Glass meets genre and label-defying actor Noomi Rapace

The girl who played with fire – Glass meets genre and label-defying actor Noomi Rapace

NOOMI Rapace is a very atypical Hollywood star; she has no interest in courting the limelight, she prefers London to LA and she rarely does photo shoots or interviews – all the more thrilling, and flattering, for us then when she agreed to a shoot with Glass.

When she strides into the penthouse suite at London’s Corinthia Hotel on a freezing morning a few days after New Year, she is instantly warm and animated. Her husky voice carries a surprisingly strong Swedish accent of which she gives no hint in her films, and at just 5 feet 4 inches she is much smaller than she appears in the fierce, larger-than-life characters for which she is known (Lisbeth Salander, heroine of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Elizabeth Shaw in Ridley Scott’s epic Prometheus). She is dressed like a rock/rap star in black leather trousers, enormous heels, oversized faux-fur coat, numerous gold chains dangling from her neck and chunky gold rings embellishing her slender fingers.

Her style of dress is a hint to her love of music and soon she has the room vibrating with dancehall electro-hip-hop from her current favourite artist, female Swedish rapper/singer Elliphant, playing from a large portable speaker she brought with her. Everything about her is fun and animated. She is also generous with her time and rather than rushing the interview at the end of the shoot, suggests that we meet at Electric House in Portobello Road, west London, the following day.

When I find her the next day she is again dressed with the same panache and swagger and orders a black coffee with a double espresso on the side – which she then mixes together. “I started doing this in LA when I was filming nights,” she explains. “I needed something to keep me awake and I kind of got hooked.”

Rapace had a distinctly unusual childhood. When she was very young, her parents moved from Sweden to Iceland, where her stepfather tried to set up a Rudolf Steiner school. “It’s a kind of schools that puts a lot of weight on arts – you don’t need to have group goals, it’s very individual and creative; you are out playing, out building stuff, you make your own school books,” she explains. “At the same time he was working with 400 to 500 people with Down Syndrome and 40 families, taking care of them, running this community. My mum was teaching them drama.

“So I was thrown into that, and for a child to come into that environment it’s dramatic because they were not kids, they were adults. I remember I was quite scared at first. There was one 25-year-old guy who became close with the family, and when I did my first Icelandic film (The Shadow of the Raven when Rapace was seven), my stepdad and this guy were in the film. But mostly I was very much on my own. There were not a lot of kids, so I was always off playing on my own.

Noomi-Rapace3Noomi Rapace. Photographer: Hew Hood

Were you home schooled?
Almost, but they decided to move back to Sweden because they said I was too stubborn and an impossible student so he gave up teaching me (laughs). And they wanted me to go into a Rudolf Steiner school. So we moved to a farm with horses.

Did you audition or did somebody spot you for your first role?
No not really, I was like just the kid in the crowd, we were only in filming for three weeks. But for me it was a really big discovery. Then I didn’t do anything until I was 13 or 14 when I did theatre, and I left my family to go to a drama high school in Stockholm when I was 15. That was when I started to pay full attention to acting. When I was 16 I did a TV series. That was when I started working and earning my own money.

How do you feel that acting young has shaped you as a person?
Now I’m not good at anything else; I never read any books, never studied. Everything I know in life is just from living. I never went to a professional drama school, just high school. I’m completely shaped by my own experience and life. So now every part I go into I have a hunger to learn, so I educate myself as I’m acting. I kind of feel the older you get, the more you realise how little you actually know and how much more there is to learn in the world.

Noomi RapaceNoomi Rapace. Photographer: Hew Hood

I read that you went through a phase where you were fighting a lot – did you have a lot of emotions to get out?
Yeah, I was training in martial arts and stuff, but I was very explosive. I was not like a hooligan but I was very, I guess… I grew up in an environment where people didn’t really show many reactions and they held things in. In Sweden everyone is very well behaved. So someone like me who’s very emotional and explosive – I couldn’t tell if people were okay or annoyed with me; it’s a very Scandinavian thing. I’m half Spanish too, so for me that was hard. I have very strong opinions about stuff. So I think when I dealt with stuff I over-compensated because no one gave me any reactions. I guess it’s also a way of convincing yourself that you are brave. I was strong in both love and emotion.

