Noomi Rapace knows how to make an entrance. That happens with movie stars. More unusually, she (or her staff) knows how to set an enticing mise-en-scène. I wait in one of the squashier rooms in the Soho Hotel. Before me sits a low table, upon which two tall glasses of a luminous green liquid have been arranged. Just enough space is left in the centre for the sacrifice of small animals that will surely take place upon this neo-pagan altar.
Here comes Noomi. She wears a scarlet trouser suit with white piping and, in the manner of a Ruritanian count from an 18th-century operetta, allows an equally scarlet coat to hang on her shoulders throughout the interview. Her hair is now dazzlingly blonde. Her features have the sharpness of a woodland creature. Nobody looks like this any more.
Yet this is someone who once refused to engage with the publicity machine in any way. Mystery followed the Swedish actor wherever she went.
“Yes, I didn’t do any of that at the start of my career,” she says. “I didn’t want to start talking about the work. I didn’t want to look at it from outside. I thought my acting would be better if I didn’t reflect. I didn’t go to awards. But then I decided to make it part of the work. Last night at the premiere, my friend said: ‘You look so relaxed. It seems so natural now.’”
It doesn't seem as if Rapace's previous shyness had anything to do with an inability to verbalise. By golly, this woman can talk. Ask her a question about her role in Michaël R Roskam's The Drop, an excellent Brooklyn-set crime story co-starring Tom Hardy, and she will deliver enough material for a generous treatise.
Rapace plays a vulnerable, mysterious woman, previously involved with a hoodlum, who hooks up with Hardy’s introverted bartender. There’s not much back-story in the script, but Rapace has managed to fill in the gaps herself.
“She wanted to be a dancer, but she ended up in strip clubs and found herself in an abusive relationship. So, they took a trip to Mexico and got in a fight on the way back . . .”
While she expands on her novella, I have time to ponder the unusual route that brought Rapace here. She is one of the few actors to have jumped straight to Hollywood after success in (to use US terminology) a foreign-language picture.
The original version of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy – beginning with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in 2009 – was not a massive breakthrough outside Sweden, but people did pay attention to the charismatic oddball who played hacker Lisbeth Salander.
Since then, she has appeared in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Brian De Palma's Passion and Ridley Scott's Prometheus. Next year, she will be reunited with Hardy for an adaptation of Tom Rob Smith's cracking thriller Child 44.
Born in 1979 as Noomi Norén, Rapace moved with her mother from Sweden to Iceland when she was just a little girl. By the age of 15, she was living alone in Stockholm and making efforts to become an actor. She sounds like a tough creature.
“I think acting saved my life,” she says in her perfect, slightly cut-glass English. “It’s the perfect environment. I have access to all good things and bad things in me. Nothing is too dark or complicated. It’s a place where you can use everything and that’s freedom to me.
“People that knew me back then are quite surprised that I am still around and alive. I was quite wild.”
Rapace loved Iceland. She remembers “the brutality of nature” and how that landscape made you aware of “how small you were”. With no great ambitions to act, she found herself in a film almost by accident.
"We shot in Iceland on Prometheus for 10 days and it all came back to me," she says.
“Everything started for me in Iceland. I was in this small film when I was seven. You can’t really see me. But it changed my life.”
I wonder what she thinks now when she remembers herself adrift in the Swedish capital as a teenager.
“Birds of prey”
In 2001, she married Pär Ola Norell, a star of Wallander, and, in an act of characteristic eccentricity, they both changed their surnames to the Italian word for "bird of prey". The couple, whose son is 11, divorced in 2011. She surely wouldn't approve of her kid doing something similar in four years' time.
“In four years’ time? It is impossible,” she says with eyes wide. “Never. But I have always been strong-minded. If I decide to do something, nobody can stop me. I got onto a soap opera and got work quite quickly.”
Rapace really does eat up the screen. Even when playing with introversion, as in The Drop, she has an angular charisma that attracts attention. The producers of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo first caught sight of her in a Swedish production of Sarah Kane's era-defining play Blasted. Unfortunately, the director couldn't get her less threatening performance in the film Daisy Diamond out of his head.
“He said: ‘I like your work, but I think you are too feminine, too pretty. We need somebody more tomboyish.’ I don’t see myself that way. This is what he said. I said I agreed with him. ‘That’s the way I look today. I can change.’ I started to bomb him with ideas. I am going to shave my head. I will have a tattoo here. I dressed in my husband’s clothes. I just knew I had her in me.”
The greatest compliment one can pay an actor in such situations is to say that it’s hard to imagine anybody else playing the role. Indeed, Rooney Mara’s performance in David Fincher’s American version looked a little like a variation on Rapace’s definitive turn. I assume that, eager for a clean break, the US producers never approached her.
"No, but I was doing lots of interviews before David Fincher was on board," she says. "I always said: 'I am done.' Lisbeth was living with me for a year and a half. There is no way I am going back into that. I did a thousand interviews saying I wouldn't do it. So I couldn't have done it. But I don't think they wanted me anyway. I don't like to repeat myself."
However, it soon became clear that an international career was available to her. Fluent in Icelandic, Danish, Norwegian, English and Swedish, she will no doubt continue to pop up in all corners of the western world. She has, however, decided to put down roots in London. So, what does that great city have that LA, New York or Stockholm don’t?
“I love London and it’s a good compromise,” she says. “It’s such a city of extremes. You have a big busy city and then you have these big parks. You can disappear into it.”
Does she still need to disappear? I think we established that she is no longer shunning attention and publicity.
“I thought I was a lone ranger, but I realised a few years ago that that was a construction. I was lonely as a child and you come to think that defines your personality. But I have come to admit that I like being around people.”
So saying, she attacks the long green drink and prepares for another monologue. What a character.