In one of two new action films Noomi Rapace leads this summer, she plays seven different women — sisters — in a dystopian future in which single-child policies are stringently and violently enforced because of food-and-resource shortages (let’s be honest: global warming). This is Netflix’s What Happened to Monday. In her other film, Unlocked, Rapace is Alice Racine, a CIA interrogator who becomes London’s greatest hope as she defends the city from a massive terrorist attack. The former is dumb-fun sci-fi that is as inane as it is novel; the latter is staid and formulaic, though well-executed — as though director Michael Apted got a spec script for a Taken sequel and dropped in a female lead. What’s clear from both: Hollywood is grappling with what to do with Rapace.
But Rapace hasn’t always known what to do with herself. When the Swedish actor was cast in her breakout role, as Lisbeth Salander in Niels Arden Oplev’s gritty The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, she’d been working onstage, doing Shakespeare. “I was an awkward theater actress,” she tells me over the phone. “I wanted my performance to be very real and authentic. I didn’t like the drama of speaking in a weird voice.”
She had trained in martial arts since she was a child and possessed a natural aggressiveness that didn’t always jibe with the homogenous culture of her dual homelands, Sweden and Iceland. “Everyone is obsessed with fitting in and being normal, and I tried,” she says. “But it didn’t work. There were a couple of years when I was really trying to blend in and make myself invisible. I wanted to be like the other girls, but it didn’t work, and I just became unhappy and nonexisting.”
By any objective standard, Rapace has reason not to feel normal. For two formative years of her childhood, she lived on a farm in Iceland, where her mother taught children with Down syndrome and Rapace learned deep and enduring empathy lessons. But she also learned how to be the outsider — she was one of the only children there who did not have Down, and she didn’t know her father until he was dying. Acting was her escape — as was, she says, whiskey — and even though she did not know what “New York City” was, she was just 7 when she told her mother that was where she was going someday.
“We didn’t have a TV. We lived on a farm. But I had this dream that I would take off,” Rapace says. And now, as she sits in a fancy hotel in Los Angeles, meeting press to promote her films, she says she’s “shocked” that this is what she’s doing with her life. She tells me her 14-year-old son is in a room adjacent room to hers. She keeps him close to keep herself grounded, but it also means he must watch his mother go through painful transformations.
“When I did Monday, I told him, ‘I’m going to do this, and I don’t know how this will affect me. I will be gone for a couple of months.’ When I was done, I came home and was just holding him, unable to function,” she says. Rapace has been known to sink deeply into her roles. At the end of filming the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, for instance, she’s said to have literally “vomited out” her character. For Unlocked, she tells me that her character would have been very by-the-book, so she devised a rigid health plan she stuck to for months. “I was very, very structured, very disciplined, on green juices and raw food,” she says. “I love to challenge myself and put myself in extreme situations, so I said, ‘What happens if I detox and fast for seven months?’ Sometimes I feel like I’m a scientist and a guinea pig at the same time.”
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This willingness to manipulate the self serves her well in action roles; filming Unlocked, she broke a bone in her foot and a bone in her nose. “I had lumps and scars, and my nose will never look the same,” she says with a laugh. And this lackadaisical attitude toward vanity is not something you normally hear coming from an actor’s mouth — especially a woman’s. But Rapace is, well, different.
Some directors have picked up on her imperfect-diamond quality and seen that she could be the female action star of the future. Ridley Scott even delivered unto us an evergreen feminist GIF with Rapace’s role in Prometheus: her muscled character racing against the clock to perform her own alien-baby abortion. And director Tommy Wirkola had the foresight to change the seven male siblings of Monday to female. (“He said, ‘Read this, and if you like it, I can only imagine one actress in the world doing it, so if you want to do it, we’ll change it to seven sisters,’” Rapace says.) Still, the majority of Rapace’s directors so far don’t seem to have understood her, and she has yet to become a household name.
But talking with Rapace and watching her in action sequences, it’s difficult not to think it’s just a matter of time before the actor (metaphorically) blows up. Like a parasitic alien baby, Rapace simply grows on you.
“I realized last night, when I was with both Ridley Scott and Michael Mann, that they (directors) all kind of want me to be … me. I say, ‘You don’t want me to change? You don’t want me to be someone else?’ No. But that is a blessing. My entire life has been something I’ve been struggling with, to adjust and be normal. And I said, ‘You know what? I can’t. I’m 100 percent me now, and it works.’ And it’s still a bit shocking that works.” Rapace laughs again. “Me being me.”