DQ lands in Stockholm to find a city-centre park taken over by filming for spy action thriller Agent Hamilton. The cast and creative team reveal their screen ambitions for Jan Guillou’s iconic literary character.
It’s lunchtime in Kungsträdgården, a tree-lined park in central Stockholm that is surrounded by outdoor cafés and lies in the shadow of the city’s opera house, close to the water that flows between the many islands that make up the Swedish capital.
On this bright summer’s day in August, it’s hard to see where the crowds of onlookers end and the extras filming 10-part Swedish action thriller Agent Hamilton begin. But once the cameras are rolling, it quickly becomes clear.
In a scene from the opening episode, Swedish interior minister Sissela Lindgren (played by Anna Sise) is giving a speech during the annual May Day protests when word spreads of a bomb going off a few blocks away. Urged to leave immediately, she stands by as her assistant races towards the politician’s car. It’s then that a second bomb detonates in the vehicle, leaving several dead and countless bystanders injured.
On set beside a large stage, dozens of extras are standing in their first positions, some holding bags and others grasping bright red balloons, their faces stiff with anticipation. Then when a crew member using a loudspeaker calls ‘Action,’ they all hurtle off in different directions, replicating the chaos and panic that spreads after a terrorist atrocity.
A small girl, her face covered in blood, sits next to her mother, who is lying motionless on the pavement. Other ‘victims’ lie in piles of shattered glass, their figures scattered around the smouldering remains of a black Volvo, its roof and bonnet ripped apart by the force of the blast.
As the panic continues, flashing lights from a number of arriving police cars appear in the distance. Then Jakob Oftebro, in character as Hamilton, slowly walks past the wreckage as the camera captures him surveying the devastation.
In all, more than 100 extras are involved in the set piece, with up to 200 in total filling this corner section of Kungsträdgården. In between takes, make-up artists are reapplying scars and wounds with tubes of fake blood.
Crew members are discussing whether one extra should continue to hold their balloon as they flee from the blast, while others are preparing to set an extra on fire as the camera pans around the still-burning car for a close-up on the minister cradling the body of her aide.
It’s a surreal and unsettling experience to be watching these events unfold, from the panic-stricken crowd’s screams (more will be added in post-production) to the sight of young children covered in blood and bodies lying motionless on the floor. As Oftebro tells DQ during a break in filming: “It’s horrifying, isn’t it?”
Agent Hamilton is based on Jan Guillou’s bestselling Carl Hamilton spy novels, which have become Sweden’s most iconic literary property since their debut in 1986. Though the books are set during the Cold War, the series brings the lead character into the present and plunges him in the middle of a “Cold War 2.0” between Russia and the US in the heart of Northern Europe.
Following a series of bombings and cyber attacks in Stockholm, the Swedish Secret Service, SÄPO, is struggling to find those responsible. Nobody knows Carl Hamilton has returned home and enlisted in SÄPO’s black-ops division following years of Navy SEAL training in the US, but after the attacks, he is identified as a possible suspect by agent Kristin Ek.
As they enter a cat-and-mouse chase to uncover the truth behind the attacks, they find darker forces at work, testing Hamilton’s loyalties to his country and exposing an organisation that is exploiting fake news, xenophobia and terrorism to turn a profit.
Starring alongside Oftebro (Below the Surface) are former Wallander duo Nina Zanjani and Krister Henriksson as Kristin and SÄPO boss DG respectively, plus Rowena King (Criminal Minds) and Jörgen Thorsson.
Executive producer Patrick Nebout (Midnight Sun) secured the rights to the Hamilton novels in 2016 after Guillou gave his blessing to a modern adaptation. The author created the character based on his knowledge of Swedish and international intelligence agencies, having spent a year in prison for espionage after helping to expose a covert spy group.
It’s not the first time Hamilton has been adapted for the screen, with Stellan Skarsgård and Peter Haber among those to have previously portrayed the character, who has been described as Sweden’s James Bond. But despite the flattering comparison, given 007’s lasting success on the big screen, Nebout says Hamilton is more like Jason Bourne if he were in Homeland, referring to the book-to-screen spy made famous by Matt Damon and US premium cablenet Showtime’s long-running espionage series.
