The Drop's Noomi Rapace: on her rough past and the pressure to be sexy
Noomi Rapace, the Swedish star of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and now The Drop, once loved bar fights and heavy drinking. Now 34, she explains why those days are behind her
Noomi Rapace arrives for our interview looking gloriously mad, like the love-child of Lady Gaga and Alien’s Ellen Ripley. She is a vision in a Balmain boiler-suit, open to the waist to reveal a chest of gold jewellery and a pin-stripe bra. On her feet are a pair of six-inch Sergio Rossi boots, and on her peroxide blonde head a pair of sparkling sunglasses that appear to have been mined from the moon.
“A lot of people think I’m quite dark and angry and hardcore and really quite kind of super serious,” she tells me, by way of explanation, “and then they meet me and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, you’re so funny and you laugh and you’re smiling so much!’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, why wouldn’t I?’”
Because you like to play women who are quite dark and angry and hardcore and super serious, I say, thinking of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (she was the lead in the original, Swedish version), and Elizabeth Shaw, the ripped scientist in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus who gives herself a caesarian after realising she is pregnant with an alien. Because most of the women you play are quite, you know, scarred? “Yes!” the 34-year-old Swede giggles wildly. In her new film, The Drop, a gritty crime thriller, her character’s neck has been gone at by a potato peeler. In last year’s Dead Man Down, alongside Colin Farrell, her face is disfigured.
“Even Elizabeth Shaw, she ended up with quite a scar! And I have my own,” she says, rolling up the suit to reveal a series of wounds that expose her messy past. “I have them everywhere from fights and from stuff in my life. I still have a piece of glass in my hand here,” she says, proudly pointing out the spot below her fingers.
“I smashed a glass.” Rapace mimes a throw. “I used to get into bar fights,” she says with a smile, as if this were the most normal thing in the world. Were the scars self-inflicted? “A mix,” she says, laughing nervously.
Just who is Noomi Rapace? And does Noomi Rapace even know herself? She tells me that acting, for her, is “life”, that it is “complete freedom”, and I wonder if that sense of freedom comes from pretending to be other people; if her outfit today isn’t just some attempt at playing another character.
We meet at the Soho Hotel during the London Film Festival. She is here to promote The Drop, in which she stars alongside Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini, in his final film. It’s another tough role for her – she must be at once vulnerable and hard as she plays the ex-girlfriend of a maniac – and to get into the part she spent weeks thinking up an elaborate back-story for her character. That she can let her imagination run wild is her favourite thing about acting, and I ask if she has ever thought about writing. Her face turns crimson. It turns out that after our meeting she is off to meet the head of a studio to discuss two projects she has come up with.
So it is all go for Rapace. She has just finished filming Child 44, a thriller set in a Soviet Union ruled by Stalin. Her hair and eyebrows were bleached for that role, which is why she has the look of a heavily made-up albino today. She is about to start filming Unlocked, a CIA thriller alongside Michael Douglas, and it will be all change again. “When I’m working I go into a place within myself,” she says, very seriously. “I go into a zone and I kind of forget about the world a bit. I find it hard to be functioning completely in real life, when I am shooting something really intense.”
Rapace can switch things on and off with an ease that would both impress and frighten most people. She likes her wine and she loves a smoke, but she can cast them away should a role ask for it – as she did two weeks ago, because she felt her character in Unlocked would be clean-living. Currently she is detoxing for the part. On the table in front of us there are four large glasses of a green liquid as dark as her boiler-suit. This is a celery, cucumber, mint, lemon and ginger blend, and she drinks two litres of it a day.
“When I am about to play someone, I ask myself what I need to do in terms of physical preparations. Sometimes I gain weight, sometimes I lose it.” She shrugs. This is just part of the job.
Rapace is not vain – vanity, she says, is the enemy of acting. “I had to make a decision, a very strict decision, when I was 21, and that decision was never to make a professional choice based on vanity. And it’s really hard. Sometimes I see a movie when it’s finished and I’m like, ‘I look like something is wrong with me!’” But she would rather that than be the actress preening and primping on the red carpet. “It is so wrong that women can feel they need to be sexy and beautiful to be given attention. For me, acting is the opposite. For me, in films it is more important to be real. If posing and being sexy is my first priority, then I can’t act. That kills everything.”
