Cult superstar Noomi Rapace is today’s go-to actor for the difficult, the troubled and the real. And for Wylde’s shoot, the girl with the chameleon talent takes on further unusual roles. What lies beneath? She tells Luke Singleton about Sigourney, Lil’ Kim and being an Alien… in Hollywood.
I am meeting cult superstar Noomi Rapace for lunch in Notting Hill’s Electric Cinema and I have asked her who, if anyone, has inspired her past performances. She tells me that, as art imitates life, her film characters come deep from deep within her past, born out of personal conflicts. Rapace exudes an emotive warmth which is a long way from the knife- wielding, tattooed and pierced Lisbeth Salander of the Millennium series of films and TV programmes – most famously, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, for which she was Bafta nominated in 2011. It is because of this famous film role that Rapace’s reputation in Hollywood is possibly synonymous with a particular type of character: that of the crop-haired insurgent, a female underdog who survives against the odds and who is certainly no generic leading lady. The name that she changed was Noomi Norén, and she hails from Hudiksvall, in Sweden, daughter to actress Nina Norén and a Spanish flamenco-singing father, with whom she had sporadic contact. Her sister Særún is a photographer and they grew up in an artistic climate. Like many families, emotions ran claustrophobically deep. “Over time”, Noomi says, “I managed to break the bad cycles.” She made it to drama school in Stockholm, but quit after one year. She already had a successful soap series under her belt but had, perhaps, lost her sense of purpose. She was serving pints in a bar in Stockholm, and “I didn’t know anything really but the truth. I had reached this place where my heart was just open. I was quite vulnerable. But that is my talent. I’m not technical, so it always starts from nothing.”
She forged a connection with the theatre world of Stockholm, eventually securing a role in Blasted, a play (translated into Swedish) by turbulent British playwright Sarah Kane, whose dark work compelled the socially ostracized Rapace, who was transfixed by its “brutal honesty”. She realised she had found her “complicated, dark character”, with whom she shared a similar spirit. The producers of her next role, in the film Daisy Diamond, were there in the audience. They had no lead actress for their neo-realist film, a cautionary tale of an aspiring actress who gets caught in the grim underbelly of Norwegian society, and they too realised that they had found the “complicated, dark character” for whom they were searching. Rapace walked off the stage and on to cinema screens… and within six months was walking red carpets at the San Sebastián International Film Festival, on a wave of critical acclaim. But let’s jump back to art imitating life, for one moment. Rapace mentions that her stage-actor mother (who, rather intriguingly, also played her character’s mother in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is writing a biography of her life, her family and her career. It seems to be weighing on her mind, as our conversation gets going. Noomi is now a star and her mother is writing the story of her life. She feels a sense of pride, perhaps, in having made most of her difficult adult decisions alone – in particular, her move to Hollywood. But always in the background, the relationship between actor-mother and daughter was always there; challenging her, motivating her, an emotional resource for creativity. “I think the book is her way to make peace with her mum. Her mum was a very complicated person, who I didn’t know, and I think she’s trying to study and mend this relationship between mothers and daughters; how you can take on your mum’s trauma without knowing it.” She smiles. “I have a lot of respect for my mum. We’ve been through difficult periods, including one where I cut off on my own completely. Now it’s surprisingly good.” I wait for more, but she is somewhere else now, her eyes glazed over like pools of dark water. “I have a close friend, an actor, whose mum died a year ago. Something weird happened at the funeral. I don’t usually cry… I never cried in the past, even when close friends died.” Suddenly, Rapace begins to sing, from her favourite Lil’ Kim song, If You Love Me: “Actions speak louder than words, angels fly higher than birds…” Rapace speaks in riddles, quotes and metaphors, sometimes even just facial expressions. She deals in tangents and fragments, pulling you through her stories, until they conclude with a final raised eyebrow. But her vulnerability is her biggest asset, no doubt invaluable to playing the type of female characters she seems to take on. She has the empathy to make her characters relatable. Fate follows fate. Rapace’s dark Daisy Diamond heroine seduced the producers of the Millennium series, who wooed her into their franchise, beginning with Dragon Tattoo… but with some reservation. “They had already told my agent that I was too pretty, or too girlie, and they were looking at trying to find somebody less feminine. I had long curly hair – really cute.” She giggles. “I can look quite feminine! So when I first met with the director, I was like, ‘OK – I know Lisbeth Salander, but I need to make her real.’ I already knew I wanted to do the piercings, and where. I told them: ‘I’ll change my body in five months. I’ll look like a boy, I promise you.’” So those piercings were all real? That uncompromising look we saw on screen was Rapace’s idea? “Yes! When they cast me, I saw in the book that she’s like a fantasy. [Author] Stieg Larsson had this in-love relationship with her. That person changes, in your head, constantly from angelic to monster. There are all these contradictions. In one scene, she’s extremely sexy, then in the next he describes her as having “big eyes”, ugly and feral. She’s skinny and small, but she can fight anyone. She’s anorexic but she’s really strong. She is written as a dream; this man’s fantasy.”
