Music and Night Life - Jasper Pääkkönen

Well known in his native country where he has starred in some of its biggest box office hits, JASPER PÄÄKKÖNEN has just hit screens worldwide playing Klansman Felix Kendrickson in Spike Lee’s biographical drama BlacKkKlansman. The Cultured Traveller catches up with the renowned Finnish actor just after the movie’s New York and LA premieres, to chat about Finland, playing Halfdan the Black on hit series Vikings, his passion for fly fishing and working with visionary filmmaker Spike Lee.

You were born and still live in Helsinki. What are the best aspects of living a Finnish lifestyle?
Finland is and will always be my true home, even if I don’t spend more than maybe 4 – 5 months a year there nowadays. Not until I travelled abroad did I start realising what a special place Finland is: the honesty, the low-key mentality, the fact that Finland literally doesn’t have clear separation between social classes and everyone is equal. These are pretty rare qualities in a city in today’s world. Helsinki is also one of world’s safest capitals yet is far from boring, with its lively restaurant and bar scene, so it’s a great place to come back to after travelling overseas.
The UN ranked Finland as the happiest country in the world in 2018. To what do you attribute this?
Happiness in Finland doesn’t mean people are dancing on the streets and laughing and smiling all the time – on the contrary: we actually might not seem that happy in an outsider’s or a visitor’s eyes. Finland’s “happiest country” title comes from us Finns collectively feeling less unhappy than people in other countries. In Finland we have less reasons to feel unsafe or unhappy. Things that we take for granted – like free healthcare, university-level education, being the safest country in the world, and being the least corrupt country in the world – all contribute to us feeling at peace with our lives. There is much less turmoil in Finland than in most other countries. Also, as I mentioned before, Finland almost completely lacks the concept of social class divides which is a big factor. In Finland people are generally judged by their heart not by their wallets. Saying that we still have a lot to learn, like laughing, smiling and dancing on the streets!
Photo: Juha Mustonen
What in your opinion makes Finnish culture different to other Nordic nations?
We Finns are like the rough hillbillies of the Nordics, although I consider Icelanders to be a bit similar. We live our lives in such harsh conditions (extreme temperatures and lack of daylight – or the abundance of it in the summertime) that mould us into being a bit weird and crazy. Whilst the Swedes are more concerned about their style and looks, an average Finn would feel awkward about standing out from the crowd in fancy new clothes. Norwegians love nature just like we Finns do, and are equally low key, but I don’t think they’re as crazy! Meanwhile the Danes are the least Nordic and the most central European, probably because they are the furthest south. Out of all Nordic people I would say that Finland’s are the most straightforward and honest. There’s very little BS-culture in Finland!
Photo: Julius Konttinen / Löyly
What three must-see experiences would you recommend to someone visiting Helsinki?
Anyone visiting Helsinki must experience the most Finnish thing there is: the sauna. It’s the single most significant part of our culture. There are a few good options in Helsinki – just remember to make sure the sauna is wood heated to experience the real deal. Suomenlinna fortress island is a great half day trip with lovely sea views and historic buildings, plus some decent restaurants for lunch. The best way to see Helsinki is to hop on a city bike (available almost everywhere) and cycle around town. Whilst Helsinki is fairly small, you can easily spend a whole day exploring the different parts and corners of my city.
Photo: Solar Films
What inspired you to become an actor?
My dad is an old school actor in The Finnish National Theatre, so I spent most of my childhood running around theatre’s hallways. I guess it was a lack of imagination to some extent – I just couldn’t think of anything else that I wanted to be!
Who influenced young Jasper?
My big heroes as a pre-teen in the early 90’s were Axl Rose, Mike Tyson and Aleksandr Karelin – the Greco-Roman wrestler nicknamed the “Russian Bear”. They all had a certain toughness and resilience to them, something larger than life. Karelin was the toughest man on the planet, but his interests outside of wrestling were poetry and classical music. I was compelled by that weird contrast as a kid. I’m not sure whether any of these characters ever influenced my life in a concrete manner – probably not much. But as a kid, I couldn’t think of anyone cooler than these guys.
