The New York Times Magazine (2012)
Noomi Rapace Arrives in Hollywood, by Way of Outer Space
May 27, 2012 | Written by Karen Olsson
In 2007, Noomi Rapace read for the part of Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish film version of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" as a long-shot contender. Though she was a smart and seasoned actress who had worked in film as well as onstage, she was known mainly to Stockholm theatergoers. Her name barely surfaced in the lively public debate in Sweden over who should play Lisbeth, one of the most sought after film roles for a Swedish actress in recent memory. Moreover, the film’s director, Niels Arden Oplev, feared that Rapace was too attractive to portray the androgynous Lisbeth. After working through a scene with her, though, he changed his mind. "When she’s Lisbeth and you put a camera on her, and she’s just sitting there looking at you, you think, Oh, my God, what is she going to do?" he says. "There’s an unpredictable, dark, dangerous energy that flows from her." Once he cast her, she gave herself over to the task of transforming into the alienated hacker-heroine of Stieg Larsson’s "Millennium" trilogy, even as the novels’ popularity began to snowball outside of Sweden. (The English translation of the first novel came out in 2008.) She trained with a Thai-boxing coach, submitted to multiple piercings and lopped off her hair. Then she shot the three films, one right after the other, over an 18-month period. When the first film opened, in February 2009, journalists from all over Europe descended on Stockholm to see it — and to see her, the unknown actress charged with interpreting what had suddenly become one of the world’s most popular characters.

At first, Rapace balked at the prospect of a news conference, because it would be in English, a language she wasn’t yet comfortable speaking. In a clip posted on YouTube of a May 2009 interview, she insisted (in quite passable English) that she belonged in European films. "I don’t have this crazy dream about going to Hollywood," she says in the video, "because I really love to watch movies and do movies that are complicated, and I want more strange things and complicated things." The Swedish version of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," a 152-­minute drama of rape, murder and revenge at low temperatures, reached the kind of limited audience in the United States that foreign-language films tend to reach. Meanwhile, the film producer Scott Rudin orchestrated an American adaptation of the Larsson novel, directed by David Fincher and starring another under-the-radar actress, one whose name — Rooney Mara — oddly echoes that of Noomi Rapace. The two of them created starkly different Lisbeths: Rapace played her as a smoldering but certainly human presence, while Mara’s Lisbeth was like something from the spirit world, a banshee gone silent. Mara’s performance in the U.S. version was nominated for an Oscar, and the role has made her a star. But Rapace’s turn as Lisbeth had not been overlooked. People were starting to dream that crazy Hollywood dream for her. "I saw it by accident on TV at 11 p.m.," the director Ridley Scott says of the Swedish film. "Frankly, I was blown away by the whole thing. And I was wondering who this punk was who seemed to be straight off the street, very withdrawn, very angry, very bright, completely misunderstood and being completely abused. It was a pretty great character." He went on to watch the film four more times, and each time he watched, Scott wondered, "Who’s this girl?"

When I met Rapace in Berlin this spring, the 32-year-old actress was filming "Passion" with the director Brian De Palma, and her focus on the tasks at hand seemed to distract her from the approach of the tidal wave that is "Prometheus," a big summer movie directed by Ridley Scott and starring Rapace. The film, Scott and 20th Century Fox insist, is not so much a prequel to Scott’s 1979 landmark film "Alien" as it is one that "shares DNA" with "Alien" — make what you will of that distinction. Regardless, Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw, as the lead of an "Alien"-type film, will assume the place of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. The significance, on-screen and off, is slowly sinking in for her. "Some people in London came up to me on the street and said: ‘You’re Noomi Rapace? Oh, my God, you’re the new Ripley, is it true?’ " she says. "I started to realize this can actually be quite big in a way that I hadn’t really expected." During my visit to Berlin, the weather was improbably balmy, and a youngish, well-turned-out set found its way to the rooftop pool and bar at the Soho House Berlin, a hotel and club in a restored Bauhaus building that at one time was the headquarters of the Hitler Youth and before that a Jewish-owned department store. There among the sunbathers, paddling around the small pool, was a cheerful, toothy boy wearing a mask and a snorkel: this was Rapace’s son, Lev, age 8. In February he came with his mother to Berlin, where he attended a Swedish school. He would spend the latter part of the spring in Turkey to be with his father, Noomi’s ex-husband, Ola Rapace. (An actor himself, Ola had gone to Turkey to play a villain in the next James Bond movie, "Skyfall.") Noomi joined Lev in the water for a while, and later she warned him not to splash too much, for the sake of the people in the poolside loungers, though privately she grumbled that people who can’t abide a splash or two shouldn’t sit next to the pool. Noomi Noren was 21 when she started dating Ola Norell, and three months later they married, inventing the surname "Rapace," pronounced ra-PAHS, which means "bird of prey" in French. ("I always had a very strong thing with those birds and the concentration they had," she says.) She had been performing onstage in Stockholm, and when she became pregnant, two years after marrying, her colleagues told her she was nuts to derail a budding career by having a child so young. "I’ve never seen it that way," she says. "It’s better to not be afraid of things and not avoid things. I thought, Now I know how it is to be pregnant and what it’s like to be a mom." As an actor, she knew she could make use of those experiences.

