Alicia Vikander: ‘I made five films in a row before I had a scene with another woman’
You’ll know the face. Alicia Vikander has been in seven major movies this year, culminating in Golden Globe nominations for her roles in Ex Machina and The Danish Girl. Here she talks of feet, fame and gender
Sunday 13 December 2015 08.00 GMT
As politely as possible, I shift in my chair to glance at the feet in question. “Best” is a strong word, and I’m no podiatrist, but at worst, they’re on the elegant end of normal: petite, pedicured, housed in nude-coloured heels of purposeful height and pointiness. For a 27-year-old Swedish actor somehow striding into mainstream cinema from multiple doors at once, they appear to be holding her up just fine.
Yet for a ballerina, Vikander explains, they were less than ideal. At the Royal Swedish Ballet School, where she trained in her teens, they weren’t the fleetest or most fluid, and didn’t turn quite as well as some of the other girls’. Born and raised in Gothenberg, Vikander had dreamed of a life in tutus since a Christmas outing to The Nutcracker at the age of five; at 15, she was permitted to move on her own to Stockholm to study ballet. Yet while playing the non-dancing, all-miming unisex role of the Witch in her academy’s production of Les Sylphides, it occurred to the young dancer that maybe acting was her stronger suit. As the only child of veteran Swedish stage actor Maria Fahl Vikander, that can’t have come as the greatest surprise.
Another decade on, we can thank those faulty feet for making Vikander the most ubiquitous screen presence of 2015. Asked if even she knows how many of her films have hit screens this year, she lithely avoids giving a number. “They come out at different times in different places, I don’t keep track!” she laughs.
The answer is seven, chronologically bookended by the most prestigious. In January, audiences thrilled to Alex Garland’s sleek, slippery sci-fi provocation Ex Machina, starring Vikander as Ava, the disarmingly sentient feminised robot who turns the tables on her male minders. Soon they’ll see her in a very different gender inquiry: in Tom Hooper’s lushly mounted period biopic The Danish Girl, she plays painter Gerda Wegener, the emotionally conflicted wife of pioneering transgender surgery recipient Lili Elbe, played by Eddie Redmayne.
Her roles between those two have varied wildly. Playing celebrated first world war diarist Vera Brittain, she anchored the handsome BBC weepie Testament of Youth with stout-hearted conviction; months later, she was on frisky female sidekick duty in Guy Ritchie’s well-clothed cold war romp The Man from UNCLE. She brought a tang of romantic regret to the underperforming Bradley Cooper vehicle Burnt, and some Russian-accented femme fatale attitude to the breakneck Aussie thriller Son of a Gun. And if we’ve forgotten she was in March’s dismal sword-and-sorcery bomb Seventh Son, perhaps she has too; it never comes up in our conversation.
Even with such misfires, this portfolio more than justifies the “Year of Alicia Vikander” headlines currently peppering magazine racks — her celebrity profile having been further abetted by a closely guarded relationship with Michael Fassbender and her selection by Louis Vuitton as, in their own lofty words, “the new muse of the Maison”. Last week she received a brace of Golden Globe nominations for The Danish Girl and Ex Machina. But she’s quick to point out that saturation wasn’t a strategy. “It’s a coincidence, really,” she says. “All these films that I shot at different times over three years simply all arrived together this year. Remember when Jessica Chastain was suddenly in so many films at once? I suppose it’s like that. I hope so, because she’s incredible.”
Vikander’s breakthrough does indeed recall the American actor’s multi-pronged screen assault in 2011; the Swedish ingenue was sufficiently dazzled by Chastain in The Tree of Life to see it twice in cinemas – a year before the Oscar-nominated Danish costume drama A Royal Affair, followed in short order by a film-stealing English-language debut as Kitty in Joe Wright’s diorama-style Anna Karenina, brought Vikander to the attention of international viewers.
Since then, she’s been shooting almost constantly, flitting in and out of her north London apartment as if it were a hotel – albeit one where she has, as she explains with disarming excitement, finally become acquainted with her neighbours: “It took me two-and-a-half years of living here with just three bags, but it has just about started to feel like home.” When we meet, in a silk-draped Claridge’s suite, she’s just a day off the plane from Washington DC, where she’s been immersed in Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon’s eagerly awaited return to the Jason Bourne action franchise.Her entry into the realm of such studio tentpoles has added an unfamiliar degree of promotional work to an already crammed timetable. Also new to her is the glad-handing and red carpet-grazing of the film awards season. The Oscars may not be until late February, but the four-month marathon of campaign receptions and precursor prize-giving ceremonies is already well under way. Vikander admits to being bemused by it all. “Up until 18 months ago, I thought the term ‘awards season’ was a kind of joke,” she says. “I had never really reflected that a certain kind of serious film came out later in the year. I just thought fall seemed like a good time to go to the movies. It’s colder, after all.”
