‘I Am Zlatan’ actor Granit Rushiti talks about playing Ibrahimovic, training with Benfica and wanting to star in Top Boy

SPORF recently had the chance to speak with ‘I Am Zlatan‘ actor Granit Rushiti about playing iconic footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Given how well Granit Rushiti captures the devil-may-care attitude of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, I expected him to be laid back in the run-up to our Zoom call. He immediately exceeded those expectations when he answered. He was literally lying down, his head propped up with a pillow. The ‘I Am Zlatan‘ actor was in the throes of Ramadan fasting during this promotional period. Sporting a winning-but-tired smile, he greeted me with a thumbs up and spoke in the candid shoulder-shrugging fashion of the man he was portraying.

I Am Zlatan opened in the UK earlier in the week, but it received its first theatrical release months ago in Sweden. It was an instant hit, soaring to the top of the box-office charts past films like The Batman. The movie, directed by Jens Sjögren, is an adaptation of the 2011 Ibrahimovic biography of the same name.

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Fans expecting to see a motion picture version of Ibrahimovic’s professional highlights should know that it focuses on the player’s childhood. It is, in that sense, a true origin story. We spend time with Zlatan the boy (portrayed by the precocious Dominic Andersson Bajraktati) and Zlatan the teenage misfit whom Rushiti brings to life.

Playing for Malmo

Rushiti has a lot in common with his character. They’re both Swedes with Balkan heritage, rough kids from working-class neighbourhoods. Like Ibrahimovic, Rushiti is tall with an athletic build, sharp features and a mischievous smile. They both even played for Malmo youth sides, with injury derailing the first-time actor’s professional aims.

Acting wasn’t on Rushiti’s radar when the role of a lifetime fell into his lap. “I used to play in Malmo FF,” he tells me, “just before I got the role of Zlatan. I was training with Sporting Lisbon and Benfica in Portugal. Then I hurt my knee for the second time. Ligament [damage]. That was also why I took the film.”

During this training stint in Portugal, Rushiti received a buzz on his phone. He checked it and subsequently found out about the search for a cinematic Zlatan. Someone had tipped the casting director off about Rushiti as a good fit for the role. “When I saw it the first time, I was like, ‘What the fuck is this’, you know? I was playing football by myself, so I didn’t think about being an actor. I didn’t want to be an actor.

“Then I hurt my knee. I was like, ‘Okay, fuck. Nothing to do.’ My football is finished. I don’t have school because I jumped out of school. I didn’t have anything. Then, when I was in, I still was in casting. No, I didn’t get the role at that time. So it was a very tough moment for me because I was surrounding myself with wrong [sic] persons. Very late nights. I was outside and did very stupid things. But I got the role, and I was like, ‘Okay, fuck this shit’. I need to get back and focus on [the] right things because you only have one life.”

Directing football scenes

While Rushiti’s injury prevented him from playing competitive football, he was able to showcase his ability in action scenes. This seems like a crucial factor in playing Zlatan, but other factors took priority during the casting process. “In the beginning, when they were searching [for the role of] Zlatan from 17 to 21. I had just turned 22, I don’t know the age, but they said like the football is not important,” Rushiti remembers. “Just you have to have that type of… you need to be like a tough guy, you know? Confident and things like that, from the Balkans, you know, but not like a good football player.

“But, at the end of the film, when we were done shooting the football scenes, Jens [Sjogren] told me, ‘If you couldn’t play football, we would never do this movie.’ Because it was very, very hard. Sometimes we would shoot the football scenes, and I would tell Jens like, ‘This is the right way.’ ‘This is not the right way.’ ‘This is right.’ Because, you know, I know football ten times better than him. So, I was the director of the football scenes.”

Meeting Zlatan

It’s hard to overstate how big a figure Zlatan is in Sweden. The success of the movie replicates the book’s impact before it. The AC Milan veteran has a magnetism that draws people in. Even a young Rushiti read the book cover to cover. “It’s the only book that I ever read.” The idea of playing Ibrahimovic was less nerve-wracking than meeting the man himself. Rushiti ‘knew’ the movie would do well but wasn’t as cool meeting Zlatan.

“He [Zlatan] was very excited about it [the movie]. But I was really, really nervous when I met him. Like the first ten, fifteen minutes, I was just shaking. I was like, you know, he’s a big idol for me. And now I’m sitting here with him, you know? And I could have never imagined this when I was a young kid. Never, never. It’s very hard to describe because in Sweden he’s so big. And everyone is like, ‘Oh, Ibrahimovic is, you know, is the biggest man here, and when we were kids, we just acted like him. Sometimes when we had the ball and trying to do some dribbles and stuff like that with friends, when we were playing outside on the street. And now I’m sitting at the same table as the man, talking about everything. You know, it was a very, very big moment for me.”

What’s next for Rushiti

The acting bug has successfully burrowed its way into Rushiti’s consciousness. A career in football could still happen down the line, although it seems unlikely. In the past two years, he’s done ‘whatever he wanted’ in terms of his diet, and his knee is still not fully recovered. Acting is at the forefront of his mind. I pitched a few ideas his way.

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What about a Khamzat Chimaev biopic down the line? I suggest. Rushiti politely smiles at the idea. “That guy is crazy.” But he doesn’t want to be typecast as a sports bio specialist. It’s better to hear his own specific ambitions, which he kindly discloses. “Top Boy. I like it very much, and they forget to put Albanian gangsters in it. So I can be one of them!”

A smiling Rushiti proclaims it would be ‘a dream’. But the footballer-turned-actor has already shown that he can make those a reality.

Signature Entertainment presents I Am Zlatan is in UK cinemas now and on Digital Platforms 20th June & DVD 27th June.