Noomi Rapace — Stieg Larsson's "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo"
From The Sunday Times (UK), Feb 14, 2010/by Jeff Dawson
In the world of crime fiction there are certain places to be entered at one’s peril — Oxford… the county of Midsomer … any chintzy establishment with the names “Poirot” or “Marple” on the guest register. To the roster of literary death zones, one can now add an entire country… Sweden.
According to the current wave of Scandinavian crime writers “hitting British bookstores with the ferocity of a Viking invasion,” as Boris Johnson put it, the hitherto innocuous home of Saab, Sven-Göran Eriksson and stuff that requires an allen key for assembly, is one almighty killing field — its taiga a veritable repository for body parts; those scenic städer, seething cauldrons of murderous malice.
“Sweet Sweden,” muses Noomi Rapace, prodding a carpaccio salad in a bijou hotel in Stockholm, paperback murder capital of the world. “We are so good at showing this nice surface — very diplomatic, very neutral, friends with everybody. The side effect is that people are not really allowed to show feelings. You’re supposed behave in a certain way. There’s a huge problem with unprovoked violence. It’s like a ticking bomb. People are very closed and very controlled and then at the weekends they drink a lot. It’s ugly… a bit schizophrenic.” Certainly this duality, framed by the depressive, dark winters — a six-month dose of S.A.D. — gives ample motive in the prosaic practice of fictional homicide. A Stockholm Syndrome, if you will.
In Britain we’ve lapped up the new Norse Sagas. Authors like Hakan Nesser and Henning Mankell have racked huge sales — Mankell’s detective, Wallander, proving a hit, too, for the BBC. Though eclipsing them all comes Stieg Larsson. Second only to Khaled Hosseini as the world’s best-selling author of 2008, Larsson’s Millennium trilogy — The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest — has notched 25 million sales globally, one million in the UK.
Exploring the Swedish cultural malaise — from Strindberg to Bergman — is nothing new. But in tackling such things as prostitution, right wing extremism, Baltic gangsters, corporate corruption, not to mention the rattling skeletons of Sweden’s wartime past, Larsson has hit a nerve. “He wanted to force people to admit that, in this perfect life, we also have those problems,” adds Rapace. It has made popular heroes of his sleuths — intrepid reporter, Mikael Blomkvist, and computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander, pint-sized, arse-kicking, bisexual goth-punk and — while we’re at it — semi-autistic analytical genius.
It is Salander — the unlikeliest of literary heroines —with whom Rapace has become inextricably entwined. As the character’s screen embodiment, the actress has starred in all three film adaptations of the books — the third of which has just opened in Scandinavia. Belatedly, the first one, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, is about to launch in the UK. It has been worth the wait. The story of the wealthy Vanger family and the unresolved 1966 disappearance of the patriarch’s niece, is far from a trashy screen translation. A superior thriller, it has been bagging gongs across Europe, not least for its female lead.
There is a touch of Salander about Rapace in real life. “I’m not sentimental,” she shrugs. “The prizes, I give them to my manager. “ At one point, during filming, she even threatened to quit after a blazing row with director, Niels Arden Oplev. “In every creative circus it's good to have some fights,” she offers. “In Sweden, in most film productions, everybody’s friends and everybody’s afraid of conflict.”
Aged 30, with short, slicked dark hair and burning coal black eyes, Rapace, like Salander, hardly conforms to the Swedish stereotype (her late father was a Spanish flamenco singer; she spent her childhood in the eccentric outpost of Iceland). “I really do feel some kind of connection to Lisbeth,” she says. “I always felt like some kind of outsider.” Although, with Stockholm’s immigrant population standing at nearly one third, it begs the question as to what that stereotype is.
A relative unknown, the challenge of filling the Doc Martens of an established cult character came over as “a suicide mission”, as she describes it. But having successfully lobbied the director, who initially feared her “too feminine”, Rapace learnt Thai boxing, how to ride a motorbike and went the full De Niro, getting her nose and eyebrow pierced in accordance with Salander’s human dartboard tendencies. “You can see that I have some small scars,” she says, leaning over to indicate a puncture on the side of her nose.
“It looked horrible,” she continues. In doing the school run, she felt “like some kind of teenage mum.” (She has a six-year-old son with actor husband, Ola Rapace, who, just to complicate home life, appears in the Swedish TV version of Wallander.) But there was Method in the madness.
Discussing anything to do with Larsson is tinged with melancholy. A crusading left wing journalist, who had written crime fiction in his spare time, he died of a heart attack, aged 50, having just delivered the manuscripts to his publisher. The set-to over his posthumous fortune would have graced any of his novels.
