This article contains spoilers for Lamb.
he actor discusses making her new A24 film, Lamb, and her experiences in the fantasy and sci-fi genres over the past decade.
Since achieving international acclaim for her performance in the film adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s The Millennium Trilogy (a.k.a. the original The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo movies), Noomi Rapace has moved nimbly between popcorn flicks (Prometheus, Bright) and arthouse fare (Passion, Stockholm). Her latest role is in A24’s unusual quasi-horror domestic drama Lamb, where the actor plays María, a farmer who takes an unusual amount of interest in a baby lamb she delivers, for reasons the film makes gradually clear. We sat down to talk with the actor—who also produced the film—about relating to closed-off characters, her attraction to the fantasy and sci-fi genres, and, of course, what it’s like having to pull a lamb from the womb for the camera.
The A.V. Club: The first thing I have to ask is just the filming of the live birth of the lambs. I know you grew up on a farm with sheep, but were you prepared for that ahead of time?
Noomi Rapace: No. And I didn’t have any time to rehearse. I was shooting another film and I arrived in Iceland on a Sunday, and by Monday morning, I was delivering a baby lamb, so it was quite full on. I did watch a farmer deliver two lambs in the morning, and then I was waiting in my trailer for the third one to be ready to come out. When I heard [the knock on the door], I was like, “Okay, it’s time to step into this world of madness and life.” And then I found myself in the barn with my hands in [gestures sliding them into a sheep], like pulling out a baby lamb and seeing that little creature come to life and breathe for the first time. I felt like that was a very strong entry into the film—and I didn’t leave for, like, four months.
AVC: It works that way for the viewer, too, because you see that happen and you think, “Oh, they’re not faking this.” It lends this intensely grounded reality to an otherwise fantastical tale.
NR: We wanted the film to feel rooted in reality. And then there’s only one odd element that is out there.
AVC: Despite this fantastical folktale premise, Lamb is about fundamental human desires and behaviors. María and Ingvar’s story is in part about being confronted with something unexplainable, and seeing only what you want to see in it.
NR: I think María’s desire to be a mother again and to heal is so strong, so she just grabs onto this possibility and nothing is going to stop her and nothing is going to take her child away again, you know?
AVC: You’ve said in other interviews that you think María, deep down, knows that the situation can’t last. Do you see it as a form of stasis for her—as long as she has this other being to care for, she doesn’t have to deal with her own trauma?
NR: I would say it’s almost the other way around—that her life has been on hold and she hasn’t dealt with it until Ada number two is born. That is the beginning of her taking in and allowing herself to feel again, almost like that becomes the bridge from her locked-up inner space to the real world again, and then you can see her come to life that summer. She’s making love to her husband, and she’s dancing, and she’s coming back to life more and more. And she’s laughing and she’s slowly like breathing again. And in the end, it’s devastating, but she always knew that it was not permanent, but she’s back in life.
AVC: How did shooting with the half-human Ada work? Was there a real child present?
NR: We had nine babies and four lambs. [Laughs.] It was intense. We were going between, like, real baby, lamb baby, real baby, lamb baby…
AVC: There’s the old saying: Never act with children or animals. You decided to do the most difficult thing possible and roll both into one.
NR: Yeah, exactly. [Laughs.] Suicide mission.
AVC: What part of María did you relate to the most?
NR: I grew up on a farm, and I never cried when I was a kid. I fell off horses, I broke ribs. It was always some chaos, some injuries. And I never complained. I almost forced myself to be a very strong person, and I can really relate to that side of María that’s like, there’s no time to feel. There’s no space for emotions, there’s no room for grief and to be open, because it’s just like everything will fall apart. But that’s not life, that’s just surviving. And it took me quite some time to realize I don’t want to live like like that. I don’t want to be this tough person that never shows any weakness or fragility or vulnerability.
AVC: It’s interesting to hear you say that, because you seem to be drawn to characters who have built protective shells around themselves, and then we watch the cracks start to show. Do you see that as a through-line in your work?
NR: I am very drawn to the cracks and to the crossroads. You know, it’s like, “Okay, this person is on this journey. This is the roadmap, this is where she’s going, this is the destination.” And then, boom, something happens that will change the direction. It’s almost like going on an investigation, like I’m a private detective or a cop, and I’m discovering this is the network, the spider web inside her, and then going to the places where she broke, and learning how she dealt with the breaks. I find that really intriguing, and that is probably what I’ve seen most in my life. Very few people carry their heart on their sleeve and show everything. It’s like, “What are you lying about? What are you hiding?” I find it really interesting: What is honesty? I think a common theme for a lot of my films and a lot of my characters has been healing and fighting for life. And trying to come back to life and forgiveness.
