The image of her in a mohawk, with multiple piercings, a laptop under her arm, has made a strong impression; one that will be difficult to shed in the next decade. But in the wake of the brilliant and nuanced portrayal of the heroine Lisbeth Salander in The girl with the dragon tattoo, comes a breakthrough with a string of leading roles directed by some of the most prominent names in film today. “When I get into a role I become a combination of Noomi and the character. We merge into one. My body follows my mind and adjusts accordingly,” says Noomi. When we talk on Skype in March, she has just started a three-month long shoot in Berlin with Brian de Palma. After the interview she’s off to pick up her son at school, and then on to shoot some night scenes.
“A director might see the film more from the outside, in images and more cinematically, while I focus on the psychological aspects of my character and making sure that her actions are credible. I have to feel that it’s right.” Noomi is based in London, has spent most of her professional career – until a couple of years ago – in her native Sweden, but it was in Iceland she discovered acting when she got a part as an extra in a Viking movie as a child. Her stepfather is Icelandic and her family lived there for a large part of her childhood. Last year Noomi got a chance to speak the language again when she returned to the island for the final filming of Ridley Scott’s much-anticipated Prometheus. The title references Greek mythology and the film features Noomi as the visionary scientist Elizabeth Shaw. On the question about whether there were a lot of physical preparations before shooting the science fiction epic, Noomi answers: “I had sessions with a personal trainer virtually every day. I did a lot of running and endurance training to improve my physique, but not become too bulky. I wanted a body that was physically capable of facing whatever I would encounter in outer space. I did most of the action scenes myself; I like to do my own stunts whenever possible, as long as they let me for safety reasons. My ambition is that everything I do should be realistic and credible, even if it’s science fiction or fairy tale, it’s important that it’s always grounded in a sort of psychological truth.”
“Actually, I think I’ve gone further mentally than physically. But when I played Lisbeth I changed my body to look more boyish. In the books she isn’t quite right and seems almost like a cartoon. Very thin and petite, but still extremely strong and she can take down a gang of bikers. Sometimes that seems hard to believe. So instead of turning anorexic I wanted to become stronger, but still loose some weight. I spent seven months before we started shooting training kickboxing and Thai boxing”.
The Norwegian thriller Babycall recently premiered in Europe, and was filmed in Oslo two years ago. Without revealing too much of what happens, it’s easy to understand that playing the leading role of the single mother Anna was mentally taxing. I ask Noomi if there’s such a thing as getting too much into character: “No, but there have been times when I haven’t realised that the role has taken over. My character in Babycall is very fragile and traumatised after a destructive relationship. During my research I met a woman whose close relative had been raped and murdered. She felt physical pain for years afterwards and had a hard time controlling her body. When she was driving for example, her hands would suddenly just lock up. Our bodies seem to handle pain, grief and trauma in ways that can be quite unpredictable.” In the movie a babycall monitor sets off the nerve-wrenching plot. Anna buys it to make sure nothing her 8-year-old son stays safe at night, only to find out that the babycall picks up another child crying somewhere in the apartment building.
“When we had been filming for maybe three weeks my hips started hurting. I felt like an old Labrador that couldn’t walk. I could hardly get out of bed. The doctors and chiropractors couldn’t say what it was. It didn’t get better until the day after we finished shooting. Then the pain disappeared, it was just gone. When I look back at it, it seems like my subconscious picked up on the woman’s story and then my body somehow induced the state psychosomatically. And it was beyond my control.” Preparing for both Babycall and now Passion, Noomi has regular conversations with Dr Clara Gumpert, associate professor and Director of the Centre for Psychiatric Research in Stockholm.
“Before Babycall I tried to learn to understand what it’s like to live in a world where you know that you can slip into a psychosis that you will experience as reality. I could be sitting here being psychotic and seeing devils and demons but pretending everything is normal and be able to control them. But as soon as we log off Skype I will say to them ‘Why can’t you leave me alone when I’m sitting here talking to Antonia’.” In Brian de Palma’s drama thriller Passion, Noomi plays the lead character Isabella James, a young ambitious businesswoman who gets into a close relationship – with several intriguing turns – with her boss and mentor, played by Rachel McAdams. In preparation for the film, Noomi has practiced Bikram yoga pretty much every day, but most of all she tries to map James’ psyche, her psychological landscape: “Now that I’m immersing myself in a new part, I try to understand each scene based on the character’s motivations and goals. How does her mind work? I have to make sure that the actions of my characters are psychologically convincing. If I don’t it becomes almost physically impossible to proceed.”
“I can shut down and become pretty asocial. But it depends on the part. When I played Lisbeth Salander I almost became a bit disturbed. I was socially unstable and couldn’t really interact with people. When I was at dinners I could start arguing with the other people around the table and didn’t realise that my behaviour had changed. I just thought most people were jerks.”
