“He was such a cocky bastard – I loved that!” Swedish director Jens Sjögren’s search for charisma while casting new film ‘I am Zlatan’

For those that may not follow football now have heard of the name Zlatan it refers to the Swedish football player Zlatan Ibrahimović, known as one of the greatest football players in the world boasting such statistics as scoring 570 goals in his career – which sounds pretty impressive and just visiting his wikipedia page is like reading an encyclopaedia on his achievements and career!

I am Zlatan is based on the book by author David Lagercrantz and it has been brought to life by director Jens Sjögren and along with the book being adapted by Jakob Beckman and its author David Lagercrantz.

The film focuses on two parts of Zlatan’s life – one story follows him as a kid whilst the other sees him as a teenager on the cusp of making it big! It is a very cleverly put together narrative that entwines these two timelines rather than going down the generic route of following his story as a kid to a teenager. What makes it particularly engaging, whether you are into your football or not, is the two stars playing Zlatan – Granit Rushite (pictured below) as the older Zlatan and then Dominic Andersson Bajraktati as the younger.

The director might have hit the jackpot with the two main leads for his hit Zlatan biopic, but it was no easy feat to find them. Nordic Watchlist talks with the director about the challenges he and his crew faced when trying to cast the right people to portray one of the greatest football players in the world.

JS: I think we shot 2,500 kids in Skane, which is the southern part of Sweden where Zlatan’s heritage is from, and usually when you have this many to choose from you can decide if the person is tall, short, or where their heritage is from – but I had decided early on that I didn’t care if people thought he didn’t look like Zlatan, but he had to have the personality like Zlatan.

He had something in his mind which he wanted to create.

JS: Billy Elliott meets Fish Tank – I love feel-good and warm stories, I am not afraid of that and I wanted to create something with a big warm heart and feeling to it.

Jens wanted someone who could play football too – he wanted the actor to feel authentic and when it came to shooting the football scenes he didn’t want long shots, he wanted it close up, and have a gritty feel to it. The only problem was, he couldn’t find anyone.

JS: People were saying – ‘what about this one Jens’ – and I was saying ‘he is not 180’ [height]. When you are tall you enter a room in a totally different way – you have a way of sitting, or a way you play football.

So we were really ready to quit!

The search was becoming a nightmare for Jens – he was watching casting tapes with even big Swedish names but they just weren’t working for him and he was ready to call it a day on the project. Then…

JS: Then all of a sudden an email comes through from the casting director saying, ‘Could this be something?’ I had these emails all the time and it shouldn’t be: ‘Could this guy be something?’ It should be ‘THIS is the guy’.

It was an iPhone picture of this guy on a football pitch and I get goose bumps talking about this because it was a night shot from an evening game, and you saw the way he stood on the pitch and I was like fucking hell this is him.

Jens goes on to the explain that he didn’t care so much if his star wasn’t the spitting image of Zlatan – his thoughts were that the audience had to buy into the fact that this was the movie’s version of Zlatan and he was going to be the guy who was going to tell them the story of him. And they had finally found the star to do that – according to the director, this guy had it all.

There was only one problem – he didn’t turn up to the casting call.

Eventually though his dad convinced him to come to the casting, and good job he did.

JS: We began to work together but the thing with him was that I wanted him to talk a little bit like Zlatan. I felt that the more he talked like Zlatan the more he would move like Zlatan. The more we worked, the more we started to see how he could be the right choice, but he just still lacked that charm a bit.

This person who finally caught Jens’ attention for playing the adult version of Zlatan was Granit Rushiti (pictured above). He had the anger and the attitude, but Jens needed to get this charisma and charm out of him as it was so key to the character.

JS: When you meet Zlatan he makes you feel two ways – like you either want to adopt him or marry him – he has this immediate ability to make himself so loveable.

Jens goes on to say that it is common with actors, where trying to coax out their caring and charming side can be a challenge. But things soon began to change when Granit started working with his dialect coach.

JS: It seemed the more we spent time together trying things out, the more it started to work better. While filming one of the scenes he mentioned that he was embarrassed about asking a girl out on a date, and I was like ‘this is perfect -use this!’ So then you see him ask this girl out and he is genuinely embarrassed – I just loved that as it felt so real.

Alongside Granit, Jens cast Dominique Andersson Bajraktati (pictured above), who plays the younger version of Zlatan. Jens shares our view of how impressive his performance was.

JS: He was such a cocky bastard – I loved that!

During the summer Dominique had a coach but it turned out that he had not been turning up for some of the sessions. Then on one of the days when Jens decided to come along to the training session, Dominique turned up with a bicycle. Jens was not sure where this bicycle had appeared from and asked where he had got it. His response was: ‘Don’t ask’.

JS: Then there was this time when we were playing with a football and this big guy comes running over to us yelling ‘Where did you get that football?!’ and we pointed at Dominique only to find he had gone – the ball didn’t belong to Dominique at all but one of the local football clubs.

This story encapsulates the cheekiness this young star brings to the character of young Zlatan, and how, despite the casting process being a total nightmare for the director, in the end his two stars ended up being the best casting decisions with both delivering a fantastic performance in the film.

Having watched the film previous to our discussion with Jens it was fascinating to hear the stories of the two actors because it sounded like it was straight out of the film itself. It seemed so totally fitting!

Whether you are a football fan or not, there is a lot of enjoy and love about this movie!

Signature Entertainment presents I Am Zlatan in Cinemas 3rd June and on Digital Platforms 20th June & DVD 27th June

Interview by Alex Minnis

Leave a Reply