Noomi Rapace: The world’s most seductive sleuth
Stieg Larsson’s thrillingly dark Millennium trilogy has sold more than 27 million copies and is now poised to conquer the big screen. David Gritten travels to Sweden to meet Noomi Rapace – the actress playing the sexy, eccentric, hard-hitting heroine in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Danish director Niels Arden Oplev understatedly describes Lisbeth Salander, the extraordinary heroine of Stieg Larsson’s global best-seller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as “possibly the character in modern Scandinavian drama with the most expectations attached”. Few would disagree, but it caused problems for Oplev when he came to cast Lisbeth for his film adaptation of Larsson’s crime thriller. He describes himself as “hysterical” about casting: “There must be a special connection between the actor and the character.” Significantly, it took him months to find his Lisbeth. In September 2007, he interviewed a young actress named Noomi Rapace, who had made a name for herself in Swedish art-house films and stage productions. But he was not convinced.
“At first, he said no,” Rapace tells me, laughing. “It may even have been that he thought I was too good-looking. I looked feminine and soft, maybe a bit too girlie, too cute. And of course, Lisbeth had to be more of a tomboy.” Indeed. Larsson’s fans, who now number in the tens of millions, know Lisbeth as a rail-thin, bisexual, punkish 24 year-old with tattoos and piercings. She is socially dysfunctional and apparently incapable of expressing emotion; but she’s also a tough street fighter who has a photographic memory, the ability to hack into any computer and a razor-sharp brain capable of astonishing leaps of the imagination. She’s a remarkable, unforgettable creation, an adult version of another Swedish literary heroine, the rebellious Pippi Longstocking. Her counterpart is Mikael Blomkvist , a surrogate for Larsson himself: he is a radical investigative reporter who assiduously tracks down greed and corruption in Swedish society. He has humiliatingly lost an expensive libel suit brought against him by a wealthy financier, and lies low for a while, taking a leave of absence from Millennium, the radical magazine he co-founded. But then he takes on another challenge: to investigate the 40-year-old case of a missing, probably murdered, teenage girl born into a powerful Swedish industrial dynasty. In the course of his investigations, Blomkvist (played by leading Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist) meets Lisbeth, working as a researcher for a security company. They pool their resources to solve the case.
Rapace, realising that Lisbeth was the role of a lifetime, went back to Oplev to counter his objections. “I said, if you trust me, I’ll do anything you want me to do to become her. And he finally agreed. “I started the very next day on a diet. No bread, pasta, potatoes, no candy and no alcohol. All protein and vegetables. It was pretty hard. “I wanted to get rid of my female softness through Thai boxing and kick boxing. I wanted to be more like a boy in my body. Lisbeth’s athletic, she’s anorexic, but she can fight. She’s almost cartoonish, like a female action hero. I wanted to humanise her.
“I told Niels I wanted to fight in the fighting scenes, no stunt people. I wanted to wake up some kind of aggression in my body. I felt it; in exercise I liked to fight. I felt the taste of blood in my mouth sometimes.” She and her Serbian trainer worked for seven months together, while Rapace also took her motorcycle licence. “I cut my hair, I had real piercings.” She leans towards me, pointing at her left eyebrow: “Maybe you can still see a small scar. They said I could have fake ones, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to feel those piercings in myself.” Oplev had underestimated Rapace and her determination. But now he seems doubly fortunate to have landed her, as the stakes over who plays Lisbeth have grown higher in the past two years. In that time, Larsson’s own story has become one of the most intriguing in publishing history: he was an obscure 50-year-old author, who had never previously written fiction, who suddenly produced a trilogy of thrillers. But before they could reach bookstores, he died of a heart attack in 2004 and became a posthumous literary sensation.
His Millennium Trilogy, comprising The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, has sold 27 million copies worldwide — a figure that is rising fast. All three books have been adapted for film and between them have accounted for half the box office takings in Swedish cinemas this past year. The film of the first book is already a major hit across Europe; director Steven Zaillian, who also wrote Schindler’s List, will remake it for Hollywood. There is more. Ever since Larsson’s untimely death, the Swedish press has regularly unearthed new controversies about him. There are rumblings (some promoted by “friends”) about whether he had the talent to write these books himself.
Meanwhile, half of Stockholm seems to be writing a biography of Larsson. And 10,000 tourists a year take the Millennium walking tour, organised by Stockholm’s City Museum, which includes landmarks described in Larsson’s novels. Then there’s the feud between members of his family and Eva Gabrielsson, his partner for more than three decades. (They never married, and a will he made as a young man was declared invalid.)
