Swedish Dicks‘ Peter Stormare on Working with Bergman, How to Tell If Your Cat Is Poisoning You, and More

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Swedish Dicks‘ Peter Stormare on Working with Bergman, How to Tell If Your Cat Is Poisoning You, and More

Peter Stormare is so much more than “that guy from Fargo” or “that guy from Armageddon.” The Swedish actor, writer, and director has trailblazed his own particular brand of colorful weirdos that populate indies and tentpoles alike with their utterly convincing eccentricity. In his first series as creator, the Pop TV comedy Swedish Dicks, the perennial scene-stealer finally has the soapbox to tell the stories he wants the way he wants.

The private detective show (starring Stormare alongside Johan Glans) doesn’t hold your hand, delights in thumbing its nose at the genre’s conventions, and saturates its offbeat comedy with issues truly important to its creator’s heart.

Stormare chatted with Paste about the series’ second season, and things got pretty serious pretty fast. The multi-hyphenate ended up talking about Keanu Reeves and Swedish Dicks, sure, but he also dove deep on immigration, directing, and the pharmaceutical drama he’s been trying to get made. Now, obey Peter Stormare and register to vote! [Editor’s note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

Paste: The show started off as a passion project—did getting a second season alter that at all?

Peter Stormare: We wanted to touch on Axel’s problem with illegal immigration. [Axel is the former DJ, played by Glans, who becomes P.I. partners with Stormare’s character.] It was something I was adamant about bringing to the table.

Paste: You were so prescient about this issue, being in production last year.

Stormare: I always found that interesting as an immigrant myself. It took me so many tries to become a citizen. I got my green card in 1989. I applied to become a citizen and they made me come in and answer questions about the first 13 states. Then they asked me if I’ve ever voted.

“No. No.” “But we have some information that you signed a petition to join the Democratic Party.” “Yeah, I might have.”

That’s because they had someone outside every K-Mart when I lived in New York. They get 10 cents a signature. I’m sure I signed up for Republicans and Democrats. They said, “Go back and prove you didn’t vote.” I had to hire a lawyer to go into the election archives to prove my name wasn’t in there, because if it was, I couldn’t become a citizen. So it took me nine years to become a citizen. Everyone that’ve been here, working, living as Americans—just give them a green card.

Paste: Was couching it in comedy due to a desire to point out hypocrisy?

Stormare: No, no. It’s just so important to me.

If I ran for President, the first thing I’d do is legalize everyone who’s been here paying taxes, working, paying taxes. Mothers and fathers of kids born in the U.S. should get a green card. You’re ripping off the system? You should be deported—like happens in every other country. But I suppose we do dip into satire a bit. We did try to go a little Monty Python.

Paste: Including immigration commentary was obviously an important part of Season Two. Were there any other goals you aimed for after learning what it was like to make a season of TV?

Stormare: We tried to be diverse. I wanted a black daughter. I wanted to have a really good black young actress because we’re bringing her mother back in Season Three.

Paste: The twist!

Stormare: The mother tried to kill me because I was unfaithful, so she shot me in the back. She’s been spending her life in jail and I never told my daughter. [I] told her she died in a car accident.

Paste: Has she been cast yet?

Stormare: We have a dream: Angela Bassett. So we have to start pestering her with emails and love letters.

Anyways, Season Two… This country’s full of private detectives, stories like this. My two friends I based the series on, the stories they tell me are mostly surveillance, but sometimes they’re crazy stories about crazy people. Of course, they live off crazy clients—you can’t deny the money. Like, if a client comes in and says, “My cat is poisoning me,” you have to disprove that.

Paste: Wait, is that real?

Stormare: Yeah! There had to be something wrong in that guy’s head, but if he pays you $5,000, you do the job.

Paste: How do you prove a cat isn’t poisoning someone?

Stormare: You set up cameras. You take photos. And then you show that the food in the refrigerator was never touched by the cat.

Paste: Did this season lift any stories from their lives?

Stormare: Yeah, a couple of stories.

Paste: Was one about the Hollywood Boulevard costume hustlers?

Stormare: Yeah. I live a couple blocks away and there are fights between them sometimes. You can’t do that now, it’s been in the 100s and they’ve been on the street sweating their lives away. I want to see one take off his head and say “Fuck this shit, I need water.” And the kids, they’ll freak out.

Paste: I do love how the series loves and cares for its losers.

Stormare: Let the characters carry the story. Let the audience be one step behind instead of two steps ahead like most American shows. Your NCSI: Miami, New York, Los Angeles [sic]…

Paste: Pretty formulaic.

Stormare: You just know. “It’s him, you idiots.”

Paste: How do you prevent that when writing?

