It’s early evening in California and the sun is still shining. Nine hours away, the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik is also enjoying its summer where the midnight sun burns relentlessly. For Reykjavik-born actor Atli Óskar Fjalarsson, the two are both worlds away.
Since leaving Iceland to study acting at college, both Atli and his native country have been in the spotlight with the release of his latest film, Sparrows (Þrestir) which made its Australian debut at this year’s Scandinavian Film Festival.
“It’s surprising and amazing that film and TV coming out of Iceland is reaching so far,” he says.
Perhaps more surprising is Atli’s claim that, unlike in LA where the number of aspiring actors outweighs those with film credits to their names, in Iceland acting and the arts are both viable career prospects.
“One wouldn’t think of it as being prominent in the film business, but I’ve been working steadily since I was 16,” the 23-year-old says.
“There are a lot of government subsidies and help. They’ve tried to fund film-making and art installations and this continued support is very valuable to the film industry.”
Beginning with voice-over work at age 12, Atli’s first foray into acting came through Rúnar Rúnarsson’s short film, 2 Birds. Years passed before the two crossed paths again and Rúnar mentioned he was working on Sparrows, a coming-of-age film about an estranged teenage boy, whom he was having difficult casting.
“As a joke, I asked ‘Why don’t you cast me?’ I was 21, had a full beard and wasn’t really material for a 15-16 year old boy,” he recounts.
Thinking nothing of the casual banter, Atli moved onto his next job shooting an ad for an Icelandic telephone company where he was working with Rúnar’s wife, who couldn’t believe the transformation in the freshly-shaved Atli.
After seeing some pictures, Rúnar cast Atli as Ari, the lead in Sparrows.
So is getting a leading role really that easy?
“I just needed a hair cut and a shave,” Atli laughs. “It’s amazing what it will do.”
Sparrows is an unflinching look at life as an adolescent whose alienation is echoed in his remote surroundings. Acknowledging that there is a certain universality in Ari’s character, Atli also notes that the two don’t have a lot in common.
“I think everyone can see something in Ari because he’s so representative of loneliness, which is such a strong theme in the film,” he says.
“I’m a little more open to people around me than he is, and I have less difficulty talking.”
Watching Sparrows from an outsider’s perspective makes one wonder how many young Icelanders feel trapped by their surroundings and want to escape. The answer, according to Atli, is no more than any other country.
“Most get a wonderlust to at least explore, go abroad to study and take a trip somewhere but most have returned,” he says, adding that after the country’s infamous economic collapse more and more are deciding not to.
It’s a feeling he’s not immune to, choosing to leave Iceland to study a Bachelor of Acting. There was some deliberation between London and New York, neither of which felt quite far away enough.
“I chose LA not to run away but to explore,” he adds.
With a few more projects lined up, Atli is unsure of when he will return to Iceland.
“I’m not sure if I’ll settle in Iceland until I’m older, possibly when I have kids,” he says.
“Right now I don’t mind flying back and fourth.”
My Iceland: Atli’s favourite places
This is a national park where congress was first formed. It’s beautiful and has such a vast history.
It’s a valley with hot springs and a river running through it, which I love.