Who are you favourite actors?
I don’t have clear favourites, but if we’re thinking of the most well-known Hollywood actors, I’ve looked up to a few in different ways. Brad Pitt has made some brave choices and played some amazing and even risky roles, which I find brave and refreshing. Just look at 12 Monkeys, Fight Club and Seven. Many of his roles have been some of the finest acting I’ve seen in big Hollywood films.

Photo: Antti Rastivo
You first found fame acting in a Finnish soap opera. How does this experience differ from working on the big screen?
My first real acting work was on a daily, prime time Finnish soap, Salatut Elämät. I was 18 when I got the job. During the next 2½ years and 555 episodes of the show, I got an intensive training in the details and techniques of camera acting. When I felt like there was nothing left to learn I resigned to look for new challenges.
You won a best actor award for playing Eero Takkunen in the 2003 Finnish crime drama film Bad Boys, which is based on a notorious real-life family of criminals. What inspires you to play ‘bad’ when you do?
Playing darker characters has always been much more interesting and compelling to me than playing a good guy. You can delve deeper into the layers and depths of the human mind, and explore aspects that you wouldn’t, in normal life, even tend to think about. Some of the hardest, most challenging but also most rewarding roles I’ve had a chance to play include an ultra-radical neo-Nazi skinhead, and, in another film, a junkie. I’ve rarely, if ever, been truly interested in playing traditional hero or good guy characters.
Your father Seppo Pääkkönen is also an actor, and you played father and son in the 2006 movie Matti: Hell Is For Heroes about Olympic ski jumper Matti Nykänen. Tell us about the movie?
The film is a true story about Finland’s most legendary winter athlete that many older people will remember. He used to win literally every gold medal. After his sporting career his life took a turn for the worse, and he became a singer, a stripper and eventually ended-up in prison. Needless to say, the film and my role as Matti were a large and challenging project to work on, especially when the real-life Matti was still alive. My dad only had a couple of scenes in the film and it was more like an inside joke, akin to a cameo, that Matti’s dad was played by my real father.
Photo: Dave Lee / Focus Features
You have been described as ‘the most profitable actor in Finland’ as many of your movies have seen box office success. How do you select a role and what are the criteria? Are you ruled by your heart or your head?
I’ve always tried to be very selective about the films I do and chose by my heart. I’ve worked with scripts, directors and projects that I felt passionate about, and stayed away from the more calculated options. I’d rather do something else to pay my bills than act in a project I’m not passionate about.
You achieved international fame playing infamous Halfdan The Black in HISTORY’s Viking series. Please tell us about this role and the experience.
I played neo-Nazi brothers in a film called Heart of a Lion with my long-time colleague and friend Peter Franzen. Based on the film we received an offer to play brothers in Vikings. It was too good an opportunity to pass-up, and we had a real blast playing brothers once again. My role Halfdan and his brother were an inseparable duo until they ended up on different sides of a civil war. When I finished shooting the series I had been on the show for roughly 25 episodes and it was a good time to move on to new adventures once again.
Did you have any special training for Vikings’ bloodthirsty fight scenes?
I was expecting to have some sword fighting training before shooting big fight scenes, but before our first big fight scene we literally rehearsed for less than an hour to learn this big, intricate fight choreography. I had never held a sword before that day, so needless to say it was quite a challenge to master the scene with such little training. But what better way to learn than a baptism of fire?!
Photo: HISTORY / A&E Networks
Vikings is actually filmed in Ireland. Was this a challenge to a true Nordic or could you see similarities in the landscape?
Ireland is funny like that: it can be made to look exactly like some of the landscapes in Nordic countries, so Vikings was able to mimic the fjords and the rough terrain of Northern Europe.
A little birdie told The Cultured Traveller that you recently visited historical Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to see Halfdan’s runic inscriptions, which were a form of viking graffiti back then. Please tell us about your visit to Hagia Sophia.
