The San Francisco Chronicle (2010)
Rapace is the girl who played with an inner fire
October 24, 2010 | Written by Michael OrdoñaOn the phone, what jumps out about Sweden’s Noomi Rapace, who indelibly portrayed iron-willed woman of few words Lisbeth Salander in the "Millennium Trilogy" films, is her British-inflected English and rapid-fire, energetic speech. "I think she’s a beautiful example of how you can manage to survive and turn yourself from being a victim, being pissed on and treated so badly, how you can turn it into strength and into power," she says of the much-beloved character. "She doesn’t feel pity for herself. She doesn’t complain. She always finds a way to act instead of being wrapped up in a lot of emotional issues. She’s a survivor and a fighter, and she’s trying every minute to free herself and not accept the destiny that everybody around her, pretty much, has forced her into. I think that’s pretty beautiful."
Like the books by the late Stieg Larsson from which they spring, the films ("The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," "The Girl Who Played with Fire" and the soon-to-be-released "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest") have become international sensations, bringing the acclaimed actress a whole new level of fame. That the stories should be so successful is itself surprising, considering the darkness of their subject matter – including rape, torture and Nazism. "Yeah!" Rapace exclaims with a laugh. "What does that tell about our world? But I think people have always liked to see (an underdog), like Lisbeth; she’s fighting these big dragons – society, police, her father, the government, the whole system – she’s lonely and in a very bad position, but she’s fighting back. "I also think the world is pretty complicated and people are ready to see films about difficulties in life. I think people are pretty fed up with super-beautiful … they’ve been waiting for someone like Lisbeth to come. When I was a teenager, I saw ‘Thelma and Louise’ – I don’t know how many times I saw that film. I saw ‘Aliens,’ I was really looking for films with some kind of heroines – girls and women who were fighting back and just weren’t sitting and whining and feeling sorry for themselves."
The first book ("Dragon Tattoo") introduces Salander and muckraking journalist Mikael Blomqvist, eventually bringing them together through the mystery of a missing person to uncover a larger, horrifying series of crimes. Along the way, the diminutive, antisocial hacker endures quite a lot, including a brutal rape. In a twist that turns out to be characteristic of Salander, she later repays her assailant – with interest. "When we went into those more complicated and dark scenes, it came from some deeper, darker levels in me," says the actress. "When we were done for the day and I was in the car on my way home, I really felt black inside, like I don’t have any hope for anything and I don’t see any light in my life. I was really angry and empty inside. It was like that for a whole week … but I knew I wanted to go all the way, in every direction, to the end station." Larsson seemed to figure out readily enough what the main draw of that first book was; the next two focus on Lisbeth, uncovering pieces of her backstory until the third one ("Hornet’s Nest") brings it all to light, from under the shadow of a full-blown cloak-and-dagger conspiracy. Rapace, whose portrayal unforgettably captures Lisbeth’s razor-sharp intelligence, indomitable spirit and ugly, feral nature when cornered, describes the character’s journey as one of "growing up" and learning that "everybody’s not … using you. Some people won’t turn their back on you; they will stay with you and fight your fight." The actress had fights of her own in trying to stay true to her conception of the character. Chat rooms still debate whether she’s too beautiful for the part of the boyish punk hacker, and she has acknowledged she was an unlikely choice because she’s "pretty feminine."
So she underwent months of physical training and got Lisbeth-appropriate piercings to help the character take root in her. After the first film’s climax, the script had her spilling her guts to Blomqvist, revealing her most guarded secrets. The scene wasn’t in the book (it used information from the next two), and Rapace flatly refused to do it.
"It was a big, big fight and the director (Niels Arden Oplev) was really mad at me at one point. He said, ‘You have to do it; otherwise we don’t have a film.’ I said, ‘Yeah yeah yeah, call the producers and tell them we don’t have a film; I won’t do that scene,’ " she says with a laugh. "He came back a couple of days later and said, ‘What if Mikael is the one who is talking? You don’t have to tell me. I can see that you’ve gone through something difficult. I’m happy that you’re here with me and you saved my life.’ " The result was one of her favorite scenes in the series, including what she guesses is the first time Lisbeth ever said "Thank you" to anyone. Meanwhile, dedicated fans continue to say "Thank you" to the actress in remarkable ways. "I was in Spain this summer with my family and I was on a bus and all of a sudden this woman comes to me and she’s just staring, saying, ‘Is it you? Is it you?’ She just cried and said, ‘I was so upset when I heard they were going to do films, then when I saw them … I’ve seen them 10 times!’ She was just crying. I really saw how extremely important Lisbeth had been to her. I was on the bus with my son for an hour; she just opened up her whole heart. Lisbeth had helped her through some difficult situations. It’s amazing."
© 2010 The San Francisco Chronicle