Trúnó (Noun, Icelandic): a private confessional conversation–usually accompanied by alcohol.
Niceland will talk to a different creator every week. Some of them will be artists. Some of them will be writers. Some of them will just make life a little better for those around them. We want to to know what they do and why they do it.
Ólafur Darri Ólafsson is an award winning Icelandic actor, producer and screenwriter. He was the star of the the hit Icelandic mystery series Trapped, which was popular in both France and the UK. He’s also starred in HBO’s True Detective, the Netflix American Comedy series Lady Dynamite and most recently NBC’s Emerald City. His film credits include The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, The Last Witch Hunter and Steven Spielberg’s The BFG.
What got you into acting?
I often say girls. I was in college and there was a read-through of a play. A few of the girls who were running the read-through came to me the day after and said there were no boys–and they needed boys. So I was like “uh, sure, I’ll come.” I did the read through and of course I got a part.
Do you consider what you do to be work?
I consider it work. I think it’s very important to recognize it as work. Very pretentiously, I always remember this quote. Well, I don’t remember the exact quote, but basically “the person who works with his hand is a labourer. The person who works with his hands and his head is a skilled worker. But the person who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.” They all do the work, but only the person who throws himself entirely in to what he is doing is being the artist. This doesn’t downgrade the other two. It’s just different.
I think it’s important to think of acting and what I do as a job. You get better the more you do it. That is to say, if you are listening and picking things up and really going through your experiences, realizing what is good and what is not.
Is that what makes a good actor, realizing what is good and what is not?
In my last exam, before I graduated from drama school, there was this question that the instructor asked everybody. It was a final interview before you graduated and they asked a couple of questions but there was one in particular that I never forgot. After the interview we met up with the instructor and we asked him how we did. He told the class that everyone answered that one question completely correctly, but that I was completely lost. The question was “What makes a good actor?”
I had no idea. When the instructor asked me that question, I was like “fuuuuucckkk…” It turned out that most, if not all, of my classmates said “sincerity and honesty.” I never thought of those things. Today, I would say those are the two most important things. Not to be afraid of being honest. Whether it’s your body image or if you find it hard to show your feelings.
Do you think the reason you’re successful might be because you did answer that question wrong in the beginning? You had to come to that conclusion through work. You had to earn your sincerity. Knowing that sincerity makes you a good actor doesn’t necessarily make you sincere.
I think you’re right in many ways. As you can see, it’s still in my mind. Twenty years later and I’m still thinking about that answer and reminding myself, “that’s what you have to do.” It blows you away when you see someone perform completely honestly, hiding nothing. I haven’t seen that often.
Was there a time when you didn’t think you would make it as an actor?
Many times. First of all, it took me a long time to be ok with becoming an actor, even though I got into drama school. It took me a couple years, in drama school, to decide that acting is actually what I wanted to do. Then I was fired from the City Theatre as an actor in 2002 and for about a week I thought, ‘I’m fucked. What should I go and do? Should I still try and do this or should I do something else?”
“…ANY THEATRE OR ANY INSTITUTION YOU’RE A PART OF, IT WILL NEVER HAVE YOUR BEST INTERESTS FIRST AND FOREMOST. IF THEIR INTERESTS COINCIDE WITH YOUR INTERESTS THEN THAT WORKS OUT, BUT YOU CAN NEVER AS AN ARTIST GIVE THE RESPONSIBILITY THAT YOU HAVE TO YOURSELF TO SOMEONE ELSE.”
It’s one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. It really was. I took responsibility for what I wanted to become.
It made me realize a lot of things. Things like, any theatre or any institution you’re a part of, it will never have your best interests first and foremost. If their interests coincide with your interests then that works out, but you can never as an artist give the responsibility that you have to yourself to someone else. I hear a lot of actors who are unhappy with their theatre, disliking the roles they are getting, not happy with their station there and honestly, the only thing to do then is to force the theatre to give you what you want or leave and go somewhere else.
After I was fired I realized I really wanted to be an actor and I took the responsibility for it. I really pushed myself to become a much better actor than I was. I was really lucky. I was a successful actor in Iceland before I left for the US or Europe for work. I sort of showed up on that market prepared. I had enough experience to know how to interact with people. I had a lot of great people help me here in Iceland: actors, directors and great teachers. It really helped me prepare for my move into other markets.
Once you realized what you wanted to do. What sacrifices did you have to make to be successful?
That’s an interesting question. The sacrifice now, while I’m working abroad, would be my family. I have a wife and two daughters and I don’t see them as much as I would like. But it’s funny, the first thing that pops into my mind when you say “sacrifice” would be ego. You have to sacrifice a certain number of vain shitty things that you hold on to. For example, I’m a big fat guy and the thing is, actors are human beings. Some actors feel uncomfortable in their skin. They will think ‘Oh, I’m too fat’ or ‘My hair is thinning.’ And the thing is, you have to embrace that. If you can’t say this is who I am let’s get on with it, that insecurity becomes a hurdle. I’ve seen actors whose vanity has hurt them. We all have vanities, but you have to get past them. The audience can realize when you are keeping something back. They can’t always put their finger on it and figure out exactly what is, but the audience can tell when you’re afraid.
These fears can be about your body, but it can also be about your mind. If you’re afraid to open your soul, then that’s something you need to work on. When I decided to take responsibility for my acting career it made me realize I would need to get rid of a lot of my doubts. I would have to be able to be bad at stuff, make mistakes. That’s the best part about doing anything–learning not to be afraid of making mistakes.
“I’M A BIG FAT GUY AND THE THING IS, ACTORS ARE HUMAN BEINGS. SOME ACTORS FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE IN THEIR SKIN. THEY WILL THINK ‘OH, I’M TOO FAT’ OR ‘MY HAIR IS THINNING.’ AND THE THING IS, YOU HAVE TO EMBRACE THAT. IF YOU CAN’T SAY THIS IS WHO I AM LET’S GET ON WITH IT, THAT INSECURITY BECOMES A HURDLE.”
When people know you’re an actor from Iceland does that increase their interest, especially when you’re auditioning for a role?
Yes, usually people are interested. In the last few years, Iceland has been on the radar. Before that, it was intriguing because it sounds like a crazy, lonely, cold place that no one would want to live in.
“I’LL SPEAK UP AND GIVE MY OPINION NO MATTER WHO IT IS. IF I WAS DOING A ROLE AND PATRICK STEWART WAS DIRECTING, I WOULDN’T HAVE A PROBLEM SPEAKING UP AND SAYING “YOU KNOW THIS HAMLET THING WE’RE DOING HERE? IT’S NOT REALLY WELL WRITTEN, IS IT? IT NEEDS MORE EXPLOSIONS!””
But there is the flip side to this as well. Here in Iceland we don’t have a lot of status. We don’t have different classes. You might have people with money, but their kids will be at the same school as your kids.
When I work abroad I treat everyone the same. I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to talk to the director about this thing or that thing, so I just did it. People liked that. I just don’t have the sense of not talking to this person or that person because of blah blah blah. I’m just doing my work the way I do at home. I talk to the director. We Icelandic artists lack a self-shutting-down mode. Some of my british actor friends would be nervous to say anything. They think they’re not worthy of the director’s attention. I’m not afraid to say anything. I’ll speak up and give my opinion no matter who it is. If I was doing a role and Patrick Stewart was directing, I wouldn’t have a problem speaking up and saying “you know this Hamlet thing we’re doing here? It’s not really well written, is it? It needs more explosions!”
No…I’m kidding, but if I did think that, I would say it.