My character Halfdan spent, in real life, years working as a mercenary in Istanbul, and his “Halfdan was here” graffiti is still legible in Hagia Sophia. The area where his carving is located was under renovation and the workers wouldn’t let me in. But, luckily, the museum’s manager watched Vikings and made sure I was able to check out the carving. It’s quite amazing to think that, back in those days, these guys sailed their wooden boats from up north all the way to Istanbul and further.
Photo: Dave Lee / Focus Features
Your most recent role saw you cast in American biographical crime film BlacKkKlansman directed by Spike Lee. How were you cast?
I happened to be in LA when Spike was in town auditioning for his new film. Somehow during the audition, I managed to convince him I was from the Deep South. When I explained that I was from Helsinki he thought that I was joking. Luckily Spike was brave enough to take a chance and hire a Finn to play a redneck racist from the south. I’m not sure if many directors would have made the same choice.
Photo: Dave Lee / Focus Features
BlacKkKlansman deals with the hard-hitting subjects of racism and the Klu Klux Klan in middle America. How did you prepare for your role and the subject matter?
I felt like I had done a part of the preparation before, when prepping for my role as a neo-Nazi. That racist hatred is universal in a way, and I had dug quite deep into understanding where it comes from. So, I felt like I already had a set of bones and I just had to build some new muscle around them, and develop a character equally dark in his mind but one who lived in Colorado in the 70’s.
Tell us about your character, the tenacious Klansman Felix Kendrickson?
Felix is described in the film by other characters as a “psycho” and a “loose cannon”. He is deeply hateful towards other races and skin colours. With his extremely racist beliefs and mindset he’s quite a scary and dark individual.
Photo: Dave Lee / Focus Features
What was it like working with legendary indie pioneer Spike Lee?
In my eyes, Spike is legendary not only for his films but also – and maybe even more importantly – for being a fierce human rights activist and one of the most important figures in the black rights movement in the States. To have a chance to work with him in any project is a dream come true for any actor. But to work with Spike Lee in a film like BlacKkKlansman – which is not only a great movie but also an important political statement – is actor’s dream come true. I mean, what more could an actor ever hope to be a part of? I can’t think of any other director or project I would have more liked to work on than playing the villain in Spike Lee’s most political film ever.
BlacKkKlansman won the Grand Prix at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, way before it was released. How did this feel? How did Spike Lee and the cast celebrate?
I hadn’t seen the film before its world premiere in Cannes, so I was nervous and anxious to see it. And to see it for the first time in the festival palace, with an audience of more 2,300, was slightly nerve wrecking. But we had fun at an after party at one of the clubs on the beach, complete with lots of dancing on tables! The award was announced at the end of the festival when I was already back in Finland, so I missed the last celebrations.
Photo: Eric Charbonneau / Le Studio
BlacKkKlansman recently premiered in both NYC and LA and is now on general release. Which do you prefer, the East or West Coast of the States?
Both coasts have their good and bad sides. NY is amazingly hectic, which can be invigorating and a bit exhausting at the same time. LA has never been my favourite city: basically, it feels like an endless expanse of suburbs, like a city without a heart or a pulsating center. No one walks on LA’s streets because the city is not built for walking, and since all you see is cars the city feels empty of tangible human energy. But at least the weather is nice!
What would you like to do next in terms of acting?
It’s great to have had a chance to play an extreme character like Felix Kendrickson, but I think enough is enough with the racist roles for now! Moving forwards I hope I have an opportunity to work on inspiring projects that have a strong message – films that have ambition to create change, be it social or environmental.
Photo: Löyly
You are well known in your homeland as an entrepreneur, having opened the impressive EUR6.5 million Löyly sauna and leisure complex a few years ago with business partner Antero Vartia. Löyly has transformed the local community and is now a firm fixture in Helsinki. How did this project come about?
