Not since Angelina Jolie donned a black leather outfit to steal the Internet in Hackers has such a striking, computer-literate heroine arrived on the screen like the one Noomi Rapace embodies in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But where Jolie’s geek eroticism impressed for an enjoyable byte of Hollywood escapism, Rapace plays a high-tech character of a far more sexually ambiguous color, her adventures taking on the darker tint of Sweden’s Nazi past, not to mention the universal language of cruelty towards women.
Elisabeth Salander brings on the kick-ass while revealing the truth for a movie that was a monster hit in Sweden and will probably be a hot item here. In any case, this Girl is most likely to be the international breakthrough for Noomi Rapace, an over-20 actress as slimly beautiful and vibrant as her 24 year-old character is anorexic and dour — not that a similar combo didn’t work like gangbusters for Anne Parillaud in La Femme Nikita. Rapace may have been in over 20 films and TV shows, but that won’t matter to action and mystery fans who will find her a bolt from the blue, especially from guys who like their punked-out screen ladies to pack a punch.
Created by the late journalist Stieg Larsson over the course of three best-selling mystery books, Salander always ends up being the coolest puzzle for audiences to try and solve. And damned if Rapace is going to give you the whole story, as Salander helps a reporter get to the bottom of an industrial family’s murderous misdeeds, for her heroine is all about attitude, barely speaking while bestowing her favors and calculating Tarantino-worthy revenge after enduring some horrific sexual abuse. Beyond the undoubted male fantasy roots of this superhero-worthy character, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has a disturbing current of victimization for which the motorcycle-riding, super-hacking Salander shall be the avenger.
Payback has never been a cooler bitch than in the hands of Rapace, who’s already shot the sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire (with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest on the way). For a character who’d be happily mute in an isolation chamber if she could help it, Rapace’s determined inner performance speaks volumes for a star-making charisma that couldn’t invigorate Hollywood soon enough.
Daniel Schweiger: Do you think there was a key for you landing the part of Lisbeth Salander?
Noomi Rapace: When I first read the book a few years earlier, I felt an immediate connection with Lisbeth and liked her very much. I think I showed our director Niels (Arden Oplev) that I had a clue of what would give Lisbeth life at that first audition. It wasn’t so hard for me to find her because I always like to dig up things from my past and translate them into the character.
DS: I hope you didn’t have as hard of a life as Lisbeth’s…
NR: I think a lot of people feel like they’re outsiders, especially when they’re young. I felt like it was up to me to create my own life. I moved out from my family when I was 15. My father was a Spanish Flamenco dancer, but I only met him a couple of times before he died a few years ago. My mother married an Icelandic man, and we moved there for a couple of years before going back to Sweden. So I think I always felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere, which made me relate to Lisbeth’s feelings of being an “alien,” as Stieg Larsson described her. I’ve always been a bit far away from the Swedish society and how people are supposed to fit into it. Everybody is trying to keep in this middle, normal way of behaving and end up being repressed and stoic. That’s really boring for me, and I felt like a troublemaker because I was not that way. I’ve always been outspoken.
DS: You went through a real physical transformation to play Lisbeth…
NR: I exercised four to five days a week, doing cardio and Thai kickboxing with a crazy Serbian guy. I was on a certain diet because I wanted to be a tomboy like Lisbeth. She’s a bit cartoonish sometimes, in the book. It’s hard to believe that she can do all of these things, especially since she’s small, anorexic, only eats junk food and smokes all the time, yet Lisbeth can fight ten guys and win. She can run like a sprinter, so sometimes it was hard for me to get a clear picture of who she really was, and that made me want to humanize her and be credible and realistic. I transformed my body to be able to do everything from the fight scenes to driving a motorcycle. I cut my hair and had piercings to go as far as I possibly could with her character.
DS: As you said, Lisbeth is almost like a comic book superhero, in a way, with all of her abilities, especially since she’s the creation of a male author’s fantasy.
NR: Absolutely. She’s ugly, but she’s sexy. For me, it was important to fully understand Lisbeth and give her life. I wanted her to be complicated but extreme. She had to be a character you’ve never seen before yet still allow the audience to connect with her, so it was a balance between how much I should let her emotions out and how much I should keep in. I had many arguments about that with Niels, who would sometimes tell me that he wanted to see more of what was going on inside of Lisbeth, and I said, “No, I can’t do that.” Lisbeth has learned how to control her face and body so she can hide her feelings, and she wouldn’t be reacting the way Niels wanted me to in those cases.
