He has been making Sweden laugh for more than 30 years, creating characters comedy-lovers of all ages have come to adore. Whether in the suit of Bertil the disastrous but charming gardener, Greger Hawkwind the kilt-and-stiletto-sporting fireman or the hundred-year-old man who very famously climbed out of a window, Robert Gustafsson’s comic brilliance shines brighter than ever – most recently returned to Stockholm’s theatre stage. Scan Magazine talks to the actor and comedian about being “the funniest man in Sweden”, that blockbuster film, and being a somewhat misunderstood introvert.
“I never really liked that epithet, to be honest,” the humble actor says when talking to Scan Magazine before an evening show of Kom igen Charlie! (Come on Charlie!, an adaptation of The Foreigner), his recent comeback to the stage of Stockholm’s Oscar’s Theatre. “I did a show quite a few years back, after which a journalist wrote in the paper that I was ‘the funniest man in Sweden’. I didn’t think I’d done a good job at all. Since then it’s stayed with me, but I’m still quite baffled by it. I don’t know, it’s almost like saying that you’re the ‘world’s best sauce’ – it’s all subjective, you know?”
Creating comedy – from slapstick to bleeding thumbs
Looking at Gustafsson’s extensive career, however, it’s difficult to diverge from superlatives. Having started out as a children’s TV actor and variety show performer, he became part of Killinggänget, a Swedish comedy group started in 1991. Gustafsson rose to fame through simple but intelligent humour, not excluding downright slapstick comedy, famously parodying more characters than any of his co-actors in the group. Diversity quickly turned out to be one of his biggest strengths, skilfully illustrated by further appearances on the theatre stage and TV shows like Parlamentet (a Swedish version of the British If I ruled the World). Add a line-up of no less than 16 appearances as various eccentrics and celebrities on the loved-by-all sing-along TV show Allsång på Skansen, and Gustafsson’s knack for creating hilarious characters appears unquestionable.
“I think the whole process of creating a new character, for me, begins by observing nearby environments and taking inspiration from people I see – preferably somewhere like the grocery shop on the corner. It’s also important to look at situations that aren’t necessarily funny to begin with,” he says, using Bertil, the TV gardener who constantly ends up hurting himself, as an example. The hapless but equally unruffled character was inspired by Bertil Svensson, the host of a Swedish 1980s gardening programme who became famous by cutting his thumb while recording, but who proceeded with the taping quite unaffectedly.
“That’s a physical kind of humour, which has more to do with luck than skill. That’s what happened to Bertil – I mean cutting your thumb and having blood rush down your hand isn’t funny at all, but somehow it worked, in its own context. It’s something I wouldn’t have known without trying it out.”
While famous for creating a great number of personages from scratch, Gustafsson is perhaps equally noted for his spot-on imitations of celebrities. A sports gala provided a perfect opportunity to joke about with the now retired Swedish speedway rider Tony Rickardsson, who despite his many international championship wins, had yet to receive a Swedish Sports Award.
“It was a time when motorsports felt very overlooked in Sweden. I thought about how he must have felt, sitting there at award show after award show, having won all these gold medals and championships without ever winning one single sports prize back home in Sweden. I made him out to be very bitter about this loss in the parody, which he wasn’t at all in real life,” Gustafsson laughs. “Doing imitations or parodies feels a bit like stealing, in that way, because you’re adopting somebody else’s success.”
Rainman, Charlie – and a hundred-year-old rebel
Stealing or not, it seems to be working. Having acquired international fame as Allan Karlsson in the film adaptation of Jonas Jonasson’s novel The Hundred- Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, Gustafsson is back on the revered stage of Stockholm’s Oscar’s Theatre in this autumn’s production of Kom igen Charlie!; this theatre is a place that connotes fond memories and admiration. “It’s the classic theatre stage, and that context – the velvet curtains and classic interiors – makes the whole experience quite special. You also have that direct connection with your audience, which I like. It doesn’t ever go flat, or get boring,” he says caringly.
In the production Gustafsson plays the boring and somewhat depressed Charlie, a man so irreparably shy that he will do anything to avoid social interaction. When he is left by his friend (played by Claes Månsson) at a guesthouse, Charlie therefore avoids conversation by pretending, on his friend’s request, not to understand the language.
“It’s funny – I can’t help but notice a pattern,” Gustafsson laughs. “I’ve played Raymond in Rainman, who had a social handicap that I had to familiarise myself with, and then this hundred-year-old antisocial character comes along, whose only friends, initially, are alcohol and dynamite. Then we have Charlie, who is shy to the point where it holds all his communicative powers back.” He pauses for a second. “Charlie is a new experience, because the main portion of the acting happens through listening, which is really difficult to do. Maybe a sign that I haven’t had that many supporting parts,” he says jokingly.
The misunderstood introvert
His CV does, quite correctly, feature more main roles than supporting ones. While his on-stage performances don’t allude to any kind of inhibition, Gustafsson does not come across as the least bit brash. Does the description “shy” fit him at all?
“No, I’d say that’s a misunderstanding. I’m an introvert. I listen rather than speak. I’m a contemplative person who likes to think a lot. It’s a subconscious thing, and it’s quite closely linked to how I build characters and do impersonations – I observe people, how they act and what’s particular about them,” he explains.
It’s difficult touching on the subject of particular characters without asking about Gustafsson’s interpretation of Allan Karlsson, the hundred-year-old man who not only climbed out the window, but also crushed box office records for the highest-grossing Swedish film of all times. While Gustafsson says he instantly knew he wanted to play Allan, the film’s enormous international success came as somewhat of a surprise.
“I never thought it would do as well as it did. The book grew in popularity while we were filming, so in that manner the two works emerged together,” he says, musing: “I was immediately attracted to the idea of playing someone that much older than myself. I also had to portray him between the ages of his early twenties and the age of 100, which was a real challenge.”
Gustafsson confirms that he would be interested in following up the success with a sequel. “Interest creates interest. We’ve talked about it, and there’s definitely some material there to work with. We’d like Jonas [Jonasson] to be part of the project again, of course.”
As for the future on the whole, the 49-year-old actor, who will turn 50 in December, remains characteristically humble. Through a recent pledge to give back to the acting community, he will this autumn hand out an award to young entertainers and actors in his home locality of Skövde, to encourage young people to take to the theatre stage.
“It may sound like a cliché, but it’s time to give young people the same chance I had when starting my acting career. That’s what matters to me today,” he says.
As for future craziness on his own part, one thing in particular comes to mind: “I’d love to play a fairy-tale king. That’s a dream I have yet to fulfil.”
For the king of comedy, we’re sure the dream will come true.
By Julie Lindén, published in SCAN Magazine issue 70 – November 2014 | Main photo: Mats Bäcker