Noomi Rapace: “I’m expected to behave a certain way because my gender is female”

Thanks to a slew of subversive roles, the 'Dragon Tattoo' star has steered clear of stereotypes. We meet film's most unique leading woman

Noomi Rapace is never one to conform to Hollywood’s notion of what a leading woman should look like. From her scorching international breakthrough in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the first of a violent, vengeful trilogy, to headlining Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel Prometheus, and now with her new horror Lamb, the 41-year-old Swedish actor has challenged femininity by opting for robust, often radical roles, over mainstream ideals.

“I’ve always seen myself as a human rather than a woman,” she tells NME via video-call from a whitewashed, empty-looking studio in central London. “I’ve always felt alienated when they want to put me in a box, or when people expect me to behave a certain way just because my gender is female.”

In Lamb, a surreal Icelandic folk tale which Rapace describes as “a beautiful, strange adventure”, she plays María, a grieving mother who finds new joy in life when Ada, a strange but innocent sheep-human hybrid, is born on the farm that she runs with her husband. For the actor, taking the role was instinctual, and not just because she herself had grown up on a farm in her native Sweden. “I felt like I didn’t have a choice, like my body and my mind and my heart had been waiting for this,” she says. “Maria found me, and I got lost in her.”

“I’ve always seen myself as a human rather than a woman”

If the concept of Lamb sounds suitably batshit, the way in which the film was pitched to Rapace was just as weird. She was in London finishing up another project when one of the film’s producers came to visit her with a mysterious package. In it, along with the film’s script, was a collection of photographs of Icelandic countryside and dark, twisted children’s illustrations, plus a book of selected poems from the film’s co-writer Sjón. “I was waiting for the producer to start the pitch, but he just stepped out for a cigarette and left me with this strange package,” Rapace recalls cheerfully. “I started looking and I was seduced. It was like an invitation into another universe.” She would go on to star in and also executive-produce the film.

Her total commitment was crucial – the shoot would prove an enduring one even with her farming experience. Firstly, her co-star was a CGI humanoid sheep, which meant acting to a series of both real babies and lambs, which were switched over during production. On Noomi’s first day of filming, shortly after wrapping another gig and with no time for rehearsals, she was summoned hastily from her trailer to a barn on site to deliver a newborn lamb by hand for an early scene in the film. “There was something really powerful about seeing it take its first breath,” she remembers. “I was helping to take the mucus off its face. It was this really beautiful, brutal moment of life or death.

Rapace is no stranger to hard work. She left life on the farm to join the Stockholm theatre school when she was just 15, after which she did stage work for a decade. A sizeable number of Swedish TV credits followed, before she got her big break in the film adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium novels, which follow the investigations of rebellious goth hacker Lisbeth Salander. The trilogy of crime thrillers – which were repackaged as a series in the US and earned her an Emmy nomination – saw Rapace embody a woman who endures horrific sexual abuse, not to mention being shot in the head and institutionalised twice. It was a daunting task taking something on that involved such tough material – the assault scene alone took a full week to film – and thanks to the popularity of the books, an expansive inbuilt audience. Yet Rapace, who was enamoured by the survivor in Lisbeth, was more than up for the challenge. She took up kickboxing, shaved her head, pierced her ears and eyebrow, and got a motorcycle license.

Noomi Rapace
Rapace played goth hacker Lisbeth Salander in the ‘Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ series. CREDIT: Alamy

“I feel like I was building my own method during those years, which was to mirror things from my life into the character,” she explains. “Whether it’s a crazy sci-fi movie, a big Hollywood production or a small Icelandic indie film, I’m always looking for who I am in the situation. I’m not trying to be someone else.”

