In five years, she has gone from art house to a-list. Swedish actor Alicia Vikander talks to Louise Gannon about transforming her body to play Lara Croft, her unhappy life as a child ballerina, and falling in love with Michael Fassbender.
In the luxury apartment of a West End hotel, the Oscar-winning actor Alicia Vikander is not quite feeling herself. “This makes me feel very small and a bit overwhelmed,” she says, nodding towards the spacious sitting room furnished with embroidered sofas and hand-painted armoires. “This is really not who I am.”
She opts to sit on a stiff dining chair, pulling it up close to the table, and she does look quite small. Her possessions – largely books and casual clothes – barely take up half of one of the many wardrobes in the apartment, which is her home for a week during the promotion of her latest film, Tomb Raider. The only exception to this frugality is a large double-banded diamond ring on her wedding finger.
But Vikander is not small. Right now, in the film industry, the Swedish daughter of a psychiatrist (Svante) and a stage actress (Maria) is huge. She has managed to pull off the difficult trick of being acclaimed by critics while having the populist clout to put bums on seats in cinemas. She has also given gossip columnists plenty to write about after marrying the equally sought-after German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender at a low-key ceremony in Ibiza six months ago.
Vikander started her film career in Swedish art-house films such as Pure (2010), in which she played a troubled 20-year-old who finds solace in the music of Mozart, before appearing as the ingénue heroine Kitty in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012) and then starring in the globally acclaimed Testament of Youth (she played a young Vera Brittain) and Ex Machina (which saw her nominated for Golden Globe and Bafta awards). Two years ago, she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for The Danish Girl, in which she pretty much stole the film from Eddie Redmayne as Gerda, the conflicted wife of Einar Wegener (Redmayne), the first known assigned-male-at-birth person to transition, in 1920s Denmark.
She has a habit of making surprising choices. She has flitted from art house (Euphoria, The Light Between Oceans) to fantasy (Seventh Son) to light comedy (Burnt) to big-budget blockbusters (Jason Bourne). Her latest film is firmly in blockbuster territory; she has taken on the iconic role of the archaeological adventurer Lara Croft in a reboot of Tomb Raider, alongside Dominic West and Kristin Scott Thomas. In the months before the film started shooting, she honed her body into a ripped, muscle-bound fighting machine – not only so she would look the part, but to enable her to do all her own stunts. “I think it’s your duty to commit as much as possible to the role and who she is as a woman,” Vikander says. “For me, building myself up and doing stunts as an actress was in part about becoming her, and to be honest, it was also a lot of fun – I like to push myself.”
Vikander’s stunts included impossible-looking cliff jumps and MMA fighting. “I loved everything except the water,” she says. “I had to spend hours in water with a wind machine on me to create waves. One scene they had to keep reshooting because my skin went blue with cold and they couldn’t hide it with make-up.”
She grins. “People think of me as this art-house girl. But when I was a little girl in Sweden, the films I loved were all those amazing action movies – Indiana Jones and The Mummy. The idea that I was being asked to do this movie…” She pauses and shakes her head. “To be in a movie that you dreamt about as a kid just seemed completely surreal. So if I was going to do this, I was going to do it the very, very best I could. I was going to give everything. Everyone remembers Angelina Jolie [who played the character in the noughties], but I wanted to make Lara Croft my own.”
Among other actors and directors, Vikander is known for two things: commitment and intensity. Her drive is extraordinary. It has taken her just half a decade to go from foreign-actress status to Hollywood a-lister, but in that time, she has made 17 films. Fassbender, when working with her on The Light Between Oceans (shot in New Zealand in 2014), spoke of her as “fierce and brave”, and Dominic West describes her as “terrifyingly talented”. But Vikander does not agree. Not yet. This is a woman still wanting to prove her worth as an actress. She was turned down for drama school not once, but four times. “Every job I do, I feel a fear of what people think,” she says in her near-perfect English.
Vikander’s childhood was unconventional. Her parents split up when she was just a few months old and she divided her time between living with her mother in Gothenburg and visiting her father – and five half-siblings – at weekends. At the age of four, her mother took her to see The Nutcracker. She immediately became hooked on dance and, at nine, she joined a dance school. At 15, she was accepted into the Royal Swedish Ballet School in Stockholm, and moved to the capital.
Her time at the ballet school was not a happy one, yet it gave her the discipline and work ethic that have become her trademark. “I look back on that time and I don’t really recognise myself,” she says. “I was very young and I had to become responsible for myself. At first you have the thrill of the freedom of living on your own [she shared a flat with other young dancers], but then when you have to get up at 6am every day for ten hours of schoolwork and dance classes, you realise you can’t possibly put in as much work into your school studies because so much time is taken up with dance.”
She continues, “In the wake of all the talk about abuse, there should be more eyes on these elite schools, whether it’s dance or gymnastics or sports. There is a lot of pressure – both physical and psychological. And a lot of it is abusive, because there is a lack of actual care for those kids – the focus is purely on performing to the highest standard at whatever cost. You think you can take it because you know it is expected of you, but I think I was probably one of just a few girls at my school who didn’t have an eating disorder. There was this constant air that you weren’t ever quite good enough, that you weren’t going to make it,” she says.
“We lived in such a small world. All you knew were other dancers. As I got older, I made a vow to myself that I had to meet other people. I forced myself to go out in Stockholm. I would literally walk up to girls saying, ‘Hello, you seem really nice. Do you want to be my friend?’ It makes me laugh when I think of it now, but it actually worked. I made friends with a bunch of musicians and I opened up my world. At the age of 18, I fell out of love with ballet. It was so hard. I had no money. I lived in a flat with a minibar stocked with fish fingers, lingonberry jam and frozen meatballs. My dream then was to act.”
What happened next – after she was turned down for drama school several times – is pure Withnail and I. Vikander, who had won small roles in Swedish television shows, landed a lead part in Pure, which won her a slew of awards. Armed with this success, she set off for England along with two musician friends (Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo, aka the Swedish electropop duo Icona Pop). They found an apartment on Portobello Road in London’s Notting Hill, and all set about furthering their careers.
“It was a tough time, but it was a big time,” Vikander says with a slight smile. “We had no money. We had a great address but the apartment was so bad: dirty, cold and like something from a different time. One night, we came home and there were rats in the kitchen. We often had to share a bed and wear as many clothes as possible because the heating didn’t really work. I went to auditions and found my way around London. At that point I thought, ‘I am Swedish, no one will have ever heard of me. Please let me get some work here.’ I never even thought of America. My main worry was my money running out and that we lived in a flat with rats.”
She laughs. “We still talk about that now, and with Tove Lo [the Swedish singer, another friend], who would come and visit. We joke about it, but these were girls I had walked up to a few years before and asked to be my friends. Now they are my family.”
There are times when her success makes her cry. “I miss my friends,” she says. “I have sat with my girlfriends and told them my biggest fear is that I will lose contact with them because of my work. They just laugh at me and say, ‘It’s not going to happen.’ We do this thing now where we have a meal together on Skype. We sit down with our food and a bottle of wine and we all talk and eat.”
Vikander has few worries now. With an Oscar, a talented husband and scripts piling up at her door, she is in the sweet spot of her life. She is a big advocate for equal rights and is currently working to link up Swedish female artists who have spoken about abuse under the #silenceaction banner, to the Time’s Up campaign. “It is so important, so humbling that women are speaking out and speaking up. I would never identify in any other way than as a feminist. I am a woman raised by a woman.”
TEXT AND PHOTOS: LOUISE GANNON / THE TELEGRAPH / THE INTERVIEW PEOPLE