When Antero and I were given an opportunity to build a sauna on a prime piece of waterfront land in Helsinki, we felt that it was literally our obligation to create something spectacular. We worked with a talented architectural duo called Avanto (www.avan.to) and asked them to be as ambitious as they could. I think that they were delighted to have us as clients, since most normally ask their architects to trim or downscale to save money. We, on the other hand, took the opposite approach. Our budget doubled and many people thought that we had lost our minds, but we firmly believed that with striking architecture we could attract a much larger client base and become a must visit destination in Helsinki. Luckily it has all worked out, and Löyly has already welcomed more than half a million visitors since opening in May 2016.
Photo: Löyly
Please explain the importance of sauna in Finnish culture?
Everyone in Finland has a sauna. We don’t even consider it a luxury but more a part of our everyday lives. It’s our way of relaxing after a long day or a stressful week. It’s also an important family tradition: kids grow up going to the sauna with their parents, and in many families the weekly sauna night is the most important time spent together. It’s an integral part of our lives, and it’s something that defines Finland and our culture more than anything else. Everyone visiting Finland should visit a traditional sauna, otherwise you haven’t truly experienced Finland.
How does acting compare to being an entrepreneur? Are there any shared skills?
They are two very different worlds. I couldn’t imagine being just strictly one or the other, but a combination of these two worlds keeps me passionate and motivated in new projects and challenges. I strive to ensure that whatever I do for work, I do it out of passion rather than just for a pay cheque.
Photo: Solid Adventures
You’ve been a fly fishing fanatic since you were a child. What do you most enjoy about this pastime?
Fly fishing is without a doubt my biggest passion, and I define myself as a fly fisherman over acting or entrepreneurship. Fly fishing is a type of hobby that becomes more like a lifestyle, and the easiest comparisons would be things like surfing or yoga. When you’re really into these lifestyle hobbies they become your life and start defining you as a human being. I’ve fly fished for the past 26 years and some of my annual trips, like visiting the Arctic tundra in the summer, are highlights of my year.
Photo: Solid Adventures
You’re also a committed fisheries activist and have been awarded for your achievements in conservation issues. Please tell us more.
Fish populations around the world are dramatically declining due to overfishing and hydro-power, which have destroyed the majority of our salmon and other important fish populations both in Finland as well as a globally. I have been publicly battling the hydro power industry as well as certain political parties and ministries in Finland, demanding for responsible politics in managing our endangered fisheries. The thing is, fish are generally not the most popular species of animals to protect since they are not cute and furry. Perhaps, for this reason, many of the major environmental organisations aren’t very active in trying to save our fisheries, and also consumers don’t seem to care about the future of fish populations. The best example is the extinction of tuna from our oceans, which scientists agree will happen in the next two decades if we keep eating tuna in our sushi like we do now. How can someone justify eating a spicy tuna roll when this is the reality? Would the same person order a panda steak in a steakhouse? Of course not. But with fish, people seem to close their eyes from the grim reality. I find sad that “I know, but tuna is just sooo goood” seems to be a common response when I bring this at dinner tables.
Photo: Sanna Liimatainen
Name a country you would like to visit and why?
I’ve never been to Brazil, and I’m hoping to visit the Agua Boa Amazon Lodge in October for some peacock bass fly fishing. The lodge sits on the banks of a tributary of the Amazon, in far northern Brazil. If I’m not filming anything I’ll hopefully be able to spend some time there and travel around a bit. I still haven’t visited New Zealand either, and a road trip with an RV is tentatively being planned.
Your favourite hotel, resort or place in the world for a holiday?
The fly fisherman in me would say Patagonia, northern Russia or perhaps the Bolivian jungle. But outside of the fly fishing world, I truly enjoy Finnish Lapland in the summer. The absolutely magical 24-hour sunlight above the arctic circle is something everyone should experience at least once in a lifetime.
Apart from fly-fishing, how does Jasper Pääkkönen relax?
Sauna is the only relaxation routine which is part of my normal, everyday life. You really don’t need much more than a sauna a few times a week to be fully relaxed.