Stormare: I’m the last one to scrutinize everything. “Out, out, out. Simplify.” Let the audience guess. Take the exposition out. It’s American writing. It’s a disease. Write one line instead of five.

You had quite a successful thing, The Last Man on Earth. The first season was really, really good. I think it lost a little when he shaved half his beard. It had some Twin Peaks, you were a little bit behind and drawn in by the characters. You wanted to know more. Mostly, in this country, they’re choking you with information.

Paste: Is that mindset something you brought to directing your first episode of TV this season?

Stormare: Definitely. I’m gonna do three next season.

Keanu Reeves [who guest stars as Tex on the series] is directing one next season.

You know, I started as a director very young and fell into acting. I had to take over a part from our lead. Then people said, “Fuck, you’re a great actor. You should do more acting.” For a while, I was doing both, directing and acting. Sometimes the lead actor got too drunk and fell in the shower. It happened a couple times.

Paste: What was the play that transitioned you from director to actor?

Stormare: You won’t know it, but it was a big, big Swedish novel that I adapted for the stage and the lead fell out. I was called into a meeting by [then Royal Dramatic Theatre managing director] Ingmar Bergman, who was my mentor. He said, “We have some bad news. Mr. X fell in the bathroom while taking a shower—”

Paste: This was one of the drunk times?

Stormare: Yeah [laughs] or he walked into a doorjamb. But he said, “Opening night is tomorrow. He’s gonna be out for a few weeks.” I asked, “Do we have a list? I can start to look for a replacement.” They’re staring at me. Bergman said, “There’s only one candidate. I’m looking at you, kid.” “Oh, fuck, I can’t. He’s in every fucking scene for four hours.”

So I did opening night and got rave reviews. The play as a whole, maybe got looked at as second place, but I got rave reviews.

Paste: Did you believe all of it?

Stormare: No, but I believed Bergman—my mentor, my surrogate father, because my parents lived in Africa. He said to me, “Jesus Christ, I always knew you were a hell of an actor, but you beat me as a director, you fuck. You’re a dangerous kid.” He was my best friend for many, many years until he passed away.

Paste: It has to be hard to go back after you hear that from one of the greats.

Stormare: I was offered a part on Broadway to be in King Lear as the Earl of Gloucester. I said, “Jesus, I was 30 years old when I did Gloucester with Bergman in leotards.” You can’t have old people around King Lear, they have to be young vampires that want to suck blood. I did it 400 times around the world. To do it again for a director I don’t even know? I can’t.

Paste: Is there a Shakespearean role you’d go back for?

Stormare: It’s very hard for me to work with… what should I say… someone who’s a worst director than me. It’s hard for me to do theater after working with Bergman. I’ve done a couple of plays and… they’re not talented. They bring people over from England all the time and think they’re related to the Bard. Like they know everything. This country, everyone bows down to the English.

Paste: Americans will do anything for a British accent.

Stormare: Exactly. [Affects a posh accent] Oh, you need to stand over here. Then you come in over here and sit down over there. Incredible direction. [Returns to normal accent] I worked for a couple in New York and Je-sus.… [After a lengthy tangent about the various healthcare systems around the world] I have a series called The Medicine Man that nobody wants to touch, about people in the medical industry—workers on the floor—who’re stealing drugs and making drugs in the labs, then putting them in their pockets like you work in a candy factory. In pharmaceutical corners, they have a nickname for those people: The Medicine Man. They do their own drugs on the side, selling it. It’s a big industry where pharmaceutical companies try to nail them but they’re pretty lenient.

Paste: You have a pilot written for this?

Stormare: Yeah, but they say, “You can do a documentary.” But to have a series go up on a major network? They’re very reluctant. Because as soon as they announce it, there’ll be lawsuits. I’m gonna continue to fight for it, but we were really close with DreamWorks two years ago. But they said it was too risky. One day, we’ll do it in Europe for a fraction of the money, in Lithuania or something. Set it in another country, a fictional U.S.A.

Paste: To change directions, I have to mention Until Dawn, which is one of my favorite video games—partially due to your acting.

Stormare: I’ve seen snippets friends send to me where my face is all morphed and weird. [Laughs]. It made quite an impact.

Paste: Do you have any final words for people watching Swedish Dicks and thinking about immigration?

Stormare: People who are registered to vote should vote. I vote all the time. If I’m not in the country, I do it over mail. Sometimes I don’t know who the people are—I just pick whatever girl is Democratic.

Get off from the couch. You should watch Swedish Dicks, but then get off the couch and do something.

Paste: And go change the world.

Stormare: Yes, go change the world!

Season Two of Swedish Dicks premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on Pop TV.

Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.