‘In Sweden I discovered a new country and rediscovered my own’

"Let's start at the beginning of the adventure," says actor Simone Coppo, speaking to The Local from his Rome apartment to discuss his role in the hugely successful Swedish drama Vår tid är nu.

'In Sweden I discovered a new country and rediscovered my own'
Simone Coppo plays Angelo, who works his way up a restaurant hierarchy. Photo: Johan Paulin /SVT

Known as The Restaurant in English, the post-war drama has been phenomenally successful in Sweden, with more than two million viewers watching the tale of a Stockholm restaurant and the intrigues that take place among the family that run it and the staff in the kitchen.

Coppo's character Angelo is a new addition to the second series, currently showing on Mondays on SVT. One of a group of Italian immigrants who work in the kitchen, he faces discrimination and exploitation as a foreign worker while trying to work his way up the restaurant hierarchy.

The casting announcement had four requirements: Angelo needed to be a native Italian, aged in his 20s or 30s, skilled with languages, and most crucially, he needed to have “a dream in his eyes”.

It's not hard to see why Coppo stood out.

The 26-year-old is something of a shape-shifter, speaking five languages as well as many of Italy's varied dialects, and writing, singing, and playing music alongside his acting work. He talks eagerly of his desire to “live every detail of this little blue planet” and his urge to tell stories in any way that presents itself.

Working in Sweden had never been a thought-out plan. “I got the casting mail and said 'OK! … where is Sweden?” Coppo remembers. “Now I am in love with this country and sure I will come back.”

He took it is a positive sign that he heard about the role while on a rare visit to his grandfather, who like Angelo was an immigrant.

“I really thought this is the story I have to tell. It's so close to my personal story and my point of view on life,” Coppo says. “Italy is a land of immigrants, my family are immigrants and I feel that right now we have a big misunderstanding between how we treat immigrants and travellers.”

“To tell the story of an immigrant right now… bellissimo! I feel an honour and responsibility.”

Simone Coppo's Angelo interacting with the character Bellan Roos (Rasmus Troedsson). Photo: Johan Paulin/SVT

With that said, he is glad that Vår tid är nu isn't a simple story of good and bad characters, or even of 'good immigrants'. The characters are complex, each with negative traits infuenced by their own personality or the restrictions of the time they live in – the show doesn't shy away from tough topics including abortion, drink and drug abuse, and violence. 

“We see that all the characters are dreaming, and many want to become better,” explains Coppo, referring to power-hungry brothers Peter and Gustav who vie for control of the restaurant, and waitress Maggan who takes on a campaigning role in the trade union, for example. 

“Angelo isn't trying to get to a better place in society, he just wants to be the best version of himself. The scriptwriters told me he is the personification of a dreamer, he uses all his capacities to achieve this goal,” Coppo says.

“There is a group of Italians (in the show), but not all of them are Angelo. Probably they all have something to give, but he is the one who really tries.”

When the Italian immigrants are struggling with their exploitative boss, Angelo is the one to break out of the group and approach Maggan. “Du, hjälp” (You, help), he tells her.

His determination leads him to excel at work, opening up new opportunities (waiting on the table of an ambassador) as well as risks. This willingness to go along for the ride is a trait shared by Coppo, and it's one which proved vital over the two years spent living between Italy and Sweden to film the show.

In Sweden, the actor says, “I discovered a new country and also rediscovered my own, because I had another perspective. I heard a lot of stories because I asked a lot of questions.”

Describing his first arrival in Sweden, around the time of the December St Lucia celebration, he says: “From the car windows, I saw the flames in the darkness and felt that I was entering another dimension. In another country, even the very light is different. For example, in Rome we have fiery orange red light; in Sweden it's white and bright and clear.”

Vår tid är nu is set in a Stockholm restaurant in the post-war era. Photo: Carl-Henrik/SVT

Vår tid är nu is in many ways very rooted in Swedish culture.

Viewers see a young Olof Palme (a Swedish prime minister) in the first season, and the second shows the characters bemused when a mail-ordered table arrives apparently without any legs – an early Ikea model.

The seasons span several decades so the series follows Swedish involvement in World War Two (including Nazi sympathizers and the liberation of Nazi concentration camps) and social movements such as the growth of trade unions and the Folkhemmet. The only clue Coppo could give about the final two episodes was that “trust will be put on trial”.

But it's also a story about human values, and global issues such as migration, and that's what appealed to Coppo most. In his opinion, this is a big part of the reason for its success.

“It's already been popular in Portugal; most people there don't know anything about Sweden but they love the show, because everyone can relate,” he says. “It's like Romeo and Juliet; that's set in Verona with (characters based on the historic Italian families) Montecchi and Capuletti, but everyone can relate to love and feuds.”

Coppo hopes that the programme will also be shown in Italy, where he thinks it would have important lessons. His character moves to Sweden from Sicily, a region which today faces the dilemma of how to cope with mass migration to its own shores.

“Playing Angelo is like a dream, you're in another age with people dressed another way. I just let everything flow, from my personal experience, and even things I didn't know I had inside me,” he explains.

“When you dream, you're not choosing what you put in it. But at the same time, you choose when you're awake without knowing. Your experiences and choices while awake will make the dream.”

In response to the story, Coppo has received messages from immigrants in Sweden excited to see something resembling their story on TV. One he was particularly moved by came from a Swedish-Italian woman around his own age, who said the show “helped her understand why she was here.” And a refugee now studying at Swedish university said the plot had assured her that she could have a bright future despite a difficult past.

“A lot of people have written to me about Angelo and said 'you are telling my story', and I write back 'no, you are telling mine',” he says.