DS: It’s interesting how the film sets up Lisbeth with so many abilities, not to mention aggressiveness, yet she gets her ass kicked severely for a good portion of the film, without seemingly being able to do anything about her victimization. But when she does strike back, it’s in a way that Quentin Tarantino would really appreciate…
NR: I hope so! I love his work. For many journalists, Lisbeth is like a sister to Tarantino’s characters. It was an important puzzle piece as to handle Lisbeth’s “payback,” especially when she walks home after being raped by a lawyer who’s supervising her parole. It tells something about her. She doesn’t call the police. She doesn’t catch a taxi. She just goes home and checks her camera to see if she has evidence against the guy. Lisbeth is not emotional. She just acts and is practical. That’s because cutting off her feelings is Lisbeth’s way of surviving. It was scary to feel what kind of emotions came up in me as I had Lisbeth giving this guy what he deserves. I was shocked by how much I enjoyed it.
DS: Both the rape and revenge scenes certainly go a lot further than you’d expect them to. What was it like to shoot them?
NR: We rehearsed the scenes in the lawyer’s office and his apartment for a week. It ended up feeling like we’d went down to hell, in a way. Those were dark and heavy scenes, but you see the light by the end of them. This story with the lawyer felt like its own movie. You really didn’t need it for the movie or the main plot, but I liked that because it was important to have those scenes in the film. They say so much about why Lisbeth has created this hard, protective shell around her. It’s like she’s wearing a uniform against the world. She’s learned to survive things like this all of her life, and she can turn them into her own anger and power. A huge problem in Sweden is that many girls who’ve been abused and raped turn to hating themselves. They cut and burn themselves instead of hating the one who did it, so this was a good message to send out — that it’s better to punish your victimizer than to punish yourself. Of course, we don’t want all the women to do what Lisbeth does, because it’s terrible to be that violent. She does go over the limit.
DS: Lisbeth’s bisexuality is another interesting “guy thing” about her character.
NR: There’s a long love scene in the second film, The Girl Who Played With Fire, with Lisbeth and her girlfriend, and the whole crew was red in the face while we were shooting it! People reacted very strongly to that when Girl came out in Sweden. They wanted to know why it was so long. But for me, I have to go into those scenes with the same decision of trying to be realistic and credible, whether it’s for a dinner scene or a love scene. I can’t analyze what people are going to think about it. Lisbeth certainly doesn’t analyze herself. She doesn’t consider herself a bisexual. She has sex with whomever she wants to and won’t let anyone decide what she is or what she’s not. She’s just sexual, and I think she’s a modern, young person. In Sweden, Lisbeth may have paved the way for people to be who they want to without the sexual labels.
DS: Was there any kind of “Wow, this is cool” moment for you when it came to enjoying Lisbeth’s prowess?
NR: Like Lisbeth, I love riding motorcycles and have continued to do that. But no, I didn’t look at myself from the outside at all when making the movie. I actually forced away all of the expectations that were on me. Everybody was talking about this film before we started. It was on the blogs and the papers — everywhere. Everybody wanted to tell me who Lisbeth Salander really was because they really “knew” her, so I made the decision to ignore everybody else’s picture of Lisbeth and pushed away the outside world. When I was done, I thought everyone would hate me because it felt like a suicide mission to play such a loved character. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to walk on the streets when the movie opened. Journalists from all over Europe came to the premiere in Sweden, and I was really shocked because I’d closed my eyes and ears to all of that, and it was like an explosion all of a sudden. This whole circus started at that moment, and I didn’t really expect it. I knew this movie would be big, but I didn’t really see this kind of success coming.
NR: Many times, people expect me to be like Lisbeth and to come in as this aggressive, black-dressed, hard-rock girl! But I’m an actress. I can be fat and blonde, or skinny with black hair. I can transform myself for whatever it takes. After Tattoo, I had black, curly hair extensions to play Medea. Now I’m doing the Norwegian film Baby Call, which is why I look like this. When I came to the hotel this morning, I was standing right in front of Niels and he didn’t recognize me, even as I was waving and saying “Hello!” Niels told me that my energy is different today, but of course it is because I was so influenced by Lisbeth when we were shooting the film. She kept me in some kind of cage when I was her. I was really angry. I sat in a corner drinking coffee and not talking to anyone. I was very asocial and isolated. People who know me realize that I look different for each project I’m working on, but here in Hollywood, they probably think that’s me!
DS: If they do an American remake, who do you see playing your part?
NR: Everyone is asking, and I think it’s a difficult question to answer. I saw Hard Candy with Ellen Page, whom I like. Hopefully they’ll take someone who’s not so famous.
DS: What do you think it is about Lisbeth that will make her appeal to American audiences?
NR: I don’t think Lisbeth is particularly a Swedish young woman. I think people all over the world can connect to her because she’s a survivor, an underdog and a fighter. If anyone has ever felt that someone harmed them or let them down, they can understand and connect with Lisbeth. We’re in a world where people are living on the edge and they don’t know what the next day will bring, so it can be freeing to see someone fighting against the big demons of society that have made Lisbeth who she is. She’ll never give up, so she’s a good example, like a darker Erin Brockovich in a way! I think that will make people in the U.S. connect and understand her.
Music Box Films' 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' is released in the U.S. on March 19, 2010.
Special thanks to Nancy Bishop and Venice Magazine.