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Interview: Actress Noomi Rapace (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

I wanted to change my body. I wanted to be a little bit more masculine and get rid of my female body. I wanted to be more like a boy. I wanted to be able to do all the fighting scenes, so I wanted to go into martial arts training. I trained a lot in Thai boxing and kickboxing with this crazy Serbian guy five days a week. I did a lot of preparation, and I also took motorcycle driving lessons, and I cut my hair and pierced myself.

Sex, Swedes, S&M, nudity, murder, mystery, and snow: these things sound more like Thursday night activities to me, yet I found myself trudging through a blizzard on a Wednesday night in February to attend a screening of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” in preparation for my interview with Noomi Rapace, who plays female lead and anti-hero, Lisbeth Salander.

To describe Lisbeth Salander as “complex” would be like describing the Grand Canyon as “large.” Thus, let me first go into more detail. Lisbeth has the social skills of a celery stick, dresses like a punk rocker, has piercings all over her face, is prone to violence, can more than hold her own in a fight, AND is a former psychiatric patient and current (according to the Swedish government) legal incompetent. However, she’s also a world-class computer hacker, has a photographic memory, believes in justice, and is willing to protect (by any means necessary) herself, her family, and even strangers if they are oppressed or abused. She is one of the most heralded female characters in film or print in recent memory. Thus, the highly complex role of Lisbeth Salander had to be cast perfectly in order for the film to be a success.

Enter: Noomi Rapace. On paper, her acting credentials make her seem like a smart choice for the role. She’s studied acting at some of the best theatres in Sweden, including Sweden’s most prestigious theater, the Royal Dramatic Theatre, in Stockholm. She’s had numerous television and film roles, and two years prior to playing the role of Lisbeth Salander (for which she won a Guldbagge, the Swedish equivalent of an Oscar), she took on the warped role of Anna in DAISY DIAMOND, a film about a mother who suffers a nervous breakdown during the course of the film. However, when you meet Noomi, you realize
she’s nothing, and I mean NOTHING like Lisbeth Salander. Noomi’s graceful gait differs fully from Lisbeth’s stomping steps; Noomi’s smooth speech cadence clashes completely with Lisbeth’s abbreviated mutterings; Noomi’s face exudes warmth and kindness whereas Lisbeth’s expressions oscillate between “detached iciness” and “I’m going to kill you like for real-for reals” scariness. Thus, my interest was more than piqued about how the transformation from Noomi to Lisbeth took place.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Noomi Rapace Interview

Stephen McNamee: Lisbeth Salandar, she’s such a prominent, well fleshed out character in the book, so I was curious about your and [director] Niels Andres Oplev’s collaborative process when you were trying to figure out how to play Lisbeth on screen?
Noomi Rapace: I always try to use myself and dig for myself as much as I can. I don’t like to pretend things. I don’t like to fake things. I have to fully understand the person that I’m going to be in a way and then translate experiences and feelings and emotions and things I’ve gone through into her. I read the book a couple of years before so when I met Niels I had a pretty clear picture of who I thought Elisabeth was, and I said to him that if you want me to play her, I think I know who she is and I want to transform into her and do a lot of things to become her. I wanted to change my body. I wanted to be a little bit more masculine and get rid of my female body. I wanted to be more like a boy. I wanted to be able to do all the fighting scenes, so I wanted to go into martial arts training. I trained a lot in Thai boxing and kickboxing with this crazy Serbian guy five days a
week. I did a lot of preparation, and I also took motorcycle driving lessons, and I cut my hair and pierced myself.

So she [Lisbeth] slowly in a way grew in me, and I was talking to Niels all this time, and we were working with the script, and we were looking for her and I felt like she was coming out of me in a way, but I always try not to analyze myself so much. Sometimes it’s very difficult to put words on things, so I said to Niels, “Take it easy. I know. I can’t explain, but I know that she will be here and she will come.”…So we worked slowly trying to find her. I always try to prepare as much as I can and then when it’s time for the shooting, I want to be at the point where I can let go of control and I don’t have to think “Where is the
character?” because she’s inside of me.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Noomi Rapace Interview

McNamee: With Mikael Blomkvist, Lisbeth Salander, and Harriet Vangar, I felt they were all victims of a justice system that failed them. Most mysteries often focus on the killer or the potential suspects, but in this movie [the filmmakers] focused more on the victim, and I wondered if that’s because all three characters are kindred spirits since they’re all victims of this failed justice
system. Did you feel Lisbeth had a connection with Harriet because of that?

Rapace: Interesting question. Yes, I think so, and I think Stieg Larsson was pretty much working against power abuse and injustice. I think he was very critical to the whole justice system in Sweden and the police and the government, and so Lisbeth, I think she gets stuck in this whole Harriet story, and she can’t let it go because the police have failed; they haven’t found her [Harriet]. And [Lisbeth] desperately wants to know what happened to her. And I think Lisbeth is always standing on the weaker person’s side. She’s always taking the side against the people in charge, and I think that’s one of the reasons that she actually likes Mikael [Blomkvist]. She’s very used to finding “dirty things” when she’s digging in people’s computers,
but she doesn’t find anything bad about him. And she sees that somebody fooled him [NOTE: the story begins with Mikael Blomkvist being found guilty of libel] and the justice system failed him since he’s innocent. She’s her own little warrior in her war against power abuse.

