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Sverrir Gudnason takes on the world

With his interpretation of iconic tennis player Björn Borg, the Swedish-Icelandic actor is standing on the verge of international stardom. But is he ready to take the leap? We set the alarm clock to 4 in the morning to find out.

Words Marcus Joons
Photography Magnus Reed
Styling Ursula Wångander

Sverrir Gudnason takes a break from eating his takeaway sushi in one of Stockholm’s parks and fishes his mobile phone out of his pocket. After reading an sms he’s just received from his mother, who is randomly thanking him for taking her to a Leonard Cohen concert four years ago to the day, he scrolls through his pictures.

He finds what he’s looking for.

It’s a still of a longhaired, sun kissed and slightly bearded man in white tracksuit bottoms, tennis shirt and a short leather jacket climbing out of a car at an airport. The still is from the first scene of the film Borg/McEnroe — and the man in the picture is Sverrir Gudnason who’s playing the role of the Swedish tennis star Björn Borg as he arrives in London in 1980, prior to winning his fifth straight Wimbledon title.

— I really like the combination of the leather jacket with the Fila gear, and the thick gold chain around his neck. He had a special, and rather cool, style. I’ve heard that Björn saw the photo and wondered who it was; him or me, says Sverrir with a smile.

That Björn Borg can’t tell the difference between himself and Sverrir in the photo is a credit to the skills of the hair and makeup team. Those who see the film, which mostly takes place during the Wimbledon Championships in 1980, will notice that Sverrir has captured much more than just the physical similarities of the Swedish tennis star.

He’s adopted the straight and determined gait, the characteristic double backhand and the wandering gaze that turns toward his nervous, chain smoking fiancée Mariana seated in the stands. Particularly when, as the final match approaches, Borg feels that he is starting to lose his mojo and the fear of losing replaces his joy of winning. That’s when Sverrir skilfully helps the audience understand the fear, anxiety and loneliness at the top that no doubt Borg felt after four straight wins at the world’s most prestigious tennis championship. All this is occurred as Borg’s diametrically different opponent, the hot-headed John McEnroe, played by Shia LaBoeuf, is on his way up, hungry for his second Grand Slam title after winning the US Open on home turf the previous year.

If Borg wins — which he, spoiler alert, does — he would make history. If the film Borg/McEnroe is successful, it perhaps won’t make Sverrir Gudnason a legend, but it might make him a name in Hollywood. However, the question is: How keen is Sverrir for this to happen?

Sverrir Gudnason was born in 1979 in Lund, a university town in the southernmost part of Sweden. His Icelandic parents, Gudni Johannesson and Bryndís Sverrisdóttir were studying there at the time. Two years later his parents received their degrees, and the family moved back to Reykjavik.

It was here that Sverrir landed his first job as an actor, 5 years old, in a television advert. When he was 11 he applied for, and was cast as, the lead of a Halldór Laxness play at the Reykjavik City Theatre. One year later, it was time for Sverrir to be uprooted yet again. His father Gudni, a professor of Construction Sciences, was offered a post at the Royal Technical Institute in Stockholm. So once again the family moved to Sweden.

— It took me a month to learn the language. Swedish is easy to learn if you’re Icelandic, but getting the vocabulary took longer. I worked on building it while at school. Iceland is also an easy country to be from if you move to Sweden. Swedes feel related to us, and they think Iceland is exotic and exciting. But it was still hard to learn all the codes, it was like moving to a new world even though it was so similar to my old world. Imagine how it must be to come here as a twelve-year-old from Afghanistan. It must be really hard. I always felt like I was doing the wrong thing, such as wearing the wrong clothes for the occasion. For instance, I could show up in jeans on a day when we were supposed to do orienteering in school.

Sverrir, known in Sweden and Scandinavia for leading roles in grand, scripted, historical productions, was nonetheless sceptical when he received the invitation to play the Swedish tennis icon who often regarded as Sweden’s greatest athlete of all time.

Sverrir had played football when he was young and tried Glíma, Icelandic wrestling, but he had never as much as held a tennis racket. He had no idea of what month the Wimbledon Championships take place in (end of June/ beginning of July). He admits to living a lifestyle closer to that of John McEnroe’s in the era of the film. McEnroe ate and drank what he wanted, played electric guitar in a Ramones t-shirt between matches and hated practising so much that he signed up for the doubles tournaments so that he could use the matches as practice sessions.

Sverrir’s scepticism over accepting the role was rooted in the fact that he understood it would be, as he put it, “a catastrophe” if his interpretation of Björn Borg was not an accurate representation. So, when he finally accepted the role, he prepared for it as if he was actually going to play in the Wimbledon Championships: he read old magazines and books such as Stephen Tignor’s “High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and the Untold Story of Tennis’s Fiercest Rivalry”.

