The girl who got the part

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 3, 2010 - 3:47 PM

Swedish actress Noomi Rapace was drawn to butt-kicker Lisbeth Salander. But she never thought she'd be cast in three hit movies.

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Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander

It's pronounced "know me." And it's about time.

Last year actress Noomi Rapace was unknown outside the Stockholm theater and art-film circuit. Then came her ferocious performance in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and abrupt international stardom.

The dark, sexy thriller, among the few Swedish films to get worldwide release, reached the United States in the spring. It earned more than $100 million globally, becoming by far the biggest-grossing European film of 2009. Its sequel, "The Girl Who Played With Fire," also performed like a champ this summer. The finale, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," has just opened in theaters across America.

Suddenly, the striking Rapace (pronounced "ruh-pahss") is Sweden's biggest export since Ikea.

The mystery franchise by the late Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson came with considerable built-in fan support. His "Millennium trilogy," centering on crime-busting middle-aged journalist Mikael Blomkvist and his diminutive goth-girl hacker sidekick Lisbeth Salander, is a publishing phenomenon like the "Twilight" or "Da Vinci Code" series. The books peel back the bland veneer of Swedish society to expose crime and depravity simmering beneath. The plots verge on lunacy, but it's the kind of thing fans tolerate when they adore the central characters.

Lisbeth is an unforgettable hero, a sullen, petite, kickboxing, chopper-riding bisexual punk genius. The tattoo covering her back is a reminder of the dragons she's been fighting all her young life: a corrupt legal system, neo-fascists, sexual predators. She's not afraid to fight fire with fire, literally setting one abuser ablaze. Emotionally scarred by callous authority figures who institutionalized her as a child, she is sexually aggressive but incapable of emotional attachments. It's a stunning role -- one part Pippi Longstocking, one part Terminator. Rapace pursued it with Lisbeth-like intensity.

"When I first heard of Lisbeth, I felt I had a sort of connection," the vivacious 31-year-old actress said by phone from Los Angeles, on break from her London filming of the "Sherlock Holmes" sequel opposite Robert Downey Jr.

"I read all three of the books two years before they decided to do a film of it, and I knew her, I knew I had her inside of me."

A self-described "chaotic" wild child, Rapace was "a troublemaker and a disaster when I was 13, 14, 15. I was angry and hated everyone around me. But I was always good at hiding my insecurity. When I was afraid or I was sad, whatever signs of weakness I had, I was always good at hiding it and pretending I was stronger than I actually am." She drank too much and "thought I could handle the world."

At 15 she moved to Stockholm, got sober and entered a drama high school. "I decided to be an actress, straighten up and clean up my life."

Her first role was to impersonate the sophisticated, big-city girls around her. "I wanted to learn all the codes and the things I didn't have a clue about, living in the countryside. I wanted to learn to play the game, where everybody else seemed to know the rules but I didn't have a clue."

She graduated to roles at the prestigious Royal Dramatic Theatre and in small-budget dramas, always hungry for the next challenge. "When I read in the papers they were going to film [Larsson's novels] I was really upset and angry. I was so sad because I loved her and I was so sure they wouldn't consider me."

Competition for the role was fierce. "They brought in everybody in Sweden, from big actors to unknowns." At her audition the curvy, feminine actress borrowed clothes from her then-husband, actor Ola Rapace, to look more masculine and tough. "When I met the director I told him, 'I just want to become her. It's a cliché, I know, but I would prepare as much as necessary and do anything to be her. I wanted to change my whole body. I wanted to transform into her. I know that I can get there if you trust me. I will do anything.'"

Workouts, cigarettes

And so she did. Rapace began a crash diet and trained in Thai martial arts and boxing for seven months, arduously reshaping her body to tomboyish muscle. Rapace went from nonsmoker to chain smoker and learned to ride a motorcycle. For scenes where Lisbeth is recuperating from a near-fatal attack, the actress consulted doctors to "program my body" to reflect the consequences of being shot in the head, hip and shoulder. She reopened her old punk-rock piercings and added new perforations in her ears, nose and eyebrow so she could experience the feel of Lisbeth's facial jewelry. She even shaved half her head for a sequence when the character had brain surgery.

Although makeup artists could have faked those effects, Rapace says "it feels different when it's for real and you're sleeping with it and waking up with it. It's part of you then. I want to be as close to reality as I can." She drew the line at Salander's elaborate tattoo and the breast augmentation she gets in the second novel. Those body modifications would be too limiting for future roles, she said.

After spending 18 months in Lisbeth's skin, Rapace was quite literally bruised. When the third film wrapped she was partially bald, and battered from doing her own stunt work.

"It was terrible to walk around like that, really ugly. But when I'm doing a film I don't really look at myself from outside. When I'm done I see the injuries."

The entertainment press has all but nominated Rapace for an Academy Award, and Music Box Films is promoting her for the Best Actress Oscar. She already has won the Guldbagge, the Swedish equivalent.

While she says she doesn't fear being over-identified with Lisbeth, she wisely removed herself from the running to reprise her role as Salander in David Fincher's English language remake of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." Her followup film was "Beyond," an intense family drama. Ex-husband Ola Rapace co-starred.

"I'm not sentimental. It's easy for me to leave things behind and explore new things. Now 'Sherlock Holmes' is my life, that's what I'm living," she said. Rapace plays a Gypsy, a role that has allowed her to explore her own Swedish/Spanish heritage.

Her Gypsy side

"I'm doing a lot of research on Gypsies and their traditions. My father's mother was Gypsy, and I've always had that kind of legacy inside of me but I haven't really dared to dig up those things. It's really emotional, I've been afraid of it. Now my life is requiring me to go there, and it's really exciting."

After that film wraps, Rapace may play a major role in the upcoming "Alien" prequel. "I've already met a couple of times with [director] Ridley Scott," she said. "I really admire his work and he likes mine, amazingly enough."

Rapace takes pride in changing her appearance and mannerisms for each new role. When she crossed paths with "Dragon Tattoo" director Niels Arden Oplev some months after they worked together, he didn't recognize her, she said with satisfaction. She strives to maintain that quicksilver quality, avoiding overexposure in the media and shunning celebrity parties. "I don't see any value in being famous to be famous," she said. "It's important to keep some privacy. I think it's best to be known through your work." Still, she's a lot more visible these days.

"I get recognized everywhere now" in Sweden, she said with some chagrin. "Of course I'm proud but it's also a bit weird. People know me now."

And very soon a lot more will, too.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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