Interview by Brad Balfour
I always look at what people read on the subway. So when I saw the many well worn copies of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo being read on my every ride, I knew there was something epochal about it. Eventually, I picked up one and started reading but ADD got in the way so I put it down and it wasn't finished.
Thankfully, the Swedish movie version came out last weekend and I heartily recommend it especially for the striking performance by actress Noomi Rapace who does an uncanny version of her character Lisbeth Salander. The first of three cinematic versions of the Millennium trilogy by the late controversial leftist journalist Stieg Larsson, it grappled with violence against women, Nazi elements in Swedish society and corrupt business practices.
It introduced the punkified, tat-and-pierced hacker Salander -- saddled with a sexually abused past -- and journalist Mikael Blomkvist, editor of the muck-racking magazine Millennium. Their lives become intertwined when the temporarily discredited Blomkvist is hired to investigate the 40-year-old disappearance of an aging Swedish magnate's niece.
Despite the black-and-studded garb of her character, Rapace projects a strange allure that lends both her performance and the film its credibility. She made an ideal choice for Danish director Niels Arden Oplev to work alongside veteran Swedish star Michael Nyqvist as Blomkvist. Daughter of a flamenco dancer and actress, the 31-year-old Rapace has already tackled some difficult roles such as the failed actress in 2007's Daisy Diamond.
Q: This is a very dark movie and Salander is a challenging character to play. What was the most difficult aspect of it for you? You were really into the character; are you anything like her?
NR: When I was done with those three films it was very strange. I'm never sick, but when the producers and everybody going to celebrate with champagne, I begin to throw up, and couldn't stop.
For an hour or so, I couldn't stand on my feet. It was like my body was just throwing Lisbeth out of me in a way; it was very strange. Everybody was a bit shocked because we had been working for one and a half years and I was never sick...
Q: You did all three of the movies back to back?
NR: Yes. [When I was done] I didn't really know who I was; it was very strange when I walked out of the room. I have this mohawk in the third film so both sides were shaved and I was walking out in real life and didn't really know who am I today? What have I become? So it was strange, but good.
I like to let things go; I love to go on and to leave things, and I'm not so sentimental. I was supposed to play Medea, so one week later I began to rehearse Medea.
Q: What was it like making that transition?
NR: Lisbeth pretty much helped me; it's like they're sisters in a strange way. I think that the rape scene was probably one of the hardest to do and to go into. The scene when he actually rapes me, but also the scene when I come back and rape him and torture him.
I expected the scene when he rapes me to be terrifying and horrible; it was, and I dreamt nightmares; it was like some kind of demon who sat in me in a way. But the scene when I came back, I didn't expect to feel the way that I did; I actually enjoyed doing those things to him and that was pretty frightening.
I felt some kind of dark force in me that actually liked to scare the hell out of him and I didn't expect that. It was like we went down to hell and we were in this hell for a week or something.
It's extremely important that you trust the director in those situations and that you can fully hand yourself over to the situation. I have to force away my vanity and try to just let go of control.
I hate when you see rape scenes in films where it's like entertainment, it's a bit charming or sexy in a sense. I hate that because I'm very sure that a rape scene in reality would be terrifying and horrible, and everybody who's gone through a situation like that knows.
My responsibility as an actress is to try and get every scene as credible as possible. You have to be on the edge, you have to force yourself all the way.
Q: Had you known anybody that had been abused or raped?
NR: Yes. when I was 20 one of my best friends had been abused.
Q: Did you read the books?
NR: Yes, a couple of years before.
Q: The chemistry between you and journalist Blomkvist [Nygvist] makes for a very unusual relationship because of the difference in age and background. But most surprising is when she seduces him. Is that typical for the women of Sweden [laughs]?
NR: They will come and knock on your door and seduce you [laughs].
Q: How did you feel about that? Did it feel right?
NR: Yes. I think that love is the most dangerous thing for Lisbeth and she actually falls in love with Mikael, but doesn't know how to behave. It's the first time and she doesn't have any weapons for that so that makes her very scared.