We had both attended the British independent film awards – one of the circuit’s boozier, jollier shindigs – the night before. If I’m feeling worse for wear, her face betrays neither hangover nor transatlantic jet-lag, though she insists that she partied late. “I may not be a dancer any more, but I do love a boogie,” she says, lightly chair-dancing for emphasis. She takes alternating sips from a Diet Coke and a bamboo-hued herbal tea.
As for the awards themselves, it was swings and roundabouts: Vikander lost her best actress bid for The Danish Girl to Brooklyn star Saoirse Ronan, but delighted in an unexpected sweep of the night’s top gongs for Ex Machina. Halfway through the ceremony she was informed that the influential Los Angeles Film Critics Association had just voted her best supporting actress for Garland’s film. “This worldwide spread of recognition is insane,” she murmurs. “I was brought up in a small country. If you made a Swedish film that just got into a film festival somewhere, that was like the biggest thing you could wish for.”
Further accolades for her roles as Ava and Gerda are likely over the next weeks, and she’s equally deserving of honours for either. She is coolly heart-clutching inEx Machina as an android studying, both physically and psychologically, what it means to be a woman; in The Danish Girl, she’s a vibrant, sensitive reflector for a biological man going through the same complex learning process. Her Oscar campaign has her classified as a supporting actress in the latter, though that rather misrepresents the film. Either Vikander’s Gerda or Redmayne’s Lili could be viewed as the Danish girl of the title, as the narrative dwells less on one spouse’s transformation than the evolution of their marriage as a result.
“It’s about them going through a transition, not just him,” says Vikander, who was greatly moved by Gerda’s split impulse between supporting her husband’s wish to be his true self and mourning the loss of a lover. “In any relationship, when you go through any big change, you struggle to find your new constellation, your new ground. It takes a while to determine what the new relationship between you is. I could relate to that. That got to me immediately.”
Less obvious to Vikander at the time of filming was the thematic dovetailing ofThe Danish Girl with Ex Machina as a story of adopted female identity. It was only when she represented the former at Champions of Change, a White House event celebrating LGBT media luminaries, that it became clear to her via feedback from transgender attendees who had seen both films. “Three trans women came up to me separately to tell me they had felt such a connection with Ava in Ex Machina, and her dream of finally coming to full female fruition,” she remembers. “They had all cried; one said she was very emotional during the scene where Ava finally puts her skin on for the first time. I hadn’t really made that connection, yet that was very much what I felt when I did that scene. That longing.”
Vikander likens this to her own strong sense of desiring womanhood when she was a young girl: “I vividly remember watching women in films when I was nine or 10, picturing them being what I’d be like as an adult. I had these real female crushes on certain actresses. And I’d watch them thinking, one day I’ll be that. One day I’ll be a woman. It’s obviously not the same, but I get that wish to find your complete form.”
I ask if she can name any of these youthful crushes. Her creamy complexion pinkens. “Oh God,” she murmurs, eyes darting from side to side as if one of them might be lurking in the linen cupboard. “Helena Bonham Carter was one of my biggest crushes. And Rachel Weisz. I think I told her that when we were filming, which was probably a bit embarrassing.”
Weisz and Vikander co-star in The Light Between Oceans, Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance’s adaptation, due in 2016, of ML Stedman’s emotive bestseller. Fassbender and Vikander play husband and wife. She saw the fourth cut on a recent trip to New York; she says she prefers watching her films in progress than after the final edit. “I’m very interested in the editing process – in all aspects of film-making, really,” she says, adding that she’d consider getting behind the camera at some point.
One of Vikander’s repeat collaborators is the Swedish playwright and film-makerLisa Langseth, who directed her in her debut film role in 2009’s Pure; they reteamed four years later for Hotell, a darkly comic group-therapy study that currently marks the actor’s last non-English-speaking role. Despite the attentions of Hollywood, she’s keen to work with Langseth again, and to maintain a presence in European cinema. Ingrid Bergman managed that balance in the end, after all; Vikander, who earlier this year channelled the Swedish icon to narrate the documentary Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, is probably weary of the comparison, however flattering. Still, a similarly international A-list career beckons, straddling languages as fluently as genres. With endearingly girlish reverence, she cites French star Marion Cotillard as her key contemporary inspiration and dream collaborator.