“He’s very streetwise. He’s young. It’s closer to Homeland than a typical James Bond story, but you have all the same elements,” Nebout says of Hamilton. “We have action, we have a very character-driven story and we are in different locations. We are in Sweden, Russia, Germany and the Middle East. That’s where the Jason Bourne and James Bond comparisons can be made.
“There’s also a very realistic French show called Le Bureau des Légendes. We’re somewhere in the middle. We’re not completely in the naturalistic environment of Le Bureau des Légendes and we’re not in the heightened ‘fantasy’ world of James Bond.”
Inspired by movies from the 1970s including Three Days of the Condor and Marathon Man, Nebout says the aim from the outset was to create a very modern and ambitious Nordic spy thriller. Though as a result of setting the show in the present, little remains from the books except the main characters and the setup of Hamilton’s Navy SEAL training.
“The Hamilton movies were quite black and white in the sense that there were bad guys and good guys, but we wanted to be much more complex, especially now with the ‘Cold War’ situation. It’s a very blurry universe,” Nebout says. “The first season really brings something accurate and relevant to today’s world, in terms of how the corporate world can also have alliances with terrorists and how this mixes together.
“Then you have someone like Hamilton, who starts as someone very straightforward in his notions of good and bad but comes to understand he’s being used by people with a very different agenda. So it’s a journey of someone who starts off very idealistic in his views and starts peeling things back layer by layer until he understands that everything is not what he thought it was.”
Agent Hamilton is the latest Nordic drama to steer away from the popular noir detective shows that have become synonymous with the region. The series, produced by Dramacorp-Pampas Studios, also uses an authentic blend of languages depending on where the story moves, featuring Swedish, Russian and Arabic alongside English.
Behind the camera is conceptual director Erik Leijonborg, who has shown an ability to handle large-scale action on Netflix historical series The Last Kingdom and more intimate character drama with Tjockare än Vatten (Thicker Than Water).
“That’s such a lovely part of directing,” he says. “I can be with two extremely good actors doing a love scene and the next day I’m in Morocco shooting an action scene with special effects and stunts. The combination is so fun. The crucial part is telling a story but in different ways. If I have a big explosion in one of the major parks in Sweden, with a lot of tension and special effects, then we can have a scene afterwards where Hamilton’s just sitting on a bed.”
The director says a key part of the show is delving deep into the characters to ensure they drive the plot, not the other way around. “There’s more than solving the case and killing the enemy,” he says. “We also need to ask how to feel afterwards.
“I’m like a vampire – I need to live off the characters’ emotions and make them come alive. It’s fun and stimulating to film because it’s very modern, dramatic and emotional. We can have those heroic moments but I’m still totally grounded in realistic filmmaking. That’s the only thing I know; I don’t know anything else, so here I am challenged to do some more dramatic scenes. I call my shooting style ‘dramatic realism.’ It’s still very realistic but very dramatic.”
Leijonborg, who shares directing duties with Lisa Farzaneh and Per Hanefjord, also sat in on the writers room with head scribe Petter S Rosenlund (The Saboteurs), who was a fan of Guillou’s novels. Rosenlund says the biggest challenge in adapting them was coming to terms with the social and political changes in the 30-plus years since they were first published.
“It’s based on the conflict between the military and police in Guillou’s books – we have this conflict between the secret police and secret military agents,” says Rosenlund.
“When it comes to who is who and who’s dealing with what, then we have this conflict. So Kristin understands something is happening on the military side and that Hamilton belongs to this super-secret department, which is created by DG.”
Zanjani’s Kristin, a mother who must juggle the demands of her job with parenthood, is key to grounding the series. “She’s the one who tries to answer the question, ‘How does a Swedish agent fit into society?’ She will be the one trying to uncover Hamilton’s existence and put it into daylight,” the actor says of her character.
“The Swedish secret police can’t allow people to do some of the things he’s involved with. She’s the very skilled and smart police officer who starts to investigate some of the strange things that have been happening after the attack on Stockholm, so she tries to find who is behind it. [She and Hamilton] do the same thing, so they’re crossing each other.”
