“The weight on his shoulders make him a little bit psycho after a while. But he’s doing it for you guys, he’s always doing it for you guys.” Arvin Kananian on the captain of a drifting spaceship.
Arvin Kananian plays the Chefone, or Captain, of the Aniara – a shuttle spaceship taking passengers from an abandoned Earth to their new settlement on Mars. The Aniara is a temple to consumerism, with shops to distract and a sentient computer, called the MIMA, where people can recall they favourite relaxing memories of Earth.
But a space junk strike leaves the ship drifting for years, and the passengers (and the MIMA!) unable to cope. The Chefone is one of the few people on board who knows their likely fate, though he keeps it to himself.
The film is based on a famous poem of the same name written in the 1950s by Harry Martinson (later Sweden’s poet laureate), and was originally composed in response to hydrogen bomb tests; in this new film it’s an allegory about climate change and consumerism.
I spoke to Arvin about the Chefone, second chances, and Insta moments in space…
Sarah: Well, I absolutely loved the film, though it’s a bit bleak at the end! I haven’t read the poem, but it clearly has this huge cultural significance. Is it the kind of poem you all read in school or is it just that you’re all aware of it?
Generations before us did. Everyone read it in school, but nowadays, no. And I didn’t, either.
I don’t even know if I knew about it. My older friends and my parents’ friends – not my parents because they’re from Iran – they all read it in school. They had to read it, and they’ve seen it as an opera, as a play, or something like that. But then it disappeared for many years. And now it’s back!
Now it’s climate change, consumerism, and before it was nuclear weapons tests. We keep screwing up – there can’t have been a stage where it wasn’t applicable.
I know, which is weird. It’s like it was lost.
So did you go and read it? Because I’ve heard it’s quite a tricky poem. I read it was difficult, so I didn’t read the poem!
Yeah, it was really difficult to understand. I read the script twice before I read the poem. That’s why I understood a little bit from the poem, but a lot of friends that have read the poem have just said that you don’t really read it with the goal to understand the setting – you just read it to absorb the atmosphere.
So it’s not a straight narrative where this happens, and then at the end this happens?
Well, it is, but you don’t really need to get there. You just need to absorb, that kind of thing. But I actually understood the story after I read the script twice.
So what was it that attracted you; is it the sci-fi or the Chefone himself? Because he’s tricky, isn’t he?
Yeah, he is a bit tricky. He’s stone-faced. It was the film and the script. I didn’t see myself as Chefone at all when reading the script. I wasn’t even thought of to play Chefone. So when I read the script I was just blown away by how well the script was written, and how I could care about so many different sub-stories and so many different characters with their own stories, many more than actually made the film.
It’s a film where you really feel you’re there, which makes it so frightening.
It has all those different characters, and I can identify with that, while you identify with someone else and how they react to stuff. I just loved the script.
He goes from being authoritative to being authoritarian. When you’re taking on a character who is clearly problematic, do you have to find something to like in him? Or is it just you can understand his journey? Because it’s a really interesting journey, I think.
Yes, I understood him. He comes from a military background and he’s been a lieutenant and a captain in the military. So his way of thinking is always what’s best for my platoon and company. I can’t involve emotion into this, I just have to think what’s best, what’s most logical.
And I liked him throughout the whole thing because what he did, he never did from a bad place, he never did maliciously. He always tried to take care of everyone, then he took some really horrible decisions.
The pressure even gets to him, doesn’t it?
After about ten years!
The weight on his shoulders make him a little bit psycho after a while. But he’s doing it for you guys, he’s always doing it for you guys.
You know, what probably helped me understand him is that he’s kind of parental.
And the passengers, they’re consumers, they’re being distracted, but they also have no agency. They can’t do anything about what’s happening. And they think that your character can.
Exactly. Like he can do something about it, that he can just like keep the cool.
But you can understand him a lot more when you think of him as a kind of Dad. A Victorian Dad.
Yeah. He has to keep everything running. Everyone gets into sex cults and drugs and stuff, and he has to keep everything running somehow.
Yeah. He gets no fun. Just that exercise machine. I thought his journey was very realistic over the time span.
What I found really fascinating is, it’s like six years, 10 years, and then 24 years, and all the way through I was thinking “they might be rescued…”
You thought they would be rescued?
Looking back now, I can see that would never work because that would be saying you’ve done all these terrible things to the planet, but hey, you get a second chance. And you can’t just go and replicate the same mistakes on Mars, or be rescued at the last minute. But I was attached to the characters and I felt quite sad, you know? Normally, I cry at anything in films but once I come out I’m done. But this one, I’ve been thinking about a lot.
Really? It’s done its job, then!
I wonder if it’s because it’s lower budget and it has to be about the writing, the characters and the performances, to make you believe in it. And it looks very realistic.
Exactly. That was the whole point, though, that we don’t give us humans an excuse, that this is in the future. It’s actually now.
He [Harry Martinson] wrote this in ’57, but he wrote this about now.
