Two years ago, Noomi Rapace played the most intense role of any actress' career: Lisbeth Salander of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a tattooed fighter who had to be strong to survive Stieg Larsson's brutal Swedish trilogy. Rapace was so committed to the role, she even got facial piercing—and her bravery paid off. Overnight, she was the new face in Hollywood and before then Swedish speaking-only actress could say "fantastisk," she was the darling of Guy Ritchie and Ridley Scott, both of whom cast her as the lead in their next big blockbusters. Is Hollywood ready for their next tough heroine?
Jude Law said he thinks you could take him in a fight.
Oh, no, I don't think so. But I love that he would say that. It really surprised me how everybody embraced me, just kind of took me into their little group of, because, you know, it's always different to come in with the second movie when everybody else have worked together before and they were really tight and very like a small family in a way—and it was just incredible how Robert and Susan, his wife and Jude took me into their family and I became kind of one of their boys and we had so much fun. But I'm pretty sure I won't take him in a fight. But I like fighting and I train a lot. I train in martial arts and stuff. I wouldn't fight him. I don't think so.
I can't even imagine what the last two years have been like for you: to have such a strong career in Sweden, but then explode and all of a sudden have all of a sudden these high-profile films?
Sometimes it's a bit unreal because everything happened so fast. I was in LA in August a year ago, and I met Ridley [Scott, director of Rapace's next film Prometheus] and I met Robert Downey, and I met a bunch of people, and then like a couple of weeks later, I went to London and then met Guy Ritchie and we shot Sherlock, a couple of weeks later. So everything happened really fast. And then when I was shooting Sherlock, Ridley said to me that he wants me to play the lead for the prequel to Alien and he's one of my heroes, since I was, I dunno, as long I can remember. But when you work, you're so much in it, and you're so focused, it's so intense, it's such hard work. So when you actually have some time off, when you stop to realize how fantastic it is, and how amazing it is that those people want to work with me, it's been really, really intense and really fantastic—and yeah, I'm still a bit surprised.
What I'm loving about your career is you're not only getting cast by directors who want to show strong women, but you're showing different types of strong women. Like, here, you're playing a woman who can fight and hold her own, but doesn't even have to have tattoos or a boyish body to seem tough.
Exactly. What I love, what I'm always looking for when I'm reading a script is I want to fall in love with the character. I want to feel like this is someone I want to explore, this is someone I want to give soul and life to. Because I know that I can never do anything kind of half way, I always give everything, 100 percent. And I know that I need to put my whole life in it so everything I do, I need to really choose carefully and I need to know that I want to let this person move in for a couple of months. Or sometimes six months, sometimes it's a year. Sometimes you read a script and the girl is just kind of something sweet and sexy and charming and that's like, "Okay, but what should I do? Why should I spend a lot of time doing that?" So I think I always look for personalities. I don't think I ever think about my choices or my career in a cynical way. It's not like, "Okay, now I need to show everyone I can do funny or that I can do sexy or that I can be really beautiful, whatever it is." It's much more emotional for me. And I kind of like those strong women. It doesn't matter if they're really feminine and very much a woman or very masculine and like a tomboy. For example, like Ridley, the character I'm doing in Prometheus, she's an archaeologist, a scientist and very sophisticated. She's feminine and a boss but she changes into more of a warrior in the middle of the movie. So she goes through a big transformation. So I think every character I've done is different from the others. What they have in common is they all fight for one thing.
Here, you play a gypsy. I heard you wanted to visit Transylvania to learn more about the Roma people before you started shooting this film. And that actually your father was Roma himself?
I always want to prep really good before I start to shoot the movie. But on Sherlock, everything happened so fast, so I was like, "I want to do this! I want to do that!" And then everybody's like, "You know, we're going to shoot next week. We're actually starting Monday." I was like, "Oh my god," so I was kind of prepping to find a nice weekend when we were off, but I never had time to go. We were looking into it. Doing the whole shoot, I was like, "Maybe I can have my Fridays off and go to Transylvania?" and they were like, "Maybe you can go to France." I was like, "I don't want to go to France!" So it was hard. I never managed to go. And I would love to one day at some point because the gypsies, the lifestyle and the culture, I think it's really inspiring, really different from all other countries. To be like a world citizen and able to move around and not commit to a specific country, a specific government. I kind of like that idea. And also they're a very proud people. But still, they have a really tough situation because they're not welcome and it's quite common that people blame the gypsies. They have a really bad education. So it's very complex situation and life for gypsies today, it's difficult and tricky and I would love to learn more. I did learn a bit when I was working with this woman, Bita, who came to London and taught me some Romani, their language, and a couple of dances, a couple of songs. But my father, he was Spanish, he was a Spanish flamenco singer. And he said to me just before he died—I didn't grow up with him—I got to know him when I was 25, 22. And he died a few years ago and he said to me when he was dying that his mother was gypsy. But nobody else knew anything about that. So he said something to me that nobody ever knew or talked about.I think his life was quite complicated in Spain before he left. So I guess I will say that I will never know what happened, what his mom was like. She died when he was three. So it's quite hidden and a mystery, that side of me. My father and my Spanish, gypsy side.
