Vhere’s Valto? Finland’s Hidden Hollywood Presence

You know Waldo… that quiet guy that’s always skulking about, just daring you to spot him in a crowd? Well, we Finns are kind of like that – only, with the media.

You know Waldo… that quiet guy that’s always skulking about, just daring you to spot him in a crowd? Well, we Finns are kind of like that – only, with the media.

Finland is sometimes said to be its neighbor Sweden’s “little brother”, and nowhere is this more apparent than Hollywood. Well ok, it’s not apparent at all, really, and that’s the very thing. It took a while before I noticed the pattern. I mean, I’d always kinda wondered why Suomalaiset get little to no representation on the silver screen, but upon compiling this list it’s really actually kind of amazing how consistently and how long we have maintained this strange level of being there, but only just barely… either kind of in the background or… well, you’ll see.

1. People in Hollywood you’d never know are Finns, because…

Well, either they’re only half or quarter Finn, usually on their mother’s side, or have otherwise changed their name! David Lynch, Pamela Anderson, Matt Damon, Renny Harlin (more on him in a moment), and Vanessa Williams (!) who, while decidedly Afro-American, is also 12% Finn it turns out. But that’s ok, because we have Lisa Niemi, who has mostly appeared in a couple of Patrick Swayze films. Otherwise we pad our resume with names such as Dick Latvala, tape archivist for The Grateful Dead.

Image credit: The Finn Times

This lovely and vibrant woman here is quite possibly the most recognized Finnish name in North America. Did she star in some blockbuster grossing hundreds of millions? No. Is it because she hosted her own syndicated talk show for 25 years? Nope again. This is Bonita Pietila, and you’ve only ever seen her name probably, because she is the casting director for The Simpsons. In other words, you know her name only because you saw it in the credits about 500 times during your youth. To dust off an old chestnut, don’t have a cow, man.

Sweden on the other hand, has a bit more of a reputation. The Bergmans, Ingmar and Ingrid respectively (random meaningless trivia: I once stayed in her summer vacation house), Peter Stormare, Max von Sydow, Dolph Lundgren, Alicia Vikander, Bo Svenson, Matt Damon again (figures…), Hayden Christensen, Kris Kristofferson, etc etc. And good for them! Their success seems to be our success… by extension.

2. Mistaken Identity

Sometimes, Finland gets that weird little shoutout that 99.9% of the audience are never going to notice. It’s like “Hey, we should mention that one country up north there.” “Which one?” “Oh, I don’t know. Just pick one!” And then they draw the name out of the hat, or point to it on the map accidentally while blindfolded – and into the scene it goes.

In the original Die Hard, which I watched tonight and which inspired this post, we have the following exchange during a news broadcast of the hostage situation:


Gail Wallens: Author of “Hostage Terrorist, Terrorist Hostage: A Study in Duality.” Dr. Hasseldorf, what can we expect in the next few hours?
Dr. Hasseldorf: Well, Gail, by this time the hostages should be going through the early stages of the Helsinki Syndrome.
Male Co-Anchor: As in Helsinki, Sweden.
Dr. Hasseldorf: Finland.

We’re left to wonder, was it a tongue-in-cheek commentary on American ignorance of the rest of the world? Quite likely, though it is a layered joke which may go over the heads of some, and definitely speaks to the prevalent confusion over the identities of nordic nations. It doesn’t help that this has happened for realzies on other, more recent occasions. Okay this example from Top Gear is British television and not Hollywood, but close enough.

3. Die Hard II: Finn Harder

So how’s this for weird: For the second film in a row, the Die Hard series manages to nod to Finland… in an even more frustrating way! Finlandia by Jean Sibelius was featured in the score, but to audiences, it pretty much just blends in perfectly with any other dark and dramatic orchestral soundtrack and thus nobody would say “HEY! Cool, it’s FINLAND!”

Embarassingly, even I would not have recognized it as I was not well acquainted with the works of Sibelius then. The director, Renny Harlin, who had nothing to do with the first film by the way, apparently often puts little nods to his heritage in projects he directs. Too bad he didn’t keep his real last name Harjola so more people might pick up on this. Shrug.

Update: Having just rewatched Die Hard III, which is back to McTiernan again, it also has a Finn reference. Midway through, in a subway tunnel a character says “yeah, the steam pipes broke… it’s like a SAW-na (sic) in here!” The trilogy is officially complete!

4. And when we DO get actual Finnish characters

They cast a Swedish actor to play the role. I give you Eddie The Eagle, with Edvin Endre playing the Finnish ski-jumping star at the ’88 Calgary Olympics. Because to have an actual Finnish actor playing a Finnish character might just be too much for people to process. It’s all the same anyway, right? Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good film. But a little bit of a bizarre choice.

IMPOSTER! …just kidding, edvin. Thank you for portraying us.

5. We finally GET TO star in a major film franchise, and…

…they put a mask over our heads.


Meet Joonas Suotamo (right) – the new Chewbacca. He took for Peter Mayhew, of course, who owned the role for over 30 years, starting with 2015’s The Force Awakens.

Hopefully you’ll forgive me, friends, if this sounds a bit whiny; it’s really all in good fun. But it’s hard to deny that Finns for whatever reason have zero real image on the world stage – let’s face it, that’s what Hollywood gives you, for better or worse. So, why is this happening, and is it anything we should attempt to rectify? If I search my feelings, I would say genuinely that I do not really wish to see so many Finnish stars. That may be hard for others to understand, but being “in the background” is a quality I can live with, if we’re still able to do what we love to do. A little more exposure wouldn’t hurt, but no need to overdo it.

What I do take exception to is revisionist history which glosses over the Finnish role in important world events and the great suffering and loss endured as recently as 75 years ago by those still close to many of us. This is a side effect of the greater omission of material about Russia at large during that period, and favoring the easy target in Hitler and the Nazis. But suffice it to say, few know the true extent of what our ancestors experienced, and this is partially down to the filtering of history via film. Perhaps a topic for another post, since I don’t wish to get too serious here.

6. Modern Finland – That Place American Presidents Fly Over

Save what the country produces themselves, the situation isn’t much better here. Any film with events set in Finland are bound to be more about America than they are us. Again, it’s just that weird northern place which makes a quaint setting for international intrigue. Hanna (2011) is about a girl raised in Finland, but she’s actually the daughter of a CIA operative, and goes on to be an assassin all over Europe. Big Game (2014) offers a bit more of a role for the natives, but again centers around the big, loud and important US of A, when Airforce One is taken down over its airspace, and President Samuel L Jackson must survive in the wilderness. It’s a bit of a parody, but it’s also hard to escape how we are more of a plot device than genuinely necessary for the film to work – it could have just as well been Nunavut or Nepal for all that is shown of the country.

Perhaps under-representation of Finns in film and media in general is partially down to us. It seems that historically maybe we have been a bit self-loathing, self-preserving and not really wanting to talk about old problems so much as survive and “make it”. This is why many Finns changed their names, in fact – so they would be perceived as more American, and white – whereas Swedes normally got away with keeping last names like say, Andersson. And then, how many authors do we have who are making epic series using our mythos and history, aimed toward western audiences? Not too many. If it was okay for JRR Tolkien and Phil Pullman, why not us? Why not do it right? This is what I aim to do with the graphic novel UKKO, and other works down the road. Maybe others somewhere are doing the same, I don’t know, but I haven’t seen much aside from the work of Minna Sundberg.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this brief look at the portrayal of Finns in western media – perhaps it will inspire you to notice more of our very subtle presence. Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments! And if you want more, hit “like” at my FB Page to automatically get the latest posts in your feed!