McNamee: Continuing with that: the story plays around with the perception of power, where a character believes he or she has upper hand only to find out he or she in fact is at the complete mercy of another character. So my question is: did Niels ever think he had the upper hand when filming a scene when in fact you were the one driving the scene?
Rapace: [laughing] Yeah, I felt I was in charge the whole time, but he probably felt he was. Niels said I had a very aggressive energy and I was very tense, and I thought everybody was against me, but afterwards I can look back and see that was Lisbeth in a way. That was not me because I’m pretty cool. I always get pretty colored by my characters and sometimes my husband and my son were like, “Hello? Where are you?” But I couldn’t see the connection at the time. So I thought everything was going my way since “this” [referring to how the scene being filmed was going] is what I wanted to do, and Niels was very happy.

McNamee: I read somewhere with the second and third movie that originally they were meant to be made for television, but after the success of the first film, they were re-edited for theatrical release, so I was curious if there was a different approach to the filming, particularly between Niels and Alfredsson (who directed parts 2 and 3 of the Millennium trilogy)?
Rapace: Yes, but not because it was supposed to be broadcast on TV. I think it’s more because…the director of photography [Peter Mokrosinski] and [Daniel] Alfredsson had a different style. They wanted to do it a little more “on the ground” and suburban. The DP did a film called “Evil” [2004 Oscar nominee for “Best Foreign Film”], and he has a different style from Niels, and I think he [Mokronsinski] and Alfredson wanted to do a different style of film, and we had less time, so the circumstances were harder, but I think we all: Michael [Nyqvist, who plays the male lead, Mikael Blomkvist], the director and crew knew [the 2nd and 3rd films] had to be as good as the first one, so we had to push ourselves and do our best though we had less time.

McNamee: My editor felt that DAISY DIAMOND was one of the most memorable performances in the past decade, and he
wondered if you thought about that character or performance when you worked with Pernilla August on Svinalängorna?

Rapace: Svinalängorna: it means like the pig blocks or something. It’s like the houses where…the immigrants came to a small city in Sweden called Ystad, and they’d move into those not so nice houses, and they’d begin to call [them] the “Pig Blocks” or “Pig Houses.” “Svin” is “pig” in Swedish…I think all the characters I’ve ever done are somewhere in my body, in my blood because all of them came out from me, so I can always feel and connect back with all the characters.

So when I played Anna in Daisy Diamond, I did a lot of research for that one, and I met women that have actually killed their babies, and I talked to a lot of psychologists and a professor that was working with those kinds of cases, so I try to fill myself with information, and all that information is still in my body, so I’m going to do a film now called Babycall in Norway…,and I’m actually playing a young mother who is on the run with her 8 year-old son, and I feel I can use a lot things I learned in my preparation for Daisy
Diamond. I feel like a book that is a growing and growing with more and more pages, so everything is connected.

McNamee: So then Lisbeth is still a part of you. So if someone cuts in front of you at the grocery store are you more

Rapace: [smiling] No, but I think I am a bit more critical of the society around me…You can see how the people in charge and have power are misusing it again and again, and I think that can make me crazy, and I think that actually going into Stieg Larsson’s world opened up my eyes into a more critical view of society.

McNamee: You find very strong, complicated, dark roles. You dive into someone like Elisabeth for three films and then when you’re done, do you miss playing her? Do you miss stepping into her shoes?
Rapace: Never. Actually, I’m not sentimental. I like to leave things behind and go on. It’s strange: I’m never sick, and I worked with Lisbeth for one and a half years, and then the last day, we’re done with the last scene and the producers and everybody were standing with champagne and they wanted celebrate, and I began to throw up. And, I couldn’t stop. I was lying in the bathroom. I couldn’t stand on my feet. It was terrible, and it was like my body was throwing Elisabeth out of me. So from that moment, I felt I was done with her, and it was pretty good. But it’s also pretty strange because in a way I don’t know who I am when I’m done because Noomi and the character have become a cocktail mix, so I don’t really know who I am. It’s like I’m a newborn when I go out and am like, “Okay, who am I today?”…I had this Mohawk in the third film and both sides of my head were shaved, and I looked like, I don’t know what, and I was trying to come out in a normal life, and that was pretty strange.

But, I’m extremely interested in going into more complicated characters because it’s always much more fun to play a character who is not only happy and successful. I think that it’s much more interesting if the person that you’re going to play is struggling with something or is fighting with themselves or people around them, trying to be something they can’t be. I think it’s much more interesting when it’s a bit edgy, but it doesn’t have to be dark and full of anger and so on. I think it’s much more interesting when you read a script and you actually have to figure out something and you have to think. I hate when you see a film and after one scene you know what’s going to happen and you can predict the whole story. I hate that. I think it’s very boring.

Music Box Films opens The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo starring Noomi Rapace on March 19th. View theater listings here.

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