The Empire Interview: Noomi Rapace
Back this month in counter-terrorism thriller Unlocked (not to mention a certain Alien sequel), Noomi Rapace explains why she thrives on facing her fears.
Noomi Rapace sits in a huge armchair wearing leather and pearls, a cross between Truth or Dare-era Madonna and a Tom of Finland drawing, and takes a bite out of a red pepper like it’s an apple. No one was expecting Rapace, a natural brunette, to turn up peroxide blonde for Empire’s photoshoot, but of course she did: the 37-year-old Swede is ever unpredictable, perpetually drawn to risk, always kicking hornets’ nests. Every time you see Rapace she has radically changed form. In her breakout role, Lisbeth Salander in the original Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and subsequent sequels, she was tatted-up and punked-out. In her first English language film, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, she played a beguiling Romany woman. She followed that as one of the few people to emerge unscathed from Prometheus, with a return for her scientist Elizabeth Shaw due in Alien: Covenant (“I’m in it a little bit, but it’s not my movie,” is all she’ll say on that). If that selection wasn’t eclectic enough, future possible parts include Enzo Ferrari’s wife Linda in Michael Mann’s Ferrari and Amy Winehouse in a mooted biopic. But Empire is meeting her today to discuss Unlocked, a new thriller in which she plays a CIA agent trying to save London from a biological terror attack.
Perhaps as extreme preparation for Unlocked, she bought a house in London four years ago.“It has a very liberating and creative energy,” she says. She takes out her phone to show Empire the taxidermy raven that hangs in permanent flight from her glass ceiling. Birds are a big thing with her: in 2001 she and her then-husband chose their married name “Rapace” meaning “bird of prey” in French. “I grew up in Iceland and there are a lot of birds there. They have a pride and a beauty and dignity that I think has been guiding me through life.” She scrolls through hundreds of photos, stopping on the way to show off her 13-year-old son and squeal about how cute he is. It seems out of character, but is it? Is Noomi Rapace actually the hardass she plays in so many of her movies? She claims she’s not, but she’s also the kind of person who will scroll through her camera-roll right in front of you without fear. Based on this alone, Empire would not want to fight her.
Aside from the rest of the cast — Michael Douglas, John Malkovich, Orlando Bloom — what made you want to do Unlocked?
I love Jason Bourne and I always wanted to be a female Jason Bourne. It felt a little bit like that. It’s an authentic, real, rough movie where you can actually feel what it’s like to hit the floor. It fucking hurts to scratch your knees. It hurts to get punched. [My character] Alice can fight because she trains really hard and she has a lot of rage and a lot of demons in her that make her good at her work.
You got real facial piercings for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Did you do anything special for this one?
I broke my nose! It was an accident during one of the action scenes. I got Orlando Bloom’s elbow in my face. He was like, “Oh my god! I’m so sorry! I hit her, I hit her!” I heard it crack. I just iced my face and they shaded it with make-up so it looked straight. After the shoot I was like ‘Fuck, my nose looks really bad!’ so I went to a doctor and he said, “You have a fracture and you should have checked this right away but now it’s too late.”
This is not how most actors would react to a broken face. Do you consider yourself to be particularly tough?
Not really. I think you convince yourself to be what you need to be. I was on my own quite early [in life], and I left my family early. I’ve done everything myself. It’s just me. If I hit the ground, no one’s going to pick me up, I have to stand up myself. I think if you show how vulnerable you are, you won’t survive in this world. I’m not really that tough, it’s just a mindset to refuse to be a victim. I think it’s probably a Swedish thing as well. There are no divas in Sweden.
Do you do your own stunts?
Always! Car stuff and big jumps they don’t let me do because of insurance but I try to do as much as possible myself.
Aren’t you afraid you’ll get hurt? Say, accidentally hit in the face by Orlando Bloom?
I’m afraid of so many things but I force myself to face my fear instead of avoiding it. There’s a scene in Unlocked where I’m hanging 12 storeys up and I could see the team on the ground filming. I’m terrified of heights and they were small, like insects. My heart was racing but I couldn’t tell anyone that I was scared, because then I think it would just take over. So I have to pretend that I’m not, to overcome it. You know when you feel the blood start to pound in your head? I can’t think straight, it feels like my head is going to explode. I’m not sure that I really enjoy it. People think I’m brave but I’m not.
You know you can just let someone else do it though, right?
But after you’d done it, it’s like a reward! I’m trying to be more responsible and not take unnecessary risks though. Before I was just like, “Raaaarghh! Let’s go! I’m ready!” And now I go, “Can we just rehearse it one more time?” I think it’s because I’m learning from my mistakes. The very last day of shooting there was a scene where I escape out of a window and jump over a fence. I was in high heels and I landed with my whole bodyweight on one foot and I heard something explode. You have a fat pillow in your foot and it burst. My foot was a mess for five months, I couldn’t wear heels. I was just like, [big sigh] “I’m tired of always been in pain…”
Did you get breaks in filming to recover?
Normally you would have one action thing, and then you have maybe a week break to do some proper acting scenes. But this film was physical things every day. There was a scene we were doing in a hotel room where I give a guy a knee in his head. I had to do about 30 takes because it was different angles. In the end I got an inflamed thing in my thigh, couldn’t lift my leg for weeks, and I pulled a muscle in my tummy. We had this Russian doctor come to the set and gave me shots. I saw this this huge needle go in and he said [puts on Russian accent] “Now you’re going to be fine for four hours.” Four hours later I was screaming. It was intense, but fun.
