Noomi Rapace: ‘I’ve always revolted against cuteness and the need to be likable’

Actor on the ‘trauma’ of making Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and her unsettling new film Lamb

Noomi Rapace – the original Lisbeth Salander, aka The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – is sitting in the hotel bar with her sunglasses on top of her head. They disappear at some point during our conversation, though I don't see them go. I do notice, however, when her black jacket, which has been draped around her shoulders, falls to the floor while she is flapping her arms pretending to be an eagle. This happens shortly after she has told me how she once wore a strap-on dildo in public. She really is a lot of fun and quite naughty.

We were due to meet in a windowless room upstairs but she wanted a window. “They’d put us in a little prison cell,” she huffs, now looking out on to the back streets of London’s Mayfair. “I was like, ‘I can’t be stuck in there!’ It’s all about flows and energies.” The double espresso she asked for when she first got here has yet to arrive, so she orders another from a passing staff member, who brings it in a flash. Rapace, who is 41, does a quick inventory: “Window. Coffee. Ryan. Perfect.” Then her original order arrives. She looks up at her server in astonishment. “Is this ours? I love your lipstick, by the way, it’s really pretty.” She turns to me. “Do you want this? Let’s have it.” The next time I look down, both cups are empty.

I had nightmares about the sheep. We had this strange energy between us

This is all worlds away from the forceful minimalism she brings to the unsettling new indie thriller Lamb. She plays Maria, who lives with her husband on a farm in the Icelandic countryside. It’s just the two of them, their sensible knitwear, their animals, and the unspoken pain of the past. “It’s like a family drama,” she says. “But with one obstacle that is a bit strange.” That’s putting it mildly. When a sheep on the farm gives birth to a half-human, half-lamb hybrid, the couple name the new arrival Ada, rock her like a baby, and adopt her as their own. Meanwhile, Ada’s birth mother stands outside, bleating sinisterly, refusing to budge.

“I had nightmares about her,” gasps Rapace. “We had this strange energy between us. She was always looking me straight in the eye, ‘Baaaa, baaaa.’ Enough! The noise got in my dreams. I went outside to try to connect with her and she was stomping on the ground. It felt like she was a direct threat to my happiness. I hated her.” The director, Valdimar Jóhannsson, worried sometimes that Rapace had gone a bit too deep. “He said I was more Maria than Noomi.” No kidding.

This film, an elemental human-against-nature struggle, means more to her than most. "I feel like I've been waiting for it for as long as I can remember," she says. "My body was telling me, 'This is what you need. To dig down into the soil and lava of Iceland.'" Although born in Sweden, Rapace spent three years on a farm in Iceland from the age of five: her mother and stepfather worked there in a community for young adults with Down syndrome. When the family moved to another farm back in her home country, she pined for Iceland. "I had a very strong love story with it from the first time I set foot there. I was always an outsider in Sweden: I was too much, too emotional, too passionate."

She started acting while still in Iceland, getting her first film job there at the age of seven, in the medieval saga In the Shadow of the Raven. “I felt like I’d been invited to paradise. There was freedom on set. I didn’t have to be cute. I’ve always revolted against cuteness and the need to be likable, because I’m not.” A few minutes later, she corrects herself: “Actually, I’m desperate to be liked. That’s the problem. My need to be accepted into the nice sophisticated rooms was so strong that I had to make a conscious decision, ‘Okay, I don’t want to be liked.’ Otherwise I would be a slave to that. I’ve even written a manifesto to myself as a reminder that I can’t do things just to be liked.” She emails it to me later: this punchy, 500-word pep talk is the sort of thing one might read to get psyched up before stepping on stage or into the ring.

If ever there was a role designed to prove that she was nobody’s poppet, it was Lisbeth Salander, the snarling, punky, motorbike-riding, golf-club-wielding avenger from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium novels. Arthouse audiences already knew that Rapace meant business from films such as Daisy Diamond, where she plays a young mother who drifts into sex work. But it was the Swedish-language adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) and its two sequels that introduced her to the world. Mention this and she grimaces at how people still confuse her with Salander.

“I don’t want to be the badass,” she groans. “I even hate the word. People are always pitching things to me, ‘She’s so badass, she’s so you.’ I’m like . . .” She puts her head in her hands. Making those films, she says, was “like drowning in trauma. It meant that the first connective tissue between me and the world was pain for many years. Pain and sadness was like my identity card. Now I’ve healed a lot. Maybe I’m not lighter but I would say I allow more colours in me. I feel looser. The veneer, the shield I’d built up since childhood, is slowly peeling off. I’m alive now rather than surviving.”

She accepts that the word “badass” can still be applied to some of her actions: aborting her own alien baby in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, before leaping off the operating table as if she had just enjoyed a quick disco nap, was about as badass as it gets. “That I like,” she laughs. “Look, I really don’t take myself as seriously as people think. My friends all know I’m stupid and nerdy.” Like how? “Well, I’m always doing this.” She folds her top lip under itself and sticks out her front teeth. “My friends are like, ‘Can you please stop?’”

Anything else? “A director and producer came over to work with me and I took them to a club where the theme was cross-dressing. I put them in wigs and long dresses, and I was a full-blown man. I was wearing this dildo, this big strap-on, and I was walking round like a man the whole night. I loved it!”

Since she associates Salander with suffering and trauma, it's no wonder she wants to move on. Each of her movies, she explains, represents a clear chapter in her life, whether it's 2014's The Drop, an impressively tender crime drama with Tom Hardy, or the Will Smith 2017 fantasy thriller Bright, in which she played an evil elf whose minions eat babies. She need only watch a few seconds of one of her old films to remember her state of mind: "What my fears were, what I was struggling with."

In 2011, she starred with Robert Downey jnr and Jude Law in Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes sequel. "If I watch that now I can see I was in the middle of my divorce. I can see it in my face, hear it in my voice. I can see my chest is locked. I can see that was a day where we had a big argument that morning, or I hadn't slept the entire night. Making both Sherlock Holmes and Prometheus, I was coming out of my divorce, and life was really chaotic."

Her ex-husband, and the father of her 18-year-old son, is the Swedish actor Ola Rapace, formerly Pär Ola Norell. They both changed their surnames when they married; hers had been Norén. Is this a Swedish custom? “No. I just didn’t feel connected to my name and I wanted to start something new and beautiful.” Rapace, she says, means “bird of prey”; the choice can be traced back to an experience she had in Iceland when she was seven. “I was playing with ice rocks and I felt this presence. I look up and this huge eagle is sitting close by, staring at me with golden eyes. I thought either he was going to take me or attack me or bless me for life. And then – ba-boom, ba-boom – he took off and flew away.” She flaps her arms. Her jacket hits the floor.

“I felt like it was a god. Later, I did some research and found out that eagles are incredibly loyal. That’s like me – and that’s something I tapped into on Lamb. I have this primal animal side. If I go to battle for you, I promise I’ll fight until I die!” I believe her. I have no doubt she would make a formidable ally. But for now: no more coffee.

Lamb is in cinemas now

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