Alicia Vikander: ‘I have said no to roles even when I couldn’t pay rent’

The Swedish actor (26) has taken a picky approach to parts, and it’s paying off now, with eight films due this year, starring alongside such Hollywood heavyweights as her rumoured boyfriend, Michael Fassbender

It is an exciting time to be Alicia Vikander. Poised on the cusp of fame, fortune and everything they entail, the Swedish actor has an impressive eight cinematic releases this year, with directors such as Guy Ritchie, Alex Garland and Justin Chadwick suggesting magnitude as well as multitude.

Her co-stars, meanwhile, read like an who's who of Hollywood's A-list, with Jack O'Connell, Henry Cavill, Hugh Grant and her rumoured boyfriend Michael Fassbender sharing screen time.

That’s not even the impressive part. At a time when multidimensional female characters are a rarity, Vikander (26) has already shown an aversion to standard roles, even if it meant she almost pushed herself out of the industry to which she aspired.

“I don’t believe in trying to make the perfect career, but looking back, I’ve chosen to work with great film-makers, or take parts that challenge me,” she says with glow of confidence at the London hotel where we meet. “I can read 30 or 40 scripts and to find one character-driven, complex part is difficult.


“I have said no to roles, which was hard to do when I was starting out and all I wanted to do is work. This was three years ago, when I couldn’t afford my rent. I even considered going back to university because it was just too difficult to get inside the industry. But I dared to gamble.”

That chutzpah paid off in 2011 when she got her breakthrough as the scene-stealing Kitty in Anna Karenina, opposite Kiera Knightley. She moved to London (sharing a room with Swedish duo Icona Pop) and earned a Bafta Rising Star nomination. The offers came pouring in, although timings mean we're only seeing her work now.

First out of the blocks is Testament Of Youth, a BBC-backed biopic telling the story of the first World War from the perspective of peace advocate Vera Brittain. Saoirse Ronan was attached to the lead part initially, but scheduling conflicts meant it went to Vikander, a repetition of the casting change in Anna Karenina. Do the two share the same taste in film?

“It’s just part of being a young actress,” Vikander shrugs. “I’ve met her; she’s a lovely girl. It’s not uncommon that the same people go for the same roles. Most of the girls I’m competing with, I’m very good friends with. If I audition and they tell me there are another 10 girls going in for it, I’d know eight of them.”

Perhaps the small pool is due to the scarcity of solid young female roles? “That’s why this part was a gift.”

A ‘pig-headed’ pacifist

Documentary-maker James Kent’s take on Vera Brittain – captured with conviction by Vikander – is compelling, mostly because of his emphasis of the ordinary in the extraordinary. He spends time on the backstory, and shows Brittain not as an unrelatable do-gooder, but principled, loyal and “pig-headed”, as Vikander offers.

“James and I talked about this. I read the memoirs twice; the first time I had a hard time liking her, but then I realised she had to be that way. For a woman to stand up at that time was revolutionary, especially at that young age. I wanted her to be a bit young, a bit off-tune. You like her all the more for it.”

Next week sees Vikander stretching her range to fast-forward a few hundred cinematic years for Ex Machina, a sci-fi thriller from Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go) in which she plays an advanced form of artificial intelligence opposite Domhnall Gleeson, whom she warmly describes as "one of the hardest-working people I've ever met".

The Fassbender connection

Among other upcoming releases is Guy Ritchie's star-studded interpretation of cult classic The Man from UNCLE. Later in the year, the film adaptation of ML Stedman's best-seller The Light Between Oceans sees her team up with Michael Fassbender, an actor whom she confesses to admire professionally, if not personally (the pair are thought to be in a relationship).

"I admired him when I saw Hunger and Fish Tank five or six years ago, I think he's one of the top actors out there," she says. "He's someone who's made very good choices in his career; you can see why he's done each film."

Her next project is The Danish Girl, the story of Einar Wegener (played by Eddie Redmayne), one of the first people to undergo sex-reassignment surgery, and his changing relationship with his wife, played by Vikander. It was her psychiatrist father who encouraged her to take the role.

“He worked with psychosis patients all his life and was about to retire two years ago, but he couldn’t sit still, and he wanted to go back to do something new. So, aged 66, he studied transsexualism and now he works with people who are changing or have changed sex,” she says . “I loved the script too, but he called me up and said, ‘You have to do this’. For a doctor to read a feature film script about something they see every day, and then to say they liked it, meant a lot to me.”

Vikander's parents separated when she was five months old, and she keeps in close contact with her father and her actor mother. She left Gothenberg for Stockholm to study ballet, using its physicality in her first major acting part, in Lisa Langseth's drama Pure, which earned her a Guldbagge, the Swedish equivalent of an Oscar.

She also employed a ballerina's discipline when learning Danish in just eight weeks for her part in the Oscar-nominated A Royal Affair.

"I had tunnel vision after I read the script, and I really wanted to do it. So I just told them, 'If you give me two months, I'll learn Danish.' " This led to her first English-speaking role in Anna Karenina, and all that came with it.

Having enjoyed numerous projects without a high profile, is she mentally prepared for the limelight?

“That aspect is quite a big deal. I get amazed by how big a deal it is. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been in a safe bubble, and able to mature myself and feel comfortable with my work. More than anything, I’m just excited that these films are finally going to come out.”


  • Testament of Youth (With Kit Harington, Colin Morgan): First World War biopic of Vera Brittain, who abandoned her place at Oxford to help with the war effort, before becoming a leading pacifist figure.
  • Son of a Gun (Ewan McGregor, Brendan Thwaites): Australian gangster drama in which a young inmate is groomed by a kingpin to carry out a heist, but it goes awry.
  • Ex Machina (Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac): A programmer is brought in to test an advanced robot, but her fight for survival leads to a tense triangle between programmer, robot and inventor.
  • Seventh Son (Julianne Moore, Jeff Bridges, Kit Harington): A seventh son of a seventh son is charged with protecting his town from the supernatural.
  • The Man From UNCLE (Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Hugh Grant): In director Guy Ritche's take on the 1960s TV programme, two CIA agents hunt for an international criminal organisation.
  • Tulip Fever (Jack O'Connell, Christoph Waltz, Cara Develingne): A love story between an artist and his subject, set in Amsterdam and based on Deborah Moggach's novel.
  • The Light Between Oceans (Michael Fassbender, Rachel Weisz): A lighthouse keeper finds a baby washed up in the sea, and he and his wife raise it as their own.
  • Title TBC (Lily James, Bradley Cooper, Jamie Dornan, Sienna Miller): An ensemble cast in which a group of chefs club together to create the ultimate restaurant.