Journey of a lifetime
Icelandic star Ólafur Darri Ólafsson discusses taking a road trip across his home country and playing ‘himself’ for six-part series Journey, which he describes as one of the best jobs of his career.
When it comes to visiting Iceland, Trapped and The Minister star Ólafur Darri Ólafsson is under no illusions about which part of the picturesque island should be first on any traveller’s itinerary.
“When tourists ask me where to go, I always say if you have time, go to the Westfjords,” he says. “They are just a unique part of Iceland and really dramatic and a beautiful place to visit.”
The actor’s recommendation comes first-hand, having recently spent time there filming Vegferð (Journey), a six-part series in which he and Víkingur Kristjánsson (Trapped, The Valhalla Murders) play heightened versions of themselves as two middle-aged actors experiencing opposing fortunes.
In the show, the fictional Ólafur Darri is riding high after a string of hit shows, while Víkingur feels as though he is at rock bottom. But when they embark on a road trip to the scenic Westfjords in a bid to reconnect with each other and take a break from modern life, they find themselves in a series of bizarre situations that force them to confront their emotions, pride and friendship.
Produced by Glassriver (Ordinary People, Black Sands) and distributed by Keshet International, the series debuted on Iceland’s Channel 2 earlier this year and has now been chosen as one of 21 Forum Exclusives that will be available to screen at this month’s edition of French television festival Series Mania.
Ólafsson and Kristjánsson have been friends off screen for almost 25 years, having met at drama school and then in 2001 establishing a theatre company together called Vesturport, which has since launched several theatrical productions and movies.
“We’ve always had this chemistry I really enjoy,” Ólafsson tells DQ from his home in Iceland. “Víkingur is one of the few people I can just nag constantly and complain to about everything – the weather, young people, anything – and he’s always part of that game.”
They were sitting sitting together in a cafe, discussing ideas and trying to work out whether they could start a new project together, when they struck upon the idea for Journey – a blend of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s foodie travel series The Trip and Danish sitcom Klovn (Clown), in which the main stars play versions of themselves in a story based around everyday situations, social awkwardness and faux pas.
“It’s not an original idea; I won’t claim that for a second,” admits Ólafsson. “It just came out of that conversation. Víkingur went home and wrote six scripts. I was shooting The Minister and I got sent these scripts. I didn’t really have time to read them, and then I started getting responses from other people around me who had read them saying Víkingur had written this brilliant thing. Then I finally sat down and read it and I just fell in love with it.”
The actor, who has built an international profile through appearances in shows such as NOS4A2, The Widow and Emerald City, says he was initially worried about playing ‘himself’ on screen, but in those early scripting stages, Kristjánsson omitted a lot of his character details to allow Ólafsson to provide his own input.
In the finished version, “my character is so completely narcissistic and so in love with himself. I really wanted to take it there,” he says of ‘Ólafur Darri,’ who is often dressed in hoodies and ripped jeans. “It’s interesting to be an actor who has reached a certain level internationally and in Iceland, because it’s such a small community. People are proud of people who do well, and I understand that.
“My image here in Iceland is really friendly; I think I’m a nice guy and I do my part in society. But I wanted to mess with that image a little bit. That was a lot of fun. This guy is constantly thinking of himself. Having said that, in the latter half of the season, it goes deeper than that. When you’re watching the first two or three episodes, you get to know Víkingur’s character quite well, and then things start to shine through and show that maybe Darri’s life isn’t as perfect as he wants to pretend it is.”
Such is the free-flowing conversational style of the series that you are left wondering how much of it is scripted and how much is improvised between the two stars. However, Ólafsson clarifies that although some lines were dreamed up on set, every scene was pre-planned, with director Baldvin Z (Black Sands, Case) joining the project to help polish the final shooting scripts ahead of production.
“That was really valuable,” Ólafsson says of the director, who also finds himself the target of some of the central characters’ jibes. “Baldvin is a pretty unique filmmaker, he’s like the nicest person to have in a room. He just has a really relaxed persona. The script went up a level with his input – it was so enjoyable to see it bloom from that.
“The scripts were our blueprint for what was happening in a scene. A lot of it was done from the script because Víkingur’s script was really funny and good, but there was definitely room for improvisation. Me and Víkingur love to nag each other, so you can just turn the camera on and, three hours later, we have talked about anything and everything. It was lovely to be able to take the piss out of Baldvin. I don’t think most of that stuff was written down, talking about his films and how serious they are. It’s so much fun.”
It seems no one is out of bounds, whether actors on screen are subverting their own reputations and images through the versions of themselves they play, or through the jokes aimed at their colleagues.
“For our local audience, there are actors and people who come into the series and basically play themselves, and most of them are riffing on the image of who they are,” Ólafsson notes. “I loved the fact that when we reached out to actors and asked them to play themselves, everyone was like, ‘Yes, I’ll do this.’ That’s just so lovely. This was one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever done.”