Do you think that’s been a gift for you in acting because you can tap into that emotion easily?

Yeah, I do think that it’s important to be in touch with your emotions and be aware of them.

Noomi-Rapace2Noomi Rapace. Photographer: Hew Hood

But in acting you also have to be really good at controlling them.
Yes. I think nowadays, I don’t really get angry any more. I think my tools and weapons are different now. I used to be so loud and jump right into stuff, and now I realise that’s not always the best way, after having my son. He’s very much like me and when he was four or five we were like two fires, so I had to find a different way. I think I am way more peaceful and in a better place now.

What has been the best part of motherhood for you?
I don’t know actually. It’s like I’m living it, it’s constantly evolving and I had my son so young. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I know it’s an overused term but it’s a lifelong love story, words just aren’t enough. He is one of the wisest people I have met. And the way we love each other, I learn so much from him. I see myself very differently now. I was never really self-destructive but more living for the days and nights and not considering tomorrow, but to translate that into my life now, my passion and commitment in life has been sharpened and clearer since he has come.

Everything gets harder in one way, as there is nothing to hide. Your own mistakes, maybe not weakness but your own cracks, become visible and you can’t blame anybody else. I have been in relationships since I was young and it’s so easy to say, “He makes me do this”, but when you have a child you want to be your best you. And I wanted to break a lot of bad habits that I grew up with. My biggest fear when I was younger was people not really living and seeing through dead eyes. It made me so sad and gave me desperation to feel a connection, so I often would try to do things to get some form of reaction from people. That’s why I love acting. When I’m in a scene with an actor and it’s so real, it’s just like a moment of complete truth and connection, and for me that is one of the most beautiful things.

Noomi RapaceNoomi Rapace. Photographer: Hew Hood

Do some roles come more naturally, or do they all start out foreign or alien, and you have to get to know each one?
I think some might be closer to me at first. But then I realise maybe that’s only what I think and then I start to dig in. It’s all as frightening and I always have to dig into myself and translate things from my life into the character. I’m playing an elf now, who’s passionate and wants to create a better place, so obviously that’s something that might be further away from me. Every character I play I have to make it mine, but I have to take the character into account and blend them together. At one point you have to let go of what everyone else thinks.

Because I’m not schooled, I have my own technique and methods. I made a decision years ago that I need to be more truthful to the character, so if that’s cutting my hair or shaving my eyebrows, for example, I will do it and ignore my vanity. That’s my first commitment to give that character and story what it needs. I don’t want to give myself a way out by fear – I mean, everyone wants to look good – but now I just stick with my character as that’s what needs to be done. Sometimes I need to do a lot of research or sometimes I need to meet people or sometimes it’s more internal and something that might be hard to do.

Is it more nerve-racking when you are playing a person who is alive and whose family is going to watch it? For example you are about to play Amy Winehouse.
Yes, of course.

Are you worried about whether her family will approve of your interpretation?
I met them several times now. Yes of course I am terrified, but it’s really important for me to make it authentic and it feels like they are backing me and are behind me. I haven’t met all her friends, but the people I have met are very supportive and are on my side. But yes, it is scary. It won’t be her, so everyone needs to let go of the idea that it’s going to be her. I can catch the spirt of her, but it’s going to be a mix of both me and her. I can only give my best to it and hope it will work.

When did you start making Hollywood or international movies?
After The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I was doing mainly Scandinavian films before, and I hardly spoke English, so after that my whole life changed a lot. I never had a dream of going to Hollywood, but I grew up watching American and British films. With so many icons and heroes, I think I had a dream of getting out of Sweden and leaving, but it wasn’t about becoming a Hollywood star, it was about working with people I admired.

