Valdimar Jóhannsson’s slow-burn feature directorial debut Lamb, written by Jóhannsson and Icelandic author Sjón and starring Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snær Guðnason, and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, is a uniquely bizarre and moving supernatural thriller examining grief, parenthood, family, hope, loss, betrayal, and the unforgiving wild encompassed by an escalating tension that promises an unexpected reckoning on the desperate couple at the center of the dark (and occasionally humorous) folktale. “In the isolated depths of rural Iceland, a childless couple, Maria (Rapace) and Ingvar (Guðnason), make an alarming discovery one day in their sheep barn: a newborn unlike anything they’ve seen before,” reads the official synopsis for the film, releasing in U.S. theaters on October 8. “They decide to raise the girl, Ada, as their own, but sinister forces — including one very pissed-off ewe — seem determined to return Ada to the wilderness that birthed her.”
Following the film’s screening at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, ComingSoon’s Senior Movie & TV Editor Kylie Hemmert spoke with director and co-writer Valdimar Jóhannsson and star Noomi Rapace about the character of Maria, borrowed happiness, violence feeding violence, Lamb 2: Welcome to Ram World, and more.
*Warning: This interview contains major spoilers for Lamb*
Kylie Hemmert: One of the things that I really love about the movie is how it sticks with you long after you’ve seen it, because it is so original and unique. When you were filming the movie, did you know you had something special on your hands?
Valdimar Jóhannsson: We were just planning to make a film that we really wanted to see and have not seen.
Noomi Rapace: I mean, I knew that we were filming something that I haven’t seen and that I would like to go and see. And I felt like every day on set, uh, I had this sensation of like, wow, I did not expect this or this … this is a weird, uncomfortable, and beautiful feeling. [laughs]
What was your favorite part about playing Maria?
Rapace: Oh, wow. Good question. I love her … you know what was really hard for me, ’cause she doesn’t show a lot of emotions in the beginning, she’s quite plain, almost, you know? And to trust the journey, trust the film, to not let my own desperate need to be liked or to connect with the audience or to let it slip, to not start to bleed out a little bit of emotions too early, or too soon, to really trust the journey, to trust the story, that was like — some days I was like, maybe they won’t understand. Maybe you can’t read what’s going on. Maybe I will lose the audience when it’s like, you know, will they be able to wait for this? Like in the second chapter, [or] third chapter before they get the reward of what’s going on and what happened to her. And then I made a decision. I was like, you know what? It’s not about me. This film is about this family drama. It’s a story; I’m just one player. And it was such a beautiful realization of feeling like I belong to this group of people and animals and I’m just a background player. And that is something I carry with me now, doing press, doing other — I’m filming in Romania — like that kind of sensation. It’s not about me. And it just allows you to exist without all this, like, self-obsessive behavior. [laughs]
So, the hybrid lamb, Ada, is being raised human and behaves like a human child. But is there any part of her that experiences the world from the perspective of an animal or is she mostly just human?
Jóhannsson: I think, you know–
Rapace: So interesting you say that. A lot of people say that she’s more animal, right?
Jóhannsson: Yeah, but I was … I think, you know, for me, I’m always trying to reach into her mind, you know, what she’s thinking about. And I somehow also feel that she understands everything, what is going on. But yeah, you know, I don’t know … somehow I feel that she’s just almost 50/50, you know?
For a story like this, was it inevitable that it was going to end tragically in the way that it did?
Jóhannsson: Uh, yeah, I think so. Or, you know, it depends on how you look at it. But, I think it was really early on, you know, that was how we planned to have the end. We wanted to have it open and that people would maybe read different things out of it.
And where do you think Maria would go from here? Like, do you think she would go search for Ada or just try and process more tragic losses that she’s now going through?