Larsson’s 1977 will had bequeathed everything to the Communist Workers’ League. With his signature unwitnessed, document invalid, the childless author’s estate defaulted to his family, overriding Larsson’s long-term partner Eva Gabrielsson (unmarried and therefore disinherited under Swedish law). Gabrielsson, the would-be guardian of the literary legacy, declaims against potential exploitation of Larsson’s work. It has descended into an unseemly squabble. “It’s pretty disgusting, when there’s so much money involved, to see how people behave,” tuts Rapace.
With even that usually heartless breed known as The Critic moved by Larsson’s tale — underscored by the virulence of the Millennium Bug — reviewers have gone a little easy on his work. In the second book, for example, without a trace of irony, the author stock-checks every item purchased by Salander in a bulk shop at Ikea.
Chiefly, though, there has been a tendency to overlook the character traits of his principals. Mikael Blomkvist (in the film, Michael Nyqvist), is a fantasised alter ego, bedding ladies at every turn. “And he never seeks it, all the women just come to him, “ laughs Rapace. Salander too, referenced to the children’s character, Pippi Longstocking, does seem superhumanly capable. “It was really important for me to humanise her a bit because in the books she’s a bit cartoonish.”
Not that Salander can’t mix it up. “It’s too easy to say that she’s a feminist icon,” says Rapace, “I like the fact that she’s a little warrior . Everybody has pissed on her – society, school, justice system, social workers, her family, yet she never feels sorry for herself, she doesn’t see herself as a victim.” Across the bridge from where we sit is the underground station where Salander takes a nasty beating. And there we are again, back to Sweden and its dark underbelly.
Despite the liberal image, the bicycling monarchy, there are some stark realities. If was not too far from here, in 1986, that Prime Minister Olof Palme was assassinated, shot dead on his way home from the cinema. In the city centre is the department store where, in 2003, Foreign Minister, Anna Lindh, was fatally stabbed.
Larsson was no stranger to violence himself, living under death threats from neo-Nazi groups, the reason he never married Gabrielsson — marriage would have required public registration of their residence. Medical evidence points to the contrary, but foul play is still suspected by some in Larsson’s demise.
There may yet be another twist to the story. Larsson’s hard drive contains the unfinished manuscript of a fourth, unfinished, Millennium novel, set in Canada. But should it ever surface and again be adapted, Rapace is steering clear. “I’ve done my Lisbeth,” she states. “I like to move on.”
Admirably, as a film, The Girl with The Dragon tattoo (Swedish title: “The Men Who Hate Women”), avoids the pitfalls of the genre. Made by production company Yellow Bird (who do the Wallanders) it is a measured, patient affair, leading one to ponder what might have happened in the excitable hands of Hollywood.
And there’s the rub, for Sony Pictures has just optioned an American remake with names such as George Clooney and Kristen Stewart mooted for the leads or even with Rapace called out of retirement to reprise her role. “Yet again my answer is no,” she asserts. “I can’t see any reason to do that. It would be cynical.” Despite the best intentions, you suspect they’ll screw it up.
Rapace has since made another film, Svinalangorna with Pernilla August, and is off to Oslo next to shoot Babycall, playing another troubled woman. After our chat, for research, she’s got an appointment with a psychology professor. “People think that I’m very serious and only want to do things that are really dark, but I like to laugh,” she assures. She has a thriller in the works called Clean Out. “It’s pretty funny in a sick way.”
A huge fan of British cinema, Rapace would also — producers note — love to work in the UK (she’s never been). Her all-time hero is Gary Oldman, who grabbed her attention in Sid & Nancy (she was a punk at the time). “If Gary Oldman played Mikael Blomkvist [in a remake], then maybe I’d reconsider,” she quips. “That’s the only chance.”
Lunch over, I meet in the lobby a delightful lady from the Stockholm Museum, who runs the official Stieg Larsson walking tour, taking in the key locations featured in the books. I like to think I have earned kudos by introducing the screen Lisbeth Salander before she slips off to meet her academic.
Yomping through the snowbound pavements is an interesting, bone-chilling diversion, enabling one to check out such landmarks as Blomkvist’s home on Bellmansgatan or the 7-11 where Salander buys her Billy’s Pizza. Nearby, on the bohemian drag of Götgatan, is the glassy Greenpeace office, above which supposedly sits the fictitious Millennium magazine, Blomkvist’s campaigning rag.
Most welcome of all is the sanctuary of the Mellqvist Kaffeebar, where you can nurse one of Blomkvist’s standard order lattes. It was here with his laptop, puffing on his 60-a day roll ups, that the workaholic Larsson used to sit, bashing out his day-job stories, noodling in secret on the crime fiction.
There has been a tendency to sanctify Larsson, painting him as a national hero, champion of the oppressed, rather than the toiling underground scribe he most certainly was — which, for me, makes it even sadder that he never lived to savour his success. What he’d have made of this film, one can only guess. But you sense he’d rather have liked it.