At stake are the proceeds of his estate, last valued at £20 million, but increasing daily with every book sold. Finally, there’s the delicate question of the circumstances of Larsson’s death. Coronary thrombosis was the official verdict, but that has not prevented the airing of some outlandish theories. Larsson certainly had enemies among Sweden’s far-Right political groupings, but it seems to be stretching plausibility to suggest that they somehow bumped him off. The books themselves have created their own controversies. Larsson was an unapologetic Leftist, a man with clear agendas. One was to highlight violence against women in his country. (Lisbeth suffers sexual and violent abuse in the first novel.) The original Swedish title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, both the book and the film adapted from it, is Men Who Hate Women. Larsson’s plan was to write 10 novels featuring Blomkvist and Salander, with Men Who Hate Women as the overall title.
Larsson, an expert on far-Right and fascist groups in Sweden, also wanted to highlight their influence in Sweden. He started the Expo foundation, whose magazine is the inspiration for Millennium in his novels. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mikael and Lisbeth unearth disturbing facts about members of the wealthy family they are investigating, including their past Nazi links. Larsson’s life and death is a story in itself, and one of its side effects has been to make Rapace, now 30, arguably the most famous woman in Sweden. All eyes turn towards her when we meet for lunch and stroll towards our table. The setting is one from which Lisbeth might recoil: the upscale Lydmar Hotel, set on Stockholm’s sea front. It oozes opulence.
But then Rapace no longer looks anything like the Lisbeth of the film. No black lipstick, no piercings. Instead, she is elegant and slim in black, with her hair in a gamine cut. She fits right in. Or at least she does until she gets started on the subject of Swedish society. On this subject, she has as much attitude as Lisbeth Salander herself. “I think Stieg Larsson was pretty brave,” she said. “He wanted to bring up things that we don’t like to talk about, or like to ignore. In Sweden everybody has this perfect surface. Everyone’s very polite and controls their feelings. “For instance, there’s certainly violence against women here, but it gets swept under the carpet. We have immigrants, but you don’t see them in the centre of Stockholm – a lot of people here don’t feel part of this society. And we still have old Nazis, Swedes who agreed with Hitler. We’ve never addressed this.
“Stieg was working against all those things and he wanted to force people to see those problems. The most depressing thing is, we’re afraid of talking about them.” She feels an outsider in Sweden, and you certainly wouldn’t take her for Swedish, with her dark eyes and hair and her prominent cheekbones, which make her look almost Slavic. Her father was a Spanish flamenco singer who fled from Franco, her mother was a Swedish hippie, and she spent her formative years in Iceland. Her adolescence was comparable to Lisbeth’s: “When I was 14, I had piercings, I dyed my hair blonde, I looked terrible. I just wanted to get drunk every day.” She left home at 15, enrolled in a Stockholm theatre school, and became self-sufficient. For nine years she has been married to actor Ola Rapace. They both took a new surname; in French, Rapace means “bird of prey”. They have a six-year-old son, Lev. Rapace hopes to have a career as a European actress, based perhaps in Paris or London: “I can’t imagine staying in Sweden all my life.” But she won’t move to Hollywood, and she certainly won’t play Lisbeth in the Hollywood remake: “That would be cynical of me. I can’t see any value in being a celebrity, famous for being famous. I don’t want to do Let’s Dance [Sweden’s version of Strictly Come Dancing].”
After our lunch, I meet Lena Erlandsson, a guide to the Millennium walking tour, thoughtfully provided for me by the City Museum. We walk briskly through Stockholm’s snow-covered streets, taking in the landmarks. Here, high on a hill, is Blomkvist’s apartment. There is the Mellqvist Café, Larsson’s favourite hang-out, where he also used to write his novels. And on a fashionable shopping street, we visit the Millennium office, above Greenpeace’s. It’s agreeable but strange to be viewing these otherwise unremarkable places, though the tour obviously adds to Larsson’s posthumous lustre. It would flourish even without all the gossip and speculation about him, to which Rapace has no desire to add. “All these rumours,” she said disgustedly. “Stieg was a hard-working man. I met a friend of his who said he smoked a lot and worked like a madman. I don’t think he lived such a healthy life.” She snorted: “Conspiracy theories!”
Lena Erlandsson, too, has no time for tittle-tattle: “I think he was absolutely the man who wrote the books,” she tells me gravely. “And the official verdict is that he died after a cardiac arrest.” She shrugs. Still, the controversies churn: it’s as if Larsson and his books are such an implausible story that it can’t hurt to embellish them further. Who, after all, could have invented the conspiracy theories, the battle over his will, the legacy of his death? Come to that, who could have invented the remarkable Noomi Rapace?
‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ opens here on March 12