Indeed, if Vikander has any one complaint about a thus far charmed career, it’s that she doesn’t get to work with other women nearly enough – a realisation that hit home on the set of another of her scheduled 2016 releases, the Tom Stoppard-scripted historical romance Tulip Fever. “Of course I’ve had a run of great opportunities and characters to play, but I was shooting this scene with Holliday Grainger that just felt like something new,” she says. “It just came so easily, and we were having so much fun. And only when we were chatting afterwards did I suddenly realise why: I’d just made five films in a row, and this was the first one where I had a scene with another woman.”
So will she be more mindful of the Bechdel test – the feminist guideline that requires films to feature scenes of female characters in conversation, not about a man – in future? “Well, yes, but I just felt so embarrassed that I hadn’t realised that earlier. Women talking together – apparently it is a reality! Who knew? And while we talk about the lack of female leads in films today, male domination is just as strong in supporting roles.”
“Gerda or Ava or Vera are all strong characters in different ways. I don’t think so much about whether I’m playing a strong person or not – it’s not that the character needs to be loud or straightforward,” she elaborates. “It can be a fragile, flawed person, but if they have enough dimension, and depth that you understand them even at their weakest, that’s a strong character to me. Then you have something to play, and play with. It’s about not being ‘the girl’.”
Is she concerned that she may be regarded as just that when taking a role in a project like The Man from UNCLE, in which her character is wooed by a burly male super-spy and gets to model a procession of Audrey Hepburn-style outfits? “Well, you need silly movies too! And what I liked about that script was that it wasn’t just dumb action or slapstick – it’s a comedy about strange characters clashing, and that chemistry is what’s funny.”
So, not every project can be chosen on the basis of its political or representational properties, then. But Vikander is optimistic that the gender balance in the industry is slowly shifting. “There’s a change happening, and I want to be part of that,” she says. “I’m so new, I’ve only been reading scripts for a few years on the international market, but you see something like The Hunger Games or Insurgentproving that a female role can carry a successful blockbuster, and that means something. You begin to feel their effect. When people in the industry and in the media are acknowledging the issue and talking about it, then you begin to look around and realise what needs to be done.”
Media interest has its flipside, of course. Vikander is newly confronting the through-the-looking-glass absurdity of paparazzi attention, having recently discovered a series of snapshots of her running errands in Soho – over 30 of them, taken over four hours – had surfaced on celebrity news sites. “There’s nothing to them: I’m just buying a book and meeting a friend for coffee,” she says. “It’s just very strange. And it’s hard to say anything’s tough when you’re getting to make a career out of what you love most, but I don’t think that’s anything you can be used to.”
“I like mystery,” she continues. “I like not knowing about my favourite actresses and actors. I love seeing Meryl Streep up there and knowing so little about who she is outside of what she’s playing on screen. But I meet journalists and even young girls who say, ‘Oh, we just want to know more about you.’ I guess it’s become another a character, a role in a way, for actors to play – this version of themselves to present to them. But it is a made-up idea of who you are.”
She eschews social media out of the same wariness. “I tried it once for two weeks but I felt this constant pressure to post. I was so stressed.”
If Vikander finds it comparably stressful to retain secrets while also giving hour-long interviews to the likes of me, she doesn’t let on. She’s a savvy operator, after all, having briefly signed up for law school after quitting ballet, before fate (or at least casting directors) intervened. You could argue that her catholic taste in film projects, her blithe veering between arthouse and multiplex, between Hollywood and Scandinavia and the UK, is a neat way of preserving her own actorly mystique, of preventing her audience from pinning her down, on camera or off. I ask if she ever misses ballet. It’s a more punishing calling, perhaps, but outside of performance, a less public one.
She shakes her head softly. “Of course, each time I go to the opera house and sit down and the curtain goes up, it hits me quite hard,” she says. “I cry, because, like art, it puts you in a place where you’re transferred somewhere else, and all these ‘what ifs’ come up in my head. But when the curtain goes down, I know I couldn’t keep up. I feel I’m just an outsider looking in, really impressed.”