On set, Rapace is known to be a canny collaborator; a social contortionist with enough pluck to attack these demanding roles, these morally ambiguous characters who live on the social peripheries. It is Lisbeth’s antisocial behaviour and her stormy sensitivity that make her gratifyingly human. She’s dressed like a solitary guerrilla punk and one senses emotional fragility, a person who is just surviving. “The scene [in Dragon Tattoo] people always talk about is the one where I come back to get my rapist,” Rapace says, deadpan, unflinching. “I am disturbed that I am praised for extreme violence – I’m actually raping someone back and it’s extremely violent, destructive and dark. But her violence seems to be heroic in some way and it feels like people rather celebrated the violence and her crossing the line.” What of the moral ambiguity of the graphic depiction of violence against women on screen? “I’m very conscious of my decisions,” Rapace replies. “Women need to decide what they want to do and just do it. We’ve been told for too long that we have to ask for what we want, rather than just create our own space. I’d rather take an unflinching role than play some object of male desire.” Does she think the positive critical response towards these combative female characters, as also depicted by actors including Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley, is encouraging other female actors to claim more of these parts, conventionally taken by men? “I find it strange when people label me as ‘female’. I don’t see men and women in a different way. I don’t care what you have between your legs. The huge gaps between men and women are just disturbingly wrong. It makes no sense. Women have as much aggression and violence in them as men. At least, I do. I’ve been doing martial arts since I was 11.” One would imagine this would have come in useful playing a street-fighting alien with atomic power, opposite Will Smith in Netflix’s upcoming surefire blockbuster Bright, set for release at the end of this year. Coming in and out of the character of Lisbeth for three Millennium films affected her marriage, she says. Was her husband not sympathetic, being an actor himself? She laughs, then there’s a “look.” “Not necessarily. He couldn’t reach me for months. He was like: ‘How far are you going to go with this… emotionally and psychologically?’ And he was scared – I was very angry and aggressive. But I felt very attacked. I’d lost loads of weight for the role and had cut off all my hair. He didn’t want to live with a teenage boy any more. He kept asking: ‘Where’s my wife?’ I remember once, I’d finished filming and I was walking around Stockholm with this weird mohican. I was so ugly. I had all these piercings and scars in my face. I didn’t know who I was.” Did she see the US remake with Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara? “I didn’t see it. I was doing press for Sherlock Holmes and I was also shooting something else. I couldn’t watch it with concentration, and the moment passed. Plus, I’d left that character behind.”It is clear Rapace’s mindset is independent, but she is far too clever to simply riff on any notoriety and steamroll her career that way. Instead, she is discreet about her success, warm and unpretentious.