Angelo (Simon Coppo) starts out at the bottom of the career ladder in the restaurant. Photo: Johan Paulin/SVT

Coppo was able to tap into a lot of resources when telling Angelo's story, from his experience living in Brazil and at first not speaking the language, to his grandfather's stories, to his interactions with immigrants in Rome. 

When he first arrived in Sweden, he remembers visiting Italian restaurants to hear the stories of the immigrants working there. He also spoke to a lot of foreign taxi drivers while travelling for work, and says he would ask them to play typical songs from their home country.

As well as learning about Swedish history from following the show's plot, Coppo has also been given insight into modern society in the Scandinavian country from his time, and says he has been impressed by many things, including the functional society, flat hierarchies, and appreciation for gender equality.

But when it came to the food and drink, although he has grown to love Swedish filter coffee, it didn't compare to home. Cast and crew were slightly surprised when he brought his own espresso machine to work.

“But then they tried it, and they understood that Italian coffee is something else, and that was the start of many beautiful friendships!” he says, adding that many of the cast are planning a trip to Italy to see him.

One of the biggest challenges of the role was learning Swedish entirely from scratch, although with four languages already under his belt, it was a challenge he embraced. At first, his Swedish improved so fast that director Annika Zackrisson told him to slow down his learning.

“The director said 'No, you need to not understand right now!' So the fact I was a beginner was very useful for the show, but a bit less for my personal life,” jokes Coppo. “Then, at a certain point I really needed to know Swedish – in the show, two years go by but really it was about three weeks.”

At that point, the Italian says the only way to get up to the right standard was with “coffee, long nights, and animal spirit”.

Simone Coppo began his career as a busker back home in Italy. Photo: Johan Paulin/SVT

“I have an idea of languages as melody and music, I see and feel them in an animal way, like a panther,” he explains with a laugh. “For example, the sound of the word casa [home in Italian] brings a lot of images and emotions, but if I say 'home' or 'hem', it's different.”

“I would like to have a technique but it's just about walking and sitting at bars, your brain will work for you without you even knowing. I think it's about taking risks and putting yourself in embarrassing situations. Your body will find some powerful resources. It's about going outside your comfort zone and taking risks. I also like learning all the tongue twisters, listening to a lot of music and singing, but maybe that's just me!”

His background as a performer is hugely varied. Having written and sung from a young age, he began performing music and comedy on the streets of Italy at the age of 14.

“Someone saw me and asked who had taught me: I said 'she did' and pointed at the street. He told me I should apply to drama school and I did – a lot of people applied, but like Angelo, I was really sure. I didn't have a plan B.”

“I think that roles happen for a reason. But the most important thing to me is not being an actor, but to always follow my desire and urgency to tell stories. If I can act good stories like Angelo, I'm so happy, but another story might be better if you sing or write it, or make a pizza – you find the shape for the story, but you need to have that urgency.”

Although he is convinces his life and work will bring him back to Sweden in the future, at the moment there's no fixed plan. “The point is to continue to be surprised. There's just one thing you can be sure of and that's not to be sure of anything,” he says.

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Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

A reader got in touch to ask how long he had to work in Sweden before he was eligible for a pension. Here are Sweden's pension rules, and how you can get your pension when the time comes.

Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

The Swedish pension is part of the country’s social insurance system, and it can seem like a confusing beast at times. The good news is that if you’re living and working here, you’ll almost certainly be earning towards a pension, and you’ll be able to get that money even if you move elsewhere before retirement.

You will start earning your Swedish general pension, or allmän pension, once you’ve earned over 20,431 kronor in a single year, and – for almost all kinds of pension in Sweden – there is no time limit on how long you must have lived in Sweden before you are eligible.

The exception is the minimum guarantee pension, or garantipension, which you can receive whether you’ve worked or not. To be eligible at all for this, you need to have lived in Sweden for a period of at least three years before you are 65 years old. 

“There’s a limit, but it’s a money limit,” Johan Andersson, press secretary at the Swedish Pension Agency told The Local about the general pension. “When you reach the point that you start paying tax, you start paying into your pension.”

“But you have to apply for your pension, make sure you get in touch with us when you want to start receiving it,” he said.

Here’s our in-depth guide on how you can maximise your Swedish pension, even if you’re only planning on staying in Sweden short-term.

Those who spend only a few years working in Sweden will earn a much smaller pension than people who work here for their whole lives, but they are still entitled to something – people who have worked in Sweden will keep their income pension, premium pension, supplementary pension and occupational pension that they have earned in Sweden, even if they move to another country. The pension is paid no matter where in the world you live, but must be applied for – it is not automatically paid out at retirement age.

If you retire in the EU/EEA, or another country with which Sweden has a pension agreement, you just need to apply to the pension authority in your country of residence in order to start drawing your Swedish pension. If you live in a different country, you should contact the Swedish Pensions Agency for advice on accessing your pension, which is done by filling out a form (look for the form called Ansök om allmän pension – om du är bosatt utanför Sverige).

The agency recommends beginning the application process at least three months before you plan to take the pension, and ideally six months beforehand if you live abroad. It’s possible to have the pension paid into either a Swedish bank account or an account outside Sweden.

A guarantee pension – for those who live on a low income or no income while in Sweden – can be paid to those living in Sweden, an EU/EEA country, Switzerland or, in some cases, Canada. This is the only Swedish pension which is affected by how long you’ve lived in Sweden – you can only receive it if you’ve lived in the country for at least three years before the age of 65.

“The guarantee pension is residence based,” Andersson said. “But it’s lower if you haven’t lived in Sweden for at least 40 years. You are eligible for it after living in Sweden for only three years, but it won’t be that much.”