Sitting in the back room of a retail space in New York’s bubbly SoHo neighborhood, Noomi Rapace gives off an energy instantly recognizable to fans of her work: cold, dark, and intimate. She is dressed head to toe in black, her hair pulled back so tightly it gives off a reflective sheen. Ever since making her international film debut in Niels Arden Oplev’s original adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in 2009, Rapace has made a career of playing raw and complex characters on the big screen. No doubt that’s what led Ridley Scott to cast Rapace as the lead in 2012’s Prometheus (she’ll be reprising her role as Elizabeth Shaw in the forthcoming Prometheus II), and induct the 5’4” Swede into an exclusive pantheon of tough-as-nails Scott heroines like Sigourney Weaver and Demi Moore.
Rapace’s current feature film is Dead Man Down (directed by Oplev), in which the actor plays Beatrice, a woman seeking revenge on the drunk driver who ruptured her life and permanently scarred her—inside and out. When she witnesses her neighbor Victor (Colin Farrell) commit a heinous act, Beatrice sees an opportunity to blackmail the brooding criminal—with dark secrets of his own—into doing her dirty work. What ensues is almost two hours of explosions, vicious beatings, epic gunfights, and backstabbing, as Victor and Beatrice exact revenge on those who have done them wrong. On the eve of Dead Man Down’s release, we sat down with Rapace to talk revenge, scars, and what draws Scandinavians to murder.
What attracted you to Dead Man Down?
Well, I was reading lots of scripts and most scripts are kind of predictable. After 20 pages, you kind of know what’s going on. When my manager sent me Dead Man Down, I read it and I was like, “Woah. I didn’t see that coming.” It has so many turns and so many layers to it. It kind of reminded me of True Romance and those ’90s movies I love: this combination of action, violence, and hardcore personalities, but with a very beautiful romantic side at the same time.
What about your experience in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo made you want to reconnect with Niels Arden?
We have a very honest relationship. I know I can always say [if something is a] bad idea or good idea. If there’s something I don’t like, we don’t have to be polite. We can just go straight into what’s important. He’s a very passionate filmmaker. He goes in and gives it everything he has. Ever since I did The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I wanted to find something to do with him again. We’re quite similar. We work really hard and we’re very stubborn, but we have a lot of respect for each other. I know he will give me space to explore and find the character. He’s a very generous director in that way, and he trusts his actors.
Revenge plays such a large part in Dead Man Down. Have you ever looked for revenge in your own life?
Oh yeah. Every time someone has done something to me that I thought was kind of unfair or made me kind of upset, I remember. I never forget and I don’t forgive. [Laughs]. When I was younger, I was much more into that—”How can I hit you back?” And then, I kind of realized, it’s not helping me. It just takes even more out of my life, and I don’t want to give that to people. If someone does something destructive to you, I think it’s better to let it go or accept it.
What did you like about your character in the film, Beatrice?
She’s very fragile, girly and feminine, but she has this very complicated psychological twist—her inner landscape is a war zone. [After her accident] Beatrice is trapped in non-existence—it’s almost like her life is on pause, and she can’t find a way out.
And her scars won’t let her forget the accident.
When you see her in the movie, she doesn’t look that horrible. She doesn’t look like a monster, but she can’t see it. She’s gone through all these steps of plastic surgery, and she can’t see that it’s much better today.
Do you have any scars?
Oh, I have many scars. I have scars everywhere from my teens. [Pulls up sleeves to reveal scars on her hands and arms]
Are they important to you?
Yeah. Even if I’ve been in bad places and not made good choices, I think everything I’ve done kind of made me the person I am today. I know that’s a cliché, but I feel that way. I’ve always been doing things 100%. Now I’m better and I can kind of control myself. I have a strong temper and I can be upset, or angry, or I can be very happy. And I’m very impulsive. When I was younger, I could go quite crazy. I’m the kind of person who needs to do things to find out that they’re not good to do. I’m not [the kind of] person who sits at home and just thinks of stuff like what if, what if, what if. I just do it, and it’s like, Oops, not going to do that again.
You’re known for playing aggressive and dark characters. Are you more comfortable in their skins?
I’ve always been drawn to characters that are struggling, and fighting with psychological or real demons. I’m kind of obsessed with the human psyche. I find it really inspiring to look at documentaries of people who have done really crazy things. I try to understand how a human being can do things that are so cruel. I did this movie called Daisy Diamond in which I played a young mother who kills her baby and becomes a prostitute. When I read the script I was just like, I can’t do this. This is impossible. And then it became a thing I couldn’t let go. I was reading it over and over. And then it’s almost like I feel like I need to do it, because I want to go to that place and explore it. I want to go into the darkest places.
Because I find it interesting and if we can understand—if we can open those doors—we can help people. When I did research for Daisy Diamond, I met with a professor who’s worked with women who have killed or harmed their babies. And she said, my biggest problem is that it’s such a taboo. If you say to someone, you know, I don’t like my baby, people will think that something is wrong with you, that you’re sick, and they will judge you really hard. She read the script, and she was like, “Wow this is incredible. I’ve been waiting for someone to bring this up.”
With The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Killing, and Wallander, there’s been a recent zeitgeist of Scandinavian murder stories in books, film, and TV. What is it about Scandinavian countries that inspires murder mysteries?
Daniel Espinosa (Swedish-Chilean director of Safe House and the forthcoming Child 44 starring Rapace and Tom Hardy) and I talked a lot about that. Sweden’s a very good country. We don’t have that much crime, actually, but I do think it’s an emotional prison in a way. Filmmakers and authors like Stieg Larsson, Strindberg, and Bergman, and lots of [other] creative people want to put the spotlight on things we don’t want to talk about, things we don’t want to admit. It’s also [the] contradiction of living in a country where on the surface everything’s really good, and it’s very equal, but [where there still are] classes, lots of immigrants, and a lot of problems nobody wants to look at or touch. I think that creates a ticking bomb. In a country like the United States, it’s much more open. Everyone knows which neighborhoods you don’t go to, because there are a lot of crimes, and it’s quite dangerous. In Sweden, it’s hidden. And I think creative people always want to break walls and express things that nobody else is talking about.
Sweden is also quite moody and dark. There are only three months in the summer that are actually sunny, bright, and warm. It’s a rough environment to live in. It’s cold and people don’t really talk to each other. It’s lonely in a way, and that probably gives people a lot of time to think and write.