Get to know Jasper Pääkkönen
Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen’s life-long passion for fishing has led him to champion for healthier waters.
Jasper Pääkkönen is seated at his favourite corner table at Helsinki’s Löyly. He’s a regular at the waterfront restaurant: he bathes daily in the adjoining sauna – and also happens to own the place. The actor has newly returned from Los Angeles, where he is lining up new projects off the back of his acclaimed performance in BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee’s Oscar-winning, sharp-edged examination of race relations in America.
It seems ironic that an articulate freethinker from the happiest nation on earth was chosen for the bad-guy role of Felix Kendrickson, a fanatical white supremacist. Many well-known American actors vied to play the Colorado Klansman, but Lee refused to consider anyone but the “guy with all the weird umlauts in his name.”
A life-changing ten-minute audition landed Pääkkönen a plum role in the most significant project of his career. The film’s theme struck a chord with the Finnish actor, who experienced culture shock while spending a year as an exchange student in Baltimore. “I upset the local community by taking an African American girl to the prom. I would never have believed how deeply rooted racism is in modern-day America,” laments the actor, an admirer of Spike Lee since his teen hip hop days.
“Spike fights for everything I believe in – racial equality and justice.”
“Spike is one of the most influential figures fighting for everything I believe is right – racial equality and justice. Two years ago, if someone had told me I’d star in one of his biggest films and become his good friend, I would have said they’d lost their mind.”
The flashing brown eyes that add chilling intensity to the character of Felix have been Pääkkönen’s calling card since he started his career in a long-running Finnish TV series at the age of 18. Those baby browns adored by legions of teen fans have injected volatile energy into the highly varied roles he has played since then, from the disturbed skinhead in Heart of a Lion to Halfdan the Black in the TV series Vikings.
A river runs through it
Pääkkönen’s two-decade love affair with the camera has finally led to international stardom – but there’s plenty about this unpretentious celebrity that might surprise Hollywood. For starters, he’s a razor-sharp businessman and committed environmentalist. He has invested a significant sum in projects ranging from renewable energy to recycling fishing nets.
At the mention of “fishing,” those brown eyes light up. It’s a little-known fact on Hollywood Boulevard that Pääkkönen has dedicated half a decade of full-time work to promoting healthier rivers and fish populations. “The few times that I felt I truly accomplished something meaningful were when my activism had an impact on policies,” he states modestly.
“When you’re alone in nature, it’s a form of meditation.”
One of his proudest achievements was his role in pushing legislation to outlaw the killing of endangered fish species in Finland.
Perhaps paradoxically, Pääkkönen’s environmentalism springs from a lifelong love of fishing. “I’ve been fishing since I was two. For me it’s a natural progression from being a kid who loved fishing to an adult with a deep passion for conserving our waters.”
When asked whether his activism comes from a selfish place, he fires a ready response: “I want to make sure that my grandchildren can continue to enjoy fish in our waters. Is that selfish?”
The actor’s enduring passion for fly fishing has evolved beyond a “primitive hunter-gatherer urge” towards a new form of mindfulness: “It’s about standing in a river that’s been flowing there for an eternity. You don’t have to catch a single fish for a fishing trip to be successful. When you’re alone in nature, it’s a form of meditation. You’re completely aware –without being aware of being aware.”
Interrupting his fishing bliss, Pääkkönen will spend spring shooting a new Vietnam film with Spike Lee in Asia. After that, he’s set to make a documentary with Yvon Chouinard, eco-activist and legendary founder of adventure-wear brand Patagonia. The documentary is Pääkkönen’s idea – and will involve plenty of fishing. For once, he doesn’t have to choose between the movie camera and his fishing rods.
“At the wrap party of BlacKkKlansman, the film’s editor asked me which I would choose if I had a gun to my head: acting or fly fishing. I said ‘Ah, that’s an easy question!’ The editor replied: ‘Oh, sorry, of course you’d choose acting!’”
How wrong he was.
Text Silja Kudel
Photos Kim Öhrling