Noomi Rapace: Supernova

Former Dragon Tattoo girl Noomi Rapace is blasting into space for Ridley Scott’s sci-fi epic Prometheus. The Swedish screen rebel talks to Hannah Lack about teen rebellion and alien warfare

Dress by Iris Van Herpen
Dress by Iris Van Herpen Photography by Solve Sundsbo

As the light begins to fade over Hyde Park, Swedish actress Noomi Rapace settles into an art-deco suite at the Dorchester. Today the only traces of the girl with the dragon tattoo – her breakthrough role as tiny punk avenger Lisbeth Salander in 2009’s film adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy – are the knife-sharp cheekbones and glittering intellect, with a blunt fringe, a black tailored jacket and heels replacing mohawk, tattoos, piercings and leather. Tearful fans continue to call her Lisbeth all the same, in testament to the powerful spell the now 32-year-old actress cast as the bisexual, chain-smoking cyber-hacker who battled Sweden’s dark heart with a Taser gun and a ferocious survival instinct. Larsson may have described Salander as looking like “she had emerged from a week-long orgy with a gang of hard -rockers”, but Rapace breathed humanity into this male-author fantasy – not easy with a character who smiles once every 200 pages. Rapace describes the experience as “diving down into hell” and admits, “I was probably a pain in the arse to be with at that time. I don’t like to pretend, I don’t like to fake. It’s like I slowly melt together with my characters.”

I don’t like to pretend, I don’t like to fake. It’s like I slowly melt together with my characters

Once the fusion is complete, the roles she has played – from teenage mothers to goth action heroes – tend to follow her home at night. She has tales of bizarre physical symptoms; she “lost reality a little bit” playing a single mother spiralling into mental breakdown in Norwegian thriller Babycall, suffering inexplicable back-pain that disappeared on the last day of shooting. She literally purged Lisbeth Salander from her body while the crew popped champagne corks to wrap the Millennium movies, vomiting in the bathroom for an hour. Her characters affect how she dresses, what she eats and when she sleeps. “It’s a decision to commit myself 100 per cent,” she 
explains. “Challenge myself and see how far out it is possible to go without losing myself – because then you’ve lost the game. Then it becomes madness, you step over the edge and you can’t 
work. I still need to know where Noomi is.”

When David Fincher’s slicker Hollywood remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo came along, Rapace passed the torch to Rooney Mara with something like relief. “I gave Lisbeth my life for one-and-a-half years, and it messed me up a bit,” she says with a smile. “I was glad to let her go. I felt, just leave me alone now, I need to come back to life!” The enormity of what Salander had kickstarted only hit home during a bleary-eyed morning press conference in Stockholm, as planeloads of international press filed in and she realised she’d better learn English. Two years and a turn as a knife-throwing gypsy in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows later, the actress is fluent. Today there’s the trace of a British accent, a hangover from the role that will send her stratospheric – she spent three months last year as mission leader Elizabeth Shaw for Ridley Scott’s colossal new outer-space blockbuster Prometheus. Cast by the director who gave the modern era its first true female action hero in Ellen Ripley, action roles don’t come much bigger, or better. Prometheus marks Scott’s first return to science fiction since Blade Runner (1982), with a storyline picking up on unresolved threads from his 1979 classic Alien. The project is shrouded in secrecy: the cast, also including Michael Fassbender and Charlize Theron, have been squirming under interrogation in press conferences, with two-page scripts dictating what they can’t say. As for 
Scott, he has promised the film 
is “very nasty”, and given us some general musings on the theories of 
Stephen Hawking.

I gave Lisbeth my life for one-and-a-half years, and it messed me up a bit. I was glad to let her go. I felt, just leave me alone now, I need to come back to life!

Rapace, meanwhile, has been faced with the inevitable Ripley comparisons. When the credits roll, will she be crowned the new Sigourney Weaver? “There’s definitely similarities with Ripley,” she begins, before reeling off her character’s back-story, most of which you won’t find in the film. “Elizabeth is more feminine, and she has a personal life. She believes in God. She’s British but grew up in Africa, her father was a priest so she moved around from a very early age. But she lost her parents when she was young. Her mother died giving birth to her and her father died when she was nine. So she’s become a survivor...” Playing survivors is becoming a speciality for Rapace, and she was the first to be cast. The script was unlocked from its vault and dispatched to her Chateau Marmont bungalow under guard after Scott saw her chilling performance in Dragon Tattoo. “That did it for me and I asked to meet her fully expecting to meet a punk. Instead, in walked this elegant woman,” Scott told Dazed. “Clearly I was talking to a great actress. Noomi’s very confident in her own talent and intuition which is very powerful. She brought to the set the most important ingredient of all – her passion and her enthusiasm.”

For an actress who prides herself on doing her own stunts (she spent seven months kickboxing, got eight piercings, and bombed down icy highways at lethal speeds as Salander), the offer to step into Ripley-style moon boots fulfilled a childhood dream. “I was this weird kid who loved Natural Born Killers and Alien and Terminator,” she grins. “I thought Linda Hamilton was just the coolest woman on earth when that movie came out. Some of those characters were more real than things around me sometimes.” To prepare for battling hostile extra-terrestrials, Rapace told her trainer she wanted to be like a cat, to “be able to climb up rocks and trees, or run for two hours if someone is chasing me.” The crew travelled to Iceland to shoot the epic opening scenes, and as the actress stood in the mist at the edge of the Dettifoss waterfall, she realised she had come full-circle: “Everything started for me in Iceland. I did 
my first movie there when I was seven, and from that point, I knew 
I wanted to become an actress.
 And now I was back with Ridley, playing the lead, and it felt 
surreal. I thought, ‘God, I hope 
I won’t wake up from this dream!’”

