The Hollywood Reporter (2021)

Lamb Star Noomi Rapace on Delivering Real Baby Lambs and Sleepless Nights in Iceland

United States   |   Written by Brian Davids

The actor, who grew up on a farm, was well prepared for the duties required for the startling supernatural drama from A24.

In the summer of 2019, Noomi Rapace left the Louisiana set of The Secrets We Keep on a Friday, and three days later, she was delivering a baby lamb on the Iceland-based set of Lamb. For the Swedish actor, Lamb was a homecoming of sorts since she lived in a small Icelandic village called Flúðir for a stretch of her childhood. In the debut feature film from Valdimar Jóhannsson, Rapace plays Maria, who, along with her husband Ingvar, delivers an unusual baby lamb on their farm in Iceland. The grieving couple quickly welcome the mysterious lamb into their home and raise her like their own child. Since Rapace grew up on a farm, delivering a lamb felt oddly familiar.

“I delivered baby lambs, yes. My hands went inside the mother sheep. It was quite intense,” Rapace tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So it was full on. Weirdly enough, it felt like my body knew how to do it. I grew up on a farm so I’ve spent a lot of time around animals.” Lamb, which fits the A24 roster to a T, has very little dialogue for a number of reasons, and Rapace greatly appreciated this change of pace, especially for its cultural accuracy. “I feel like almost all the films I’ve done are too dialogue-heavy. I always want to take out dialogue because we don’t need to say all of this. We can just live it,” Rapace admits. “So Lamb was a great gift given to me. I could just be. And also, having grown up in Iceland, people don’t talk much. Icelandic people like my grandmother, they don’t talk about emotions. They just get on with their life, and then once in a while, they will say something. So it felt very truthful to what I knew from my childhood.”

Rapace also welcomed the opportunity to disconnect from her fast-paced lifestyle in London and on movie sets around the world, but the Icelandic summer definitely took its toll on her due to 21 hours of daylight. “There is something very hypnotic about Icelandic nights because it never goes dark,” Rapace says. “We know what we need to do depending on the light and when it goes dark. When you don’t have that road map to guide your behavior, everything starts drifting, and in the middle of the shoot, I felt like I was losing my mind. I had insomnia. I felt like everything was floating, but I embraced it.” In a recent conversation with THR, Rapace also looks back at her impression of James Gandolfini on The Drop set. Then she teases her upcoming Western series, Django, co-starring another Drop actor, Matthias Schoenaerts.

There’s a lot of sameness in today’s movies. So I really appreciated the big swing that is Lamb.
Yeah, me too. From now on, I don’t want to repeat myself. Lamb was one of the best experiences ever.

Since this is such a unique film, what was your first reaction upon hearing the pitch or reading the script?
So I was asked to do a Swedish movie called Border, but I couldn’t do it because I was stuck in another contract. But one of the producers on Border came to me with Lamb and was like, “Okay, you couldn’t do Border, but what about Lamb?” So that’s how it came to my team first. And then Valdimar Jóhannsson flew to London and came to my house with this mood board and book of pictures, drawings and sketches that he’d done. He also brought the Lamb script, as well as a book of poems by Sjón, the co-writer on Lamb. So we went out on my patio and he left me with this pile of material. (Laughs.) And while I had a cigarette, I was just looking at all of these disturbing, beautiful, scary, very seductive, nightmarish images. So I was just drawn into it and I felt like, “I am lost and found in this reality, and I have to do it.” It was my whole system. It was a combination of my body, my soul and my mind. So I called my team and I was like, “I’m going to do this very small Icelandic movie about a lamb child and a woman who is healing.” (Laughs.) So it was actually not even a decision. It was meant to be in a strange way.

Did you actually deliver those lambs?
(Laughs.) Well, I delivered baby lambs, yes. My hands went inside the mother sheep. (Laughs.) It was quite intense. There was not a lot of time to rehearse because I was shooting The Secrets We Keep in New Orleans on a Friday. And then I flew to Iceland Saturday morning, landed in Reykjavik on a Sunday, drove six hours up to the North of Iceland and on Monday morning, I was delivering a lamb. (Laughs.) So it was full on. Weirdly enough, it felt like my body knew how to do it. I grew up on a farm so I’ve spent a lot of time around animals.