With a crew barely stretching beyond a dozen people, the journey started in Hólmavík, on the eastern coast of the Westfjords. The team took in the area’s stunning scenery across an 18-day road trip, filming as they drove and benefiting from unusually reliable weather.
“Usually in Iceland, you can’t count on the weather for anything – it’s definitely going to mess up your plans. But this time it didn’t,” Ólafsson recalls. “Baldvin was just so prepared, and it left me and Víkingur with nothing to worry about in terms of the look or how it was going to come out.
“We had a second unit that did a lot of drone shots, and they are incredible in the show. The Westfjords don’t need much help, they are so dramatic and beautiful on their own. This is one of the best shows I’ve ever been on in terms of production. Everything was right on the money – and in such a relaxed way, which leaves you with having time to just talk shit. That’s what me and Víkingur would do. We can talk shit anytime, anywhere.”
“People are not sure what’s real and what’s not. They find it hugely entertaining,” says executive producer Hörður Rúnarsson, with fans in Iceland particularly keen to know if Ólafsson’s real wife is in the show – and whether he does in fact have five sets of twins (he does not). “We shot it chronologically, so we were travelling during the filming, which is an interesting way to do it. People come up to me saying this is really fresh material and a different kind of filmmaking that we’re seeing less and less these days.”
Of course, with filming starting in July last year, production took place during the pandemic. But despite the increased health and safety measures, Ólafsson describes the shoot as “the loveliest summer vacation.” With such a tight schedule, filming did stretch to 10 hours on some days, but Z’s economical shooting meant many scenes were recorded without the need to capture additional coverage from multiple angles, the director being keen to avoid taking too much material into the editing room.
“Víkingur and I were shooting this dramatic scene at the harbour at Borgarnes, and we were shooting it from the back [behind the characters],” Ólafsson remembers. “The two of us are just talking, Baldvin shoots it two times and then comes over and just says, ‘We have it.’ We were like, ‘OK, now are we going to turn around?’ but he said, ‘No, I won’t shoot the other way so I won’t be tempted to change it in post.’
“For someone to do that on a TV project and just make their decision on the spot is incredibly brave. I was blown away by that trust, and it says a lot about him. It also felt incredibly cinematic. I’m not saying TV looks cheap, but sometimes you have a different mindset when you shoot TV; there’s more coverage, you want to have more options. But this often felt like we were shooting a movie, and you see it in the material. It’s really good.”
Journey is about more than just sightseeing, however. Through the series, Ólafur Darri and Víkingur share conversations about self-image and the battles they have with their on-screen and off-screen personas. They also discuss the meaning of friendship and how some friendships can be stronger than marriages.
“Even though you have this super-egotistical man and his friend who is down on his luck, you slowly start to like them more and more, especially Víkingur’s character,” Ólafsson says. “You like him, you want him to succeed. Friendship is such a beautiful part of this thing.
“The series also starts off being one thing and then it turns into another. It turns more serious, looking into the friendship and love between men and whether you are allowed to admit you are not perfect or that you have doubts about yourself. Víkingur’s character almost believes he has thrown his life away, which is absolutely not true, at least for his friend Darri, who loves him. He has a tough time showing it but, when it comes down to it, he really loves him, and that makes me happy.”
In part, the show is also a commentary on the trappings of modern life – Ólafur Darri insists on staying in four-star hotels with wi-fi, while Víkingur promises his friend’s wife they will both switch off – which speaks to the common need to live in excess, rather than moderation.
“One of my favourite things about the series is [when they discuss] what is the best way to talk about some of the delicate topics we’re dealing with in today’s society,” Rúnarsson notes. “Let’s just place two middle-aged, white, privileged men on camera and not beat around the bush. Can we talk about gay people this way or that way? Can we talk about weight or gender equality? We reference all these points and we do it head on, and that’s one of the beautiful things I see in it.”
Ólafsson picks up: “My feeling is that most of us are good people, we want to be part of the discussion and we want to be responsible members of society, and what I loved about this is we’re talking about tough things like this. The conversations about gender rights, race rights and all these things are incredibly important for us. If they are important for us, they’re also important for us to examine in every way, and also in a comedic way, and that really helps the series and makes it international.”
Since filming Journey, the actor has spent time in Australia shooting mystery drama The Tourist for the BBC, HBO Max, Stan and ZDF, while he will also continue to star in Icelandic crime drama Trapped, which is set for a third season. But he would love to hit the road again with Kristjánsson for a new adventure.
“I would love to spend more time with Víkingur and Baldvin and everyone else who worked on it. It was like a fun adventure,” Ólafsson says. “We were lucky with Covid and we had more than a few parties. It was just incredible. I would love to see if we can make that happen again.”