She tells me about a Swedish film she did called Babycall. She played a prostitute who kills her child and the whole time she was filming she was completely eaten up with pain. “I couldn’t walk sometimes. I’m not kidding. I was on my knees and crawling to the bathroom to pee.” She gets on the floor and mimes dragging herself to the loo. “I was on really strong painkillers. The producer sent me to doctors, to chiropractors, to osteopaths. And nobody could find anything wrong with me.” As soon as she finished shooting, the pain disappeared. “I can’t explain it, what acting does to me. It was almost as if my body had taken her story into it. But it wasn’t real. It was completely in my head.”
Noomi Noren was born almost 35 years ago in Sweden, to an actress and a Spanish flamenco singer. Her parents broke up when she young, and she only met her father again when she was a teenager, by which point he was already dying of cancer. Hers was a strange, peripatetic childhood: when she was just five her mother and stepfather moved her to Iceland, where she grew up in a community populated mostly by people with Down’s syndrome.
“My mum was teaching drama there and my stepdad was working with horses,” she recalls now. “There were 300 people there, and only 20 ‘normal’ families. I remember it was quite scary, because they were quite aggressive and sometimes angry. I didn’t know how to deal with them or react to them. I remember someone came and grabbed my toys one day, but I wasn’t allowed to be angry with them. It was two years of being the outsider, and that probably informed me and taught me quite a lot.”
At the age of seven, she was an extra on a Swedish film, an experience that ignited her passion for acting. She went to a hippyish Steiner school, but didn’t learn to read or write until she was 14. She left home at 15, moved to Stockholm to study theatre, and fell in with a bad crowd. “I could drink a bottle of whisky a day,” she says, almost astounded at the memory herself. “Weirdly enough, I didn’t do drugs or smoke, because everyone around me was smoking and I didn’t want to be like everybody else. I wanted to be the best drinker.”
She became sober at the age of 16, when she got a part in a Swedish soap opera. “I did everything young,” she says, and she is not exaggerating.
Noomi married the actor Ola Norell when she was just 20, he 26. They decided to choose a new surname together, and opted for Rapace – French for “bird of prey”. By 23 she had given birth to their son, Lev. The couple divorced last year, but remain friends for the sake of Lev, who is now 11. “Can I show you some pictures of him, please?” she asks, leaping over to sit next to me on the sofa, and pulling out an iPhone full of videos featuring Lev playing on the guitar.
It is a testament to Rapace’s skills as an actress that few people know anything about her private life. Previously she has been linked to Tom Hardy (who is now married), but she says they are just friends. “There’s so many rumours about me. It is something that comes with our job.” She tries not to read anything about herself because she doesn’t want to become too self-aware – the key, she says, is not to take it too seriously. “I’m travelling with my best friend at the moment, as she is my stylist, and we are staying in a massive hotel room with two bedrooms. We were having dinner last night and I said, ‘Maybe people think we’re a lesbian couple.’” Does she have a boyfriend at the moment? “Um, well, I have…” She shifts in her chair. “I can’t really talk about it!”
Rapace is currently in the process of buying a house in London, which she shows me on her Rightmove app. She has lived out of a suitcase for the past few years, and she is happy finally to be putting down roots, not least because it means that Lev will have somewhere to call home. “The fact that my ex-husband is an actor too means it is a puzzle, really, and it’s not easy, but I want him [Lev] to have some normality in his life. I don’t want him to be home-schooled, or have a tutor. I want him to be in a class with kids. I want him to take the bus.”
Did she ever think of moving back to Sweden? “It’s strange,” she says, “but I never really felt like I belonged there that much. I always felt like an outsider.” She hadn’t been to London until four years ago, when she got the part in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, alongside Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law. She couldn’t even speak English until six years ago, when she was doing the press tour for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and realised she didn’t understand what anyone was saying.
“I couldn’t express myself. I was embarrassed and angry and I felt panicked. I went back to my hotel room and I was like, ‘I can’t have this. This is too embarrassing.’” She started watching talk shows and news channels, anything that might help her to absorb English. When Ridley Scott approached her about the role of Elizabeth Shaw in Prometheus, she knew it was a sign. “It took me 10 hours to read a script at first,” she says now, a look of wonder on her face. “I had to look up every second word.”
Isn’t it incredible, that in five years she has gone from a woman who spoke no English, to one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars? “Oh, it is amazing,” she beams. “And sometimes I am afraid I will wake up and find it is a dream. People that knew me back in the day, they would be surprised that I am even alive. I don’t even know how it happened.” Because you’re really good, I suggest? “Or stubborn enough never to give up. Survival is a skill that I had to develop when I was quite young. When I decide to do something,” she says, pausing to down one of her green juices, “I will find a way to do it.”
The Drop is out on Friday