Lisbeth Salander, the seriously screwed-up heroine of Stieg Larsson’s mega-best seller “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” is wire-thin, punked-out, angry. As the title says, she’s tattooed. She’s pierced on face and body, is adept at martial arts, is a computer brainiac, and she’s an abrasive, antisocial soul with a history of sexual abuse.
“I knew everything about her,” says Noomi Rapace, the 30-year-old actress who landed the role of Lisbeth — and stars opposite Michael Nyqvist, as her wildly dissimilar partner, investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist — in the massively successful screen adaptation. Directed by Niels Arden Oplev and released last year across Europe, the violent Swedish thriller has earned almost $100 million. In Sweden, it was second only to “Avatar” on the 2009 box office charts.
Although Rapace, like hundreds of thousands of her fellow Swedes, had read Larsson’s book (original title: “Men Who Hate Women”) and was captivated by this crazy character, the idea of playing Lisbeth took some convincing. First, Rapace had to convince herself. Then she had to convince Oplev.
“Actually, I said to Niels the first time that we met, ‘If you want me to play Lisbeth I will become her. I will do everything to change and to transform into her,’” Rapace says. “I had this clear picture in my head, how she looked and who she was.”
For Oplev, Rapace was like “a gift.” The Danish director had his doubts going into the project that he could find anyone to play this strange, damaged creature.
“I really felt that Lisbeth Salander would be next to impossible to find,” says Oplev, in a separate interview recently. “I saw Noomi in another film and I was struck by her, but I thought she was too pretty to play Lisbeth. But then I did a two-hour rehearsal with her, and that dark energy came through. When she’s on screen, you want to watch her, see what she does next.
“Readers of Larsson’s book have a very physical image in mind, and then an emotional image, as well. And I knew that I had to match the emotional image as much as I had to match the physical likeness,” he says.
Rapace, who’d told Oplev that if she won the part she would transform herself totally, then did just that.
“When he told me that he wanted me to play Lisbeth, I started immediately,” says Rapace, by phone from New York. “I was preparing for seven months before the shooting. I did Thai boxing and kickboxing, four, five days a week with a crazy Serbian guy. I was on a serious diet, because I wanted to get rid of my female softness. I wanted to be a bit more masculine, a bit more like a boy in my body. And I took a motorcycle driving license and cut my hair and pierced myself. ...
“It was like Lisbeth slowly grew in me. ... I don’t like to pretend things, I don’t like to fake, so I always try to find the character in me and use the things that I can understand, translate things from me into the character.”
As Rapace and Oplev worked to develop the character, honing the script and preparing to shoot, the actress had to shut out the endless suggestions and comments from Larsson fans.
“It was like everybody wanted to talk to me about Lisbeth, everybody knew who she was, and everybody had an opinion,” Rapace explains. “So it was like I had to close my ears and my eyes and just try to listen to myself and ignore everybody else. ... It was extremely important that we — me and Niels and the other actors — that we did it personal, kept it personal. Because the pressure was so high and the expectations so crazy. We had to force away everything else and go into some kind of bubble of concentration to be able to create.”
Rapace has been acting since she was in high school in Stockholm. She spent part of her childhood in Iceland. Her mother is Swedish, her father Spanish. She is married — to the actor Ola Rapace — with two children. After shooting “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” with Oplev, she continued on with different directors for the second and third installments of the late Larsson’s “Millennium trilogy”: “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” Both films have been released in Europe.
“I lived with Lisbeth Salander for a year and a half,” says Rapace. “I’m ready to move on.”
Rapace is satisfied with the work she has done. Yet even as she morphed into the cyber-hacking avenger, she was certain that legions of Larsson devotees would not be pleased with her portrayal, nor with the film.
“It felt like a suicide mission in a way,” she confesses. “I expected everybody to hate me, and to get bundles of hate mail. I was afraid I couldn’t go out.”