There isn’t a lot of dialogue in this movie. So was it more difficult to develop this character as a result, or was it liberating in a way since you weren’t limited by text?
Wow, good question. I feel like almost all the films I’ve done are too dialogue-heavy. I always want to take out dialogue because we don’t need to say all of this. We can just live it. So Lamb was a great gift given to me. I could just be. And also, having grown up in Iceland, people don’t talk much. Icelandic people like my grandmother, they don’t talk about emotions. They just get on with their life, and then once in a while, they will say something. So it felt very truthful to what I knew from my childhood. But the hard part was that Maria paused her life. When we meet her in the beginning of the film, she’s carrying so much pain and so much grief, and she hasn’t been able to deal with any of that. She doesn’t show anything until later. As an actor, sometimes you get eager to just let it slip out a little bit, so you can make sure that you’re communicating what’s going on inside. But here, I had to be really strict with myself to be faithful to her journey and not make sure that you, as an audience, could follow. So as I said, I was lost and found because I lost my connection with the outside world. I couldn’t communicate with anyone else, really. I was very asocial. I stayed in this strange environment, and I reconnected to something in myself that I last felt when I was seven. So it was quite impactful, and as a human, I would say that I was changed by this movie. I came out of an indefinite place in myself when we were done.

Early in the film, Maria and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) discuss time travel, and he thought of it in terms of the future while Maria referenced the past. Was that a key character detail that you latched on to at first?
Yeah, every word has a specific meaning, and I love that precision. This is Valdimar’s first feature, but he knew exactly what he wanted. At the same time, he didn’t know it all. The visual world, he saw it in his head, but when it came to finding the character and how we were going to do certain scenes, it was very much a collaborative process. He’s a man of very few words, so he’d come in and say… [Rapace quotes Jóhannsson in Icelandic.] And then I was like, “Okay, let me try one more.” (Laughs.) So I would do one more take, and then he’d come in and say, “Perfect!” So the way that Valdimar and I communicated was not far off from the way we communicated with the animals. (Laughs.) It was more based on intuition and body language than words. So the words in the movie are very specifically chosen, and when we talk about time travel, she’s accepted the fact that what’s done is done. We lost our baby girl, and we can’t do anything about it. So it doesn’t help to think, “Oh, I wish I could…” It’s very matter of fact, and I would say that it’s a typical Icelandic view and take on things. In Icelandic, my grandmother would always say, “It’s going to be okay,” because she didn’t think it would help to talk about emotions.

In the trailer, we see a toddler-aged lamb walking like a human. A child-like lamb. Did Valdimar use real human toddlers and replace their heads digitally?
So it was a combination of different tricks, and we had to be very patient. It was quite tricky some days. We shot with nine different babies because they can only work for two hours or whatever at that age. And then we worked with baby lambs, too. So I would do a scene with a lamb, and then we switched to a human baby. So I would switch back and forth, and then sometimes, we even had a puppy.

I know you grew up on a farm, but at this point in your life, do you think you could live somewhere that’s as remote and rural as this couple’s farm? There are certainly advantages to it, but the film also shows the major disadvantages of that lifestyle, especially towards the end.
I love London, my city. I love New York. (Laughs.) I love being in a city because a certain kind of fear is still in me. When I was living on that farm as a kid and something went wrong, no one would come. You are on your own. So I like the fact that you can go out in the middle of the night and have a coffee, meet people or just go for a walk and listen to sounds. So I wouldn’t be able to live like that now. But I do feel a desire to be in nature more and to remove myself from all the noise. I’d just like to do it with a little tribe of people around me that I love. (Laughs.)

You’re Swedish according to the Internet, but you referenced your Icelandic grandmother. How similar are the two languages?
Not at all close. My mom is Swedish, my stepdad is Icelandic, and my real dad was Spanish. So I have this strange kind of mix. But Icelandic and Swedish are very different. When we moved to Iceland when I was four or five, I still remember that I felt like I came home. I felt like I belonged there. And when we moved back to Sweden, I was devastated. I didn’t want to move back and I refused to speak Swedish for a month. I was like, “I’m going back to Iceland,” and I did. I went back every summer by myself while my family stayed in Sweden. So I’ve always had this deep connection to Iceland, and you can almost see it in the film. Nature is a character. It’s really powerful and humbling, which is very important to remember in the times we live in now. We’ve just got to be more humble. We need to be more in sync and in tune with nature; we need to listen to it. In Iceland, there’s an active volcano now. The director, from his window, can see this volcano spitting out fire and lava every day. So that puts everything in perspective. Iceland was a really powerful reminder for me, and it’s easy to forget about nature when you’re living in this technologically civilized world. You feel like you’re above everything, but when you come back to the roots of everything, it’s like, “Okay, I could die here and nobody would hear me.” (Laughs.)

