After narrowly averting a nuclear meltdown on the moon at the end of its second season, Apple TV+’s stellar alt-history drama For All Mankind finally went out with a bang. In Friday’s Season 3 finale, “Stranger in a Strange Land,” a trio of fringe conspiracy theorists detonate a bomb outside the Johnson Space Center while astronauts and cosmonauts transport a pregnant Kelly Baldwin to the Helios ship orbiting Mars. In the harrowing aftermath of the explosion, series regulars Karen Baldwin and Molly Cobb are among the long list of casualties. For All Mankind has never been shy about killing off major characters—space exploration comes with inherent risks—but the devastation has literally rocked the foundation of NASA.
While every member of For All Mankind’s ensemble has suffered some kind of loss at this point in the series, nobody has experienced more grief than Ed Baldwin. Ever since his son Shane was killed during the first season while stranded on the moon, death has continued to orbit the astronaut. Season 2 brought the heroic sacrifice of Ed’s best friend, Gordo Stevens, who, along with his ex-wife and fellow astronaut Tracy Stevens, saved NASA’s lunar base from the reactor meltdown. Throw in the loss of his former partner and one of his oldest friends from the space agency in Karen and Molly, respectively, and Ed is running out of meaningful connections on Earth. (The good news: His daughter, Kelly, successfully delivered her baby aboard the Helios ship.)
With how many people Ed’s had to mourn across three seasons, it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to be in his shoes. But it’s all this adversity that initially drew Joel Kinnaman to the character. As the Swedish American actor explained in a phone interview last month, the appeal of playing Ed is that he’s introduced as a prototypical American hero before being put through the wringer in his personal and professional life. For a performer whose biggest roles include a detective with a checkered past as someone addicted to meth (The Killing) and a Special Forces commander leading an unpredictable group of supervillains (Suicide Squad and, somewhat confusingly, The Suicide Squad), it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Kinnaman gravitated toward the world’s most cursed astronaut.
Even as For All Mankind keeps finding new ways to make Ed suffer, there’s no mistaking Kinnaman’s love for the show—going so far as to inadvertently spoil the news of its Season 4 renewal months before Apple made it official. “I can’t believe they told me because I’m the worst at keeping secrets,” Kinnaman says. “I did a bunch of interviews two months ago where I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m prepping for Season 4!’ They made it really difficult for me because the visions for season 4 and 5 are so good.” Thankfully for Kinnaman, he doesn’t have to worry about loose lips for the third season. Below, we discussed Ed’s emotional journey on the series, the challenge of playing the same character across decades, and the unique experience of getting a Suicide Squad do-over.
Speaking from my own experience, it feels like For All Mankind has really found its audience after a quiet liftoff. Is that something you’ve noticed, as well?
Yeah, very much so. We were all very excited about what we had made, but then when we released it, it felt like it just came out in a vacuum. It was released in the first batch of Apple TV+’s shows and it got lost in the shuffle there a little bit. I always thought the show was going to have a hard time introducing itself to the audience because it’s not until Season 3 that you really understand what the grander vision of the show is.
It was really exciting to see that the second season caught on and we started to feel that groundswell building. Now in Season 3, we really feel it, and I think it’s the biggest show on Apple TV+ right now. It’s just a very unique show, I don’t think there’s ever been a show like this where you portray a whole life of the characters at the same time as we’re going deep into this alternate history. I’m reading the script for Season 4 and the ideas for Season 4 and also for Season 5 are incredible. Hopefully we’ll keep this train moving and there’s going to be some real fireworks ahead.
Man, I can’t wait. Going back to when you first signed on to the show, how much of Ed’s journey did cocreator Ronald D. Moore and the rest of the team explain to you? Did they talk about their plans for Ed beyond the first season?
They gave a five-season pitch to me, and I think the fourth- and the fifth-season ideas have now evolved and grown out of what we have done. The first three seasons, it was pretty much what they had planned in very broad strokes: the basic idea of colonizing the moon, the commercialization of space, the race to Mars, and eventually colonizing Mars. But where it goes from there is where it starts to get really interesting.
