The Original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace Puts Lisbeth Salander Behind Her
Noomi Rapace is staring at a spot right above my head and speaking excitedly. Her every movement is magnified—her eyes swell and recede, the color leeches from her tousled bob, and her hair goes momentarily white. She’s wearing what looks to be a violet sweater, though it’s hard to tell. It’s 3pm here in New York, which means it’s 9pm in Stockholm, where Rapace lives. Our Skype windows are doing some weird things. I barely recognize her. Not because of the bad connection, but because she’s smiling.
Like most, I’m used to seeing a scowl—and sensory organs studded with no small amount of metal. Since 2009, Rapace has been all but synonymous with Lisbeth Salander, the punked-out hacker-heroine featured in the Swedish/Danish film adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series. “I felt like she lived in me,” Rapace says of her motorcycle-riding, vengeance-seeking alter ego. “My Lisbeth was my Lisbeth. I gave her my life and my soul for one-and-a-half years, and then I was finished.” She sighs, her face double-framed by her living room door and my computer screen. “I’m so done with her.” While the rest of the crew popped champagne bottles and toasted to the films’ final take, Rapace puked in a soundstage bathroom. “My whole body was just kind of throwing Lisbeth out of me,” she says. Rapace spent the next week feeling traumatized and disembodied, her face still full of holes, mohawk collapsed. “I was like, I don’t know who I am anymore!” she adds, pushing a few strands of hair away from her face to reveal a pair of earrings. They are long, chainlike, and affixed to her lobes with golden talons. “It’s almost like you’re coming out of a…” She struggles for a moment, trying to articulate what it’s like to exorcize a fictional character. The earrings twinkle. “It’s like you’ve loaned yourself to someone else.”
With the release of two big-budget crowd-pleasers this December, Rapace will get to relinquish Lisbeth for good, though she only stars in one of them—as a conspiratorial soothsayer alongside Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. The film hits theaters just five days before American director David Fincher unveils his frenetically hyped adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Rapace will get to watch someone else suff er the many indignities foisted upon Lisbeth Salander—all while she herself rides the wave of her first Hollywood blockbuster. Subways and skyscrapers are already plastered with the steely profile of Rooney Mara, the young woman who plays Lisbeth in Fincher’s film, and who—nose ringed and properly Manic Panicked—bears an uncanny resemblance to Rapace. Some fans might think it unfair—or at least, typical—that Rapace’s Lisbeth will be supplanted in the public imagination by a younger, glossier, American version (Rapace is 32; Mara, who graced the November cover of Vogue, is 25), but Rapace seems downright thankful for Mara, who could very well be her best defense against typecasting—the bane of any good actor blessed and cursed by a career-making role. “I’m pretty sure that they will do something completely different with her,” she says.
Rapace is only in Stockholm for a single night. She has just returned from London, where she was promoting Sherlock Holmes, and she’s leaving in the morning for Italy. In the year-plus since Millennium wrapped, she’s taken on an array of roles, all proof that she’s no one-hit wonder. She recently starred in two Scandinavian indies: Pernilla August’s domestic drama, Beyond, which won this year’s Nordic Council Film Prize and was submitted as Sweden’s 2011 Oscars entry; and Pål Sletaune’s horror film, Babycall, which was an official selection at the International Rome Film Festival. Her biggest star turn yet—in Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel, Prometheus, due out in June—is still a ways off . It still might be too soon to tell if Rapace will become Tinseltown’s hot new European import—the next Penelope Cruz or Marion Cotillard—but it doesn’t seem far-fetched. “I think she’ll have a big shot,” says legendary Hollywood producer Joel Silver, who worked with Rapace on Sherlock Holmes. “I think she’ll have a giant career.” Hollywood has always loved a good Swedish bombshell (see: Anita Ekberg, Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo, not to mention Ingmar Bergman’s never-ending string of paramours), but Rapace transforms herself too drastically in her roles to be considered a sexpot. And she’s hardly a typical Swede. She isn’t repressed. She isn’t blonde. Her bone structure is more Slavic than Scandinavian (her cheekbones alone could score a contract with IMG). Rapace’s late father, a Spaniard from whom she was estranged, worked as a flamenco singer, and she spent much of her childhood in Iceland. By the age of 15, she had moved alone to Stockholm to study acting. Rapace doesn’t really think of herself as a Swede. She says she feels more like an alien.