And did you make yourself learn English or did an agent say you needed to learn?
I was shooting in Norway, and was in my bed at night watching TV, reading magazines and newspapers and scripts, anything I could get my hands on to teach myself English. I had interviews when I was doing press junkets and I couldn’t really understand what people were saying and it was terrifying, so I learnt as a desperate act to survive.

Noomi-Rapace1Noomi Rapace. Photographer: Hew Hood

That’s pretty impressive. How did you find the industry of Hollywood?
Ithink it’s very mixed up now. There are so many international and European filmmakers so it’s like a big dysfunctional family, I guess. I think for me, my heart is in drama and more challenging, deep-digging roles and characters that are more complicated, and I think the big blockbusters are not so challenging. But I have been doing both really big movies and smaller movies, and I’m lucky to be able to do both because now I’m working with David Ayer on a big budget production and he’s doing something that has never been done before and I love it. But I couldn’t be doing those big ones all the time.

And I don’t live in LA – my heart and soul needs Europe. I’m not a big fan of the celebrity world, I don’t think it’s good for us. I think it’s disruptive and I think it’s harder to love, harder to live and harder to exist, because the more attention you get, the further you get from your own personal journey. At the end of the day, when I am an old lady, I want to think I have challenged myself and not thought I was above everyone else. And if I can’t live a normal life I will get detached from life and that would be quite sad.

I think the whole social media obsession is a short story as I believe in mystery and privacy. So it’s a very strange relationship. When I was a child I always had my own way of doing things and my own sort of religion that didn’t exist, and now I feel like it’s okay for me to see things different and to need to be truthful with the way I feel about things.

I wanted to applaud you for showing that being tough and powerful is sexy as well – that there doesn’t have to be only one very stereotypical version of sexy.
Thank you! I agree. When I saw Sigourney Weaver in Alien in 1978, for me, she was mind-blowing and so sexy, so strong – she kind of burnt a mark in me. Like so many icons that just stayed with me, that kind of beauty is way more attractive. I guess I’m on a journey, and I’m on a secret, friendly, peaceful war against a lot of stuff. For women and young girls today there is so much pressure and it breaks my heart that they are boxed in and under constant judgment for likes or followers whether they are successful or not successful.

There is no time to grow into themselves as they just get immediate judgment from so early on. It’s death to be judged all the time. Sometimes when I see the girls in my son’s class I’m so happy that he’s a boy, as girls are forced to become women too early and can’t really live. I want to bring back more innocence. Follow your own clock. Do not be an object that needs to be defined.

What is the greatest lesson that you have learnt?
That I’m wrong about a lot of stuff (laughs). I thought I had a lot of answers, then realised I didn’t know everything.

by Nicola Kavanagh

First published in Glass Issue 29, Sacrifice

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Photographer: Hew Hood
Styling: Nicola Kavanagh

Make-up: LIZ PUGH at PREMIER using KEVYN AUCOIN BEAUTY
Hair: LYNDELL MANSFIELD at CLM HAIR & MAKE-UP using RAHUA
Production coordinator: SARA HESIKOVA
Special thanks to CORINTHIA LONDON

Fashion credits

Image one:
Dress SAINT LAURENT BY ANTHONY VACCARELLO; Diva necklace and earrings in 18K pink gold with diamonds and mother of pearl BULGARI

Image two
Dress GUCCI, Aria High Jewellery earrings with diamonds (20.38 carats) set in white gold DE BEERS

Image three
Top, trousers PRADA

Tiffany T square bracelet in 18K gold, Tiffany T narrow wire bracelet in 18K rose gold, Tiffany T square bracelet in 18K rose gold, all TIFFANY & CO.; Bulgari Cocktail long earrings in 18K yellow gold with emerald, amethyst, turquoise and round mounted setting pavé BULGARI

Image four
Blouse, dress PRADA

Non-braided gold bracelet in 18K white gold with diamonds SHAMBALLA JEWELS

Image five
Dress BOTTEGA VENETA

Aria Unique ring with diamonds (9.74 carats) set in white gold and tourmaline