There’s also a scene where you’re in a river at night. That can’t have been comfortable.
It was November and it was cold. It was so scary. I’m afraid of dark water.
What else are you afraid of?
Would you do a scene with a live spider?
I did! In [2016 film] Rupture, I play a woman who gets kidnapped and put in a facility. Her worst fear is spiders so they torture her with spiders. The whole idea is that if you can confront your worst fear than you can become your better self, and you can enter a new level of knowledge. So I’m tied up on the gurney, feet, arms, neck – I can’t move – and they put a huge spider on my arm. It was awful! [Laughs] I didn’t manage to overcome that one. I panicked and the spider started moving because they feel it.
You didn’t fling it across the room?
I couldn’t! I was tied up! Most films I’ve done I’m confronting some kind of fear in me. Even if it’s internal.
It sounds like therapy.
I guess it is, in a way. But I don’t think it can ever be about me, it always needs to be about the film over me, especially when it comes to vanity. When I see myself and think “Oh my god, I look fucking awful” I need to not pay attention to that.
Was there a particular movie where that was the case?
Most of them. In a lot of scenes in Unlocked I look horrible but I like it because it’s real. If I were to go through what Alice goes through, that’s the way I would look. I start off with make-up and slowly we just let it fall and I get more and more roughed up. The DP on the production came up to me on one of the last days and said “I’ve never shot a leading lady looking so bad.” I was like, “Okay! High-five!”
Orlando looks unusually rough in the film, too.
I think he also reached a point where he didn’t want to be the pretty boy anymore. It’s so predictable to be cast as the love interest. He really went for it. [In the elevator scene with the two rottweilers] he said, “I’m going to let the dog attack me” and I said, “Are you insane? What if he goes for your throat instead?” The dog was supposed to bite his arm and then go all over but on a restricted area, because it was a trained dog. But a dog is a dog. What if he just hates you?
Are you a dog person?
I grew up on a farm and my best friend was my dog, Krummi, which is an Icelandic nickname for raven. He was a big black bastard dog, slightly aggressive to most people but so loyal with me. He went everywhere with me and then he was hit by a car and died. And then I wanted to die. I was 12, and I was so heartbroken, and I didn’t really get over it. I just promised myself that I would never open my heart for a dog again, and I haven’t. I would really die if I lost a dog again. It’s like my body has an inner scar that I’m still aware of.
Apart from being regularly injured, what else did you do to get into the role?
I always make a playlist. I was listening to a lot of upbeat things, Eminem and old school hip-hop, and Elliphant’s One More. I think we did four music videos for that one in my make-up trailer – me, my assistant, my make-up girl, the 3rd AD. It was a little gang.
Is it true you have a perfumier friend who makes you a different scent for each character?
Yes! Alice’s scent was masculine, quite sexy but not sweet. It was quite rooty. I did it for The Drop, with Tom Hardy, and then we both went straight into Child 44. I have them in the same bottles so by mistake I put the wrong one on at 5am. I came to the make-up trailer and Tom was like, “Babes, what are you doing?! You’re confusing me now, you’re smelling like Nadia!” He was completely freaked out because I smelled wrong. It’s such a strong tool. It was a bit of a mess when I did [upcoming Netflix thriller] What Happened To Monday? because I play seven characters and had to go between seven smells. I had to wash them off because I couldn’t mix them. It was a complete meltdown in my head. I’m working on the one for Stockholm right now.
This is the film with Ethan Hawke, right?
Yeah, it’s a love story between a bank robber and his hostage based on a true story. It’s where the expression “Stockholm syndrome” came from. For four days I’m trapped in this bank.
How do you prep for a movie about being trapped in a bank?
I’ve been reading about being a woman in 1973, and they didn’t go to the gym then so I’m trying to lose my muscles and slim down.
Do you train a lot usually?
I can’t really stop exercising because I would go insane – I have too much going on in my head. So I’ve been doing a lot of cardio, light weights and repetition but never heavy weights because I’d look like a pitbull. My body just loves to gain muscle; I can look like a boxer in like a month. I don’t mind it, but it doesn’t fit most parts. So the goal is to eat up some of my muscles. I want to look a bit frail.
Would you want to play a role where you bulk up?
I’m going to be doing this one movie that’s really physical, about a female bodyguard. It’s based on a woman called Jacquie Davis who wrote a book called The Circuit. That’s going to be full on, and really hardcore. And it’s a female director! I’m super excited.
Have you worked with a female director before?
Pernilla August on Beyond. I love working with women.
How is it different?
It’s actually not. It’s just about people. Some men are very feminine, and some women are very masculine. It’s just about if you connect with someone. But I do think that a lot of films have a very male perspective on things and for me as a woman it becomes a bit boring. I think when you work with a female director she might see all of you. It might be more of a common ground about how you see the world, and how you make your way through life.
If you ever became a director, would you also act in your own film?
I wouldn’t direct myself. I love to be guided, and I don’t think I can go as far as I want on my own. When I’m acting I’m very much on the inside. If I were to have to go out and look at myself and correct myself, I don’t think I could change.
Plus, you’d need a different perfume for the other side of the camera.
Exactly! That would be very time-consuming. “Cut! I have to go shower!”