Rapace goes on to describe the “passionate love stories” that she engages in with her characters, which would explain her rejection of passive, overtly feminine roles on screen. She’s gone toe to toe with Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini – his final film role – in Brooklyn-set mob drama The Drop. She’s pulled off high-octane action in petticoats alongside Robert Downey Jr. for Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows, and joined John Krasinski as a skilled secret agent in Amazon’s furiously-paced Jack Ryan series. In dystopian sci-fi What Happened To Monday, she simultaneously plays seven sisters pretending to be a single person so as to avoid persecution from a shady organisation run by Glenn Close.

Blockbusters barely register in her body of work, yet the film Rapace speaks of most fondly is probably her biggest job to date: Prometheus. Although Natalie Portman and Anne Hathaway were in the frame, Scott saw Rapace in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and perceived an Ellen Ripley-like strength in her. She didn’t even have to audition, despite only making one English-language film prior. Rapace is still grateful to the powerhouse filmmaker, now in his eighties. “He’s got such a beautiful, powerful personality with that childlike eagerness to discover,” she says. “I hope to become an old woman and be as excited about filmmaking and actors [as he is].”

“I have a deep love for Bruce Springsteen”

Alongside her vigorous physical approach to getting into character, Rapace builds a specific playlist for each character, often with the director’s involvement. “Sometimes the songs are awful, I really don’t like them,” she laughs. “But I surround myself with music. I’m constantly listening to it.”

Hip-hop and British artists feature highly on the Swedish star’s roster – UK rap kingpin Giggs is a favourite – but no one can rival The Boss. “I have a deep love for Bruce Springsteen, he’s always present,” she says.

Her current character playlist is a collection of country music and old slave songs, for a role in a serialised adaptation of the spaghetti western Django. In the 10-part Sky series, which shares the same creative team as the hugely popular Italian crime show Gomorrah. Rapace plays famed gunslinger Django’s nemesis in the 19th century Wild West. The project came about at the tail-end of a relentless period of shooting. “I wasn’t going to do it,” she admits. “I’d been working non-stop for almost a year and I just needed to be at home and not in front of a camera.” However, one Zoom call with the directors later, Rapace realised she couldn’t say no. “I was falling in love again,” she says about her character. “She’s this broken romantic, this violent, fragile, dangerous villain. I’m obsessed with her. She’s one of my favourite characters so far.”

Noomi Rapace
In new fantasy horror ‘Lamb’. CREDIT: MUBI

There is a fearlessness about Rapace that is inspiring, though she doesn’t make a point of being forthright. When we talk, she is friendly and open, sat cross-legged in her chair and at ease, as if we are picking up a conversation from earlier rather than meeting for the first time. She lets her roles show her steely side – and her willingness to jump into the unknown.

The arrival of Lamb feels like a critical juncture for Rapace. She even refers to her career in two halves: her time before Lamb, and her time after. “It feels like a conscious decision to go back to arthouse films and back where I started,” she explains. “I feel like I’ve been on a strange diet and I’ve been starving a bit, and now with Lamb it’s like I’ve landed. I’m back.”

Apart from Lamb, she has a number of suitably on-brand irons in the fire: You Won’t Be Alone, an 1800s-set horror from a first-time director, Netflix post-apocalyptic thriller Black Crab, and Assassin Club, which sees her enter the world of contract killing with Henry Golding and Sam Neill.

Noomi Rapace
‘Lamb’ see Rapace’s character rear a humanoid sheep. CREDIT: MUBI

Then there’s her work behind the camera, with her own production company. “I have some things coming out that are a little too early for me to talk about,” she teases. “But I’m fascinated by people’s imperfections. That’s where the magic happens. I love to listen to people, to store points from their lives and then reconnect with that emotional memory. They will be used in future projects.”

As much as Rapace values past roles, she doesn’t dwell on them for long. “I’m not sentimental,” she says. “[My characters are] like a survival tool; I don’t hold on to the good or bad moments, and I don’t reflect so much. But I’m always grateful for the marriage that we had.”

So Rapace keeps moving onward, down a path that she’s carved out for herself, continuing to defy expectations. “I’ve always been a bit strange,” she says, why change now?

‘Lamb’ is in cinemas from December 10