Joel Kinnaman's body takes a beating throughout much of Altered Carbon — part of the show's theme of how our physical selves are not our identities but are ultimately disposable in a world where consciousness is digital and can be transferred from one "sleeve" to another.
Kinnaman plays one consciousness (Takeshi Kovacs) sleeved in the body of another (Elias Ryker), and some of the violence that happens to his character is because of the confluence of the two. Kinnaman insisted on doing his own stunts for the show, including two Fight Drome sequences, which meant a lot of potential injury to his own real-life "sleeve."
"I tore my hamstring, I broke my foot, there were a lot of cuts and bruises," Kinnaman recalled during a chat with SYFY WIRE.
Since he had a long lead-up time, Kinnaman trained with the 87Eleven Action Design team, stunt coordinator Larnell Stovall, and stunt double-turned-coach Tim Connolly, for nearly six months, boning up on judo, tae kwan do, jiu-jitso, kali knife fighting, gymnastics, wrestling, and wire training. For the first Fight Drome sequence – a "null gravity" knife fight in which he had to hang 30 feet off the ground – his main move was to grab his fellow combatants and slam them with his fist. The second Fight Drome sequence, however, was much more involved and took a week to shoot.
"We were shooting in a garage with like 350 extras screaming, so after a few days, with the smoke machines, the air was pretty bad," the actor said. "We were in some sort of cage with a sandy bottom, and so there was sand in every pore. I felt like I swallowed a gallon of sand during that."
His co-star, Martha Higareda, who plays police officer Kristin Ortega, said that during the Fight Drome scene, she was simulating her punches and kicks, but that Kinnamen was executing his for real. "Joel was really fighting," she said, laughing. "A little part of me felt like, ‘Oh my god, they're really killing each other!'"
After one take where Higareda's character threw a chain, and it "magically" wrapped around the leg of one of their genetically mutated combatants – "the one take where everything worked out perfectly," she said – episode director Alex Graves came running into the arena. "He was saying, ‘Oh my god, you guys! This is epic! This is so Altered Carbon!" she said. "And then all the extras cheered. It was just so amazing."
"Yeah, that was so cool," Kinnaman added, grinning.
Even more impressive than any of the pair's action stunts, however, was the fact that Kinnaman did a great many of them with his foot in a cast — including jumping sidekicks. "He kept training," Higareda attested. "He was like, ‘We'll do it with the boot on my foot.'"
"I think the scene where he sneaks aboard the Head in the Clouds in the back of the car, and has a fight with the two guards, was his first action with the broken foot," Connolly said. "He could still barely put any weight on it, but we arranged the choreography to play with the poison, so if he looked off-balance from the foot, it played with the scene. We also shot most of it from the waist up, so you couldn't see the big boot on his foot."
The injury happened about halfway through the production, during the middle of shooting a more intimate scene with Higareda.
Kinnaman kept stumbling across an intricate line of dialogue that he couldn't remember, take after take. "I kept getting back to the same point and saying the wrong thing," he said. "The third time in a row, I was like, ‘F**k!' And I just turned around, and kind of soccer-kicked this big, heavy, English armoire. I thought it was a prop and that it was going to go flying, but no. My foot just absorbed everything."
Although he was in "deep pain," Kinnaman didn't notify anyone, and continued shooting the scene. Since his blocking required him to cross in front of the camera, he forced himself to walk as he usually would, and as soon as he was off-camera, allowed himself to limp, "like the Hunchback of Notre Dame!" as Higareda described it. This, of course, confused his co-star.
"Martha was like, ‘Excuse me, Joel, I'm still acting. Could you not do that?'" Kinnaman said, imitating Higareda's voice and accent.
"I didn't know he had hurt himself!" Higareda said in her defense. "All I heard was a thud, but I didn't know he had hurt himself."
"Why would I be limping if I wasn't hurt?" he asked her, gently teasing.
"I thought he was making fun of me!" she said, laughing.
"No, no, no," he said, laughing. "I wish I could say I broke my foot in the middle of a big action sequence like Fight Drome, but clearly, it was just a mistake."