Rapace was born Noomi Noren to a Swedish actress mother and Spanish flamenco-singer father, who was absent through her childhood and died in 2007. She moved to Iceland as a kid, picking up that first acting role in the suitably dark In the Shadow of the Raven. “It was a very dramatic, bloody, Viking movie,” she remembers, “with a wild Icelandic director (Hrafn Gunnlaugsson). We worked really long days, and one night at two o’clock in the morning, people were tired and the director pointed at me and said ‘Look at this kid! She’s seven years old and she’s not complaining!’ It was like I grew up that day. It opened a door to a new reality.” Off-set, Rapace was less disciplined – when the family moved back to rural Sweden in her early teens she resembled a mini-Nancy Spungen, somehow putting away a bottle of whisky a night. “Definitely I was quite angry for 
a while,” she remembers. “At 14 
I dyed my hair blond, had a lot of piercings, listened to Blondie, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, punk music... and 
I still feel a bit like a punk. Like 
I have a punk soul. It’s a rebellious thing... I can pretend I’m playing your game, but I’m not. It’s also a way to convince yourself you’re brave enough to do things. When I’m nervous, I’m quite good at pretending to be much cooler than I actually am – I think that remains from that time in my life.”

By 15, she had left her family, moved to Stockholm and quit drinking, just as most teenagers around her were sipping their first lemon Hooch. “When I look back, it seems really young, but I felt like a grown-up. Like I was done with my family and I was on my own,” she shrugs. “I always knew it was up to me to create a life and become the person I wanted to be.” By 20 she and fellow Swedish actor Pär Ola Norell had married and changed their names to Noomi and Ola Rapace (the surname means “bird of prey”), and at 23 she had their son, Lev. (The couple separated last year.) But for as long as she can remember, and despite critically acclaimed roles in Sweden, the actress never quite felt at home in her native country. “Like I didn’t belong, I didn’t fit in,” she says. “Larsson gave us a darker, fictional version, but people in Sweden are reserved, they avoid conflict. They’d rather whisper to somebody else than say it straight to your face. I prefer to have an argument, and say, ‘We don’t agree, but we can respect each other’s opinions.’ We have a lot of unprovoked violence in Sweden – weird things happen when people are afraid of strong feelings...”

I really like your magazine, so I’m so proud to be doing this, but I’ve been turning down covers for years in Scandinavia. Because it’s like saying ‘I’m standing behind this magazine, what they value and what they stand for.’ I can’t be on the cover of a glossy, stupid magazine. Fame and celebrity culture – it’s never been my goal. I want people to 
go into a movie and forget that 
it’s me

If she felt like an outsider before, today it’s impossible for Rapace to be anonymous in a country where Millennium tours wander across Stockholm and Dragon Tattoo-inspired clothing lines fill the high streets. Adjusting to the fame has made her wary of the fallout. “I think it’s really dangerous if you start to do things to be liked or get good reviews. It’s such a strong poison if you take it seriously,” she muses. “I really like your magazine, so I’m so proud to be doing this, but I’ve been turning down covers for years in Scandinavia. Because it’s like saying ‘I’m standing behind this magazine, what they value and what they stand for.’ I can’t be on the cover of a glossy, stupid magazine. Fame and celebrity culture – it’s never been my goal. I want people to 
go into a movie and forget that 
it’s me.”

As the clock ticks towards the release of Prometheus, forgetting Rapace won’t be easy – she’s following up Ridley Scott by 
working with another film titan, Scarface director Brian De Palma. A few weeks after we meet, Rapace calls from an apartment in Berlin where she has set up temporary home while shooting De Palma’s new feature Passion, a remake of 2010 French cat-and-mouse psychodrama Crime d’amour. Her accent has taken on an American twang, and she’s submerged in a new character, tinkering with whatever volatile spirits will bring it to life. Today, this involves listening to a lot of Wagner. “I don’t usually do interviews while I’m shooting,” she pauses. “At the moment I’m 
so deep in it, it’s hard for me to step out. When I was doing the Millennium movies I’d drink coffee in a corner, while everyone else was talking and laughing. I was angry and isolated, but when I look back 
I see, of course, it was Lisbeth – she was in charge, leading the way. But with this movie, it feels like we’re becoming some kind of disturbed, dysfunctional family!” A car is on its way to escort her to set – they’ve been wrapping at three or four a.m., but she’ll be up to take her son to school in the morning. Meanwhile, there are new scripts on the table, awaiting her consideration. Rapace has decided that whatever character she invites into her life next, it will not be a ditsy, Jennifer Aniston-style rom-com heroine. “A character who’s happy and doing a bit of yoga and going on a date? That’s not for me. I think life is both darkness and light, almost like a battlefield with those two forces. I’ve always been drawn to... not darkness, but things with an edge,” she says. “When I’m working, I don’t care if I look ugly or fat, skinny or shave my head... I took a decision early on that I refuse to be driven by my vanity.” She thinks for a second, before adding: “Perfection is boring.” And with that, Noomi Rapace – former punk, new action hero – sums up why she’s the perfect antidote to every vanilla starlet on our screens.

Prometheus is out now

Photography SØlve SundsbØ
Styling
Katie Shillingford
Hair Shon at Julian Watson
Make Up Miranda Joyce at Streeters
Nails Mike Pocock at Streeters
Photographic Assistants
Ashely Rreynolds, Hannah Burton, Myro Wulf, Yvan Fabin
Styling Assistants Nell Kalonji, Kieran Joseph, Zsofia Farkas
Hair Assistant Nao Kawakami
Digital Operator Nicole Scorley at Republic
Cyberscanning 4D Max Ltd
Production Paula Ekenger, Sawlly Dawson

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