When Jasper Pääkkönen walked out of the audition room after reading for the main white supremacist role in BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee was absolutely convinced the actor was born and bred in the States – which is fittingly symbolic for a film based entirely on false perceptions, impersonations, and doppelgängery of almost Shakespearean proportions.
“At some point Spike looked at my last name, which has a lot of umlauts, a lot of dots,” Pääkkönen told Mashable during an hour-long phone interview as he was driving through the Finnish countryside towards the capital.
“Spike stops me in the middle of the scene and goes, ‘Hold on, hold on, hold on! Where are you from?’ And I go, ‘um, Helsinki, Finland.’
That’s right – the most vociferous character in Lee’s poignant and powerful reincarnation of 1970s Colorado Springs white supremacy terrorism is portrayed by an actor from the country as the world’s happiest in 2018.
By the time the audition was done, Lee’s mind was blown. “‘You’re not from Helsinki, Finland – you’re from Alabama,’” Pääkkönen recalls Lee saying. “And he starts laughing. I wasn’t sure if it’s a good laugh or a bad laugh.”
Turns out it was a very good laugh, because Pääkkönen was cast right there and then as Felix Kendrickson, who epitomises the kind of misguided white male privilege and extremism that infected and filled the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s — and has once again reared its ugly head alongside the rise of far-right populist politics around the world.
“Don’t think this a film about just American problems” – Spike Lee
Felix, a Holocaust-denier and terrorist, is second-in-command of a Klan branch being infiltrated by an undercover police team, led by Colorado Springs’ first black officer – Ron Stallworth (portrayed by John David Washington – Denzel Washington’s son). The movie, based on Stallworth’s memoir, remains more or less historically accurate – he infiltrated the Klan, and was, on paper, a card-carrying member, and yes, he really did speak to David Duke on the phone (portrayed by Topher Grace in the film), the then-Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
And not just when he was undercover, but more recently, when Duke allegedly called Stallworth to complain BlacKkKlansman made him look bad.
Felix is, in many ways, David Duke’s doppelgänger – they are two sides of the same coin. While Duke – always the wolf in sheep’s clothing, tempering his outbursts – is presented in the movie as the precursor to Trump and his “Make America Great Again” slogan, Felix is the extension and epitome of that racist rage as it has been normalised today. He does not hide that fragile yet militant, determined yet deluded, look we’ve been forced to familiarise ourselves with – from pictures of the tiki-torch-carrying white men during last year’s Charlottesville Unite the Right rally to video of alt-right members performing Nazi salutes.
BlacKkKlansman was released exactly one year after the deadly rally, where a woman, Heather Heyer, was killed by a man who deliberately crashed his car into a group of protestors.
Those unspeakable scenes are featured in the film itself because Lee isn’t just making a period drama here. BlacKkKlansman is, above all else, about how the past continues to exist in the present, albeit in different guises. And Pääkkönen’s casting is a powerful statement in a commentary about the global spread of an ideology that some may have thought was starting to fizzle out. But then again, as Lee keeps reminding us, nothing is as it seems on the surface.
When Pääkkönen was 17, he spent a year in Maryland as an exchange student at Baltimore’s Owings Mills High School during the 1997-8 school year. He says that experience exposed him firsthand to how racism has permeated the social fabric in America.
“I remember my first weeks of high school is when I realised white and black students were two completely separated groups,” Pääkkönen says. “You get boxed by the colour of skin and everything else is sort of secondary.”
And as most classic high school coming-of-age stories go, Pääkkönen’s time at Owings Mills hit its critical point at prom, one of the quintessential institutions of the American way of life. Pääkkönen took his closest friend from school as his date, and to his surprise, the decision was met with outright protest by “a lot of the people in the community, my host family, some school friends — white school friends.”
The issue was that his date was black and, as Pääkkönen was told, “you don’t do that in America.”
“I was breaking the unwritten rule,” he says.
That was 20 years ago in a fairly upper-middle class district, in a school with diverse cultural backgrounds. Mashable reached out to the school’s principal and vice-principal regarding Pääkkönen’s recollection of his time there, but received no reply.
As the central thesis of BlacKkKlansman keeps reminding us, the battle against racism and xenophobia is far from over – although the pattern is perhaps somewhat different in Finland, where everything has changed over the past 20 years. Today, the tiny country has come to be recognised around the world for its respect for human rights, freedom of the press, education, and healthcare.