She went on to portray mothers in several European-made films, though these weren’t exactly Hallmark Channel moms. As the title character in the Danish film "Daisy Diamond" (2007), her second movie after having Lev, she played an aspiring actress who grows increasingly deranged and drowns her baby in the bathtub. "When the director sent me the script, my son was 2, and I was like: ‘This is impossible. I can never understand this, a monster who kills her baby.’ " But it was as if she dared herself. "When I don’t understand things, I become passionate to understand," she says. She agreed to do the part and researched it by talking to a woman who had harmed her baby, as well as to a psychiatrist who worked with such women. When the film was shot, in Copenhagen, "my whole soul was really dark," she says. "It was a tough, tough summer. My son and my husband came to visit on weekends, but I was very isolated in this weird reality." Once Rapace has taken on a role, her impulse is to part with the everyday world, which is to say her everyday consciousness, in favor of the character’s. "When I was younger, I went really deep, as deep as I could, leaving the world behind and stepping into another universe," she says. "But when I had my son, I had to find a way to be aware of what’s what." She developed a reputation in Sweden as a serious artist uninterested in fame. After the release of "Daisy Diamond," "we tried to get an interview with her, but she seemed to have reluctant feelings about publicity and stardom," says Elin Larsson (no relation to Stieg Larsson), a Swedish film critic. "She was very restricted about interviewing."

When she landed the role of Lisbeth Salander, her challenge was to flesh out a character who is described in the novels "like a graphic-novel super­hero," she says. Parts of the script struck her as inappropriately sentimental. One scene had Lisbeth telling her co-sleuth and sometime lover Mikael Blomkvist everything about her sordid past — "page after page," Rapace recalls. "I said: ‘You’re kidding me. She does not talk about herself. I can’t do this.’ " The scene, Oplev argued, was crucial to the film, so that the audience could understand Lisbeth. They finally agreed that they could convey her story more subtly, over the course of several scenes. Oplev acknowledges they clashed at times. "When you cast an actress that’s headstrong and passionate and wants to fight for the character, you have to deal with that," he says. On the day that the production of the third film wrapped, Rapace went to the bathroom and threw up for 45 minutes. She was done with Lisbeth Salander. She says she never had any interest in playing her again. The original "Alien" was very good at keeping us in the dark. Set mostly on a mining ship called the Nostromo, it had a grunge aesthetic, a run-down quality that muddled our view of the action. In that movie, when some of the crew venture off the ship, to explore what seems to be a deserted planet, their transmissions back to the ship flicker and break up. Even when the camera follows them directly, it’s hard to make out the details of the dimly lighted terrain. We’re compelled to try to see more, to explore along with the crew, in a way that compounds our dread.

