Noomi Rapace: I Want to Fight Like the Guys
Don’t recognise this girl? The actress formerly known as ‘the girl with the dragon tattoo’ is known for extreme metamorphosis. She talks to Stella magazine about chaotic families, working with Ridley Scott and having a serious fighting spirit.
The dilapidated east London townhouse where Noomi Rapace and I meet is a little too reminiscent of the Millennium trilogy’s run-down apartments – and their nasty goings-on – for comfort. With its disintegrating plaster walls and battered furniture, it’s all too easy to imagine one of the arch-baddie Sala’s henchmen firing up a chainsaw in the stairwell or holed up in the attic tracking your every unwitting move on CCTV. Such is the world Rapace inhabited for 18 months playing Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the highest-grossing Scandinavian film in history, and its two sequels. It’s a relief to step into the sun-drenched patio garden where music blares and the hot scent of coffee drifts from a nearby kitchen.
Rapace, 31, looks so different from Lisbeth Salander that I would never have recognised her on the street. She is fidgety and giggly with loosely pinned, curly fair hair; Salander is a chain-smoking, ashen-faced loner whose flesh is armoured with spikes and rings and whose femininity is obliterated by black smears of make-up. Rapace laughs the loud, rumbling laugh of a naughty six-year-old at my surprise. Having bulked up for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, she says, ‘I wanted to be more fragile and look weaker for my next movie, Babycall’. Her transformation was so dramatic that when she bumped into the director of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in Los Angeles afterwards ‘he had no idea who I was. I was standing in front of him and there was no response.’ Luckily, no extreme metamorphosis was necessary for the Swedish actress’s next role as the gypsy, Sim, in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes sequel, A Game of Shadows. After playing a downward-spiralling teenage mother in Daisy Diamond (the Danish film that gave Rapace her breakthrough role), a ‘fragile, vulnerable and a little bit psychotic’ woman in Babycall and, of course, Lisbeth Salander, she says the Sherlock Holmes film ‘was probably the most playful journey I’ve been on’.
Rapace has said in the past that her Spanish father was part-gypsy. ‘Yeah, he told me before he died that he was partly gypsy but I’ve heard from other people that he didn’t really know because his mother died when he was really, really young.’ Her father ‘escaped [General] Franco when he was 17 and came by himself to Sweden. He was a flamenco singer.’ Rapace’s parents split up before she was born and she didn’t meet her father until she was 16. ‘I hated flamenco for many years,’ she says. ‘I didn’t know him but I knew he was a flamenco singer, so I was like, “F— that,”’ she says with a laugh. ‘”That bull— emotional f— bull—!” But now I like it.’ She has a smoker’s deep, sandy voice – though she quit after the Millennium films – and the merest trace of a Swedish accent: zero is pronounced ‘sero’, fascinated becomes ‘fashinated’, blushing, ‘blossing’. Two years ago she spoke almost no English, but a meeting with the film director Ridley Scott, who told her, ‘If you find a way to speak with a flawless accent you can do whatever you want,’ convinced her to learn. It paid off: Scott cast Rapace as the lead opposite Michael Fassbender in his 3-D Alien prequel, Prometheus, out next summer.
‘I met my father a couple of times before he died, three years ago,’ she says. ‘He lived in Sweden the whole time. I wanted to see him but he didn’t want to see me for a while and then when he wanted to see me I didn’t want to see him.’ She scratches her head and stares at the rusting cast-iron tabletop. People can be very cowardly, I say. She nods. ‘Yes. It’s weird. I can’t understand it.’ Was she angry? ‘I’ve always been quite good at ignoring if I think someone is stupid. It’s like, “OK, do it your way and I’ll do it my way.”’ Her father died of cancer. ‘I actually called him and wanted just to have dinner with him because my husband said to me, “Isn’t it time now that you saw him again?” So I said, “Do you want to come for dinner?” He said, “Yeah, I would love to but I’m not sure if I can manage.” And he told me that he was dying of cancer. And then I saw him a couple of times. And I think we came to…’
There is a long pause. ‘He was really, really sad about not spending time with me so I forgave him. I think forgiveness is a hard thing. But then it’s like, “OK, I don’t have to deal with this big stone in my heart anymore.” ‘So I think we came to something good. A month before he died,’ she adds a little ruefully. She has several siblings. ‘Oh, yeah. A bunch: on my mother’s side two sisters and on my father’s side two brothers and two sisters. I have a brother who is two weeks older than me,’ she says, shooting me a glance and chuckling. ‘And the youngest is three. She was a baby when [my father] died.’ That could make for an interesting Christmas. ‘Ouf!’ she cries, dissolving into laughter. ‘I don’t want to be there! That would be horrible!’ Her Icelandic stepfather is ‘the only father I’ve ever had’. The family moved to Iceland when she was four, returning to Sweden – ‘they only told me this later’ – when Rapace was nine, on account of her disruptive behaviour in school.
They found a horse farm ‘out in nowhere’ in southern Sweden and enrolled her in a Rudolf Steiner school. ‘They knew it was going to be problematic for me to be in a normal school and follow rules and be forced to sit down all day and raise your hand.’ Rapace grew into a pierced, peroxided teenager who was putting away ‘a bottle of whisky a night. I was very competitive. I wanted to be able to drink as much as the guys. I was like, “F— the girly things, I want be able to fight like you.”’ She pierced her ears, nose and eyebrow herself with a safety pin and attempted to give herself a tattoo with a needle and ink ‘but it just bled away’. The pressure on young girls to be feminine – to be pretty and non-confrontational and laugh at boys’ jokes – is ‘a prison’, she says. ‘An emotional prison.’
There’s more than a little Lisbeth Salander in this. ‘I’m stubborn like Lisbeth,’ she agrees. In the 18 months she played her, Rapace felt herself ‘melt into’ the abused, ferociously vengeful Salander. ‘I was quite aggressive, not only against men but women, too. I felt as if everyone was questioning me – so I wanted to pick a fight. ‘I remember sitting in a corner drinking coffee in breaks during shooting and everyone was eating and gossiping and I was like, “Shut up! I don’t want to hear that f— gossip.”’ she giggles. ‘They were like, “Woah!”’ Her family and friends were alarmed by the change in her, as was her husband. ‘It was difficult on our relationship. If you asked him he would say I changed a lot.’ She falls silent. She and Ola Rapace, who is also an actor, divorced last November. ‘The weird thing is I can’t see the way I change when I’m in there.’ The Millennium trilogy trawls the muckiest gutters of human behaviour: neo-Nazi torture, inter-familial murder and so much brutal rape that Stieg Larsson’s original title for his book, Men Who Hate Women, seems a far more apt description of the story than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
There isn’t a single female character in the trilogy who doesn’t suffer. ‘That’s true,’ says Rapace, ‘but I think [Larsson] is on the women’s side. It’s like he’s using Lisbeth to say to everybody, “If somebody rapes you, you are not the dirty one, it’s not your fault, so go back after him.” ‘She fights back with everything she can. She starts a war instead of shrinking and hiding. I think it’s quite common for women to just turn inside and sit in a corner – they feel dirty and disgusting. ‘When I saw Nikita or True Romance or Thelma & Louise, when they fight back: “That f— raped her… Boom!”’ She mimes Susan Sarandon shooting Geena Davis’s attacker. ‘It’s that kind of fighting spirit.’ I ask her how she feels about David Fincher’s English-language remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It stars Rooney Mara (of The Social Network) as Lisbeth and is out next week. Rapace sighs, as though her energy has suddenly fizzled out. ‘I’m OK with it. My only hope is they’ve done something different, otherwise what’s the point?’
For her part, she is ‘so done with Lisbeth, it was never an option for me to do her again’. For the sake of her son, Lev, Rapace is trying not to ‘totally become my characters non-stop’ the way she has done until now. Lev is eight. ‘I did everything early,’ she says. ‘I left my family and moved to Stockholm when I was 15 [when she went to drama school]. I married at 20. And my son came when I was 23.’ Despite her wild early adolescence, Rapace quit drinking at 15. ‘When everyone else went wild, I was sober. I was acting in a soap opera when I was 16, so I think I suddenly grew up. And when I got sober I wanted to be really posh.’
She starts laughing. ‘I went and bought the most lady clothes.’ Today she is wearing a very chic, all-black ensemble of wide-legged trousers and semi-sheer top. ‘But I’m so short I have to pull my trousers up all the way to the boobs.’ When they married she and Ola took a new surname, Rapace, meaning bird of prey. ‘I’m not close to my family,’ she explains. ‘I’m close to my mother today but I wasn’t growing up. So when I met Ola I was like, “I want to create something new with you.”’
The name came from ‘never feeling like I belonged in Sweden. People are like, ‘”Where are you from?” and I don’t know what to say. ‘Once when I was in Iceland I was out playing and this big hawk was sitting a couple of metres from me and looking at me. They look as if they know everything – and they can fly way above everything and see all things. ‘I fantasised about flying and choosing when to land and when to move on. I don’t want to have one country; I want to have the whole world.’ She and Ola are about to start shooting a film together directed by Catherine Hardwicke of Twilight fame. It’s called Knockout, about the 1960s Swedish boxing champion Bosse Högberg and his affair with the cabaret singer Anita Lindblom. They play the leads. ‘I’m not worried, you know,’ she says of working with her ex-husband. ‘It’s quite good to have a shared goal, something we can fight for together. It kind of reunites us, so we are on the same side again.’ She flashes a lopsided smile. Rapace hasn’t been single since she was 13. ‘This is the first time it’s only me.’ Is that exciting, I ask. Silence. Or frightening? ‘I think it’s both, in a way. But that’s what I love about living: everything changes all the time.
‘When I was a teenager I looked at the conventional, bourgeois people around me and I was like, “Your lives are so boring, your smiles are so dead and I don’t want to be like you ever.”’ She’s laughing a little at her youthful self – but she knows it’s mission accomplished.