She is also a glamorous star, of course. Standing on the set of her Wylde shoot, I see how she slots effortlessly into the various personae the team have suggested to her: a Klute-era Jane Fonda; Jean Harlow; Marlene Dietrich; Patti Hearst and the great eccentric Iris Apfel. Watching her march across the Shoreditch studio car park in a pair of purple Balenciaga jodhpurs, camera and crew scurrying in tow, it is clear how comfortable she is in this arena. She reads the room, assessing her audience. But does she struggle to switch off these instincts? At our lunch together, her focus is pulled in different directions. Other diners approach to pay compliments, and she greets each with such enthusiasm, even jumping up to kiss a lucky few on each cheek. She has taught herself to reveal the different sides of her personality within a gamut of social and professional contexts, which means her instincts are always in overdrive. “When I came to Hollywood, I was an alien in another world. I said to myself: ‘How does this world work? What’s the hierarchy? Where’s the ladder? Who is strong here and who is playing what game? What is the power balance in the room?’ I can always work it out. I’m completely uneducated, so I have had to create my own method.” But isn’t playing the game often the best option for actors trying to break the business? “Maybe, but that is really strange to me. It works being me in this industry. It comes back to my decisions, I guess. My first thought when I came to LA was: ‘I probably need to adjust, I need to become somebody different.’ But I realised quickly that I can’t. I will lose everything if I do that.” Looking at Rapace’s list of recent co-stars, these are actors known to go deep into roles, turning their lives over to characters, becoming antisocial or difficult as a result – Tom Hardy, Michael Fassbender and Gary Oldman, among them. Has she traded techniques with them, or shared her own secrets, or sought advice? I mention to her that playing septuplets (in her upcoming movie What Happened To Monday) is unprecedented in modern cinema. She smiles in acknowledgment. “Tom Hardy doubled in Legend [as both Kray twins] but that was two characters. I work closely with my directors and my co-stars. Ethan Hawke [her co-star in the upcoming Seventies heist thriller Stockholm]… he can go deep into it. He surprised me by being really brave. He was so humble, brave and open. Personally, I don’t read anything. I don’t have social media. I think it’s my duty, as an actress, to go as far as I can. I don’t hear anything. I go into my own world. Filming What Happened To Monday, I was completely occupied by these sisters. I didn’t know how to recover after filming.” As an actor, Rapace does not keep her distance. The on-screen emotions feel like hers. In the final scenes of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, Rapace’s Dr Shaw is lying, broken, in an intergalactic wasteland, crying inside her helmet. Earlier we had seen her staggering in desperation around the spaceship in bloodied white underwear, a machine having just performed a live abortion/C-section operation on her. She is a lone survivor… but far from superhuman. She is humane, believable, almost lovable. Such unselfconsciousness has earned Rapace the respect of Hollywood. “Ridley Scott made a huge mark in my life. He said to me: ‘You don’t have to prove anything. You don’t even have to audition for me. You have done everything already. I’ve seen your performances. I want you.’ I kept his word with me [whilst filming Prometheus]. I realised he doesn’t want a product. He wants me. I can’t be technical, or practical, as a product or a brand. Brand Noomi! I’m an artist, I would lose my magic. I can be charming when I want to be. But if I adjusted, if I let the industry change me into a likeable, plastic-surgery-enhanced girl, I would lose my power and my talent. I don’t mean to criticise anybody; I would rather just do what I can to improve our situation as women.”
“This is why I co-produce my own projects now,” she continues, shrugging. “Every fucking movie. Unless it’s something else really amazing.” Something amazing? What about that talk of an Amy Winehouse film, starring Rapace? I heard that she was interested in a potential project but it wasn’t on terms that suited her? But some questions are best left unanswered. Her intuition is strong and I feel her pull away. She has already felt out this conversation, those dark pools of water are already looking over my shoulder. But back to our lunch. I am still trying to get a sense of Noomi, of how others in the industry fare with her. Some of the biggest directors in Hollywood right now are European. Do they connect with her easily or are there still invisible barriers? “I think people still have a hard time placing me,” she admits. “They don’t know who I am.” I see Noomi as a modern-day Sigourney Weaver: transcendental femme fatale, part celestial commander, part androgynous icon. In film critic Pauline Kael’s description of Weaver, for her New Yorker review of 1986’s Aliens, she could have been writing about Rapace in Prometheus: “With her great cheekbones, her marvellous physique, and her lightness of movement, [she] seems to take over by natural authority and her strength as an actress. Her surprisingly small, tense mouth holds all the suspense in the story…” Rapace is smiling at me again. “I’ve been disappointed sometimes, meeting my heroes, but meeting [Weaver] was better than I could have imagined. She has a very strong presence. There’s just this honesty; she’s totally grounded. She’s just her. She’s not posing and she’s not trying to be anything. That’s how I feel. I don’t want to be this girl who’s an object for men. I want to be me.”
Lunch over, filing out of the Electric Cinema into West London, the mood shifts. This interview has taken place the morning after the Grenfell Tower burned, just a block or two away. Emergency services are swarming and there is an unsettling energy on the streets. Noomi’s son Lev is on her mind. He is 14. She stops and shows me a picture of him: a little mini-Noomi, the same wide unblinking eyes. “We were in the car together this morning talking about the fire. It just breaks my heart. I want him to grow up to be strong.” She trails off, but holds my gaze. She is searching for the hopeful message. “It’s his school prom today. He was all dressed up in a suit. Unbelievable! He is literally one of the most inspiring people I know.” And with that she marches off into the distance, not quite just another face in the crowd, but perhaps an alien in shades…