Global Star Profiles: Ólafur Darri Ólafsson
In 2018, when Iceland’s most expensive television show Trapped was playing on British television, the Guardian described its star, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, this way: “He’s huge, he’s hairy – and he’s the hottest man in Iceland,” rhapsodizing that the show was ‘raging like a blizzard in BBC4’s primetime Saturday night slot.’
The show was a worldwide success. Trapped premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and made Ólafsson an international star, critics raving about his tour de force performance as Andri, the police chief of a little fishing village investigating a brutal crime in this Nordic Noir. It aired on Viceland in the US. There are two seasons so far, and a third is in the offing.
Ólafsson realized he was a star when he encountered a fan in South Africa where he was working. He told the publication Nordic Noir, “I was at a restaurant and I went up to the bar to order something when this woman stops me to ask, are you an Icelandic actor? And I was like, yes, I am. It turns out that this woman was from the Philippines and she’d been watching Trapped in her country. So, understandably, she was a little bit skeptical about meeting a guy who she saw in an Icelandic TV show in South Africa! I’ve had a lot of those kinds of run-ins. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Trapped continued Ólafsson’s collaboration with creator/director Baltasar Kormákur with whom he had worked in 101 Reykjavik in 2000. Their partnership would go on with 2012’s The Deep (Iceland’s entry to the Oscars) and 2012’s Contraband (an English-language remake of their 2008 movie Reykjavik-Rotterdam) alongside Mark Wahlberg and Kate Beckinsale.
Ólafsson is not your typical leading man. He’s 6’5 and burly, with a powerful onscreen presence. In Trapped, he is a man of very few words, somehow managing to convey the pain of his world crumbling around him despite his stoic demeanor. “I don’t know whether it’s a Nordic thing, but men in Iceland are very locked-up, very quiet,” Ólafsson told the Guardian. “They hardly ever express emotion.” He said he based his character on this father. “I’ve never seen him cry, and he rarely gives anything away – but he can use silence very effectively.”
“I have the greatest job in the world,” he continued. “Being an actor is being allowed by society to enter the shoes of all kinds of people. Sometimes you play murderers or rapists, but other times you get to play hard-working family men like Andri who sees his world falling apart, and you hopefully learn something from that. If you are doing your work for the right reasons and with the amount of heart that has to go into it, then you come out a different person and with more knowledge than you did when you entered it.”
Ólafsson was born in Connecticut in 1973 but raised in Iceland since he was four. Starting his career on stage after graduating from The Icelandic Drama School, Ólafsson worked in theater for many years, acting in various classics such as Peer Gynt, King Lear, and The Bacchae at the National Theater of Iceland. He also appeared on stage for the Theatre of Reykjavik in several productions, then founded his own company, Vesturport Theatre.
He segued into film and television work, often writing and producing his own films such as Children (2006, submitted as Iceland’s entry to the Oscars) and Parents (2007). Other films include Beowulf and Grendel (2005), Country Wedding and White Night Wedding (2008), Kings Road (2010), Undercurrent (2010), and Stormland (2011) in his homeland.
But the busy actor also found work in other countries. He appeared in The Eagle in Denmark in 2006 and 1066 in the UK in 2009, but most of his international work has been in the USA. His Hollywood agent is almost as hardworking as he is. Ólafsson has appeared in the remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty starring Ben Stiller in 2013; 2014’s A Walk Among the Tombstones; Zoolander in 2016; Steven Spielberg’s The BFG in 2016 (a role he landed without needing to audition); The Spy who Dumped Me (2018) and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018). On television in the US, he appeared in Amazon Prime’s The Widow (2019), HBO’s True Detective (2014), Netflix’s Lady Dynamite in 2016-17, and Murder Mystery with Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston in 2019. He can currently be seen in NOS4A2, a horror series on AMC which was recently renewed for a second season, and in Eurovision: The Story of Fire Saga, a film that was released on Netflix in June 2020 after its planned launch in theaters at the time of the Eurovision Song Contest was foiled by the coronavirus.
In March 2020, it was announced that Ólafsson would star in the Icelandic TV show The Minister, in which he plays a politician running for the office of Prime Minister while hiding his bipolar disorder. Ólafsson has won several Edda Awards (the Icelandic equivalent of the Oscars), and was named Best Actor at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in 2013 for his performance in XL.