He watched documentaries and tv clips — but the most beneficial elements of his preparations came from watching all of Borg’s tennis matches. It was then that he understood that there were identifiable looks, expressions and movement patterns that he could emulate. In addition, he knew that he would have to mould his body to match Borg’s. To be able to withstand the physical requirements of the role, Sverrir practised tennis for 2 hours a day on an outside court in a Stockholm suburb. He hired a private trainer and only ate calorie counted food that was delivered to his home.

Sverrir’s breakfast for six months consisted of a mix of white cabbage, chia seeds, berries, white wine vinegar and oats.

— I felt really bad the first days. It was like I was falling apart. Then I started to feel a bit better and in the end I had no allergies that year and didn’t need to take antihistamines. I didn’t have one bad thought during the eight months of the film production. Not one single negative thought. Now I understand that it’s really true that you can prescribe physical exercise as a cure for psychological illnesses. It’s so much better than drinking.

Sverrir believes that if it hadn’t been for the all the physical training, he probably wouldn’t have been able to cope with the performance anxiety of being on set in Prague on the replica of Wimbledon’s Centre Court, playing in front of the hundreds of extras sitting in the stands.

— During the process before filming began, I had felt that this was not going to work. But then I thought about tennis as a dance, where the point that we were going to play should be played exactly as it was in the real match, just like learning dance steps. It was really just about rehearsing a few steps, and then hitting a few balls at a time. Thank goodness I had been through something similar before. I was part of the cast of the stage adaptation of the film “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” at the Stockholm City Theatre. Just as in the film, the play is built around the fact that all the lines are sung over a jazz accompaniment. After just five of the ten weeks of rehearsal, I started to feel like this really wasn’t going to work. It was too hard. I thought to myself that I was going to need to tell the theatre director that I couldn’t do this. But when you give up too early, then it really doesn’t work out. You have to keep going until it’s set in your muscle memory. What was it Churchill said…? ”If you go through hell, keep going!”

Sverrir says that he is a bit worse for wear, having woken up in the middle of the night for the photo shoot that accompanies this article. It took place in Stockholm at dawn. The strict diet of the film production is gone. I notice that he is sipping a Coca-Cola to wash down his nigiri sushi. The long bleached hair from the movie is gone too.

— I cut my hair as soon as I knew there wouldn’t be any additional takes for the production. I would have felt silly walking around with that look afterwards, because people might have thought that I actually thought that I was Björn Borg!

Something tells me that Sverrir will have to get used to waking up in the middle of the night for photo shoots. Being part of an international movie such as “Borg/McEnroe” and playing Björn Borg with Shia LaBoeuf and Stellan Skarsgård (who plays Borg’s trainer and constant companion Lennart Bergelin) in the supporting roles doesn’t go by unnoticed.

Hollywood and the European blockbuster films seem just a smash away. There are many who have seen his potential. Sverrir is now represented by the London agency Tavistock Wood, home to, amongst others, the Oscar winner Alicia Vikander. He is now 38 years old. But his age didn’t seem to prevent him from portraying a 24-year-old Björn Borg in 1980. Sverrir is aware that he is now perhaps being seen as the next Alexander Skarsgård or Joel Kinnaman.

— For such a long time I talked about trying to get an agent in LA and I’ve also been there for meetings. But the last time, I can’t really remember when it was exactly, I realised that I wasn’t at the right place in my life for that to happen. I had small children and just driving from where I lived to LA to see that agent took half a day. So I just felt (he makes a retching sound) real anxiety. I sat in traffic more or less the whole day. So I just let that opportunity drift away. I understood that if I was ever going to work in la it wasn’t to move there, work odd jobs at a restaurant and find an agent and work my way up. Instead I decided to put all my energy into making it in Sweden.

Said and done.

Sverrir followed his plan and now his three daughters: Salka, Sísí and Blanka are a little older 13, 11, and 4 respectively.

— I’m definitely in a better place now that the children are older.

Can you have children and be an actor?

— No, I wouldn’t say that it’s possible, especially if you work in theatre productions. You’re gone the wrong hours of the day. But when it comes to film productions, then yes, I suppose if something comes a long that I really want to do I will have to see how to make it work. I still have no desire to move to Los Angeles, I really like it here. But if someone were to ask me to come over and make a Hollywood film I would definitely consider it, if it was a cool project and well paid. But I’m not the guy who says “yeah now it’s off to Hollywood!” If it happens, it happens.

Swedish actors usually have difficulties internationally because of their English. In Borg/McEnroe you got away with speaking Borg’s English with the Swedish accent. Is your English ready for Hollywood?

— It’s ok, but I don’t know how much of a hindrance it is. In some cases perhaps, but I’ve made larger sacrifices than that for roles that I’ve had.

Tennis is basically about hitting a ball over a net in order to either pass an opponent or force them to make a mistake. Isn’t it a little frustrating that acting isn’t as easy, but rather it’s about something as abstract as finding the right feeling?