People can beat her up, rape her, do a lot of really bad things to her and she will always survive, she will always find a way to stand up and fight back. But when it comes to love she's terrified.
So I think the scene where she comes into him, she wants to have sex with him because of physical reasons, but also she's emotionally connected to him. It's also her way of protecting herself; when she's done she's got to go.
She can't stay with him because that would be emotional and then they would be close. It always has to be with her rules and she has to be the play leader in a way.
Q: How do you think American audiences will react to the rape scene?
NR: I think people all over the world will feel released in a way. It's very freeing. It's strange, but I think it's a pretty bright moment when Lisbeth actually fights back, and I think it's worldwide. I think everybody can understand and can follow in that kind of situation.
When somebody has been abused and they fight back, there's always something good about that. In Sweden we have a huge problem with young girls and women harming themselves, cutting and burning themselves. It's much better to actually hate the one who has abused you instead of beginning to hate yourself.
Americans are like Swedes or European people in that sense, so everybody can feel some kind of revenge and some kind of energy in that scene. Lisbeth is aggressive, dangerous and full of hate, but she's also full of life, and I think you can feel that in a way. She wants to live, otherwise she would have been gone years ago.
Q: Your character is so realistic and convincing. Did the pierced, bisexual communities approach you to serve as their spokesperson?
NR: No, but Lisbeth did become a big icon in Sweden. I think that she in a way paved the way for many young people in Sweden. Also she opened up many things. She doesn't define herself as bisexual or heterosexual; I think that she's a very free spirit in a way and she's very impulsive.
I think that to open that up for many kids and young people in Sweden that it's okay to be different, we don't have to stick in the line, because the Swedish society can be pretty hard to live in because you're supposed to be so many things, and you're supposed to not stick out.
Swedish people are a bit repressed and stoic and they keep everything inside, and sometimes it's really difficult to know what people really feel and really think because they don't show anything. And everybody's trying to keep this nice, neutral, normal, surface, and you don't know anything about what's going on inside of them, and it can be pretty difficult to live in a society like that. So I think that Lisbeth has opened up things in a way.
Q: Those were real piercings; you did them for the sake of the film?
Q: You have had your own punk background.
NR: When I was 14, and 15, I lived in Malmö, Sweden, which is next to Copenhagen, Denmark. I was pierced and had white hair; I wanted to look like Nancy Spungen, Sid Vicious' girlfriend.
Q: Do you think Lisbeth was a victim like Nancy or did you find her intimidating?
NR: I love her; she's such a fighter. She has gone through so many terrible things, but she always finds a way to pull herself together and to stand up and to continue what she wants to do. I think that she doesn't accept being a victim, but she is. The whole society, everybody has let her down, and everybody has treated her so badly, but she doesn't feel sorry for herself.
I think that she is a victim in many ways but she refuses to be one. That was the thing that I really loved of her when I read the books. She's like a little warrior fighting her own personal war, and I love that.
Q: She was a combination of victim and intimidator; was she intimidating? Or somewhere in the middle?
NR: Yeah maybe some place in the middle.
Q: How did you find a way to play that?
NR: I tried to not analyze her so much. I didn't do too much research, but I did a lot of preparation; I was preparing for seven months before shooting because I really wanted to transform my body. I don't like to fake things, so I try to do everything as far as I can as realistically as possible.
I trained and exercised, did a lot of kickboxing and Thai boxing, and was on a certain diet because I wanted to get a bit skinnier and a bit more like a boy in my body. I cut my hair and pierced myself, got my motorcycle driver's license, and it was like Lisbeth slowly grew inside of me and slowly I didn't think so much about it.
I always try to come to a point where I can let go of control when I'm shooting, so the director can be the man in charge, and can have control, and be sharp, and I can just free myself. I can't really see myself from the outside anymore so sometimes it's really hard for me to answer questions like who Lisbeth really was and where did I put her and so on, because it's sometimes like I was so deep into her.
