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The woman who wants to be more than 'The Girl'

Noomi Rapace remains grateful for her breakout role as Lisbeth Salander in the popular Millennium films. But the rising Swedish actress is ready to move beyond that violent world into a brighter future.

A still from "The Girl Who Played with Fire". Courtesy Yellow Bird
A still from "The Girl Who Played with Fire". Courtesy Yellow Bird

The middle of a horse farm just outside Malmö, Sweden. It's 2am. It's 1986, and the eccentric Icelandic film director Hrafn Gunnlaugsson is filming a crucial all-night feasting scene for his Viking epic In the Shadow of the Raven. The hundreds of adult extras are supposed to be lost in merriment, but the late hour has taken its toll, and most are slumped where they sit, some even snoozing. Gunnlaugsson is furious. He spots a lone seven-year-old child, the daughter of the farm owner, who is still in costume, still in character and, unique among the extras, still full of irrepressible energy. He rushes over and picks her up, holds her on his shoulders and screams at the flagging adults, "What's wrong with you people? Look at this kid! She is going on, and on, and on! She's not tired! But you adults? What's wrong with you? From now on, look at this kid! Watch her!"

The kid was Noomi Rapace, now the white-hot star of the so-called Millennium trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest), and that one moment proved to be both the career kick-start that the young Rapace required and a prophetic statement of things to come. In the latter case, thanks to the success of the Millennium movies (US$134 million at the box office so far) and that of the Stieg Larsson books that spawned them (27 million copies, and counting), Rapace has indeed become the one to watch, with a Hollywood career in bloom and a face that is instantly recognisable around the globe. While a pivotal life moment, she says that the Viking movie was "the point at which, at age seven, I decided to become an actress. After that it was like I crossed a line in a way. A whole new universe opened up in front of me, where a fictive reality could be more real than the real world itself."

Rapace, 31, says all this with excitable, wide, beaming eyes, as if she's living it for the first time. She is sitting in the penthouse suite of a hotel in Stockholm and, dressed in demure black Prada-style lines, with sculpted cheekbones and swoon-inducing almond eyes, is every bit the off-duty bombshell. She is, she says, at a transition point at the moment, saying farewell to the final Millennium installment (Hornets' Nest), and looking forward to the future that awaits her in films that begin with something other than "The Girl Who..."

She says that playing the Millennium heroine Lisbeth Salander has been a double-edged sword. It has launched her into the Tinseltown firmament, yes, but it has also consumed her life for the past two years, and is the subject on the lips of every person who has met her since then.

"Sometimes I want to scream out and say, 'No! I'm not her! I'm not this person!' She was inside me for so long and I was consumed by her violence, but I've let her go and I'm finished with her now," Rapace says.

The "violence" she describes is the intense essence of Salander, a Goth computer hacker with multiple piercings, a defiant outsider's demeanour and an uncanny ability to find herself at the centre of Sweden's allegedly dark heart. In Hornets' Nest, for instance, as the trilogy reaches its climax, we discover that Salander's life has been deeply implicated with a corrupt yet highly powerful agency called The Section. And though she spends much of the film recovering from the gunshot wounds that closed the second movie (Played with Fire), her survival, and her bold recalcitrance, will be the key to purifying her country's national ills.

She explains today that the films and the books have a tremendous resonance in Sweden and that they reveal a conflict between the Sweden "that shows the perfect surface to the world, and a country that doesn't want to address some difficult issues, such as how the state lets the people down every day." She adds, however, that for her the movies were about becoming Salander. This began, she says, as a physical process of transformation - she famously shed more than six kilograms in weight; became a kick-boxing devotee; pierced her own eyebrow, nose and bottom lip; and often alienated her husband, Ola, also an actor, and six-year-old son, Lev, by bringing some pretty dark moods home to the dinner table. But more than that, she says, it was about a bizarrely comfortable dovetailing of her own personality with that of her character.

"Like Lisbeth, I've always been pretty good at playing tough and hard and cool," she says, "even though I'm freaking out on the inside, and don't want to show anybody. And we're both outsiders in a way." She gestures to the Stockholm skyline outside the enormous bay windows, and sighs, "I don't really fit in here. I travel, and I feel at home in different cities and different hotels, and then I come back here and I think, 'Is this really my country?' Lisbeth has that outsider's perspective, too."

Where does Rapace's outsider's perspective come from? "I've always had it," she says. "I've always been a watcher in a way. And I've always been pretty much on my own."

