Author Stieg Larsson—who suddenly passed away in 2004—left behind three novels known as the Millennium trilogy, which have collectively sold more than 27 million copies worldwide. What’s more, the first of the three film adaptations The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo went onto become the highest-grossing film of 2009 in Europe and the highest-grossing Swedish film in history.
Caught in the maelstrom of hysteria surrounding the Millennium franchise front and center is actress Noomi Rapace who took on the title role of Lisbeth Salander, a troubled and socially maladjusted hacker entangled in an on-going criminal investigation. Considering the film’s immeasurable success and her newfound global notoriety, you can’t help but find it surprising that the 30-year-old Swede sort of fell into acting by chance. Sitting down with Anthem inside a Manhattan hotel suite on a dreary afternoon, Rapace takes us back to the very beginning…
Could you talk a little bit about your upbringing? Broad strokes are okay.
I have a Spanish father, a Flamenco singer who came to Sweden to escape [Francisco] Franco in Spain. My mother had this short romantic relationship with him and he was gone before I was born. I never knew him really, but I met him a couple of times. And then my mother got remarried to this Icelandic man, so we moved to Iceland when I was four. I loved it. At that point, it felt like a new world had opened up in front of me. Since my stepfather has this big family—I don’t have any grandparents on my mother’s side—I became part of this big Icelandic family.
I was in my first film when I was seven, it was an Icelandic film called In the Shadow of the Raven. It was a small part, but the shoot lasted for something like three weeks. I remember just falling in love with it. It was very dramatic and bloody—a sad love story. I knew at that point that I wanted to become an actress. We eventually moved back to Sweden when I was like eight or nine and I didn’t feel satisfied with that. We then moved again to the south of Sweden, a place called København near Denmark. When I was fifteen, I moved away from my family and went to Stockholm to attend a drama high school. I actually starred in some TV series when I was fifteen or sixteen. At twenty, I did my first film for the big screen. So, I’ve been working as a professional actress for about ten years.
Seven seems like an awfully young age to start much of anything, let alone decide what you’d like to do for the rest of your life. How did that first film come about?
My stepfather has a lot of horses in Iceland and he was providing them for the film. He was actually supposed to be in the film as well. So, I just tagged along. I just joined in on the first day. They said, “Oh, one more? She can join. She can put on some dirty clothes.” [Laughs] It was some kind of a Viking film.
So you didn’t realize that you wanted to act until you were actually doing it.
I remember this one scene where the lead actress was crying and screaming because the man she loved was being tortured or something like that—it was terrible. I was by the monitor watching it and became totally obsessed. They couldn’t pull me away from it. It was two in the morning and my mother was like, “We have to go!” and I told her, “No, I have to stay! I have to stay!” There was something so magical about it—the fiction of it all. They created something that was more real than reality in a way. It gave me hope because I saw something bright. I saw a future in a way.
Fast-forwarding to the present, you’re now the star of the highest-grossing Swedish film of all time. How did you land the role of Lisbeth Salander?
I read the books a couple of years before, but I read about the film in the paper. I read that they were going to make films out of it. At first, I was sad, upset, and angry. [Laughs] I was so sure that they wouldn’t consider me or even think of me. I had done some films and they knew who I was, but I thought they would judge me for being too girly, feminine, cute, or something like that. But I knew that I could transform, I can do anything for a character. I can be fat or blonde or skinny. I can shave my head. I can always put away my vanity and do whatever it takes to find the person that I’m going to be. It’s not so common that people can see that, you know? They can’t imagine that you can change. I had long curly hair at the time and I didn’t look like Lisbeth. So, I was pretty surprised when they called me. I went on this short interview with the casting director. I was pretty sure that they wouldn’t call me back, and when they did, I said to myself, “Okay. You have to protect yourself because they won’t pick you.” Then I met with Niels [Arden Oplev], the director, and we talked for a couple of hours. I said to him, “I know who Lisbeth is and if you trust me, I would like to transform my body and become her. I will begin working tomorrow and I will be her.” And he cast me! We did a lot of interviews yesterday and I heard him say that he had made up his mind the very first moment we met.
When I was preparing for the role, I put myself on a diet because I wanted to be a bit skinnier. I wanted to get rid of my female softness. I did a lot of Thai boxing and Kickboxing with this crazy Serbian guy five times a week. [Laughs] He was very hard on me. And I got a motorcycle license. I cut my hair. I pierced myself. I was preparing for seven months before shooting began.
You’re truly a chameleon. The transformation is really impressive. And I think it’s pretty rare where an actor is given the opportunity to explore a character, an intriguing one at that, throughout the course of several films like this. Were all three films shot back-to-back?
Was that appealing to you or was it more of a daunting proposition? It seems like a sizable chunk of time that you’re devoting yourself to a single character.
I was pretty satisfied with it. I knew that I would have the time to slowly show things to the audience, we didn’t have to tell them everything from the beginning. We could give small clues. Everything starts bubbling up in the second and third film. I felt like I could immerse myself in the Stieg Larsson universe for a year and a half. I didn’t work on anything else during that time. I didn’t speak to the media at all either. It was like Lisbeth was living in me. I think it would’ve been difficult to come in-and-out of it as opposed to doing it back to back.
Now that the films are out in many parts of the world and they’re getting all this attention, what does it feel like being at the epicenter of that whole thing?