AVC: You’ve discussed in the past how you tend to lose yourself in your characters to a degree when filming. Have you found your process changing or evolving over the years as you do that, or do you adjust your process depending on the role?
NR: I adjust it. I try to tune in with the character and see what she needs and obey that. The tasks, the skills, whatever is required, I will learn. Or if I have to go to emotional, psychological places in myself, how I get there is different every time.
AVC: I imagine it was harder to loser yourself when you played seven characters simultaneously in What Happened To Monday?
NR: Yeah, totally. There were days when I felt like, “I’m losing my mind.” Like, I don’t know what is what anymore.
AVC: Lamb is a bit otherworldly, but you have a lot of experience in sci-fi and fantasy. Is there something about those kind of heightened realities or larger-than-life worlds that you find you’re drawn to?
NR: When I was a child, I always felt like my dreams quite often took place in the sci-fi reality—really twisted and floaty and spaced out. And for me, it doesn’t really matter what genre I’m working in, but I think I’m drawn to the possibilities of everything in sci-fi—that it’s endless. Those genres where there’s no limits, there’s no rules, you can actually go in any direction. It’s 360 degrees of possibilities, and we can investigate and discover and explore anything.
AVC: Do you find a different set of challenges when you’re playing an ordinary person in fantastical circumstances—like this or Prometheus—versus something like Bright, where you’re part of the fantastical element?
NR: I think it’s probably a shorter route in when I’m a human that is just set in this strange environment. I always try to dig into myself and translate things from my life into the character, but I feel like stepping into María or Elizabeth Shaw [from Prometheus], it was quite easy. I felt like they were already in my body and I just had to kind of enter that room. When I played Leilah in Bright, you know, that’s a bigger jump because she’s so twisted and she’s so dark and so violent. And then by halfway through that shoot she was kind of normal for me. [Laughs.] It’s scary what you can do with your mind and how you can lend yourself to different broken personalities.
AVC: You’ve worked with so many notable directors at this point, all of whom presumably have different styles and moods on set. Is there a manner of filming that you prefer? If you had your choice, do you prefer a quiet and serious set? Or do you prefer playful and lighthearted?
NR: Good question, because I have this movie coming out called The Trip that is with Tommy Wirkola, who did What Happened To Monday?. It is a Norwegian dark comedy, but we shot in September last year, and I loved it. It was so goofy and so stupid on set, and we were just laughing every day and it was so liberating to just be among friends and be making fun of each other. So I think it’s very much dependent on what kind of movie it is. I will just tap into the DNA of that specific project. And with Lamb, it was a very different vibe. I mean, that is the beautiful gift that I’ve been given and that I happily take of being an actress, that I could just be all this.
AVC: When you reflect back on the past decade or so, are there moments that really stand out to you in your career in terms of how it’s changed?
NR: With The Secrets We Keep and Lamb, that was a turning point for me because I produced both of them. And I think I’m moving into a role of being more responsible for what I want to do and what I want to create, but also how I want to create a space, a place for other actors, filmmakers, producers, a film community for people like myself that want to investigate the same kind of projects. So I feel like I’m moving into taking more responsibility for what I know and what I want to achieve. When I was 19 and I was doing theater in Stockholm, I was sitting with the producers, suggesting cast for other roles and they were like, “You’re 19. Shut the fuck up. What are you doing? This is not the place for you to speak.” [Laughs.] So I’ve always had a great amount of excitement for the whole project. And now I’m finally putting myself in a position where, like, “It’s time to step up your game, lady” and take responsibility for that. And I’m really enjoying it. I’m loving the responsibility because you can’t allow yourself to be so emotional. [Laughs.]
AVC: What character that you’ve played do you see as maybe most like you?
NR Oh, wow. I mean, they all represent different times of my life. And María in Lamb, she’s very close to me. That was me for many, many years. Lisbeth Salander [from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo] was me for a chapter and Maja in Secrets We Keep, was definitely me for a couple of years—you know, kind of hiding your past and pretending that you’re something flawless and without stains. And then your history just like comes and knocks on the door. You’re like, “Ahh! I don’t want to be this person anymore!” So they’re all me, strangely enough. Well, maybe not Leilah in Bright so much. [Laughs.]