We talk to the Finnish star of highly acclaimed drama series Vikings, lead bad guy in Spike Lee’s Oscar-winning film BlacKkKlansman, and fanatical fly fisherman Jasper Pääkkönen.
Photograph / @theflyfishingnation
Tell us a little about your acting background?
I have been an actor since the age of 18 (I’m now 38), starting my career in the ’90s in Finnish TV and film. My first significant international role was Halfdan the Black in Vikings, followed by the main villain Felix in Spike Lee’s Oscar-winning BlacKkKlansman.
The pinnacle of your acting career?
I walked into an audition for Spike Lee’s film not really even knowing what I was auditioning for – the only information I had was that Spike was making a KKK film. Just getting into the room with Spike was a major deal for me; I’ve been a huge fan of not just his films but his fight for racial equality ever since I was a teenager. But the fact that he chose to cast a random guy from Finland to play the lead villain, a white supremacist from the deep south, was beyond a dream come true. To be honest, had someone told me a couple of years ago that I’d be playing the bad guy in a Spike Lee joint I would have thought they had lost their minds!
How and when were you first introduced to fishing?
According to my parents I started fishing before the age of two and became incredibly passionate about fish, water and rivers. My first time fishing was with a hook and a worm on the Lake Saimaa in eastern Finland where I spent hours staring at the red and white float, and occasionally catching a small perch or roach.
Have you a favourite fishing destination or quarry?
My favourite fishing trips are the annual weeks I spend in Norway and the Kola Peninsula (Russian tundra) fishing for Atlantic salmon. I’m a single-handed fly fisherman and tend to choose rivers based on their size so I can cover most of the water with an 8wt single-handed rod. Dry fly fishing for big Atlantic salmon is the ultimate form of fly fishing, but I am also passionate about giant trevallies. I just got back from Astove Island in the Seychelles – what an incredible place.
What for you are the key ingredients to a good day’s fishing?
A good day on the water doesn’t necessarily mean catching fish: the most important components are the surrounding nature and good company. For me fishing has always been a combination of solitary moments in nature and sharing incredible experiences with good friends. You switch between those two extremes during a day. And catching a nice fish is just an added bonus.
Have you a particular fishing memory that really stands out?
As with all fishermen, I remember some of the ones that got away vividly and always go back to those memories. Like the massive cock fish I lost on a dry fly last fall in Norway after a long fight. I’ve caught some 30lb-plus salmon on dry flies and this one was much, much bigger. It’s an overwhelming feeling, the honour of being hooked into a fish of a lifetime, but fishing really isn’t about catching all the big fish. Sometimes we need to lose them, too. It’s what makes the sport so magical.
How do you juggle your passion for fishing with a busy schedule working on set?
Acting doesn’t keep me off the water much, vice versa, actually; I have a lot of time in between productions so I’m able to fish a lot all around the world. And my agents know not to mess with my summer schedules (and my Norway and Russia plans) too much! Haha.
When you’re not on set or fishing, what else do you enjoy doing?
My big passion really is to continue fighting for healthier fisheries and rivers. I spend a lot of time criticising the hydropower companies and politicians for their lack of environmental responsibility and hopefully can do so on a more global scale in the future.
In your profession, have you come across many other actors who enjoy fieldsports/fishing?
There are not many actors or filmmakers who are passionate fly fishermen. Michael Keaton is one of the only ones, and I’ve chatted about fly fishing with him a couple of times. One of my missions has been to try and promote fly fishing to the younger generation as the cool lifestyle hobby it is, and nowadays Instagram makes it possible for me to do so. I reach hundreds of thousands of Vikings fans around the world through Instagram and can try and brainwash them into trying this beautiful hobby of ours!
What’s your go-to set-up for salmon?
I fish with an 8wt single-handed rod by a Finnish manufacturer called Vision. Besides dry flies I also fish a lot with hitched Sunray Shadows and heavy micro cone tubes, often dead drifted.
Have you ever fished in the UK?
To this day I haven’t fished in the UK because Scandinavia and Russia offer such amazing trout and salmon fishing. Unfortunately, the fisheries in the UK have deteriorated through poor management and conservation.
Have you seen a marked change in salmon populations during your fishing career?
The salmon populations have been clearly affected by environmental issues such as fish farming, commercial overfishing and even climate change. In Finland we have been able to revive the Baltic Sea salmon population through rigorous public campaigning. The River Tornio has some of the biggest runs of Atlantic salmon – or its Baltic cousin – in the world, with over 100,000 salmon running the river a couple of years ago, and an average of 50,000 salmon returning annually. However, the vast majority of Finland’s salmon rivers have been destroyed by the hydropower industry, so the situation is still quite miserable.
What does your role as Patagonia’s ambassador entail?
Being a Patagonia ambassador is like a partnership between two likeminded environmental activists: they only want me to keep campaigning for healthier fisheries and rivers, nothing else. They couldn’t care less about me being an actor – it is all about the environmental side of my work that resonates with them, and that makes for a healthy partnership.