— Absolutely! It is abstract! As an actor, I wish I had better control of my skills. I can watch myself afterwards and think “ I could have done that better” and when I feel that I’ve done a good job and everything feels authentic and interesting, I don’t know how I did that.

Björn Borg said in a television interview when he was just 15 years old that his goal was to be the best in the world. Have you ever had such a broad and clear goal?

— I had an early goal that was just to be an actor, and then I dreamt of a larger context and I have achieved that too. But I haven’t yet finished with that dream, so I am keeping that bit to myself, so that the opportunity can be taken if it arises.

Is there anything that you can identify within yourself that Björn Borg also has?

— I can identify with choosing a profession that brings a certain celebrity status with it. There are a number of things that are difficult, and I can relate to what a relief it is, especially when I am travelling abroad, to not be recognised. I was in Greece recently and didn’t see a Swede for eight days, it was liberating. For me, it’s more about being in a bar and hearing people whispering about me behind my back. I get ten times more uncomfortable and just want to leave. But now, to some degree, I’m use to it. I’ve had my doses of celebrity in small portions, somewhat continually. I can still ride the metro without being recognised. Obviously Björn suffered more from celebrity than I do and he was also about 1,000 times more famous than me. It was him, the Pope, and Michael Jackson; they were the most famous people in the world at the time.

Sverrir wants to take a nap before he collects his youngest daughter, Blanka from nursery school so we walk towards the metro. On the way there we return to discussing style. Sverrir says he has a question he wants to ask Björn Borg. Soon the two men will meet for the first time. It’s a question about the Swedish tennis star’s most well-known accessory. The thing that for many, especially all the thousands of teenage girls that thronged around the tennis icon, looked like an angel’s halo. Björn Borg’s headband.

— I’d like to ask him about the ritual he had with his headband, because I know that it was one of his many rituals. I’d like to ask him about when he put his headband on if he put it on himself or whether he had help. When we were putting my look together for the film the hair was the easiest part, it was just to let it grow out and then we blow-dried it and bleached it a bit. A few have said “oh, but it wasn’t light enough”, but then I tell them that you have to look at Björn Borg in 1980 and not in 1973. He had darker hair in 1980. The beard and the right suntan shade were also things that we got right quite quickly. But the way he put on his headband was hard to recreate.

Sverrir- who gladly wears t-shirts that signal his music taste (Phosphorescent, Daniel Johnston, Gram Parsons) — has adopted one piece of clothing from the film into his everyday life.

— Today I’m actually wearing jeans but ever since I played Borg I’ve started wearing tracksuit bottoms, which has led to me being refused entry to bars. A bouncer told me “those aren’t allowed”. Then I said, “but these are [Sergio] Tacchini!” I can understand that in the 50’s people thought it was the devil’s music that made people wear jeans and so forth, but now, in 2017, haven’t we come further?

He pauses before he continues.

— If an IKEA bag can become a Balenciaga bag sold for tens of thousands of kronor then I don’t think that people should be able to dismiss a pair of tracksuit bottoms. I think that’s ridiculous. There’s a law that protects against discrimination based on skin colour or gender, and I think it should also include tracksuit bottoms. At least the ones that are Tacchini, says Sverrir with a wry smile when we say goodbye a few metro stations later.

From what I can tell, no one on the metro has recognised the Swedish-Icelandic actor. Let’s see how long it stays that way.



AGE 38
BORN Lund, Sweden. Moved to Reykjavik, Iceland, at age 5, and back to Sweden at age 12.
LIVES Vasastan, Stockholm, with three children.
CURRENTLY Playing Björn Borg in the biopic ”Borg/McEnroe”, opening in more than 130 countries worldwide.
FILMOGRAPHY ”How Soon Is Now?” (TV series, 2007), ”Wallander” (TV series, 2009), Gentlemen (movie, 2014), A Serious Game (movie, 2016).

Wool blended sweater by Acne Studios. Silk trousers by Appletrees. Leather loafers by Morjas.
Sunrise over Hornsgatan, Stockholm, August 2017. Trench coat in a wool blend and fisherman sweater in a wool blend by Acne Studios. Cotton trousers by Appletrees. Leather loafers by Morjas
Wool coat and a cashmere sweater by Atelier Saman Amel. Corduroy trousers by Our Legacy. Sneakers in nylon, polyester and calfskin by Acne Studios.
Smoke-coat in wool by Julia Andersen. Cotton shirt by Appletrees. Leather loafers by Morjas.
Blazer in wool gabardine, a cashmere cardigan and cotton trousers by Atelier Saman Amel. Silk shirt by Appletrees.
Double breasted wool blazer, cotton shirt and trousers by Atelier Saman Amel. Sweater in merino wool by Our Legacy.
Cardigan by Acne Studios. Shirt and pants by Atelier Saman Amel.