Taken from the October issue of Dazed & Confused:
When Alicia Vikander strolls into an east London café, her chilled-out elegance seems in keeping with her Swedish origins. But her measured grace belies the searing, high-voltage intensity the 24-year-old has been pouring on to the screen since her 2009 feature debut in Lisa Langseth’s Pure, in which she played a troubled youth embroiled in a disastrous affair with a married conductor. Chosen as one of European Film Promotion’s Shooting Stars of 2011, the Gothenburg native is one of the most promising young actresses around, and like a young Catherine Deneuve or Isabelle Huppert, actively chooses the raw, unglamorous roles that those with mainstream aspirations shy away from. But there are some side effects to being in demand. “I’m living out of a suitcase. I don’t even know what city I’m in the most,” she says. “I’m in airports and cars, and on the road. I’m fortunate and happy – I get to do what I love and work on fantastic projects with great filmmakers. But it is tough.”
Vikander’s acting credentials were cemented outside Scandinavia by the rave reviews she got for her role as Kitty in last year’s Anna Karenina, director Joe Wright’s inventive take on Tolstoy’s classic epic novel of doomed love in imperial Russia, which took her to London and demanded she master a British accent. Playing the naively impetuous society princess in the high-profile, stylised drama was a breakthrough role, upstaging the lead, Keira Knightley. Since then, Vikander has barely glimpsed her native country. Shooting takes her out of Sweden for long stretches – she’s most recently been in London this summer working with The Beach author and 28 Days Later scriptwriter Alex Garland on his directorial debut, science-fiction film Ex Machina, in which she plays a highly advanced robot.
She has just got back from a catch-up with friends in Stockholm, where she moved at the age of 14, but touched base there for merely a day. “Stockholm’s my home in my heart, even though I don’t spend much time there. That’s where I go to recharge my batteries. I love how the sun doesn’t go down and it really becomes magic at that time of year. You can wake up at 2am and it’s basically day – you just want to do things all the time. People can call me at 11pm and be like, ‘Do you want to go out and grab a coffee and take a walk?’ I love how everyone has so much energy and the euphoria that the city’s in around that time.”
I’ve had a fear of all the films I’ve taken on. It’s a kick – I’m drawn to projects that scare me
Brought up in the Swedish theatre scene, she was strongly influenced by her successful actress mother, Maria Fahl Vikander – “I’ve been watching my mother work and her passion from a very early age,” she says. Vikander started out as a ballerina, studying for nine gruelling years at the Royal Swedish Ballet School, where perhaps she picked up that streak of determination and self-discipline. Her first big acting role came aged 16. “It’s hard to look back and determine when the big moment was that I realised I wanted to be an actress. I think it’s something that’s as clear for me as any other passion – it’s something I’ve had since the beginning. As a kid spending time in the theatre I don’t think I realised it was an actual job. I just thought it was some great grown-ups who were open to play a lot more than most adults.”
Vikander was far from pressured into following the acting path, though. “My mother never really pushed me,” she remembers. “In fact she’s been the one questioning me the most because she knows it’s a very tough lifestyle to get into – especially in Sweden where the industry is so small and it’s difficult to get work. She wanted to make sure my passion is real and not just some desire for fame, because if it’s not you won’t be able to get through the hard times. Now, as soon as I have a script or project I fall in love with, my parents are the first ones I send the script to. My dad is a psychiatrist, so it’s a very good mix. He has great insights to offer on my characters.”
To get into those emotional states takes a lot of energy, so while I thought I left my characters when I got back home at night, everyone else around me saw that I’d become very, very different
He must have plenty to dissect, given Vikander’s preference for tackling such troubled characters. In Pure, the disadvantaged young woman she plays is put through the wringer by the power abuses and classism of the high-culture society she tries to work her way into; she appropriates Kierkegaard’s comment that “courage is life’s only measure” and pushes it to an extremely dark and violent end. Upcoming projects include the British WikiLeaks thriller The Fifth Estate, fantasy epic Seventh Son – in which she plays angsty half-witch Alice Deane – Australian crime thriller Son of a Gun and Langseth’s latest drama, Hotell. The latter saw her take on another psychologically challenging role as a traumatised young mother who decides to take a break from her pain through very unconventional methods.
As the star of Langseth’s two first features, the young actress has forged a very close working relationship with the Stockholm filmmaker, who, like Vikander’s mother, hails from a theatre background. “Hotell is the first film I’ve done with a director I’ve worked with before,” Vikander says. “Usually it takes a while to connect to a way of understanding each other’s languages. When you shoot a film you just know that you’ve connected along the way when they can direct you with very tiny elements. We’d already done that, so we could just dig in and do some very serious work straight away, which was amazing. She’s a very brave, daring scriptwriter.”
Vikander says she relishes complex, exacting roles. “It’s a big gift as an actress. I get to play women who’ve gone through many things that I haven’t yet. If I look back at the films I’ve done I think each of them I’ve had quite a big fear of taking on. It’s almost a kick that I’m looking for. I like to push myself, find new sides of myself and see how different the characters are that I can create with my craft. I usually get drawn to projects that scare me a bit.”
It’s hard to look back and determine when the big moment was that I realised I wanted to be an actress. I think it’s something that’s as clear for me as any other passion – it’s something I’ve had since the beginning
But she admits going to such dark places with her characters can leave her drained, and she has difficulty coping with the mental fallout. “Both of the films I did with Lisa were very intense, and I’m in every scene. To get into those emotional states takes a lot of energy, so while I thought I left my characters when I got back home at night, everyone else around me saw that I’d become very, very different. I get very closed in, and need to be myself when I’m off work. In an unconscious way, it’s like therapy because sometimes you discover some very dark sides to your character. These feelings that you have inside yourself sometimes come out and that can be quite scary and overwhelming. It can be a relief to let out some feelings that you hold back in your regular life. I slept for like, 16 hours straight after the last day of Pure.”
Not only has Vikander now got several films in English under her belt in addition to her works in Swedish, she nailed a crash-course in Danish for last year’s stately A Royal Affair, in which she starred alongside Mads Mikkelsen as a young queen miserably tied to an insane monarch. “When I have conversations with people as myself in another language I don’t notice it as much, but when I act, especially with emotional scenes, I’m a little fragment of a millisecond behind. Your first impulse if you’re mad or sad is to use your native tongue. It’s almost like when you’re dreaming – whatever language comes then is in your guts, so it’s quite hard because you need to prepare so much more. Even though I speak English fluently the thoughts have to go one extra turn. You need to get the words and feelings into your backbone. But it does become a very good tool for getting into my character very quickly. The most muscles we have in our body are in our mouth. When I started to learn Danish I felt like I’d had a mouth workout. It becomes a muscle memory for connecting to a character.”
It’s back to English again for the immediate future, with the Guy Ritchie-directed The Man from UNCLE. Vikander took a leap into the unknown when she auditioned for Anna Karenina, but it has paid off – it wasn’t just critics who noticed her performance, but directors too. With her current raft of starring roles, She’s likely to be living out of her suitcase for a while longer. “Of course I was scared as hell and I still am,” she says. “But hopefully now I can rely a tiny, tiny bit more on the craft that I’ve done and be a bit proud of it.”
The Fifth Estate is out on October 11