She explains that it goes back to her childhood and to the Spanish father she never knew (he died in 2007). She was raised as an only child in the south of Sweden by her mother and stepfather (the horse farmer), and yet, she says, "My biological father was this Gypsy flamenco singer from Spain. So there was always something very odd and very strange about me. All the people around me were so Swedish and blonde and nice and sophisticated, and I was like, 'So, OK, what's wrong with me?'"

She says that, despite her early acting experience on the Viking movie, she nonetheless channelled her confusion, at first, into teenage alcoholism. At age 15 she turned up at the local doctor's surgery to confess that she was out of control, and drinking a bottle of whisky a night. "The doctor told me that I had to stop, because my body was totally messed up." In what was ultimately a life or death decision, she quit drinking overnight, refocused her attentions on acting and moved, still only 15, to Stockholm to attend a theatre school. The roles eventually arrived, and at 17 she starred as Blanche Dubois in a local stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

"I think Blanche was the first time that I became totally obsessed with acting," she says. "That was the first time that people around me started going, 'What is wrong with you? You've totally changed!' But I had changed for the role."

A heavyweight theatre career followed, as did an award-winning movie role as a teenage mother in Daisy Diamond. Then came the Millennium movies, and everything changed. Changed how? Well, she has just returned from a holiday in Malaga where she was swamped by Salander fans wherever she went. "We were on a normal bus, and people just start recognising me, going, 'Oh my God! Is it you?!' And my son, who's only six, is getting so tired of it. He says, 'Mummy, can't we even be alone in Spain?!' So at the moment it's getting to a stage of, 'Please! Leave me alone! I have to be able to go to a supermarket in a tracksuit if I need to.'"

Now that her Hollywood career is taking off (she is up next in Sherlock Holmes 2, and is rumoured to be taking over from Sigourney Weaver in the Alien franchise), she is equally worried about entering an even higher realm of global media attention. "People like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were actors in the beginning, but after a while they're not seen as actors anymore. They're just famous people, and the questions asked about them are, 'Are they separated? Has she adopted another kid? Has she had surgery done?' Everybody talks about them as famous people, and I really don't want to end up there."

In the meantime, she says, there's still a slight air of unreality about everything that's happened to her recently and about the huge success foisted upon her. And this, she says, more than anything, is the hardest thing to comprehend.

"I have this thing," she says, half giggling with embarrassment, "where I always expect people just to hate me. You know? For them to say, 'Take her away! Go get me someone good instead.'"

She laughs some more, gives a who-would've-guessed-it shrug and says, "So the fact that it hasn't happened yet really is a nice surprise."

For more stories from M magazine, visit www.thenational.ae/m


The Rapace file

BORN December 28, 1979, Hudiksvall, Sweden

SCHOOLING Skara Skolscen, Stockholm; the Royal Dramatic Theatre, Stockholm

FAMILY Mother is actress Nina Noren, father a flamenco dancer named Rogelio Duran. Married to husband, Ola, and has a son, Lev.

BEST CHANCE ENCOUNTER “When I was 20 I met my future husband, Ola, in a parking lot in a small town outside of Gothenburg. Nothing happened. But then I bumped into him a year later in Stockholm. And that totally changed my life.”

WORST CASE OF EMOTIONAL EXHAUSTION “The day we finished shooting the Millennium Trilogy the producers came over with champagne bottles, and everyone was celebrating. But I just ran to the bathroom and, bleeuurgh. I just lay there, on the floor, vomiting for an hour.”

NO, REALLY, WORST CASE OF EMOTIONAL EXHAUSTION “After I finished shooting Daisy Diamond I was taken to hospital because my stomach was bleeding.”

BIGGEST PROFESSIONAL HAZARD “Trying to take yourself to the edge, without falling over the other side.”

HEROES The Method actors Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando and Al Pacino. “As a young actor I was really critical of happy films and romantic comedies, and instead I was trying to find actors that I could admire and look up to. I was looking for heroes, and I think I found that in Method actors.”

ROMANTIC MODUS OPERANDI “You figure out who you’re talking to, what person he wants you to be, and then you play that role the best you can. You can make anyone fall in love with you if you know how to play the game.”

BIGGEST SECRET She hates the limelight. “People expect that actors are used to standing in front of lots of people, and being toastmasters. But I hate that attention.”

GREATEST LIFE LESSON “It was up to me to do what I wanted to do. Nobody was going to come and serve me, and give it to me. I had to do everything on my own.”