Noomi Rapace Learned English by Watching TV in a Hotel Room
In Early Works, we talk to artists young and old about the jobs and life experiences that led them to their current moment. Today, it's Swedish actor Noomi Rapace, who's in the just-released Steven Shainberg sci-fi thriller Rupture, which is out theatrically and on VOD. Rapace also stars in Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant, which hits theaters on May 19.
We lived in Iceland when I was a child, and my stepdad is Icelandic. My mother was a drama teacher and acted in smaller theater groups—very alternative. I was brought to an Icelandic viking film set when I was seven, because there were children in the film. I ended up being in the film for three weeks, and I loved it. It was a very brutal, bloody, muddy, intense, crazy film. The director was very loud and quite demanding. There was one specific night where we'd been shooting for 15 hours; the lead actress was tired, and people wanted to take a break. I was doing the same thing over and over, and all of a sudden the director had this big outburst. He was screaming, "What is wrong with you guys? Look at this girl! How old are you?" I said, "Seven," and he said, "She's seven years old, and she's not complaining! This is a real actress!" I was like, "Wow!" I kept that in my heart.
I went for one year to a preparatory acting school, before you're supposed to go the main acting school in Scandinavia. There were a lot of different steps to enter the acting school—it's very hard, most people try over and over, and I didn't get in my first try. I got so upset by them not accepting me that I was like, "I'm never, ever coming back." All my friends kept trying, and they eventually got in, but I wanted to do it on my own. So I'm uneducated.
I got my first job when I was 20 at the Royal Dramatic Theatre, a very fancy, posh theater in Stockholm. People were very upset that I was hired without education, but I started acting anyway. I did plays for almost ten years. That was my school—just working and working. Theater is very respected and big in Sweden, so I got the opportunity to work with the best people. It shaped me a lot, and I decided what kind of actress I wanted to be. I made a lot of decisions and deals with myself about how to approach things.
I think I found my message during those years, but I was also questioning everything else around me—including myself. I was going through a lot of battles on a personal level. From 19 to 21 years old, I got a lot of good offers and was working a lot, but I was really lost. I remember feeling that the only place I existed, felt feelings, and was fully alive was on stage. Everything else was slightly vague and weak, and I didn't really care. Those emotions really scared me. I was like, "What kind of person is that? Who can only live and feel anything real onstage?"
Then, I realized that I was just doing things without really caring about the consequences. I was hurting people. Through my acting, I could get in touch with things within myself, because it was a safe place to do it. Later, I managed to build a bridge between the chaos inside me. But those years were quite crucial, scary, and chaotic. Looking back, that's when I shaped myself—but there were a lot of low points.
I was starring in Blasted by Sarah Kane, a British author who wrote seven plays and committed suicide. It was a very intense play—very well-written but very disturbing and dark too. One of the producers of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo had seen me on stage and said, "You're a force of nature. You've got to do Lisbeth Salander." I felt that they had casted me because I was me, not because I fought for the role. I haven't done many auditions in my life. I'm not good at it. The few I've done, I've always felt weird and humiliated—like I'm trying to satisfy someone by giving them a version of me that I think they want, instead of being who I really am and representing what I really believe.
But I got Lisbeth Salander based on me and my work. They'd seen this Danish film I did called Daisy Diamond, too, so I knew that they wanted me because of my acting. I remember walking through Stockholm after getting a message that I got the part. I felt like I was so light, it was a weird feeling—like I had wings on my back, and I could almost take off. I was like, "This is going to change my life." I didn't really know how big the series was outside Sweden—I had to shut my ears and eyes to all that because I felt this deep connection with the character. I knew we were meant for each other, and I knew I could give her my soul. That was a blessing. Later on, when it all took off and we were on press tours worldwide, that was when I started realizing that it was way bigger than I first thought.
I met Robert Downey Jr. when I was on the press tour for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and then he and his production company wanted to meet with me. I'm a big fan of Rob, so I was super nervous. I came into this meeting, and I hardly spoke English, but he chatted with me for 20 minutes, and he said, "I like you. I want to work with you." I remember coming back to Sweden feeling that everything was completely surreal. I was afraid that I would wake up and realize that this was all a dream and that I'm back on the fucking farm on the countryside.
But I got the call, and they flew me to London to meet with Guy Ritchie for Sherlock Holmes. It was my first time in London, and even though I didn't know the language yet, it felt like I communicated with those people. Three weeks later, I was in London working on set. Everything happened so fast, so I didn't really have time to think about the fact that I couldn't talk to them because I didn't know their language. I hate feeling stupid and unable to express myself. I was very bad when I was younger: I didn't pay attention in school, but I was very good with people, so I could always talk people into whatever to manipulate them. I always got away with stuff.
So I was sitting in this hotel room in London, regretting that I didn't pay attention or study, and now I'm sitting here, and I can't talk to them. I started studying English in my hotel room, watching television and reading newspapers and books. It took me nine hours to read a script—I had to look up every second word. A lot of my big decisions have come out of a situation when I'm forced to step up, like, "OK, Noomi, next step, you've got to do it."
I went right into Prometheus after Sherlock Holmes, and then I worked with Brian De Palma on Passion. Ridley and Brian are filmmakers from the same generation, and obviously I grew up watching Brian's work—Scarface, Carlito's Way. When I heard that he wanted to meet with me, I was quite shocked. It was interesting to work with him, because he knew exactly what he wanted. He did very long takes, sometimes for four minutes. When he had three takes, he was like, "I'm happy. I'm good. We're moving on." Very different from Ridley's films and what I was used to. I was like, "Whoa, wait! We're not doing coverage?" But he was like, "Honey, I'm editing in my head already. No need for that. We're moving on." He's someone who knows exactly what he wants. It was very different and interesting working with him.