At the moment, Rapace isn’t filming anything, but she’s reading scripts and meeting with directors, as well as getting ready to buy an apartment in London and beginning work on a new project that will bring her to New York. She has traveled every week since August, but if anyone is resilient to grueling migratory patterns, it’s her. “I’m not sentimental at all,” she says. “I don’t have a home that is my home.” If it weren’t for family, it seems like she might not visit Stockholm at all, but it’s where her ex-husband, the actor Ola Rapace, lives. (The two chose the surname ‘Rapace’ after they were married; it means ‘bird of prey’ in French.) They’re still good friends and share custody of their eight-year-old son, Lev, who’s enrolled in school in the Swedish capital. Rapace has a noticeable, but unplaceable accent. At the start of our conversation, before I get used to hearing her speak, she sounds almost Australian. She rarely makes grammatical errors. It’s hard to believe that only two and a half years ago, she barely spoke any English, a handicap she attributes to irregular schooling and a precocious enthusiasm for partying. After a press conference for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo left her speechless and self-loathing—”like a monkey in a zoo”—she made immediate amends. She began a daily regimen of CNN and BBC (sans subtitles) and became fluent in about a year. Within the first few weeks of rehearsing Sherlock Holmes, she stopped translating lines in her head—a crucial development when you’re being paid to react to other people. She now dreams in English, and just a few weeks ago, she texted her mom from London, not realizing until after she’d sent it that the message wasn’t in Swedish.
Rapace approaches her work with the same autodidacticism that she did the English language. Pressed for time to prep for Sherlock Holmes, she researched the role with the focus of a student cramming for the Bac—she practiced choreography with a Gypsy dance coach, translated her lines from English to Romani and back again, and swore off exercise for five months. (“In Victorian London, no one was working out. Obviously.”) She insists on having significant say in every script, including permission to ad-lib scenes and edit lines for psychological realism. “I like Noomi because she’s ballsy,” says Guy Ritchie. “She’s smart and committed to doing the best she can. She’s always full of ideas.”
When I ask Rapace about Elizabeth Shaw, the archaeologist she plays in Prometheus, she gives me a long soliloquy on Elizabeth’s biography. Mind you, this information isn’t even in the movie: her mother’s death, her father’s faith, her childhood travels to Africa, her grades at Oxford. She follows each fact with sound analysis. Though a successful career in acting requires a sort of simulated schizophrenia, Rapace’s approach appears strikingly sane. The more she prepares, she explains, the less she has to think—which is the whole point. Rapace excuses herself to get a glass of water, leaving me with a peek into her apartment. In the next room, I can make out a panoramic painting of what looks like a clawed wolf. Then I remember the earrings—and, of course, her adopted surname. I hear footsteps, and then everything turns black as she adjusts herself in front of the monitor. Rapace’s face reappears on screen. She confirms: It’s a bird.
As her career takes flight, Rapace is keeping a close eye on the quality of the scripts she’s sent. Movie stardom is a paradoxical thing. Fame compromises craft, just as craft compromises fame, and this seems to be Rapace’s big concern—that being recognized might eclipse her ability to fully assume a character’s life. Before starting work on Sherlock Holmes and Prometheus, she had her doubts about Hollywood. She feared that she’d be forced to do things she didn’t want to do, that she might have to surrender some of the freedom she was used to having. “But I’ve been so lucky!” she says, almost singing the last syllable. “Those two movies have been amazing to work on, people have really embraced me.” She is growing more animated. “I think I’ve been spoiled,” she says, not at all solemnly, before going on to assure me that her goal is to punctuate the blockbuster work with small, indie movies. “I don’t want to be stuck.” That’s an understandable fear when you consider what a liability Lisbeth Salander could have been. However narrowly Rapace escaped eternal association with that role, the threat of confinement still looms. Going too big too fast could jeopardize her liberty to choose the parts she wants. Nevertheless, she’s reluctant to talk about her career in pragmatic terms. She’d prefer to describe the mental intricacies of the work itself. “I don’t like pretending,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I don’t like fake.” She pronounces the word with disgust and then laughs at herself. More twinkling. “That’s quite awkward. It’s kind of what we do all day.”