Noomi Rapace on life as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Noomi Rapace looks shocked.
I’m telling her about the London press screening for The Girl Who Played With Fire. Such was the buzz about the second instalment of the hit adaptations of the late Stieg Larsson’s bestselling Millennium novels, the cinema was mobbed. So much so, a second screening had to be hastily arranged for the overflow of critics eager to see Rapace reprise her role as antisocial hacker Lisbeth Salander. For a Hollywood film, this would be unusual. For a Swedish movie with subtitles, it’s unheard of. Then again, this is the Millennium trilogy we’re talking about. A complex, compelling saga of corruption and evil in which Salander must fend for herself in a male-dominated world, the books have sold more than 30 million copies in 40 countries. For Rapace, they have brought her the role of a lifetime, one that’s seen her become world cinema’s brightest new star. Like Marion Cotillard before her – who went from winning an Oscar for her portrayal of Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose to starring in blockbusters Public Enemies and Inception – Rapace is being sized up for a Hollywood career.
We meet a month after she returned from a summer spent in the US, meeting big-name directors including Ridley Scott, McG and James McTeigue. “I met some wonderful people whom I respect and would love to work with,” says Rapace, who is 30. It’s a heady time – not least with her discussing roles alongside Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible 4, McTeigue’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The Raven and McG’s spy comedy This Means War. What’s more, the US distributor of the Millennium films is already talking up a possible Oscar nod for Rapace for playing Salander. Yet the Swedish actress is understandably cautious about the groundswell of hype. “I’m getting more and more famous,” she says, “and I don’t see any value in that. It’s dangerous. It can destroy everything about your work. If I get too famous, people will see a famous person on screen. They won’t see the character. You have to find a balance between how much [publicity] you should do and not. It’s important to keep some kind of secret to yourself and not let everybody move in.” Perhaps, but dressing like a movie star rarely helps when it comes to preserving your anonymity. We’re at the Venice Film Festival, it’s 11.45am and Rapace looks ready for the red carpet in platform heels and a charcoal-black evening dress with a thigh-flashing split, her long, brown hair elaborately pinned up at the back of her head. Part of her relishes dressing up, she says. “I love fashion. I love shoes. I love clothes. It’s like a uniform. If you find something that fits your emotions for the day, it helps you get through the day.” Rapace looks wistfully towards the beach behind the cafe where we’re sitting, before glancing down at her outfit. “Sometimes things are expensive … but I hate when you have to be careful. Like, because of my shoes it’s not OK to run on the beach.” Little wonder she calls herself a “split personality”. Perhaps Rapace can only take the finer things in life for so long. But, for certain, once on screen she has no wish to look like a movie star. “I can look like s***. I can be fat. I can be skinny,” she says. “I can wear my make-up or not. I can have spots. It doesn’t matter. For me, acting is life. And nobody’s perfect every day. Nobody is beautiful always.” In the flesh, Rapace is a world away from the pierced and tattooed Salander, who prefers hooded tops to haute couture – notably in the forthcoming and final part of the trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest, in which she arrives for a court appearance clad in goth cyber-punk gear. Not that this will help keep Rapace’s identity a secret, particularly at a festival where the paparazzi are on every street corner. “Everything moves so quickly,” she says. “I’ve been here for four days and now the images from this festival are all over [the world]. I talked to the people I’m working with in the US and they’ve seen everything – the photos we took last night are already out there. It’s the same in Sweden. Everybody has seen everything.”
The conversation turns to her husband, the actor Ola Rapace, who stars with her in Beyond, a harrowing domestic drama that’s brought her to Venice. “I found him in a parking lot in the middle of the night 10 years ago,” she explains, laughing. “He was very drunk. And me too.” Rapace giggles at the thought, before explaining that Ola was a well-known actor in Sweden when they met, having worked on a number of films and TV series, including Wallander. “In my opinion, he is the best in the whole of Scandinavia. And I think we are … soulmates is a silly word, but I think we are, in a way, on the same track. He also always felt like a kind of outsider. Now we’re a team. If we are on the same island, then we are not outsiders to everybody. We can share this island together.” Indeed, images of the pair cuddling romantically in Venice were the toast of the Swedish tabloids. Yet it was the calm before the storm; within a week of our conversation, Rapace filed for divorce. Various reasons have been reported for the split but either way it appears separate lives await the couple, who have a seven-year-old son, Lev. Curiously, it’s since been reported that she’ll star opposite her estranged spouse in an English-language biopic about colourful Swedish boxer Boss Hogberg, playing the boxer’s wife, a cabaret singer called Anita Lindblom. As Rapace puts it, everything does move quickly in her world now. Sometimes she has to pinch herself – like when she met Ridley Scott, who is considering casting her in a prequel to his 1979 classic Alien. “I would love to work with Ridley, but there are so many rumours,” she says. Still, perhaps a move to Hollywood would be for the best. Such is the extent of Rapace’s fame in her homeland that she is hounded for autographs wherever she goes. “I can’t really go out in Stockholm,” she says. “I have to have a car waiting. It’s not possible to take the bus any more.” The one thing Rapace won’t be doing is reprising Salander for the Hollywood remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Starring newcomer Rooney Mara as Salander and Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist, the journalist who befriends and keeps watch over her as the trilogy unfolds, the film is currently shooting in Sweden with David Fincher of The Social Network and Fight Club in the director’s chair.