Colonizing Mars, that is within the 30-year future of our real time. But what do you do beyond that? Where do you go from there? That is a much more unknown space, and how do you continue moving on there but keeping this very grounded baseline tone of this show? Oh my God, I can’t fucking wait. It’s so good.
As a performer, aside from the makeup, what goes into playing these different versions of your character? How do you make Ed feel different over the decades?
I was very affected by this study I read where every 10 years we change so much that we should actually consider ourselves new people. For our inner experience, we’re always going to feel like we are the same person. But in actuality, the way we deal with people, the way we interact with the world, if you look back 10 years at who you were then, and if you stand those people next to each other, they’d be very, very different.
It’s exciting to try to capture that and see what’s changed. And then of course, as the decades go, the physicality of aging becomes a bigger part of the performance. Between season 1 and 2, you’re not going to really see a difference, but then season 2 to 3, we really start to see some changes in the movement pattern. Knees start to hurt a little bit more, getting out of a chair takes a little longer time, back starts to hurt a little bit longer into the day. You start to build that in.
For Season 4, which is where I’m headed now, then it becomes fun. To play someone 30 years older than you are, when that happens in a movie or a show, it’s usually one or two scenes. You don’t do that for a whole season. Playing old is one of the most difficult things you can do as an actor, so it’s a super exciting challenge. Makeup and all that comes into play, but I need to do a physical transformation for this, so I’m trying to get as skinny as possible. I’ve lost 20 pounds, ruined my summer [laughs].
It’s interesting to follow Ed’s journey, because while he’s a fictional character, he comes from a similar mold as aeronautic pioneers like Chuck Yeager. He’s initially presented as this All-American badass: He’s got the Corvette, the crew cut, everything you’d expect. And then the show puts him through these professional failures—not landing first on the moon, not landing first on Mars—and these tremendous personal losses, as well. It seems quite compelling to play because it’s not just your typical hero’s journey.
Exactly, I mean that was what drew me in. When I read the first couple of episodes and I got the pitch of the show, I’m not really drawn to this sort of All-American hero. It’s almost an archetype, and to me that’s not so interesting to play. But the key element was that this man was going to lose his son in the first season, and to see that kind of a man break, I thought, “That’s really fascinating.” That’s been the continuous journey with Ed, they write so many dimensions for him.
But it’s very fun to play that over decades, too. I think losing a child is also something that will define you for the rest of your life in many ways. You become a different person and it becomes part of you and maybe the pain—you can’t see the pain on the outside, but from everything that I’ve read and all the interviews I’ve seen with people that have lost children, the pain just never goes away. It just doesn’t, it’s just there. Sometimes it gets worse, and that’s also what he goes through in the show.
Your father is American and has a really interesting background as a Vietnam War deserter. How did your father’s experiences inform your perception of America growing up?
It’s interesting because on one hand I grew up with a very critical perception of American foreign policy, and in effect, American imperialism. These are things my dad had a lot of bitterness towards when I grew up. But I also had this excitement about America and I was so deep into American culture in every different way; film and music and everything. When I moved to the States, I really fell in love with this country—what I see as the beauty of America is the contrast. It houses so many different kinds of people and so many different kinds of cultures.
That’s also going to lead to a lot of conflict, but it’s what makes this country so special. It is the country of immigrants—there’s no country in the world that is better at assimilating people from other countries than the U.S. When you see how people assimilate into America, it’s so different from any European country. There’s so much more “us and them” in European countries than it is here. If you move here and you’re a citizen, of course there’s going to be people that don’t feel like that—that are nationalistic, that are white nationalists—but the majority of people in the U.S. are so good at inviting in other cultures.
I think I’ve got my dad to understand this, I’ve made him see America with different eyes, as well. When he’s come here and spent time in the States again, you see him sort of reconnecting with America through me.