"Prometheus," by contrast, is the first feature Scott shot with a digital camera and shot in 3-D. Hallmarks of the earlier movie remain: organic, tentacle­like architecture, an android who may or may not be trustworthy, the use of flamethrowers (in the future, no spaceship will leave Earth without flamethrowers) and the obligatory scenes of the heroine — in this case, Rapace — in plain white underwear. This film also promises to shed light on something left by the wayside in "Alien": a giant, humanoid skeleton reclined in a giant seat, with its rib cage burst open, which the crew of the Nostromo discovers during its explorations. "Alien" and its sequels never offered further clues as to the identity of this creature, who came to be known as "the space jockey." (James Cameron, who directed the sequel "Aliens," nicknamed it "the big dental patient.") Scott and 20th Century Fox have been careful not to reveal too much about "Prometheus," baiting the fans instead with a series of trailers and clever video extras. The film’s basic premise is that Elizabeth Shaw, an archaeologist with a strong faith in God, and her scientist boyfriend, Charlie Holloway, discover what they believe is a summons from another planet. They convince a megacorporation to send them there on a spaceship, the Prometheus, and then encounter terrible things (which is what you get for naming your spaceship Prometheus) and then must save the earth from an invasion. In the preview, we see a sweating, trembling Rapace in a spacesuit, crying out, "If we don’t stop it, there won’t be any home to go back to." Among the women considered for the part of Elizabeth Shaw in "Prometheus," Rapace held at least one significant advantage: she was actually transported, long ago, to a strange world populated by what were, for her, alien beings. She was 5 when her stepfather, a teacher, and her mother, a stage actress turned drama teacher, moved the family from Sweden to Solheimar, Iceland, a tiny village founded in the 1930s as a haven for disabled people. (Rapace didn’t meet her biological father, a Spanish flamenco singer, until she was a teenager.) When the family moved to Solheimar, Rapace said, it was populated mostly by teenagers and adults with Down syndrome, and as a very young girl from another country, she found them menacing. "I was afraid of them," she says. "To me they were like big trolls. I was not allowed to be angry with them, but they were quite mean sometimes, violent and sexual."

She had one half-sister who was four years younger, and so she often played alone, outdoors mostly, and rode horses. She also participated in a film for the first time, as an extra in "The Shadow of the Raven," a sackcloth-­and-scabbards saga set in the 11th century. (In brief: a fight over a beached whale sets off a cascade of blood revenge that culminates with a double-cross in a sauna, dooming the love affair between a powerful, aggressive heroine sporting a 1980s perm and a soulful Christian with a Snorks-style ponytail.) Along with the rest of the cast and crew, Rapace’s family bivouacked in tents, in the middle of nowhere, then traveled to Stockholm for several days of shooting in a studio. One day, when they were filming a scene of a wedding celebration, "we were supposed to be dancing, and so I was twirling and twirling for hours and hours and hours," Rapace says. The shoot lasted well into the night, "and then it was like 2 o’clock in the morning, and people were starting to get tired and wanted a break, and he" — the director, Hrafn Gunnlaugsson — "said: ‘What’s wrong with you? Look at this girl, she’s 7 years old and she’s not complaining!’ " She was a restless, willful girl — "I was always running and climbing and building things" — and her parents, fearing she wouldn’t be well served by the local public school in Iceland, moved back to Sweden, to a small town in the south. At 11, she started taking judo lessons, and for a while she was devoted to that sport. She was also bewitched by Hollywood movies with violence in them — "True Romance," "Thelma and Louise," "Alien," "The Terminator," "Scarface," "Rambo" — as well as "La Femme Nikita" and kung fu movies. At 15, she left home to go to drama school in Stockholm. "I was just looking at people, trying to learn how to behave," she says. "I’d barely been to a restaurant before." Her first acting job came a year later, when she was cast in "Tre Kronor," a soap opera, as Lucinda Gonzales, a member of a girl gang called Las Chicas. ("That was just bad," Rapace says of the show.) The plays of Tennessee Williams replaced kung fu movies. In her last school production, she was Blanche in "A Streetcar Named Desire" (translated into Swedish). "Giving space to her in my soul changed me somehow — that was the first thing I did when I went into myself," she said. We were eating dinner when she told me this, and as she spoke of that step inward, she closed her eyes. "The first character that was running through my veins. I was a little bit psychotic. After shows I didn’t remember what happened."

