Interview: Noomi Rapace, actress

For more than two years Noomi Rapace had been channelling the spirit of Lisbeth Salander, the dour punkette conjured up by Stieg Larsson for his Millennium trilogy.

In The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, she takes revenge on her abusive parole officer by carving a lengthy statement on his chest and stomach. Even without the knife, it's fair to say she makes an impression on everyone she meets. So when the time came for Rapace to leave her behind, it's not entirely surprising that she refused to go quietly.

"We had finished the last scene of the last film, everybody had champagne - and then I began to throw up," says Rapace in her lightly accented English. "They wanted to celebrate but I was in the bathroom, lying on the floor. I couldn't stand up. Everybody was a bit shocked because we had made three films and I was never sick. But this was my body throwing Lisbeth out of me. It was very physical."

Usually a Swedish movie with no star names would barely merit a footnote on the overcrowded summer movie calendar but The Girl Who Played With Fire arrives just a few months after The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which is now - look away, Ingmar Bergman fans - the most successful film in Scandinavian film history. And while Rapace has been acting since she was a schoolgirl, appearing in more than 20 films and TV shows, her performance is being hailed as a bolt from the blue. Certainly you will not find a British or American actress who looks like her or who plays the role with such a spiky authenticity. She plays the role punkier, tougher, skinnier and more boyish than any American actress would in a remake. Rapace modelled her look on Anne Parillaud's spy-assassin in Luc Besson's 1990 film La Femme Nikita, and turned up to audition for the role wearing some of her husband's clothes. Even so, Dragon Tattoo director Niels Arden Oplev hesitated. In real life, Rapace is prettier and more cheerful than Salander and is slim rather than ferally thin - but she did have the intensity he was looking for.

"I told him, 'Believe me, I will become Lisbeth. I will transform myself into her.'" says Rapace, who still has tiny indents on her eyebrow, ears, nose and lip from the piercings she got for Lisbeth. She also embarked on a strenuous diet and fitness programme. "I exercised four to five days a week, doing cardio and Thai kickboxing with a crazy Serbian guy. I even learned to ride a motorcycle, and cut my hair and dyed it black. When my son saw me he said, 'Mum, why are you dressed up like a teenage boy?'"

On set she used to keep her distance from the rest of the cast.

The misery of her carbless, fatless diet also helped maintain her moody mindset. There were arguments on set with Rapace challenging sequences that she felt were not in keeping with her character, while recreating a rape scene for the first film gave her nightmares for weeks. Yet her Girl Who Played With Fire director Daniel Alfredson admires her Salanderesque determination. In a sequence where Salander is buried alive, they had a body double lined up until Rapace insisted it had to be her hand clawing out of the grave: "She said, 'No, I have to do it myself.'" recalls Alfredson. "That's Noomi."

The one thing she didn't do was get tattooed with a huge dragon on her back. "No, I would never do that," says Rapace. "I once worked with a male actor who had many tattoos, and it was a huge problem for the film because it was so difficult to cover them."

Salander's goth black hair is straight from a dye bottle but Rapace's lack of Scandic blondeness is inherited from her father, Rogelio Durn, a Spanish flamenco singer who left when Rapace was a baby and died in 2007. Her mother is Swedish actress Nina Noren, who played Salander's mother Agneta in the first movie. When Rapace was five, Noren remarried and the family moved to Iceland, a maverick nation regarded as suspiciously eccentric by the cooler-headed Nordic countries.

"I've always been a bit far away from Swedish society and how people are supposed to fit into it," says Rapace. "Everybody is trying to keep in this middle, normal way of behaving and ends up being repressed and stoic. That's really boring for me, and I felt like a troublemaker because I've always been outspoken."

She also says she looked and felt very different from her younger step-siblings: "My mum and dad loved me but they created their own family. When I was 14, I had piercings and had white hair; I wanted to look like Nancy Spungen, Sid Vicious's girlfriend, and when I was 15 I moved out and started taking care of myself. I was this little island that didn't fit in anywhere, which made me relate to Lisbeth. From the start, when I read the first book, I felt like she was something close to me. It was as if she woke up some aggressive monster in me."

The success of the Larsson films could have brought her into the mainstream of Swedish celebrity life, but although Rapace is married to actor Ola Rapace, who plays Stefan Lindman in the Swedish television version of Wallander, she makes no bones about being ready to leave the country.

Right now there's serious interest from abroad: she's just taken her first English-language lead in the European production of The Nazi Officer's Wife, and after completing this latest round of interviews she's flying out to Los Angeles to discuss appearing in the second of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes films, opposite Robert Downey Jr, while director Brad Bird is actively pursuing her for Mission Impossible IV with Tom Cruise.

The final part of the Larsson series, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest won't be released in the UK until later this year, but Hollywood has already announced a remake which David Fincher is to direct, with Daniel Craig playing journalist Mikael. Naturally all eyes were on the Lisbeth Salander space. In the end unknown actress Rooney Mara has been cast, but it's hard to see anyone but Rapace's unsmiling face in the role. Not that the actress herself feels possessive of the role any more, and if Larsson's fourth book on Salander is ever published and filmed, she's certain she won't be tempted back to reprise her role.

"I've moved on," she says briskly. "I've lived with Lisbeth, I did everything I could and I don't want to do her again. I'm finished, It's up to somebody else to step in her shoes." v

This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, 22 August, 2010