Q: Truly into character.
NR: Also, I try to use myself as much as I can, dig from myself and translate things from me into the character. I can't come to work, put on Lisbeth's clothes and now I'm Lisbeth so now we can begin to work. It's more like I have to give her a place in me for the whole time. This was a year - we were shooting for a year - so it's more like I have to open up for her in me, and then she's with me 24 hours a day.
Q: In the film Mikael said to Lisbeth, "Friendship requires mutual respect and trust." How do you feel personally about that in regards to your real life? Is that statement true to you personally in life?
NR: Of course. Lisbeth doesn't have any friends so she doesn't know how to behave or how to act. I think that Lisbeth is the most loyal friend that you can every have; she will die for you. It's easy to be strong on your own, but it makes you vulnerable when you let people into your heart and into your life.
When I was younger it was difficult for me to have friends. It's always easier to be tough if you're the one who's making all the decisions and you're the one in charge. When you have a close friend or a boyfriend of a family member, you have to compromise in a way, and then you have to open up. I can understand Lisbeth in many ways.
Q: You did a scene in the hospital with your real mother. How was it seeing your mother play Lisbeth's mother and how was that for your mother? Had you ever acted with her before?
NR: No, that was my first time. Well it was heavy. I said to Niels that I wanted him to meet my mother. It's a very short scene so we have to immediately get the audience to feel the energy between those two and we have to feel that they have a history. But Lisbeth's father has harmed her so badly so she's not working anymore, she's way out.
So it was extremely important that the audience could feel the strong relationship and the strong energy between them, even though she can't really talk and respond as normal people do. We have this history in my real life that we could use; my mother was in the hospital when I was a teenager, so we had things that we could dig from.
Q: You weren't afraid of that?
NR: Yes, I was. I'm afraid of things every day but I force a way through those things because it doesn't help you. I'm pretty much like Lisbeth in that sense; I try to play stronger than I am.
You have to go where the fear is, you have to face the fear in a way, and that it's extremely important when you're making films; it has to be personal. I have to put it as close to myself as I possibly can.
Q: Do you feel the ending is believable when she goes through the sudden transformation from an outsider to a Julia Roberts-like foxy lady with a lot of millions?
NR: Yes, of course. She's like a chameleon; she can change and she's very smart. It's a uniform, this punk rock, emo message she's sending to the world. At the end of film she has to look a different way in order to get all this money so she can be whatever she needs to be.
She's a very good actress; she can play every game in the whole world and transform herself. She's a survivor so it's a way of surviving.
Q: You're now a big star in Sweden on the verge of international stardom. Once you go through that door, you can never go back. Have you thought about what it means to you?
NR: Yes. My life has changed pretty much, and I think that last year was like three years or something. I've been traveling so much, and I've done, I think, 1,000 interviews talking about this film, so it has changed my life already.
I don't see any value in being famous for being famous; I hate those celebrity parties. I don't want to be in every paper and I don't want everybody to know everything about it.
If you get too famous it can stand in the way of your acting and people will go to the theaters only to see this famous person, they won't go to see what kind of character you're playing.
It's a balance between how much you should and shouldn't do, and it's extremely important to keep some kind of secret. But most of the directors that I deeply respect and have changed my life are from the US or the UK.
Sweden is very small and I will leave Sweden one day because I always felt like some kind of outsider; I always felt a bit uncomfortable [there].
Since I was a kid I always felt like I didn't really fit in Swedish society, so I think I will leave. And if fame can help me so I can work with people that I deeply respect and whose work I love, that would be wonderful.
Q: Who are some of those people?
NR: Martin Scorsese, I love his films. Quentin Tarantino, Sean Penn, Christopher Nolan, Sofia Coppola. I can go on forever. I don't want to jump on the first big boat that comes so It's very, very important to stay on the ground and really listen to yourself because all of a sudden there are many people who want to explain to you what's good for you. I'm trying to stay true to myself.