Rapace says that the only depression she ever experienced took hold during the two years before she left her small town for Stockholm. She went punk, bleaching her hair and piercing herself and, she says, drinking whatever the guys were drinking. "I’ve always wanted to compete with the guys," she says. It’s a phase in her life that she seems disinclined to revisit. She happened to show me a pair of long, white tracks on the top of her arm, at first saying that they were a result of an adolescent attempt to tattoo herself, then saying that she was interested, back then, in the idea of becoming blood brothers and blood sisters with people, and finally telling me, "That period is not so interesting." Two transformations are evident in "Prometheus": that of Rapace into Elizabeth Shaw, but also that of the erstwhile anti-Hollywood Swedish actress into the star of a summer blockbuster. Her manager, Shelley Browning, who has a longstanding relationship with Rapace’s Swedish agent and represents a number of foreign citizens working in Hollywood, helped facilitate that change. "I thought L.A. was more about celebrities and red carpets and glossy big lips and big tits," Rapace says. "I said to Shelley when we met: ‘I don’t want to go to Hollywood. That’s not for me. I want to do real movies.’ And then she said, ‘But who do you actually like?’ I started to mention people, and she said, ‘Those people actually live in L.A.’ " Browning sent her scripts, and in August 2010, Rapace flew to Los Angeles for a series of meetings with producers and directors, people who wanted to meet her after having seen her play Lisbeth Salander. "It was quite funny, when you work in a business where artists are chameleons, because they kept calling me and saying, ‘She’s nothing like Lisbeth Salander,’ " Browning says. "And I said: ‘What did you expect? She was going to come in on a Harley, with a leather jacket and piercings?’ And they said: ‘No, but like, nothing! She’s beautiful, she’s funny, she’s feminine.’ It wasn’t like one or two people called me, it was like everybody called me."

During that trip, she met with Michael Costigan, the president of Ridley and Tony Scott’s production company, Scott Free. "Then I heard Ridley" — one of her director-heroes — "was going to attend," she says. "I never get nervous, but I thought I was going to pass out. I had on this blue Helmut Lang dress, and when I started to sweat, you could really see it." A month later, they met again for dinner in London, and he told her that he wanted her to play the lead in what was then being called a prequel to "Alien." In anticipation of each part she plays, Rapace chooses a training regimen (or, sometimes, a lack thereof) not simply to get in shape but to adjust her relationship with her body. To become Lisbeth Salander, she Thai-boxed and kickboxed, because she wanted to awaken her fighting spirit. Before appearing in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," Rapace’s first Hollywood movie, she stayed away from the gym, which she said would have been wrong for her Victorian-era-gypsy role, but she studied with a gypsy-dance expert. And for "Passion," the film she came to Berlin to do, she decided on Bikram yoga, because she felt that its regimented sequence of poses would appeal to her character, Isabelle — "a control freak," she called her. In her workouts for "Prometheus," with a trainer in London, Rapace tried to cultivate an explosive power. She wanted to be like a cat, she says, nimble and powerful but still feminine. Shaw, Rapace says, is more innocent than Ripley: "She’s actually the least cracked soul I’ve ever played." In the first part of the movie, she is wide-eyed and wondering, illuminated from within by her conviction — and then, like Ripley before her, she has to battle some nasty stuff and toughen up in the process.

"It was a marathon for her, this movie," says Logan Marshall-Green, who plays Holloway. At one point in the shooting, "her stunt lady really banged herself up on the leg, and Noomi went with it and really used it as a physical bruise, an internal limp. She collected these snares and snags and bruises and cuts and embraced them." Four days of the shoot were devoted to a scene that takes Elizabeth Shaw’s desire to have children and twists it into "everyone’s worst nightmare" — Rapace couldn’t talk specifically about the scene (and Fox declined to screen the footage), but it seems safe to say that in "Prometheus," the "Alien"-movie tradition of horrifying births, as well as Rapace’s own history of playing mothers driven to extremes, will be continued. During that week, "the reality and the scenes melted together, my whole spirit was really captured," she says. "I actually dreamt a couple of times that I was dead." While most of the film was shot at Pinewood Studios, outside London, some of the cast and crew traveled to a location in Iceland, not far from where Rapace lived as a child, for 10 days of filming. Much of the work there required Rapace to run around in a rubber suit — "the worst costume ever" — running and stumbling, running and stumbling. Still, when they would wrap for the day, she didn’t want to stop, as tireless as the twirling 7-year-old she once was. Being a famous actress in Sweden seems a little bit like being a star athlete at M.I.T.: you’ve won the qualified admiration of a small society of mostly polite, introverted people. The Swedes do take pride in their compatriots who act in Hollywood movies — "If you just read Swedish newspapers, you would think there are three big stars in Hollywood: Stellan Skarsgard, Noomi Rapace and Alexander Skarsgard," says Mariah Larsson, who is a research fellow in cinema studies at Stockholm University (and no relation to either of the aforementioned Larssons). But in the wake of "Prometheus," Rapace is about to experience a much more invasive level of attention.

