BlacKkKlansman's Jasper Pääkkönen Would Like to Introduce You to Sauna BeerFebruary 06, 2019
It’s easy to identify Jasper Pääkkönen as an actor. If you click over to Pääkkönen’s Instagram page, you’ll find that the Finnish star has been busy running victory laps with his castmates from BlacKkKlansman, in which he plays crazed white nationalist Felix Kendrickson. The 38-year-old catapulted to fame after he was cast in the Finnish soap opera Salatut elämät as a teenager. Soon, he became the Brad Pitt of Finland, even starring Finland’s most successful movie of all time, Bad Boys. In 2015, a more international audience became familiar with his work when he was cast as Halfdan the Black in the History Channel show Vikings. Now, even more Americans recognize him thanks to his portrayal of a KKK member in Spike Lee’s Academy Award-nominated historical drama.
But Pääkkönen considers himself a fly fisherman, actor, and sauna man, in that order. When a BlacKkKlansman colleague asked Pääkkönen on-set to choose between acting and fishing for the rest of his life, the Finn said that the answer was easy. “He goes, ‘Oh, I'm sorry—of course it's acting,’” Pääkkönen tells me over lunch at Soho House West Hollywood. “I was like, ‘No. No, it's not actually. Absolutely it wouldn't be acting.’”
For Pääkkönen, fly fishing is an obsession, and one that takes him to far-flung corners of the Earth. While it may be awards season in Los Angeles, Pääkkönen is more excited about a fishing trip off the Seychelles than red carpet events and televised ceremonies. His vocal environmental activism even caught the attention of one Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, leading to Pääkkönen taking on an ambassador role for the company.
Outside of Pääkkönen’s fishing and acting life, he’s also somewhat of a sauna celebrity. After Finland’s sauna tradition shifted from a public, communal experience to private household one, Pääkkönen and his business partners built a 6-million-euro, architecturally stunning public sauna, Löyly, in Helsinki, which opened in 2016. Last year, it made TIME's list of the World's 100 Greatest Places. Pääkkönen gets just as jazzed explaining Finland’s sauna culture as he does talking about chasing salmon in the Arctic.
We spoke to the man of many hats about how he divides his time between acting, fishing, and the sauna—which is more a part of Finnish DNA than it is a pastime.
Could you explain the tradition of a Finnish sauna beer?
After sauna, a beer is kind of like an eternal tradition. It’s been an essential part of the Finnish sauna culture. The sauna in itself is a place and a chance for an average Finn to come back home from work, heat the sauna, go sweat out the daily stress, relax, purify your mind and your body. And then I guess that one cold beer after the hot sauna just tastes so good and adds to the relaxation part of the experience. I guess it doesn't completely go hand-in-hand with the healthy purification part of the sauna. But Finns don't think of saunas as a health trend. It's been a part of our lives forever. My grandma was born in the sauna, like everybody her age. And there's more saunas in Finland and there are cars. It's more common to own a sauna than it is to own a car.
So, for a Finn, it's just a normal part of your everyday life, where your weekly routines or daily routines, depending on the Finn, depending on the person, and having a cold beer after a sauna is just an essential part for many Finns when it comes to the whole sort of sauna experience. It's a ritual, almost. You heat the sauna. A lot of Finns still have wood-heated sauna heaters, so a big part of the whole thing is putting the wood in and lighting the fire, lighting the heater, and then keep adding the wood until the sauna's perfect. Maybe an hour and a half later you go to the sauna, you do a couple of saunas back-and-forth, and then you open that cold beer. It's just the best.
Do you have a preference on the beer?
The sauna beer would preferably be kind of like a light lager. Light-tasting. Something on the lighter side, in terms of the taste. It can't be too heavy.
Are there a lot of different beer companies in Finland? Or does Finland have one traditional beer that people go to?
There's a few traditional ones. A few sort of go-to beers for Finns. One is called Lapin Kulta, which translates to “Lapland's Gold.” That would probably be kind of like the most common go-to beer. This whole microbrewery thing is really big and super popular in Finland as well nowadays, so a lot of Finns are leaning toward smaller brands and microbreweries. The appreciation for good beer is certainly on a different level now than it was a decade or two ago.
Tell me about your passion for fishing. Were you fishing since you were a kid?
Since I was less than two—that’s what my mom tells me.
Yeah. The first photo that they have of me fishing is when I was a year and eight months. Standing on this rock with a little pole, little rod, and line, and, like, a worm and a hook for hours and hours and hours. And they told me that after that fishing was pretty much everything that I talked about. Fished in the kitchen sink and fished in the toilet bowl. Wherever there was water. A piece of my mom's sewing thread—that was enough for me to feel like I was fishing.
You're just deeply connected to nature without even realizing that you're connected to nature.”
What is it that you love about fishing?
I wish I had a really simple answer to that question. You know, something in a nutshell, but it's changed throughout the years. First it's just the thrill of catching. It's something very primitive. If you get excited about something like that when you're two years old it has to be something really primitive. The urge to catch a fish. So in the first years of your fishing career it's all about just trying to catch a fish, and the most amazing moment is when you catch that fish.
But then it starts shifting toward being just amazing to be out there on the water in nature. I don't feel as grounded anywhere else in my life in any other situations as I do when I'm standing waist-deep in the water in the river that has flowed there for thousands of years. Tens of thousands of years. You're just deeply connected to nature without even realizing that you're connected to nature.
Do you get that same sensation in other fishing environments like deep-sea fishing? Or do you do other kinds of fishing?
It might sound like an elitist quote or comment but fly fishing is kind of like the most refined way of fishing. It's certainly one of the most difficult ways of catching a fish. If you really just wanted to catch a fish, there are so many easier ways to do that.
Fly fishing is almost like a secret religion in a way. Fly fishing is comparable as a hobby to something like yoga or surfing, where somebody who is really passionate about surfing or yoga defines their whole personality through that sport, through that hobby. You define yourself as a yogi, right? A surfer. You know, you don't just go and play tennis a few times a week and define yourself [as a tennis player] over everything else. But fly fishing is kind of one of those rare lifestyle sports that really becomes a lifestyle and a philosophy.
How did the Patagonia opportunity come about?
Patagonia came later because of my whole environmental politics side of things. So Yvon Chouinard, who founded Patagonia, had heard of my rowdy political campaigning through the grapevine of the fishing world. And when he was on a stopover on his way to Russia for a salmon fishing trip he reached out through somebody and wanted to set up a meeting and just talk about our mutual passion. He's a surfer, climber, fly fisher. That's his sort of identity. And then he hates hydro[power]. I hate hydro. He does his campaigning on a global scale. I do mine on a more local scale in Finland and Scandinavia. And that just kind of created the perfect match for us to sort of team up and me becoming their ambassador. And it's all about the environmental activism. That's what being a Patagonia ambassador is—really being an environmental activist. They just want you to keep doing what you're doing. They'll support you if they can. Sometimes you'll support their causes if you can.
The first trip I did to Russia was an eye-opener with my dad back in 2000. Having only fished in Finland up until that year, all of the sudden you got to see a fishery that hadn't been touched by hydro, or the forest industry and their dirt that flows into the water, or the mining industry or whatever man-made environmental disastrous industries there are. And seeing how my waters in Finland would be if we took better care of them was something that kind of launched me onto this, you know, environmental mission of trying to pitch in in the battle. Do my part. Do my share of trying to affect the politics and the policies.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.