There was only a brief moment at the beginning where it was pitch black outside. Does that mean you shot in the summer where the sun only sets for three hours?
Yeah, we shot from June to September. We had a break in the middle of summer, but there is something very hypnotic about Icelandic nights because it never goes dark. It’s hard because we’re so used to living according to the clock. We know what we need to do depending on the light and when it goes dark. It gives us a nice frame. When you don’t have that road map to guide your behavior, everything starts drifting, and in the middle of the shoot, I felt like I was losing my mind. I had insomnia. I felt like everything was floating, but I embraced it. I was like, “Okay, it is what it is.” You just embrace whatever happens and whatever comes up.

How much backstory did you create involving Ingvar’s brother, Petur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson)?
I know exactly what happened between them. But if you asked Valdimar, he would give you a different backstory. (Laughs.) When we shot those scenes, I would communicate the backstory through my body language and the way I moved around him. She’s balancing. She’s also trapped between an old desire and a new decision.

What constitutes a good day at work for you? How would you define it?
It’s when I arrive in the morning, fully prepared, and decide to let go and accept wherever the day is going to take me. So I won’t follow my roadmap. I have my roadmap, but I will be open to any adjustments or off-road trips. And at the end of the day, it’s a good day if I realize that I was brave enough to let go of everything I’ve planned, trust the people around me, and trust myself enough to let go of control.

Regarding The Secrets We Keep‘s ending, how much of Chris Messina‘s character’s decision was motivated by what was done to his wife, versus the shame he felt over falling for deception?
Wow, another good question. I wish Chris Messina was here. I love that man so dearly and deeply. He’s a fantastic human being and one of the best actors I’ve worked with, and the beauty in his performance is that you don’t know. So I think it’s a combination. What happened is that the animal awoke in him; the primal side of Lewis took over in a way. He wanted to be a good man that forgives, understands and puts himself above emotions, but then, in that crucial moment, Maja is the one that actually wants to forgive, let go and accept. So Lewis is the one that can’t do it. What I love about that film is if you drop violence in someone’s lap and then say, “Oh, but I want to take it back, I’m sorry,” it’s too late because she already spilled the drips of violence in his drink. She brought violence home even though she’s a victim. She brought it home, and they are both carrying that guilt in the end, which is such a beautifully complex relationship.

With the release of The Many Saints of Newark, there’s been a lot of talk about James Gandolfini lately. I know the two of you didn’t act together in The Drop, but did you see each other in makeup or around the set at all?
Oh yeah, of course. He was so funny, so gentle, and almost shy. He was very sweet, and it felt like he just saw everything. And I could also feel that he had a lot of things going on and a lot of energy that was quite explosive inside. A beautiful contradiction.

Actors are accustomed to playing the same characters, especially on stage, but at the same time, we’re all human. So was it hard, at first, to let go of Lisbeth Salander [Millenium (2009) Swedish miniseries] in this regard?
Not at all. Not for me. I’m not sentimental. When I’m done, I’m done, and I let it go. But the strange thing is that all of my characters live in me. There’s still a bit of Lisbeth, and there’s still a bit of Maja. There’s a bit of Maria, too. There’s a bit of all the ones I’ve played. Elizabeth in Prometheus or Simza in Sherlock Holmes. Because it’s always me. It’s just different versions of me. So it depends on what I open up for that specific role. And then I will amplify it and put it back in. I had a conversation with Ethan Hawke after we finished Stockholm, and I was like, “I have to find my way back to Noomi now because I’ve been living in Bianca’s body.” And then I just realized something in that split second. I was like, “I will never find my way back to Noomi. I will need to find who I am after this character has lived in me.” So I’m always someone else. There’s always something that’s permanently changed after a character has lived in me. So I would say they all stay in me because it was always me and they all change me. Sometimes more, sometimes less.

Once you release Lamb out into the world, what’s next for you?
I’m shooting Django in Romania now with Matthias Schoenaerts and Nicholas Pinnock.

Speaking of The Drop, it’s a reunion between you and Matthias. Hardy and Gandolfini got a lot of the attention, understandably, but Matthias’ scenes with you were electric.
Yeah, he’s phenomenal. He’s always surprising me. I’m super, super happy. Django is a Western, and my character is actually one of my favorite characters so far. I love bringing her to life. Her name is Elizabeth. She’s called The Lady, and she is deeply disturbed. She’s a villain with a broken heart. She’s very passionate, extremely religious and very complex. (Laughs.)

Lamb is now available in theaters from A24.