Noomi Rapace goes against type as dragon tattoo girl

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Unless you stare really hard, you probably won't recognize her -- at least for now. There are no tattoos, nose rings, spiked hair or a stay-away-from-me glare.

On this day, anyway, Noomi Ms. Rapace doesn't remind you much at first of Lisbeth Salander, the tough, tomboyish heroine of Stieg Larsson's global best-sellers. But she has won raves and even Oscar talk for her portrayal of the thorny character in the three Swedish film adaptations -- "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," "The Girl Who Played With Fire" and, opening the Three Rivers Film Festival today, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest."

In Los Angeles recently on a break from filming her role as a Gypsy in "Sherlock Holmes 2," Ms. Rapace looks very girlish in a short dress and heels. Her hair loosely falls to her shoulders. Her smile is warm and friendly. But a firm grip when you shake her hand tips you off to a certain determination. Her fingernails are short and unpolished.

It doesn't take long to see why Ms. Rapace was the perfect choice to play Salander, although she almost didn't get the role. Niels Arden Oplev, who directed the first film, thought that she was too feminine, too girlish. As Larsson's fans know, Lisbeth Salander is rail-thin, not even 5 feet tall, bisexual, with tattoos and piercings. Though socially dysfunctional, she's a computer whiz and a tough street fighter.

Set on snaring the role, it took one day for Ms. Rapace to convince Mr. Oplev she was right for the part.

"I started the next day," the 30-year-old says matter-of-factly. She then went on a strict diet and physical regimen to toughen herself up. She immersed herself so much in the role that when Mr. Oplev, who hadn't seen her in a while, ran into her in Los Angeles earlier this year, she had to tell him who she was.

(For the record, at around 5 feet, 4 inches, Ms. Rapace is taller than Lisbeth.)

Before "Girl," Ms. Rapace was known for her art-house films and stage work. Acting for her had always been a release. She grew up mostly in Iceland when her mother, an actress, remarried. Her father was a dancer from Spain, and she didn't have much contact with him growing up.

"When I was 7, I did my first film," she recalled. "I filmed for about three weeks. It was a very small part, but I loved it. It was a new world that opened in front of me. I just wanted to stay there. I didn't want to go home."

It was then she wanted to be an actress. "For me, everything is possible in that world."

The film, she remembers, was a Viking story full of romance and drama. "It was really amazing to see all those grown-ups playing deadly serious," she says. "At that point it became more real than reality. It was like saving my life when I discovered acting."

But as a teenager, she was "a bit lost. I just wanted to drink and be drunk." Although she didn't get any tattoos, she got a lot of piercings like Lisbeth.

Eventually, though, Ms. Rapace decided to follow her dream, and at 15 she left her family, enrolled in drama school in Stockholm and supported herself with roles -- at 16 in a soap opera, then some short films and her first feature at 19.

Ms. Rapace says she survived her youth by watching movies. "Many of the films I saw made me feel less lonely. I knew there were people out there actually making films that talked to me."

Among the ones she lists are "Alien," most of Quentin Tarantino's movies, all of the "Godfather" movies, "Raging Bull," Sean Penn's "The Indian Runner" and Gary Oldman's "Nil by Mouth."

As you may notice, there are no comedies. And among films she has made -- "no comedies," she says with a smile.

Her philosophy as an actress is "to destroy" the distance between her and the character.

"I want them to almost melt together," Ms. Rapace says. "I always try and do as much preparation as I can before. So when you actually start to shoot a movie you don't have to think, you don't have to analyze."

She's excited about the role in "Holmes" because her father's mother was a Gypsy, and she always wanted to explore that part of her heritage. The actress plans to visit Gypsy camps outside Paris.

She also mentions going to Transylvania and reportedly has signed to do "The Last Voyage of Demeter," about Dracula's coffin traveling from Transylvania to England.

Directed by Oscar winner Stefan Ruzowitzky ("The Counterfeiters"), the film, which co-stars Ben Kingsley, will feature Ms. Rapace as a stowaway and the only survivor of the voyage.

The actress says that sometimes her roles bleed over into her own life. "Lisbeth -- and all the characters I've ever played -- take over pretty much, and I find myself dreaming of situations from the character's life more than my own after a while."

She sounds pretty intense. Ms. Rapace laughs and says, "I can never do things halfway." But she is learning to pull back. In 2001, the actress married Swedish actor Ola Rapace, and the couple -- who are reportedly splitting -- have a 7-year-old son, Lev.

Asked about how motherhood fits into her career, Ms. Rapace smiles. "I'm working on it. I think before I was a mother I was totally my characters nonstop. But since he came to me, I think I'm learning to put the characters to sleep when I go home."

The actress took Lev with her a few times during the shooting of the "Girl" films, including the time they shaved the side of her head for "Hornet's Nest."

"I didn't want to come home looking like an alien and scare him," she says. His reaction was that she looked "pretty cool," and Ms. Rapace says he's beginning to understand how playing someone else can affect her.

While making the "Girl" films, her son once asked her why she wanted to look like a teenage boy. "So we talked about Lisbeth and then a couple of days later he said to me, 'Why are you so annoyed? Why are you yelling at me? Because of Lisbeth?' And I said, 'Yeah, maybe.' "

Ms. Rapace says she thinks this will be an ongoing struggle in her life, "because how far can you go into your work, lose yourself, and then pull back and put yourself together and go home?"

The actress doesn't plan to lose herself in being a celebrity, though. She may not be well-known here, but she is in Scandinavia, and finds that she can't walk around as freely as she once could.

"That's the downside of it," admits Ms. Rapace, whose ambitions are more about what types of films she's in and who she works with. "Because I don't really see any value in just being famous. I don't like the celebrity world and all that. I love my work, and that's everything.

"I have to find a balance between my home life and work, but I don't want to end up being too famous because I think that will probably stand in the way of my work."

That means she won't do a romantic comedy just so that people "can see that I'm so funny, charming and all that. Acting is life for me, and life is so much more than a romantic comedy."

"The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" plays at the Regent Square Theater at 7 p.m. today only.

For availability of tickets ($15), call Pittsburgh Filmmakers at 412-681-5449 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today.


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