At first, it felt like a suicide mission. I was so sure that people would just hate me! [Laughs] After it was released in Sweden, I was sure that I would have to stay inside because people would be angry at how I portrayed Lisbeth. People who’ve read the books have an attachment to that character and they have an idea of who Lisbeth is. I was just forced to close my eyes and cast it all away. I tried to listen to my own voice and create my own Lisbeth. When the film was released and all the reactions were pouring in, I was very surprised. At the film’s opening night in Sweden, there were over fifty journalists from France, Spain, and all over Europe. I didn’t expect that. And now, it’s just growing more and more. It just feels unreal at times. I don’t think anyone expected it to be this big.
I read somewhere that Hollywood is trying to remake this film and possibly the entire trilogy. I think they’re also remaking Let the Right One In as well, another successful Swedish film from awhile back. What’s your take on all of this?
I think they’re actually shooting the new Let the Right One In right now. I’m totally okay with it. I know that you have to read subtitles when it comes to watching foreign films and maybe [American audiences] are not really used to that. But we’re used to it in Sweden. Everything good is in English. For me, it’s strange that something like that could be a problem. I’m always looking up at the face of the actors and down at the text. [Laughs] In the Palm Springs Film Festival, I think the first film won the Audience Award. I think audiences over here will enjoy the film. And I think it’ll be interesting to see what Hollywood does with it. I can’t really imagine how they could be faithful to the book and Lisbeth though. A lot of the time when they do remakes, they don’t want to be edgy or provocative, they have to make everything soft. I don’t know why they have to, but they often do. I’m curious to see how they’re going to make a Hollywood version of Lisbeth. This film is already so big. I heard from my manager that it’s going to be released in Korea and ten other countries now and it just keeps spreading. I don’t think the two films will compete with each other. So, for me, I’m totally okay with it.
I think the remake will be a completely different animal.
I think so too.
This role must have been extremely demanding, both mentally and physically.
It was so exhausting. It’s like I can’t think about it anymore. [Laughs] I was like a sound beam when I came home. My husband is an actor as well, so he was very understanding. He’s the one cooking the food and taking care of the kids when I’m involved in more darker and complicated roles. It’s strange because I knew that we had done everything that we could and I knew I had tried to be as brave as I could. I could let it all go when it was done, I couldn’t have done more. I could leave it and move on. I knew that it was very important that the rape scenes actually went into the film because it’s so much about Lisbeth and the way she handles the situations that she’s put in. You get to see deep inside her character. After she’s raped, Lisbeth comes home and actually watches her own rape that she secretly videotaped. She’s forcing herself into war with this guy instead of being emotional about it. I think that’s why she’s been able to survive after everything she’s been through. So, I think it’s extremely important that we had those scenes. Of course, it was like living in hell for a week, but I think it’s my responsibility as an actress to find a way to do everything that seems credible and as realistically as possible. You have to go all the way.
Now that the Millennium trilogy is behind you, what kind of roles are you interested in pursuing?
I love characters that are complicated. I like reading screenplays where you don’t know what’s going to happen next. For instance, when you see a film by Tarantino, you never know what’s going to happen and I like that very much. It’s always interesting to explore a character that’s in trouble in a way or struggling with something. It doesn’t have to be dark or unhappy, it might just be about solving clues and so on.
I’m about to do a film in Norway called Babycall, I’m preparing for the shoot in two weeks. It’s a psychological thriller. The character in the film is very different from Lisbeth. She’s in trouble, but she’s very vulnerable and soft. She’s in a witness protection program. She escaped from her ex-husband because he had been violent towards her. So, she’s trying to start a new life with a new identity. It’s about her trying to find new footing again. The script has many layers. I couldn’t sleep the whole night after reading the script; I think it’s a terrific script. I’ll be working on that film for three months or so in Oslo. And then I’ll do a film in Sweden called Missing. It’s a film about a homeless woman who’s wrongly accused of murders and she has to find the real killer to clear her name. I think it’ll be a good film. Both of those films are not very Scandinavian. I think they will appeal to audiences everywhere. I think Babycall will be shown at Cannes. And then in September or October, I’ll be working with Pernilla August. Do you know her?
That name doesn’t ring a bell…
She’s a Swedish actress. She played Luke Skywalker’s mother in Star Wars. [Laughs] Sometimes people know her from that. She’s really good. She’s worked with Bergman and other very good directors. And this is her directorial debut. So, I’m in that film along with my husband. It doesn’t have an English title yet. It’s a very Swedish film with a title that’s difficult to pronounce, Svinalängorna. I think it’ll show at Venice [Film Festival]. I’m also reading some scripts in English now and I would love to work in the US. Many of my favorite directors are from here. It would be wonderful if I could do that one day.
Did you ever dream of becoming a Hollywood actress when you were growing up?
Not particularly Hollywood, but I’ve always followed the works of directors like Tarantino, Sean Penn, Scorsese, and Coppola. Most of my favorite directors are from the states. I’ve always wanted to work on stuff outside of Sweden and if I could do that one day, I would be more than happy to. But I don’t have this Hollywood dream because it’s not that the best films in the U.S. are studio films. Many Hollywood films can be very good, but the best films are always a collaborative effort with Hollywood and maybe the independent film industries.
I think Sean Penn is a very good director and I love his work as an actor. Christopher Nolan is great. Sophia Coppola—I just love her work. I did a lot of interviews with the Japanese press recently and I felt like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. [Laughs] I was just laughing at the end of the day because it was so crazy. Also, I think Scorsese is fantastic. I love Darren Aronofsky. The Wrestler and Requiem for a Dream were just amazing.