“I have been very clear that I don’t want to do it again,” she says. “I’m done. I’m finished. I can’t see any reason for doing it again. It would be cynical. Like why – why do it in the American way? I did everything I could. I want to move on.” You can hardly blame the actor – her transformation into Salander was all consuming. She cut her hair, had real piercings and put herself on a strict diet, ditching the carbs and alcohol in favour of protein and vegetables. Desperate to shoot the fight scenes without resorting to a stunt double, Rapace toughened her feminine frame with bouts of kickboxing. “I wanted to be more like a boy in my body,” she says. “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 wanted to wake up some kind of aggression in my body.” With the Millennium trilogy dominated by scenes of brutality, helping turn the books into movies was a harrowing experience for Rapace – none more so than when she filmed the rape Salander endures at the hands of her guardian in the first film. “I was so exhausted by the end,” she recalls. “I couldn’t think. I couldn’t talk. I was supposed to call home when I was in the car, just to let them know that I was arriving, but I couldn’t say anything. I remember I picked up my phone and I dialled my husband and I was crying. He said, ‘OK, what’s going on?’ and I said, ‘I’m coming,’ and I hung up. It was like I’d used everything that was inside.” Tormented by nightmares, it didn’t help that she then had to shoot Salander’s equally violent payback. “It was like we were in hell for one week.” Playing the role over 18 months, Rapace says she felt increasingly lonely as filming continued, so when it came to making The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest, a film where Salander sets out to get revenge for all the abuse she’s suffered, the actor could barely cope. “I was almost drowning in loneliness,” she says. “I felt so isolated. So I wanted to connect with somebody – I wanted to be able to talk to someone – but I couldn’t. It was very strange.” As far as Rapace was concerned, she was beginning to take on Salander’s characteristics. “She’s not able to [communicate]. She can’t. She doesn’t have any language and she’s never learned to share anything with anybody.” To compound the actor’s feelings of isolation the conclusion to the trilogy finds Salander on trial for murder, with her very sanity being questioned. “I was in some kind of bubble,” Rapace says. “I felt like I was going to drown, like ‘I have to get out soon’. I’m never sick, but when I was done I started to throw up. The producers came with a bottle of champagne and everybody was celebrating the fact it was the last day and the last scene. And I ran to the toilet and threw up. I lay on the floor for an hour.”
Open and outgoing, Rapace has little in common with Lisbeth Salander, yet she can relate to Salander’s feelings of being alone, thanks to having a Swedish mother and a Spanish father (which accounts for her chocolate-coloured eyes). “I’ve always felt like an outsider somehow,” Rapace says. “I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s about energy, but I always felt my energy doesn’t fit in with the Swedish mentality. In Sweden, everything is lukewarm – nobody wants to argue, nobody wants to be too happy or too sad or too emotional. Everybody is trying to find a balance so they can be neutral.” This might be down to her Spanish temperament, I suggest. “Maybe. It’s much more easy if somebody says, ‘Noomi, shut up. I don’t want to listen to you any more.’ OK – then I can be quiet. But I hate it when people are afraid of being honest.” Her antipathy towards the Swedish side of her personality was arguably exacerbated when her parents divorced and her mother married an Icelandic man. “We moved there and stayed for three-and-a-half years,” she recalls. “So I felt more Icelandic at that point. I didn’t want to go back to Sweden. When we moved back, I said to everybody, ‘I’m going back to Iceland soon.’ I said that every year.” Rapace was a rebellious teenager, sporting piercings and today admitting she “just wanted to get drunk every day”, yet through it all acting was her saviour. She was just seven when she made her screen debut with a non-speaking part in an Icelandic Viking movie. “It was like a new universe that opened in front of me,” Rapace explains. “I think I decided at that point: ‘I want to be an actress.’ But that was serious for me. I didn’t want to perform at home. I wanted to work.” By the time Rapace was 15 she had left the family home, enrolled in a Stockholm theatre school and started to support herself with acting work. Rapace has been working consistently in Swedish film and television since her early twenties. Given how much she invests in her roles, you have to wonder if she can maintain her current level of commitment. “I’m working on it,” she says, smiling. “I want to last for ever. I want to be an actress when I’m 90. I want to die on set, when I’m an old lady. So I think I have to find a way, otherwise I will not manage to go as deep as I want to. “When I was 20, I drank a lot of wine [when she finished work]. That was the perfect way, before I had a kid. You can always have a drink, then you’re fine. But that’s not my way any more. I’m exercising and training a lot.”
She’ll need it. After all the meetings in Hollywood, Rapace has signed up for a role as a French gypsy in the forthcoming sequel to Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. “I’m doing a lot of research about gypsies,” she says. “I’m going to Paris to visit some gypsy camps, and I’m going to Transylvania to see how they live. The gypsies are poor, they keep to their traditions. So when you go to Transylvania, for example, they live pretty close to the way they lived hundreds of years ago. So I’m listening to gypsy music and learning to sing and dance.” Perhaps it’s apt that her first US-backed movie will be shot in the UK, much closer to home than if she were filming on a studio back-lot. “I don’t have this dream about Hollywood,” she says. “It’s not like I want to be a big Hollywood star. I don’t care if it’s a small independent film from the UK, or a Japanese film with no money. I don’t care – as long as it hits you. I think you always have to find something you can’t let go.” Whether she’ll ever again find a role as gripping as Lisbeth Salander, however, is another matter.
The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest (15) is in cinemas on Friday.