Noomi Rapace: The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo actress still loves to play with fire

Noomi Rapace shot to fame with a committed portrayal of Lisbeth Salander. Now she’s moved on: to films about murderers and junkies. But it’s still the thrill of immersion that drives her, she says

Kaleem Aftab@aftabamon
Friday 24 January 2014 18:00
Noomi Rapace
Noomi Rapace

Noomi Rapace made her name starring in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels in the Millennium trilogy looking like she had just left a new-wave punk band - clad in a leather suit with her black hair combed forward over her left eye, and numerous ear and nose piercings. She was a new type of female hero, combining brains – an ace computer hacker – and brawn. Her gut-wrenching performance as Lisbeth Salander helped propel herself and the books into the international stratosphere.

Now she is hoping to help turn another series of books into blockbuster films. Child 44 is the first part of the spy trilogy written by the British author Tom Rob Smith.

First published in 2008, the books are based on the crimes of Andrei Chikatilo, the Rostov Ripper, who was convicted and executed for committing at least 52 murders in the Soviet Union between 1978 and 1990. Transplanted to the Stalin era, the thriller sees an idealistic, pro-Stalin security officer and his wife investigate a series of child murders despite the wishes of the state.

If the plot sounds like it could be a job for the girl with the dragon tattoo, Rapace insists she was attracted to the role because it was a very different part for her. “She is not tough, not cool, she’s very feminine and normal. She’s a school teacher and quite cold, not fiery at all. Nonetheless, I think that all the characters that I play always bleed into my life and take over my life a lot. I find that I can’t do things even halfway or tactical. It feels like the character moves in and stays there for the whole shoot. It’s not like people need to call me the character name, but I can’t really distance myself.”

It’s this complete immersion in her role that explains why the 34-year-old actress looks so emaciated when we meet. At first I was taken aback by how different she is from when we last met, less than two years ago. The dark locks seen in Prometheus have been dyed blond. And her frame, which was then toned by doing an impressive amount of Bikram yoga – an activity pivotal to her character in the Brian De Palma flop Passion – has now dissipated. The weight loss is because she is currently shooting Alive Alone, in which she plays a heroin addict and prostitute who gets entwined in New York with a former detainee from Guantanamo Bay. So, no need to call in the medics then.

The script for Child 44 was first handed to Rapace by Ridley Scott. The British-born director was due to direct the project before deciding to serve the film as a producer. Like most of Hollywood, the director was determined to cast the actress after he saw her Bafta-nominated turn in the Millennium trilogy. “I met Ridley and he said, ‘I’m a fan of yours and I loved The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and I would like to work with you,’ and I was like, I’m going to die now! He gave me the script for Child 44, so it was the one of the first American scripts that I read.”

Noomi Rapace with Logan Marshall-Green and Michael Fassbender in Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’

Scott would get to direct the Swedish-born actress in Prometheus, the Alien prequel. However, when the science-fiction adventure didn’t set the box office alight, there were question marks over whether a second part to Prometheus would get made. Rapace insists that it will happen: “There is a script being written at the moment. It’s still happening. It’s just a slow process.” She also hesitates when asked to reveal how she thinks her character will develop, starting to answer before remembering that it will be frowned upon to say anything – and, given that the film is still in the writing stage, probably not expedient to do so.

Directed by Daniel Espinosa, Child 44 also stars the British star Tom Hardy. Hardy and Rapace can also be seen working together on the upcoming The Drop, based on the Dennis Lehane short story “Animal Rescue”. “I met Tom two years previously and we were looking for something to work on,” she says. “What was really great was that we know each other really well, and we really trust each other, so we don’t need to be polite, we don’t need to start from zero. We could just melt into the next one. We had so much for free. It felt like we were this gypsy family coming from New York with all our family and the next stop was Prague.”

During the early summer, no doubt fuelled by their having worked together on two films consecutively and their friendship, there were rumours that Hardy had left his long-term girlfriend, the actress Charlotte Riley, and fallen into the arms of Rapace. These were unsubstantiated and quickly killed off as Hardy attended several high-profile events, such as the recent British Independent Film Awards, with his fiancée.

When the Millennium trilogy was released in 2009, Rapace was married to the Wallander actor Ola Norell. They married in 2001. The couple created a new surname for themselves, deciding on Rapace, meaning bird of prey. One of the many rings she is wearing when we meet is in the shape of a raven. The name change – she was born Noomi Norén – was a symbolic way to disassociate herself from her own family. By the time she was 23, her son, Lev, was born. She has a ring of a lion to represent him.

Rapace’s mother, Kristina Norén, is a Swedish actress and her father, Rogelio Durán, was a Spanish flamenco singer from Badajoz. Before she was born, her parents split and, as a toddler, Rapace moved to Iceland with her mother and stepfather. She saw her father only sporadically before he died of cancer in 2006. She began acting in Iceland, making her screen debut at the age of seven. She had found her means of escape. A natural born rebel, she left home when she was 15 to attend drama school in Stockholm. Then, in 1996, she landed a role in the long-running Swedish TV soap Tre Kronor.

Full throttle: Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander with Michael Nyqvist in ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’

She says that her desire to act is down to the long winter nights in Scandinavia: “Because it’s dark and cold out, it forces people to be creative, you can’t just sit and hang out. For six months it’s dark and lonely and forces some creativity.”

When success came, the price was her marriage. But this wasn’t just fame going to her head. “I think I change constantly,” Rapace says, “but it’s more that the characters I play change me. Depending on what type of characters I step into.” Presumably, then, living with her for 18 months while she was making three movies back-to-back as the aggressive, stubborn Lisbeth Salander had its downsides. Following the break-up of her marriage she moved to London, although the demands of her job mean that most of her belongings are in storage. She’s hoping to buy a place next spring when she will be in London preparing for her role in the science-fiction drama Whatever Happened to Monday? Although she complains, “London is more expensive than New York.” When it comes to London house prices, even the reasonably well-off are made to feel poor.

Moving is made easier because she doesn’t find it hard to let go. “Keep things? Never. I’m not sentimental, even with my prizes and awards, I think I put a spell on myself if I keep them. I always want to keep moving. I don’t want to rely on my old victories, even though I don’t see them as victories, as I’m quite self-critical and can always do better.”

What’s tougher is managing the balance between work and being a single mother. Although she says actors who are dads face the same problems, pointing out that both Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr, who she worked with on Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, have similar issues. “My 10-year old son travels with me a lot. I want him to be in schools with kids as much as possible. So he’s been in school in Berlin and London, he travelled to Prague last summer. It’s hard to find the balance but I think that I’ve been saying no to lots of films this fall to be with him.”

Her insistence that men and women are not so different might be a reflection of her experience at work. When director Tommy Wirkola sent her the script Whatever Happened to Monday? to read, he told her he was interested in her reading the main role, which would involve playing seven parts in a tale about septuplets.

“When I got it,” she says, “it was written for a man. So now they are doing a major rewrite for me. I’ve always been attracted to kind of impossible things. I’m attracted to characters that when I read a script I feel like I don’t know if I can find a truth in this, I don’t know if it’s too much or too dangerous or too dark, I don’t know. Then it becomes an obsession with me. I want to try it and see if I can. This might be the hardest thing.”

But hard is what she does best.

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