Rapace: I think she knows that Ada is not coming back. I mean, if there was a chance for her to bring her back, she would go straight away. I think she always knew that it would come to an end and that she was lended happiness, or like a borrowed happiness, and a possibility to come back to life. It’s almost like, you know, you’re on medication for a year and then you have to stop the medication and be on your own and make it yourself. And I feel like, you know, when we first meet her, as I said, it was kind of like her life was on hold. And then in the last chapter, she comes back to life. She makes love to Ingvar and she’s dancing, she’s drinking, she’s vibrant. She, she gets colors, you know? She’s breathing again. And then when this very last thing happens, it’s like her pain is finally visible and her pain is finally out there and released. And that’s the beginning of healing, I think. The real healing. You have to allow yourself to really feel and to open that. Otherwise, it will be no … you know, it’s like emotional oxygen into your scar tissue and then you can start to heal.
Jóhannsson: I also think that, because you know that it will not last forever — it would probably be like only for a short while or something — I think that is also the reason why everything that is, uh, what is it? Disturbing their [gravity]–
Rapace: A threat. Like Pétur (Haraldsson) was coming in and he’s threatening my happiness ’cause I know it won’t last. So there can’t be any disturbing moments or elements.
Jóhannsson: Yeah, so you try to work on all the elements, you know?
Rapace: Yeah. I’m protecting my happiness and this gift I have been given, or taken. [laughs]
I’m glad you mentioned the dancing ’cause I was going to ask, how much fun did you have filming watching the game, the dancing, all that happiness in that moment?
Rapace: Oh, I loved it. I loved it. I want to do more dancing videos.
Jóhannsson: Yeah, I think we should make a dance film.
Rapace: Yeah, we should. Valdimar directed a music video within it ’cause he wants to be a music video director, too.
Rapace: And that’s his like, that’s his new message to the world. [laughs]
Jóhannsson: Finally, a dream come true.
I love that. So, what was the most challenging part about working with all the animals?
Jóhannsson: Uh, yeah, there’s a lot of [challenges], but somehow, you know, I think how we treated them and our amazing crew … somehow it just, what do you say, went correct? You know, it worked.
Rapace: I mean, you also created a method of work that embraced the unknown, you know, the unknown of working with animals and kids. They won’t do what you want them to do. You have to, you know, you have to build it around so you can use whatever comes and let them be them, ’cause then you will get the most authentic moments.
Yeah, it looked really seamless.
Rapace: Thank you.
When they first see that the lamb is born and they realize that it is, like, a hybrid being and they immediately take her, is part of that because they’re worried about her survival, or is it only that they’re desperate to have [a] child back after such a loss that they just jump on the opportunity?
Rapace: I think it’s quite egocentric. It’s not about her not surviving. It’s about our need to heal and to be parents again, and to be a mother again.
Jóhannsson: Yeah, I agree.
And going back towards the end, that is Ada’s biological father coming back for her, correct?
Jóhannsson: Yeah, could be, you know.
That’s one of the possibilities, yeah.
Because I was going to ask, he never tries to approach them to say, “Hey, I want her back.” Or, you know, it just is violent. Do you think part of that is the result of Maria’s actions when she chooses to kill, uh, the sheep mother, that because she responds violently, he responds violently, or are they not really connected?
Rapace: Wow, this is so interesting. Good question.
Jóhannsson: Yeah, you know, there’s an old story from Iceland [that] it was very normal that you maybe, uh, took your child to another home. And then you came back when it had grown up and–
Rapace: When it was convenient.
Jóhannsson: Yeah. So, you know, that could be part of it.
Rapace: But also, I do think like, you know, violence will always feed violence and if you start a circle of violence, you will get it back. So, there is that aspect as well, you know, when you break that golden rule.
I was curious, have you thought more about the mythology of Ada’s species, like if there’s a whole group of them out there, or is it just the two of them?
Jóhannsson: I have met a lot of people that think, you know, uh, we will make another film and that we will start in this world of ram society. [laughs]
Rapace: Yeah, Lamb 2: Welcome to Ram World.
I’d be excited to see it.
Rapace: Like Maria going into Ram Land, finding Ada. [laughs]
Jóhannsson: You would be the only human.
Rapace: I’m the only human, yeah.
I think that would be amazing.
Jóhannsson: Yeah, we’ll have to think about it.