we are always like in the same bus. Everybody is there so it can be difficult to hold this in before because then “action” and you have to be on your toes. In that sense, this technique is very helpful of getting back and holding in these forces. A big difference as well, which I like very much in this series, Case, is that we kind of shot it in chronological order. The other one was shot so we took all the office scenes in all the episodes two weeks. So it was two weeks ago we were coming in this door and after two weeks you were coming out of it. Now it was more fluent so you were kind of having the throughline of theatre in this one. You kind of went through the process as one through line instead of lots of chop-offs. That was really helpful for staying in character and staying in the mood of the thing and these nuances and conflicts that happen during the play.’
Pétur Jónsson composed the soundtrack before the start of physical production and it was played to all the actors to help you get into the mood of the drama.
‘Really, really helpful. I really like it when filmmaking is combining all these aspects. It’s like one big thing happening. It’s not like you come and deliver and then you go away. You are all contributing. I had Pétur’s music as well while I was getting into character and getting into the scenes. Of course, these were just flavours that he was producing. It was really helpful to get it before otherwise he would have to layer it afterwards but now we were like ah, yeah, yeah, we know how it is. Baldvin made a mood video as well so you could instantly get into the mood of what going to happen. That was really helpful.’
In the early days of TV all drama was live. Music was composed prior to production. Actors listened to it during rehearsal and it helped shape their performance.
‘Painters do it. I’m a painter as well so I paint a lot with music. It’s inspiring to put something on the canvas so it’s basically the same.’
Case is not a show that’s been assembled in a cut-and-paste fashion. It’s an authored series. Performances, cinematography, and music combine.
‘It was really helpful because in productions I’ve been in there’s always this distance. The actors don’t really know what they are doing. They don’t really know what the others are doing. Nobody knows really so there’s kind of a weird conflict.’
Have you taken lessons from Case’s production that you will apply to future projects?
‘Definitely, definitely. I shot my first feature this summer. It’s very independent, very low budget. I had this idea three or four years ago and I was like you got to do this and then it’s like you’ve got to apply for grants. It’s like this production just like kills me but then I found this place in the summertime. It was going to be a summer movie so I found this place in the countryside. When I found it I was like OK fuck it, I’m going to do it. I called up some actor friends of mine and we shot the whole movie in eight days. I’m editing it now. So I took a lot of that out of this. Just like ah yeah do it. All experience give you wind under your wings to go fuck it, yeah do it, let’s make it happen.’
Do you have a release date for your movie?
‘No, no, I’m just in the editing process of it. Probably February, March, maybe. It’s getting along. Could be sooner. I also have another show. I have an exhibition of my paintings here at Gallerí Fold in January so I’m doing these two things now. I’m that kind of an artist. I have to be making music, painting, writing, and now I just did my first feature.’
You’re also an accomplished stage actor. Readers may not know that you played Dr. Frank-N-Furter in an Icelandic production of The Rocky Horror Show.
‘That was a complete sold out show. It was like four or five years ago or something. I kind of go into the theatre with a bang and then I leave with a bang. Theatre life is too possessive for me. I can’t just do theatre. I’ve got to be able to do a lot of other things as well. I did another one in the theatre three years ago and then I haven’t been in the theatre since. I have to be very mobile.’
Might we seen you on stage in London at some point in the future?
‘Might happen, yeah. I’m kind of kicking myself in the butt to just push my acting forward. I have been doing a lot of things. I’ve been getting a lot of fun from both directing and teaching. I really take real pride and joy in teaching the technique that I work on myself. I have this school where I teach this. The actor in me is pushing me.’
Is the end for Logi or are you going to play him again?
‘I don’t know. It depends on the script, basically. It depends on how this goes. This was supposed to be a spin-off from the original series. The actors never really know what is going to happen. We are the last to know. With this kind of attention there comes pressure on the production side to do more. They could totally write me off if they want to, You never really know. Of course, I would love to go further with this series but it’s never really up to me. It’s kind of good that it’s like that. It’s not in my hands. If they produce a good script, if they want go further, if they want to write me off it’s not really up to me. They are maybe strict to other kind of rules as well. If everybody loves Logi then they would maybe have to write me in.’
Because of the place Logi is in at the end of the series any future seasons would have to be true to that. It can’t be a cheat.
‘Of course. They have a few possibilities. I could go to prison. Can they prove anything? Nobody saw anything. Nobody knows anything. They have a lot of options basically.’
When you started making Case did you know how it was going to end?
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. I knew that. The first script kind of went there but it was a bit more of a surprise in the first script that I saw, what really happens in the end. They kind of changed it because of TV and drama and suspense and all that. I knew it was going to end very, very up, it could go in any direction. In The Court it was the same. Did she kill me? There were always these question marks in the end because you had to have the audience wanting more.’
In Iceland people already knew Logi. In Case they see a very different Logi. Were they shocked at this new direction? Did people come up to you in the supermarket and say that they didn’t like what the character was doing now?