After completing his exchange year and going back home, Pääkkönen kept in touch via Facebook with his American friends and prom date over the years. “She used to send me articles about Finland, completely blown away by the fact that we have this society that seemed to her like a utopia,” he says. That stayed with Pääkkönen over the years – the fact that two teenagers in the 1990s could be living such different lives.
Pääkkönen received some coaching and assistance from the exchange student organisation before moving to Maryland to help prepare him for these inevitable cultural differences. “They kept telling us, don’t believe what you see,” he says. “If you get shocked by something, just give it some time and you’ll start understanding it.
“I remember I kept telling myself during my first month there, ‘This skin colour issue can’t be true,'” Pääkkönen says, bursting out in uncomfortable laughter.
“Six months later, I had to accept the fact that my first impression was the right one. I was different from the other white kids because colour wasn’t the precursor for whom I made friends with — I was seen as that foreigner trying to change traditions.”
When Pääkkönen told Lee about his time at Owings Mills, Lee responded with the three words that underscore most ‘Spike Lee Joints’: “Welcome to America.“
Pääkkönen continuously found himself lost in translation. “People in Baltimore wouldn’t believe me when I told them I’m Finnish and when I told them what life here is like,” he said. Then, once back home, people would show the same kind of disbelief when he shared stories of how segregated his school was in the U.S.
When Lee met him, the director was convinced he was the guy for the part — “That’s my guy,” as Lee said in an interview.
“When I got a call from my agent about the audition, I was told there’s no script, but that I was going to be sent two scenes,” Pääkkönen says. “That’s all I had.”
There was no mention about the location in those scenes, but there was a general sense the scenes were taking place somewhere in the South. So he WhatsApped a friend from Kentucky, who recorded the lines for him. For a couple of days he replayed the audio recordings and learned to mimic her accent until it felt natural.
When he learned the film was set in Colorado Springs, Pääkkönen booked an accent coach. But Lee told him to forget about it and do everything just like he did in the audition. “Don’t change anything,” he said.
Yet, even though the latest Spike Lee joint was Pääkkönen’s first Hollywood project, it was not his first film portraying a white supremacist.
“I made a Finnish film about five years ago, called , which is a film about neo-Nazis, and I had to get pretty deep into it to understand my character,” Pääkkönen says. “I worked with a reformed neo-Nazi for a while, a very prominent figure in the 1990s in Finland, trying to understand what motivates these people.”
“I remember this old black lady, who held my hand in hers and said, ‘Thank you so much for portraying this hatred’”
While the histories of the spread of nationalism and racism differ across borders, the consequences, on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, follow a pattern — an increase in hate speech and crimes, the emboldening of xenophobic political discourse, and the activation of fractions of society that have hitherto remained on the fringes.
Lee recently visited Pääkkönen in Helsinki and addressed that exact question. “‘Don’t think this a film about just American problems,'” Pääkkönen recalls Lee telling reporters there. “‘It’s a film about what’s happening here and in France, in the UK and all around Europe. The rise of the far-right movement is quite prominent in the States, but it’s just as prominent in a lot of European countries as well.’”
If BlacKkKlansman is a powerful political statement about the enduring grip of racism for Spike Lee, for Pääkkönen it was actually a reset button on his relationship with America. Following the release of the movie, he says he would be stopped randomly on the street by people thanking him for bringing Felix to life.
“I remember this older black lady, who looked deeply into my eyes and held my hand in hers and said, ‘Thank you so much for portraying this hatred,’” Pääkkönen says.
Pääkkönen has always been an outsider looking in on the cultural divides that underpin everyday life in America. For the first time with this film, he says, that barrier was broken.
“You realise that they didn’t just go into the movies and watch the film as a story about America in the 1970s without having too much emotional attachment,” he says. “The personal experience that comes through when you receive that feedback is quite a shocking revelation into how serious it is. And what people have lived with and what kind of hatred they’ve encountered in their own lives.”
When asked if he’s received any negative feedback following the film, or if he’s been targeted by far-right trolls, Pääkkönen says he hasn’t – at least not yet.
But then, just as 20 years ago during prom, Pääkkönen today remains firm in his moral code. “I’ve been an actor for 20 years and I’ve encountered all kinds of criticism, so I couldn’t care less about some racist idiots trying to @ me today.”