During a recent visit to L.A., Rapace sat down with her managers and agents to discuss the road ahead: they talked about projects that interest her and projects that don’t, and also about what to expect this summer. "They’re telling me it’s going to be big, and people will recognize you, and you will have paparazzi after you, you have to be aware of that," she says. Her colleagues are perhaps more aware than she is. Guy Pearce, who appears in "Prometheus" as a corporate executive, says: "I’m looking at the ‘Prometheus’ trailer going: ‘This is going to be huge for you, darling. It couldn’t be bigger.’ She’s cool, she kind of laughs about that stuff, but you can see her blushing at the same time." Pearce, who had a substantial career in Australia before becoming internationally known for films like "Memento" and "L.A. Confidential," says that it can be an advantage to arrive in Hollywood as an established actor elsewhere. "It’s really a grounding kind of experience," he says. "I think you come into it with your eyes a little bit more open, and you’re drawn to the things that really resonate with you. If you get the chance to work in America, great; if you get the chance to work in London, great; if you get the chance to work in New Zealand, great. You’re not so America-centric." Regarding her future projects, "she’s very filmmaker-driven," Browning says. "And she laments the same thing that all female actresses lament, that there are rarely great roles for women." Rapace is at low risk for being typecast, because she conforms to no recognizable type. Her face is arresting, with large, alert eyes and cheekbones that seem poised to burst, "Alien"-style, out from beneath her pale skin. She won’t show up in a romantic comedy any time soon, Browning says — "I just don’t know that she responds to those kinds of characters" — but she is not ruling anything out. After I spoke with her in Berlin, Rapace was reunited with Oplev, the director of the first "Millennium" movie, to shoot a thriller in Philadelphia co-starring Colin Farrell, in which she portrays a woman who was disfigured in an accident. She also plans to play opposite her ex-husband in a biopic directed by Catherine Hardwicke, about the romance between the boxer Bo Hogberg and the singer Anita Lindblom. "I’m terrified of being too famous," she says. "What I’m really afraid of is that the audiences will go into the theater and not be able to forget that it’s me, that fame will stand in the way of my acting. I want to keep being able to change into different shapes and different personalities." She says she never wants to play the sexy sidekick and that she still wants to compete with the guys — Leonardo DiCaprio, Josh Brolin, Christian Bale and Michael Fassbender, her "Prometheus" co-star, are among the actors she admires. "They’re not working out of vanity," she says. "They’re not trying to look hot all the time." On my last morning in Berlin, I accompanied Rapace to the "Passion" set, inside an apartment building in a fashionable neighborhood. The set itself was a Euro-creepy bedroom, with scaly black curtains, a round, black bed in the middle, a stuffed bird on a dresser and an open bathroom. Because of the room’s small size, most of the crew huddled in the hall, while De Palma and the cinematographer José Luis Alcaine sat in chairs in the back of the room, near the camera and monitor. It was a post-sex scene that Rapace was performing, with the actor Paul Anderson, and after she changed into her costume — a man’s dress shirt — and her hair and makeup were adjusted to look tousled and slightly sweat-dampened, they read through the dialogue.

In the film, based on a French thriller, Rapace’s Isabelle suffers at the hands of Christine, her manipulative boss, played by Rachel McAdams, then seeks revenge. During this scene, Isabelle, who has just slept with Christine’s lover (played by Anderson) at his apartment, discovers a trove of sex toys. These include a ghostly mask of Christine herself, with white skin and long blond hair, which Isabelle holds up to the light and then addresses. During the read-through, Rapace questioned De Palma about a couple of lines in which Isabelle talks to the mask, suggesting they weren’t consistent with how she played an earlier scene. She substituted another line, mimicking something Christine has already said: "I used to want to be admired, now I want to be loved." As they started filming, Rapace adjusted her performance slightly with each take — more smiling in one, more solemn in the next. And when it came time to shoot her close-up, Rapace and De Palma started analyzing the line again. "Maybe I should just do it more simply," she said. It was a strange declaration — "I used to want to be admired, now I want to be loved" — to hear Rapace-as-Isabelle make, over and over, after having listened to Rapace-as-Rapace tell me how much she hoped not to fall prey to those desires. She went on to try a few different phrasings, cooing each one to the mask of Rachel McAdams, and finally pared it down to this: "I wanted to be admired, but now I want to be loved."

© 2012 The New York Times Magazine