‘Of course, for some yeah, yeah. I experienced that, especially for people orientated in law because it was very much a law drama. It ended in The Court, it was Case. Now it was like one case throughout the series. You always have these conservatives wanting things to be as it was. They really liked this arrogant lawyer as he was in The Court but now he’s like broken. He’s more human than he was in the first series. There’s more you can really relate to, his dark sides and arrogance than in Court. Of course, I heard a lot of this. Especially people working in law they were like oh, this guy doesn’t represent how we are. These kind of comments. Case is a new thing, for me, of course we have this backstory and we have these series that happened. We have to look at it with new eyes and we have to figure that something has happened. Five, six, seven years has happened before this. I wasn’t like this a year ago. Then again what Trapped and Case, if you compare those two… Trapped was shown for all Icelanders on RUV, the national TV, but Court and Case were only on Channel 2 which only has, I don’t know, 20,000 subscribers so not everybody saw Case and Court.’
Five years ago aside from Jar City and The Night Shift, Icelandic film and TV was largely unknown in the UK. You couldn’t get hold of DVDs. Now you can order DVDs from nammi.is or watch streaming films on Icelandic Cinema Online. People are intrigued after Trapped and want to watch more.
‘I think we also have to thank the Scandinavian drama. We are learning a lot from Scandinavian and British drama as well. Most definitely Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian is coming strong as well. We are kind of riding that wave as well. If weren’t for Borgen and Susanne Bier and all these great Danish actors that are coming out like Mads Mikkelsen and that lot from Festen. All those guys. They kind of paved the way for us. Because of Scandinavia. they were getting more acknowledged in the UK and America. It wasn’t that case ten years ago with them.’
In the UK it started with Wallander, and it ignited something in the public. The Killing, Borgen, and The Bridge followed. Now you have Scandinavian actors guest starring in British shows and Hollywood movies. That’s already starting to happen with Icelandic actors.
‘I think we have something for us. We have exceptional writers. I think that was maybe the hardest way for us in the beginning. That’s why we weren’t really acknowledged. The scripts weren’t good enough but now for the last seven, eight years there has been a lot of development in that. “OK, this is what we need to do. It’s got to be a good story.” It was definitely not the case early on.’
Was there a moment when you noticed Icelandic TV was competing on an equal footing in terms of quality?
‘Well Court, the first series, it kind of got that stamp. It was kind of we’ve got something now. And then they followed a few other ones, Astridur and Pressa. We all of a sudden had writing teams. It wasn’t just this one person, this one scriptwriter. The writer of The Court is the same writer that wrote Trapped. I think it was, I don’t know, seven or eight years ago I had this feeling that we were on the right track. It’s all combined of course. We had a lot of stage actors so they were performing very stage-like. Big and strong. For the camera, it was like humongous. It doesn’t fit. So we kind of figured OK we’ve got to tone it down. We learnt a lot from Scandinavian TV.’
Researching Icelandic actors I’ve noticed how many went abroad to train. Now you are teaching a method here in Iceland. Is that also part of the increased confidence? Icelandic talent no longer has to go elsewhere to learn. You’re teaching the next generation.
‘Yeah, maybe. There isn’t much self-doubt in Icelandic actors anymore about these things. I think they actually feel they can compete in all platforms today. I think that’s kind of new for us to realise that “oh we actually can do this”. We were kind of “this is shit, this is not going anywhere.” This of course with Case and Trapped is helping us to be more at ease and more confident about doing things that matter. Icelandic cinema and TV is actually on the rise. The government is putting more money into it. Finally, they are accepting that for every krona they put into it they get three back. It took them years to see that. I think we’re on a good roll now.’
A year ago I was in Malmo for the launch of The Bridge’s third season. A government minister spoke at the reception and he said that money invested in culture is never wasted. When you mentioned about for every krona being invested the country gets three in return that quote came back to me. You invest x number of krona in a series like Trapped or Case, the revenue that comes back via tax or overseas investment benefits the rest of society.
‘No society thrives without culture. The sooner governments figure this out. They always have to have the Excel off this. They can’t see the culture rising in people. They can’t see the intelligence in people. They can’t see the adventures growing in people’s eyes unless they see it in a very statistic Excel form which is sad. Of course, I’m very glad that now they are putting more into it. They are focusing more on women which is a really good thing. The women’s voice needs to be heard more in cinema.’
That’s not just an Icelandic problem. I think that’s a problem…
‘Everywhere. We took a stand. The Icelandic Film Fund actually took a stand and said more money is going to be available for women. They going to be up front. They took a stand. I’m really, really grateful.’
Finally, I would like to ask you, is Case is an artistic career high?
‘Yeah, definitely, definitely. Usually, I never want to play the same character again but this guy is a character I haven’t…Of course, it’s a personal high. Every Case is a personal high. I’m very happy that Netflix has taken on the journey and I hope that more attention gets on Icelandic filmmaking because there’s a lot of growth here. There’s a lot of excitement in filmmaking in Iceland. I’m very happy for Icelandic cinema at the moment.’
Thanks to Magnús Jónsson.
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