If you were in that position, first of all do you think you’d cope? And secondly, would you rather be Chefone or would you rather be one of the passengers?
That’s a good question. I probably would not want to be Chefone and knowing what happened, because he’s so lonely.
That really comes across, I think.
Yeah. And then I think he had a love relationship with the superintendent. And when he died, even Chefone died inside. And so no, I wouldn’t want to be him. I would want to be one of the, what’s it called… when ignorance is bliss.
You almost get to a point where Chefone’s approach of keeping people in the dark, when you get to the point of no return in a crisis, it’s probably the kindest thing, isn’t it.
Probably, yes. I think he understands that in the future there’s going to be nothing else to do. You can’t cope with it in any other way. You can just keep people in the dark and keep them blissful, as much as you can.
Did you find as an actor you could leave him on-set when you went home at the end of the day?
This is the kind of thing where I left him. I really left him every day. He was in space, so it was easy to leave him. For a couple of weeks before, when I did the whole preparation for it and training for it, I got into him, but it was him on Earth, right?
So then as soon as I started shooting and it was him in space, I couldn’t bring him back. Because I couldn’t see it.
Did you enjoy playing him, because he’s really the only main male character.
Yeah, I guess he is. It was a lot of fun playing him. Because he’s so rigid, and he doesn’t let his emotions seep through, it was fun to at some points in the film to let it show a little bit. At times let him become human. Just sometimes, a little bit, and then he keeps cool.
He’s a coiled spring the whole time, isn’t he? Like how many years can you you hold that in?
Exactly. And then in the end, he just goes automatic.
Something I though about afterwards was, who was the last person left?
I think it was the blind poet, the blind poet at the end. Do you remember, there’s an old woman that’s blind. I think it’s her. Or it is our lead, MR [the Mimarobe, in charge of the MIMA] She’s super-tough.
Emotionally, she’s so resilient.
She’s super-positive and that positivity, that resilience, maybe makes her the last person.
That would just be so, “the last person, please turn out the lights”. I mean, what would you do? I’d read a lot of books if it was me. I have young children, I don’t get that chance very often.
Having the whole spaceship to yourself, even if it’s just for a couple of months, or even for a couple of days on your own, it’s still a lot. Just an hour alone on that thing is horrible.
And we’re so used to distracting ourselves. In Aniara they’ve got the MIMA. We’ve got phones, video games, everything, and the other thing we do nowadays is to document everything. So we document our alone time. Here I am on a beach, reading a book, I put it on Instagram.
What are you working on next? Something cheerful?
Something cheerful, yeah! It is quite cheerful. It’s a horror thing. Horror is a bit lighter. Fun horror. It’s like a Swedish Stranger Things, it’s a TV show.
And then I’m doing a feature which is super-crazy and super-light. Which takes place in an institution, like a school. But it’s only guys and they’re all gay and they’re only in that world, and they’re super-flamboyant and they have these parades in the school. That’s going to be so much fun. So it’s not the Aniara captain!
Would you like to go into space?
Super-scared, but definitely.
Definitely. I mean I’d never pass the chance to go to space.
Never. It would be like a ride. I would never want to go bungee jumping, that’s like the last thing I want to do, but if I’m next to a bungee jumping space, I have to do it.
You’d have to try.
I’m here. I’m right here, why would I pass? Space is a little bit different from bungee jumping obviously, but…
I’d probably think, “Well, I can put it on Instagram. So I’ll get a few Likes.”
It’s a good moment. It’s a good Insta moment. (laughs)
Have you seen Apollo 11? It’s a really good documentary about the moon landing. It makes you think about pioneers and that’s something that the Chefone says, isn’t it? About people being accidental pioneers.
Even if I don’t want to go into space I feel like other people should do it on my behalf.
Yeah. And then when I can get an Instagram moment, send me up there.
There are very few “firsts” left, aren’t there?
Yeah. Imagine that wonder and that exploration during that time when we were exploring space. That gave us Internet. Which is kind of scary when you think about it, because then what did Internet bring us, or where is that taking us? What is that next thing that is like the Internet, that we would never be able to even fantasise?
But so often with progress, you see things and you think that would never happen, no one would let that happen. And then little by little, everything creeps, creeps towards it. But you have to have people asking questions. I think those voices are lost sometimes now.
Yeah, we’re very focused on efficient exploration and being efficient in everything we do and just exploring as much as possible, it’s like going forward, forward, forward.
Yes. But, why are we doing it?
Yeah. Why are we doing it? When we get there, what does that mean for us and how are we going to spread that wealth from exploration? How are we going to divide that up? We don’t really ask ourselves those questions.
One of the things that I thought was so great with Aniara is that no one’s learnt anything. It’s just, well as another planet, and we can get there…
Selfishly go there and do whatever we’ve been doing.
Read my 4-star review of Aniara.
Check out my interview with Aniara directors Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja.
Watch the trailer now: