Playing with Fire
Noomi Rapace, the star of Prometheus, talks about Ridley Scott, her wild childhood, and considering breast enlargement for her next film.
In March 2011, when Noomi Rapace was preparing to shoot Prometheus, the director Ridley Scott took her in to see the main set at Pinewood for the first time. The vast 007 stage – already one of the biggest in Europe – had had to be extended to fit in the planet discovered by the crew of the spaceship Prometheus. Few actors work on a set of this size and scope any more, let alone one who up to that point had worked mainly in Scandinavian productions. ‘I was completely blown away,’ Rapace says, her dark eyes shining as she recalls the moment. ‘We stepped into this room and it was just magic. It took my breath away. I felt like a kid, stepping into Narnia. The way Ridley works, he wants to have everything there, for real: real creatures, real sets and real vehicles. So I didn’t need to pretend at all.’
Prometheus was filmed in 3D, and even with the added pressure that brought, Rapace praises Scott’s eye for detail and his childlike enthusiasm on set, especially while wearing his 3D glasses to look at the footage. ‘He doesn’t like the bullshit and he doesn’t like people to pose and pretend and to fake things. And he doesn’t like perfection – he’s driven towards something that is more real and cracked. We share that. I don’t want to look perfect. So I don’t want make-up, for instance, unless my character would be wearing it in that situation.’ Today, however, Rapace is in full war paint, playing the role of an actress whose star is in rapid ascent. Immaculate grooming emphasises her dark colouring, high cheekbones and striking if unconventional beauty. She strides into the hotel room dressed in chic designer black with matching killer platform heels of the sort that once caused Naomi Campbell to crumple on the catwalk. They must add several centimetres to her height, yet the first thing that strikes you is how small she is – tiny, but far from fragile. She worked with a trainer every day throughout the four-month shoot in order to be able to do the physical scenes demanded of her in Prometheus. Her handshake is a bone-crusher. This is not the first time that Noomi Rapace has committed herself so fully. For her breakthrough role of Lisbeth Salander in the original Swedish film versions of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy books (starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in 2009), she worked out intensively to become even skinnier and put on the sinewy muscle her character’s exploits required. Prometheus is one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the year, if not the decade, marking Scott’s return to science fiction after 30 years. His first venture into the genre was Alien in 1979, which spawned a four-film franchise, redefined the role of women in action movies and changed our view of extraterrestrial life forms for ever. Three years later, he made Blade Runner; few sci-fi films since have been untouched by its dirty, rain-sodden vision of the future. Both are still considered two of the best sci-fi films ever made, and the earnest online dissections of the trailer alone show just how excited fans are about Prometheus. A few hours before I met Rapace, journalists were invited to see some footage, and even though we were to see only 20 minutes from the beginning of the film the cinema was packed. Prometheus was initially conceived as a prequel to Alien; Scott says he was willing to make it only once it had evolved into a narrative – and a universe – of its own.
Rapace plays Elizabeth Shaw, a scientist and devout Christian who discovers star maps embedded in the art of different ancient civilisations. She initiates a mission to discover the intelligence that created them, hoping to discover the god-like beings that created mankind. Plot details have been carefully guarded, but the footage we saw makes it clear that the world she discovers is far from heavenly. ‘I think it’s safe to say that her faith is shaken,’ Rapace says with a smile. The Q&A session afterwards was attended by Scott and three of his cast: Michael Fassbender, who plays the ship’s android, David; Charlize Theron, whose character is on the spaceship Prometheus to represent the interests of the corporation funding the mission; and Rapace. It soon became clear, from questions directed to Theron, that some of the journalists had assumed that she was the lead character, assigned to take on the warrior role played by Sigourney Weaver in Alien, and both Theron and Scott had to point out that those questions were actually better directed to Rapace. ‘I like that,’ Rapace shrugs, pointing out that Theron is more famous, so it’s a natural assumption to make. ‘And it’s how Ridley works. The first Alien is very much an ensemble movie in the beginning, and it’s only in the second part of it that [Weaver’s character] Ripley becomes the heroine. I’m still quite unknown in the States, and for the studio to sign off on a Swedish-Spanish girl who hardly spoke English to do the lead in the biggest movie in years, it’s quite unusual.’ Though she had worked steadily as an actress in her native Sweden since the age of 16, it was only with the success of the Millennium trilogy that Rapace began to attract global attention. She was extraordinary as the damaged but awesome Lisbeth, genius computer hacker, female ninja and emotional iceberg. When the first film opened in Sweden the producers hadn’t taken into account what a phenomenon the Larsson thrillers had become worldwide, and they were surprised by the interest from foreign press. The day after the film’s premiere in Stockholm, the producers had to organise a hasty press conference to cater for them. And Rapace says she was totally unprepared to discuss her work in English. ‘It was a nightmare, because I couldn’t express myself,’ she says in English that is now so fluent it is easy to forget it is her third language (she learnt Icelandic as a child when her family moved there for five years). ‘My English was so bad I was embarrassed.’
When she met Ridley Scott shortly afterwards, he told her he had already seen the film several times and was keen to work with her. ‘He said, “Work on your accent, because you can do anything, you can be anything and nothing can stop you, but you have to be completely free in the language.” And I took that really seriously.’ Noomi Rapace’s mother, Nina Norén, is an actress; she makes a short appearance in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as Lisbeth’s mother. Her father, Rogelio Durán, was a Spanish flamenco singer who moved to Sweden to escape Franco, but the relationship was short-lived. Rapace didn’t meet him until she was in her teens, and then only briefly. She was raised by her mother and stepfather, a horse breeder, in Iceland. When Rapace was seven, all of them worked as extras on an Icelandic period film, In the Shadow of the Raven. ‘It was like a Tristan and Isolde Viking story, and I loved it. We lived there, in tents, and I didn’t want to go home. I remember feeling, “I belong here”. From that point on, I knew I wanted to become an actress.’ Two years later, the family returned to Sweden to enrol Rapace in a Rudolf Steiner school. ‘They didn’t want to put me in a normal school because I was so wild,’ she says. ‘I grew up in nature. I was always out playing with the horses, building and creating things, and Steiner schools give you a bit more freedom. It was good for me, because it’s very creative, loose and playful. But I didn’t really learn that much. I didn’t have any books. I couldn’t read or write until I was quite old, and I didn’t learn any languages.’ By the time Rapace was 14, she wasn’t going to school much at all. She had got into music, had dyed her hair blond to emulate Sid Vicious’s punk girlfriend Nancy Spungen, and was drinking heavily. ‘I was exploring and experimenting, hanging out with much older people. But they’d been drinking and doing drugs and whatever for years, and eventually I saw that they weren’t really moving in any direction, just going round and round in circles. And I hate that. I’m very restless, and I want to move forward.’ When she was 15, she went with these friends to Roskilde, the Danish music festival. ‘I was there for four or five days,’ she says matter-of-factly, ‘and I didn’t remember anything. I missed all the bands that I wanted to see, and I lost all my belongings.’ Rapace ended up making a reverse-charge call to her stepfather, who came to pick her up. ‘I realised, this is not fun. It’s not cool. It’s quite boring. So I asked myself, what’s my dream? And I remembered how much I loved acting and connected back to that.’ Shortly afterwards, still 15, she moved to Stockholm to finish her education in a high school specialising in drama. ‘My family supported me,’ she says. ‘It wasn’t like I ran off. My stepdad took me to Stockholm with my stuff, a seven-hour drive from the south of Sweden. I rented a room, and I became a grown-up. I realised that I needed to become the person I wanted to be, that nobody else was going to do it for me. That’s when I realised that I was a bit… almost like a retard, because everyone else at school knew things, and I had no idea. I’d never been on a computer. My spelling was horrible. So while everyone else was partying I was completely sober and studying.’
At the age of 16, Rapace was doing a television soap. At 19, she was taking psychologically demanding theatre roles. A year later she met the actor Ola Norell, and shocked her friends by getting married and starting a family. ‘Everyone said, what? Are you crazy?’ she hoots. When they married, the couple both ditched their family names, and chose a new one together: Rapace, a French word that translates as bird of prey. Their son, Lev, was born a year later, and loves his name. ‘He’s very proud. He says, “I’m the only born Rapace in the whole world!”’ It was Ola who persuaded Rapace to contact her biological father again, but by the time they met he was dying of cancer. She had spent much of her childhood trying to work out why Durán abandoned her, she says, and trying to give herself his answers: ‘It was like a bleeding wound in my heart, my whole childhood. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to sit down with him and talk to him before he died, and I felt like I made peace.’ Growing up with two younger half-sisters – both blond and blue-eyed like their parents – her difference was always emphasised, and it was a relief to meet her two Spanish half-brothers, to find family who actually looked like her. ‘I look pretty much like my father. And now my half-brother, my father’s son, is my nanny. He’s with me and Lev in Berlin.’ Rapace is there shooting Passion, Brian De Palma’s remake of the French hit Crime d’Amour, about a violent power struggle between an ambitious boss (Rapace) and the protégée whose idea she has stolen (Rachel McAdams). She and Ola divorced last year, after 10 years of marriage. It had nothing to do with her sudden success, she says. ‘The Swedish press was really nasty about it, and has written a lot of things that aren’t true. There was no war. We’re still close, and I love him. But we are both quite intense, and it could be quite explosive. We were fighting a lot, and it just felt like it was best to change things. So we did. And we’re both happier today.’ Rapace now speaks with only a slight trace of an accent, and recently woke up in the night realising that she had been dreaming in English. Still, she was nervous before shooting her first English film last year, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes sequel Game of Shadows. The films are made with the initial script as only the vaguest of maps, with much of the dialogue ad-libbed as they go along. ‘I knew that Robert Downey Jr wanted to improvise, to be able to change and try things, and I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to keep up with him,’ she says. ‘But it wasn’t really a problem. And on Prometheus, I just stopped thinking about it.’ Ritchie has said that the challenge with Rapace was that she had too much to contribute, wanting her character – a gipsy with a lethal way with knives – to slit throats at every opportunity. ‘She has lots of ideas, some of them good, some not.’
I mention this to Rapace, and she laughs. ‘Actually, most of them were really good.’ She has never been afraid to fight with her directors, if asked to do something she feels is wrong for her character. She nearly quit The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo over a closing scene in which her character tells her life story to the male lead, the investigative journalist Michael Blomkvist, neatly tying up loose ends for viewers who hadn’t read the books. In the end, she wrote a new, less verbal scene with the director, Niels Arden Oplev. ‘Niels was really upset and angry, but I wasn’t doing it just to mess around with him. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t her. I have a very strong sense when it’s false. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s that I can’t. It’s just wrong.’ And it clearly didn’t scar their relationship permanently: she is about to work with him again, starring alongside Colin Farrell in a mob drama, Dead Man Down. Rapace has always been method – sometimes, she admits, to the point of madness. ‘Before I had my son, I was almost obsessed with staying in the character and went way too far a couple of times, where I kind of lost myself into it and I couldn’t really communicate with people around me.’ For Daisy Diamond, a 2007 Danish film in which she plays a troubled young mother who becomes a prostitute, she spent a month hanging out in Copenhagen brothels and strip clubs as research. To play Lisbeth Salander, she changed her body radically, learnt to ride a motorbike, had her ears and nose pierced, and even considered having a dragon tattooed on her back for real, before deciding it might be too difficult to hide for future roles. ‘I do a lot of physical preparation. In Prometheus I wanted to do as much of the action stuff and the fight sequences as they’d allow me to do. My goal is always to make it as real as possible. If I can do the physical scenes, then I know my character could do it.’ Given the extremes that her Prometheus co-star Michael Fassbender went to, starving himself close to death in order to play the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in Hunger, I wonder if she has considered where her limits are. ‘I’m struggling with that now,’ she admits. ‘I’m doing this movie later on, where I’m supposed to be blond and blue-eyed with pretty big boobies. I was thinking about putting in fake tits – because so many actresses do it, although not for a specific role. I went to a clinic and met a doctor, and did a lot of research. But it’s a big procedure, it’s quite painful, and then I’d need to take them out again for the part I’m doing afterwards. So although I’m not afraid of pushing it, I don’t want to do surgery. Probably.’
‘Prometheus’ opens on June 1