The way that I look at For All Mankind, it’s a hopeful series in the sense that it shows what happens when people can work together in the shared pursuit of scientific discovery. It’s been interesting to watch the series against the backdrop of certain political divisions—not just in America, but in other parts of the world. It’s obviously meant to entertain, but do you think there’s any lessons people can take from the show?
Yeah, I definitely think so. If you can be optimistic without being preachy, I think you can have a really good effect. I feel like they’ve done a very good balancing act when writing this show of bringing up social issues, and maybe showing processes of progress happening quicker, but without losing the essence of these characters.
How do you think Ed has evolved over the seasons as the world changes around him?
I think when you grow older, it’s harder to stay positive and optimistic in some ways. You’re always dealing with not becoming bitter and not becoming the result of your disappointments. It was interesting to play Ed in Season 3 because I think what’s going on a lot today with an older generation, and especially an older generation that has never had to question their place in the world, or their privilege, or whatever you want to call it, all of a sudden the things they always took for granted are no longer taken for granted. And all of a sudden, they have a lot of other people competing with them.
On a grander scale, that is a movement in the right direction. We are heading towards a more equal society, and of course that’s what we want on a societal level, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy for the individual to accept that. For someone like Ed, that’s really hard to deal with.
We didn’t get much time with Ed at the end of the season to process both what happened to Karen and the birth of his grandchild. What’s his headspace going into Season 4?
Just absolute inner turmoil, dealing with life and death in the most profound way and most direct way, losing his life partner and then at the same time having his first grandchild. I know where it goes, but I think the overall sense for Ed is that he has less and less connection to Earth.
Pulling back from For All Mankind for a second, this is something I’m always curious about with actors who have been prolific across television and film: Do you have a preference between getting the opportunity to sit with and evolve a character over several years on a show versus being challenged by different roles in various movies?
Certain kinds of roles are more suited for films and certain kinds of roles are more fun to play on a serialized project. But you never get deeper than you do on a series. You just spend so much time with the character. Even though [For All Mankind] is slightly different because you have to reinvent the character for each season, it’s really fun to play a character that is the same, but then you also have to find everything that’s changed. You can’t stop working, you can’t get lazy [laughs].
At the same time, this aging process that I’m about to do, that’s much better suited for film because it’s three, four hours in makeup every morning and it’s going to be a bitch doing that. I mean it already was for Season 3, but Season 4 is going to be brutal. It’s going to be a lot of long days in the chair. For some roles when you’re doing more of a body transformation, you’d rather do that for a film than having to be in that space for the six, seven months that a show does.
But I really love doing both. There is something special with doing a series where you come back to the character over several years and you have these breaks and then you come back and then the character gets to marinate and develop.
My editors would kill me if I didn’t at least address The Suicide Squad with you. I mean this as no disrespect to David Ayer—I know there was a lot of behind-the-scenes drama between him and the studio—but it must have been validating to get a second chance and have the movie, and especially your character Rick Flag, so warmly embraced by the fans.
I loved it, it was a great experience. Personally, I just felt in the first film I didn’t really find my way, in a sense. I’m proud of the work we did, but the interpretation of the character that me and [director James Gunn] developed, it became something that was a lot more joyful for me to play and tap into finding a little more comedic timing for the character. And James just has such a wonderful process.
We got a second shot at it and it was so nice to see how it got embraced by everyone. Even though I was a little bummed because we released it right at the peak of the Delta wave, so unfortunately a lot of people saw it at home instead of in the theater, I can tell there’s nothing I’ve done that has had more impact. People are always coming up to me about it.
In an interview last year, you said you’re still wanting to make it to the pinnacle of your career. How does a project like For All Mankind help you get closer to that goal?
I don’t know, I should change that goal [laughs]. I should just embrace the journey more than trying to have a pinnacle, and I think that’s the thing we can do as actors. You might be at a pinnacle of fame or things like that, but there are great roles for every age.
I definitely don’t see my artistic journey as an actor of having a pinnacle like that. In the Swedish and European tradition, you go on stage and you watch these older masters in their late 60s, early 70s, and they’re doing some of the best work that you’ve ever seen. I hope to be one of them.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.