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20 Questions for Jón Gnarr

Reykjavík’s mayor is also an actor, comedian, and writer who believes that artists can make good politicians.

Jón Gnarr was an unexpected candidate for mayor of Reykavík, Iceland, back in 2009. The actor/comedian/writer created the Best Party, whose theme song was Tina Turner’s “The Best,” and Gnarr famously declared he would only work with fellow fans of HBO’s “The Wire.” In 2010 Gnarr and his party won 6 out of 15 seats in the Reykjavík City Council, and he continues to hold office today. Gnarr’s play Hótel Volkswagen runs at Reykjavík City Theatre this month.

AMERICAN THEATRE: What prompted you to form the Best Party?

JÓN GNARR: First and foremost, it was the meltdown after the economic crisis. I had just finished working on a three-year-long TV project, so running for mayor was a creative idea.

Do you think artists make good politicians?

Yes, I think so. Artists can criticize directly and indirectly the way things are run. It’s a very important step to include artists in the political process, especially at a time like this when we really need creative thinking in democracy. Politics has evolved into a kind of subculture, like freemasonry. It attracts certain very logical kinds of people—and politicians usually hate creative people, because they are dreamy and not as efficient as politicians like to think they are.

When you founded the Best Party, did you really think you’d become mayor?

I was quite sure from the beginning that it was real. When I started showing up in the polls, I was actually convinced I’d get the majority. Spoken with the confidence of a politician!

Has your background in comedy helped your political career?

In order to be successful in comedy, you have to sense the audience and kind of read their minds—so knowing how to do that has helped me enormously. When I ran for mayor, I was already a celebrity, and we weren’t shy about playing on that. Having a sense of humor has also helped me to stay in office—without it, I’d probably be in an institution, because this job has been terrifying at times.

What’s one of the scariest things you’ve had to do?

The most serious thing we had to do was deal with the financial situation—specifically the Reykjavík Energy Company. It was hugely in debt, so we had to figure out an emergency plan. Communicating with experienced politicians has been very frustrating. We don’t belong to a certain clique, so everyone is against us, the left and the right. We’re just intruders, political outsiders, and everyone agrees we should leave.

What’s your favorite thing you’ve done as mayor?

Most political parties here crumble after elections, but we haven’t. In a little over a month, we’ll have been the longest majority since 1994. So we’re giving some stability to the whole system. That’s absurd…because we’re surrealists! I’m proud of being a surrealist.

Will you try to stay in politics?

It’s too early to decide now. I have 842 days left in office; I have a little countdown calendar. My group and I never use the term “stay in power.” Rather we see ourselves as being in service. Just by staying here in service, we are creating a space for new people to step into these jobs.

That’s a beautiful way of putting it.

I don’t want people to believe in me as a leader. I would like them to start believing in themselves, and realizing the power every individual has in society by having a little courage.

Do you have a favorite theatrical memory?

When I was 12 I went with my parents to a play based on a book by an Icelandic author called The Genius, and it was the first spiritual experience in my life.

Is it true that Omar is your favorite character from the TV show “The Wire”?

Omar is such a brilliant character. He’s an anti-hero, he’s a villain and he’s gay—not in a stereotypical way, but in a beautiful way. I really think he got all the best lines.

You keep an online diary on Facebook so I decided to find out from my Facebook friends what they would ask you. They want to know: What’s the deal with elves?

The elves are representatives of the mysteries of nature. In that sense, I believe in the elves. I try to listen to the elves and hear what they’re saying and follow their advice. People believe in a lot of silly things. Americans believe in ghosts and not having a 13th floor in a skyscraper. That’s pretty silly.

What do people always get wrong about Iceland?

People are always so surprised how close Iceland is to America. It’s only a five-hour flight from Reykjavík to New York. When I started traveling 25 years ago, people would ask, “Do you live in igloos?” They thought we had polar bears roaming the streets. Now when I travel and tell people where I’m from, the response is, “Ah, Björk!” That’s a fantastic thing about Iceland—we are known around the world for art. That’s our strength, and that’s what we should put emphasis on: art.

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