Zanjani hadn’t read any of the Hamilton books before accepting the role, which was created for the series. In any case, she believes “it’s better not to know [what happens in the books] because it makes you more free to find your character and make it your own,” she says. “But we all feel free in that sense. It’s the first time we’re doing it [in a contemporary setting], even though it existed before. It’s such a modern story so it makes us newly born.”
Meanwhile, Henriksson says he defined DG through the character’s relationship with Hamilton, whom he describes as being like the son DG never had. “That is a big problem. It makes relations very complicated – it’s love, it’s hate, it’s respect,” he notes.
The actor says he was inspired to join the series as Hamilton is an “iconic figure” in Sweden, much like Wallander, the fellow literary character Henriksson played on screen in more than 30 feature-length episodes over eight years until 2013. “Not everyone in Sweden has read the books but they think they know who he is,” he adds. “That’s why I’m here.”
Despite working in multiple languages in places around the world, Nebout says discussions around Agent Hamilton have always focused on the story to ensure the series has both the depth of character and complexity of plot to satisfy audiences. “That should be the focus for all producers and series,” he says. “It’s really about the script, the characters and being able to relate to those characters. Even if you hate Hamilton, it’s also about relating to him on the macro level and micro level.”
The series will debut on Scandi streamer C More before airing in Sweden on TV4. Germany’s ZDF, in association with ZDF Enterprises, is a coproducer alongside distributor Beta Film, which has already placed the series with Norway’s TV2, Denmark’s DR and Finland’s MTV3.
Having secured a two-season commitment for the show upfront, Nebout says plans are already underway for the next stage of the story. Combining impressive scale and spectacle with complex, modern-day themes, Agent Hamilton looks set to breathe new life into Guillou’s character and create an iconic spy for a new generation.
Carl Hamilton has featured in more than a dozen literary outings and several screen adaptations. But much like Daniel Craig’s first outing as James Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale, this new series takes the eponymous spy right back to the beginning, following him on his first mission.
In Agent Hamilton, little remains of Jan Guillou’s Cold War-set novels except the leading character, with the series opening just as the spy returns home to Sweden after completing training in the US with the Navy SEALs.
“He’s an activist, politically active, military trained and very capable of doing different stuff, technologically, intellectually and physically,” actor Jakob Oftebro (right) says of his character. “So he’s definitely different. He’s not that into gadgets or expensive cars. The series asks how you can be a secret agent and how it works to be in the military in a country that has traditionally been neutral. It’s super interesting to try to get into that psyche and find the righteousness in being a secret agent in Sweden nowadays.”
Oftebro’s preparation involved talking with current and former military veterans, secret agents, Navy SEALs and bodyguards, as well as plenty of physical training. But the star’s primary focus has been on finding Hamilton’s humanity, aided by speaking to people about how this kind of job can affect your life and mental health.
“I’m trying to find the human in the character and being a special agent, not only seeing someone as super cool doing super-intelligent stuff,” he explains. “We’re starting this story days after he arrives back home, so I’m trying to imagine being born in Stockholm and then leaving to train at the Navy SEAL academy and then coming back to Stockholm to be a secret agent. It’s quite a difficult job. Stockholm is not the biggest city in the world – obviously you would know people, so how does it work? How do you infiltrate? And how do you work as a secret agent in the city where you were born and raised?
“I think a lot of people can relate to that, if you’ve studied abroad or lived abroad and then returned. It’s always strange. You will eventually meet the teenage version of yourself or the child or have old memories. But you have to break loose from that and think, ‘I’m a secret agent now.’ It’s also difficult in a country that is so pacifistic and against war.”
After an on-set injury earlier this year that put production on hold, Oftebro recovered to take his place in front of the camera, which he says has been a huge honour.
“I have a dramatic background so after doing a couple of the action scenes, it’s nice to have a scene where you can see that he’s a human being and not a machine,” he continues. “The most fun has been when Hamilton and Kristin [Nina Zanjani] finally sit down together and the conflict comes to the surface. Everybody’s just human. Otherwise, you’re a psychopath. What’s interesting is the question of whether Hamilton is a psychopath. I really enjoy the character. I love doing this.”