“Presumably – the project has been postponed – I’m going to play the Swedish 60s singer Anita Lindblom. She is my complete opposite. She has blond hair, blue eyes, and bigger breasts. Since I look nothing like her, I asked people a hypothetical question about whether it would be possible to get breast implants for the movie and then take them out. They thought I was completely nuts. But where do you draw the line?” “Actresses everywhere do things to enhance their appearances, but pretend that they don’t. They get breast implants or nose jobs or have body doubles. Several male actors have altered their bodies. Christian Bale slimmed down to 45 kilos and others have gained weight. I can shave my head and get piercings. For me the boundaries are not entirely defined and I like to explore these unspoken distinctions. It’s an interesting issue.” “But after having spoken to a doctor I decided that the procedure would be too straining for the body and it would be too risky to take them out after only a short time, as the tissue needs a few years to adjust to the implants. But I also definitely decided that operations are where I draw the line, I don’t want to have an operation or get a tattoo. I don’t want to do things that are irreversible.”
“Maybe, that I don’t have any trouble being naked or provocative in other ways. Sex scenes are very difficult, but I have decided not to let my own vanity get in the way of a part. To look good can never become more important than doing what is needed in a particular scene.” “People have been shocked by a lot of the scenes in the Danish film Daisy Diamond. A journalist who had seen the film asked me how much I would do to change for a part. I said that I would easily gain weight or shave my head. In Daisy Diamond I let all my body hair grow out. But he didn’t believe me: ‘what, that was your real hair?’ I didn’t understand what he meant. I thought that was obvious. Afterwards I realised that there are special wigmakers who make mini wigs for, well, pubic hair and armpit hair. You shave your real hair and glue on the fake stuff.”
“It’s exciting to follow designers that I respect and I like dressing according to my moods. But when I’m working it’s not about beauty. I’m not a model. When I’m acting there is no emphasis on what is pretty or ugly, charming or dull. Inside that bubble I can play a murderer and need to ask myself whether it’s possible to do that to another human being. My moral, my own opinions and prejudices have to be washed away.”
“I haven’t really noticed that division so far, that a male lead is the focus of the film, and then a female is added for a little flavour. I have a hard time identifying with being the hot girlfriend or the sexy prostitute or the innocent schoolgirl. They’re all clichéd archetypes often deployed when portraying women on screen.”
“I have realised that there isn’t a particular method or science to this. No one can rely on old merits and point to all his or her awards. None of that matters once the camera is rolling. Whether I’m working with Ridley Scott or a young, inexperienced director, our common goal is the same. And that is to make a great movie. I have hit it right in the past, but each time I start from scratch again.” “I just spoke to Clara Gumpert about there being certain similarities between acting and psychology. Profiling a criminal is like a jigsaw puzzle. How does a person fit into schizophrenia for example, or psychosis? One can never be 100 per cent sure. In acting I try to get as close to some sort of truth inside myself as I can. But there is no recipe for success. And that is liberating.”
“I like moving on. When I had finished playing Lisbeth after a year and a half I felt so relieved, because she had really messed me up for so long. When everyone else was going to celebrate with champagne after the final take I suddenly felt nauseous and went to the bathroom and started throwing up. I didn’t understand what was happening. But it felt like my body was purging Lisbeth, like an exorcism. Then I felt completely lost for a week. That sad mohawk was just hanging there. I looked like a withered, old teenage punk.” “Absolutely. Sometimes I feel a real emptiness. We shot the final scenes for Prometheus in Iceland. When we got back to the hotel in Reykjavik we heard the news about the bomb in Oslo; Breivik had committed his terrorist attack. I started to question my sanity. Can this be right? When I got back to Sweden I was completely lost. It felt like I had been away in a different galaxy.”
“Our communication on set was largely wordless. Often it was enough if he just said ‘You should just…’ And I knew instantly what he meant. We were just on the same planet. It was strange meeting someone who has led such an interesting life and done so much, but who is still curious and has an incredible energy. People usually find me tireless. Ridley Scott is ten times worse.”
“I don’t like the back and forward. While shooting Prometheus we took a break for Easter and Ridley asked me what I was going to do. I said ‘I fucking hate holidays, I just want to stay here, I just want to continue.’ He agreed. We told each other ‘okay, survive dude, survive.’ A week later we both decided that we hated free time. It felt good being back.”
“It was mentally and physically straining. Especially during this one week when we were shooting a very difficult scene, I was completely exhausted and Ridley asked ‘Do you have one more take in you?’ We shot one more but I was really in pain. He asked how I was feeling and I lied. ‘Okay, lets do another one!’ But even when the pressure was on, it felt like he was inside my character with me. It was an amazing experience working with him.”
“Logan Marshall Green and I are the team leaders on the ship. Elizabeth Shaw is a scientist, but religious, which creates an interesting conflict within her. Shaw is also an optimist with strong faith and enthusiasm. She was raised by her missionary father in Africa but he died when she was still young. For a long time she has had to manage on her own, but she´s determined to see things from the bright side. In the film things occur that transform her into a warrior for survival.”
“Both were abandoned at an early age but have chosen completely different paths. Lisbeth has no hope. Instead of seeing herself as a victim she has managed to turn it around and hates the others instead. She is driven by contempt and burning hate. Elizabeth on the other hand has an honest belief in a higher purpose, a positive force even in the darkest of moments. A kind of God.”