Sounds like a romantic story.
Yeah, yeah. I think so. He ran away when he was 16 with a girl that was gypsy. And I know that they were running. He said to me that he was just half-blood gypsy and then her family didn't accept him. So yeah, I think he's quite romantic—there's a whole movie there.
Your character here is a fortune teller. Have you ever had your fortune read?
No, actually I haven't. I'm really respectful to it, but I don't want to know. I have it inside me. I know what I need to know and I know when I'm off-track—I know when I lose my road. I think I would believe it too much. I think I would take it too serious if someone said something to me about the future. It's almost like reading critics or reviews—I don't read anything about me. It doesn't matter if it's good or bad or whatever. Because I know that it will kind of stay in me, the words will stay in me. So I try to keep away from that.
I can only imagine if five years ago a fortune teller told you that you'd be working with your idol, Ridley Scott.
I would say "Yeah, really. Come on. Don't give me that."
Your character here, Sim, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think she's the only major figure in the film who wasn't actually an Arthur Conan Doyle character. She's created wholly new for the series.
I think that Guy Ritchie has a very strong thing with gypsies. Like his movie Snatch with Brad Pitt. And we talked about gypsies and their cultures. I don't know if it came from him, but I know that he has a very strong—I don't know if I should say love—but I think he respects them and finds them interesting. For me, it was really inspiring in the film, like some kind of destiny thing, when this role came to me. And also I met Robert for only 20 minutes in LA, but I felt from the first moment that I had some kind of connection with him, that I wanted to work with him. And we talked about movies and dreams and what kind of movies we want to make and how we want to work. And we didn't talk about Sherlock at all, so it was interesting when they called my team up later on, because I didn't know that they were thinking about Sherlock Holmes. It sounds like it was meant to be in a way.
Is Sherlock as large of a character in Sweden?
Oh, he's really big. He's big. I think he's big in all of Europe. Everybody's heard about him. I'm not sure that we actually read the books and know the stories about him. But everybody knows who he is, definitely.
It looks like from the poster here that your special skill is going to be throwing knives.
Yes. I'm quite good at that. [Laughs] I was practicing. It's really fun. It's really hard. Difficult, though. I was practicing with the stunt guy and also just managing to move in the corset and the, you know, in my clothes because it's really uncomfortable to have to to roll around and jump and throw your stuff and all those physical action scenes. I was so jealous because Robert and Jude had those boots and they could just run and it was so easy for them, and I was like, "Ugh! I hate this skirt! The corset, I can't move, it's hurting me, it's hurting my ribs!" It would give me a strong feeling of I could totally imagine how I walk for women at the time to be trapped in those white teethbone corsets.
It's like that Ginger Rogers quote, where she does everything Fred Astaire does except backwards and in heels.
Yes, it's true. It was quite fun because it was very easy and playful and we were kind of searching through the whole journey and I think the fight scenes kind of came to us. It was not fully decided how it was going to be. So with Robert and Jude, we were working together to find solutions, and what was credible and possible for our characters to do. To not make her be like an action hero that can do anything and everything. If you're a woman, you're smaller, and if you're fighting with a big man and they're much stronger—maybe you're faster but they're stronger—and if they hit you in the face, if they punch you, you'll probably go down. So I tried to find a balance between her being able to tke care of herself and to protect herself, but I didn't want her to be too much of a graphic novel gypsy icon, you know, sticker. I want her to be human.
You know your character Lisbeth so well from the Dragon Tattoo series. When the new one comes out, is it going to be almost an interesting intellectual exercise to look at the different choices that the director and the actress made in the new one?
Um... I haven't even thought about it. I really respect David Fincher. I think he's incredible and I really like his previous movies. So I think he will probably do something that is personal for him and a little different from what we did. I don't feel like Lisbeth is mine. I gave her my soul and my life for one-and-a-half years. I did everything I could and then when I finished, I left her. So it feels like I was really done with her. I knew I never wanted to go back and I knew I never wanted to step into her shoes again. I think it's really interesting to see what they do and how they give life to the story. But I don't know if it's gonna be from an acting perspective—it's more going to be the whole story. I always like when you forget about the performance, when you don't think about, "Oh, this is an actress who plays that character." So I hope that I can see the movie and see the characters but kind of forget about the back story and kind of forget everything about this.
Going forward, how do you want to balance your Swedish career with your English career? Is it important to you to continue to do films in your native language?
Yeah. I think it's important to keep the connection with that side in you. Because it's like, I didn't speak English three years ago, so for me this language is new. I'm kind of getting into it more and more and I realized when I was filming Prometheus I was dreaming in English, I was texting my mom in English. It's quite weird to realize that I was switching from Swedish to English. It became almost like my first language. But still it's like, I grew up speaking Swedish and Icelandic. And I think that for all actors, for example, when I saw Biutiful, with Javier Bardem, a year ago, it's so strong and so powerful to see him go back and do something in Spanish again. I want to go back and do a movie in Scandinavia. I think you know, you can do Danish or Norwegian or Swedish movie. A lot of interesting films are coming from there, so definitely. But in the near future, it looks like I'm going to do more English movies.