This will be the closest you feel to any of your subjects,” says Alicia Vikander, telling me to grab hold of her waist if I get scared. We’re on a two-seater ATV somewhere outside Joshua Tree. We’ve just signed away our right to sue in case of sunburn, collision, hypothermia, and harm by wild animals. Vikander is behind the wheel even though she doesn’t have a driver’s license. What’s the worst that can happen? I accidentally say this out loud. “The worst that can happen is we flip,” Vikander says. “But I’m not going to flip us. I promise.”
An ATV ride was Vikander’s idea, a nod to her turn as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, a reboot of the 2001 film that transformed Angelina Jolie, the compelling aggressor in Girl, Interrupted, into a big-screen action figure. For Vikander, who won an Oscar for The Danish Girl, the role comes as one of those anointing rituals of modern Hollywood in which an actor is plucked from the land of daring art-house dramas—Scarlett, Jennifer, Shailene—and entrusted with carrying a bankable franchise.
Most likely we’re not going to flip or freeze to death. But there is a chance that we will encounter some reptiles, which is a problem since Vikander and I both have a dreadful fear of snakes. When we compare childhood snake traumas, Vikander’s wins, no contest. It takes place at a lake, and . . . I’ll let her tell it: “It had these diving towers. I finally get to the top, jump, and that’s when I see there are about fifteen snakes in the water. That second I was coming down is like the longest in memory. Obviously those snakes got terrified and swam away, but I was just shaking. I couldn’t move for two days. I never really dove after that.”
This is the woman who wanted to spend a Saturday in the desert—for fun.
Over the past few weeks, Vikander has been on the move. After celebrating her twenty-ninth birthday in Paris, she married Michael Fassbender in Spain, honeymooned in Italy, and stopped over in New York before landing in Los Angeles, where she met me at dawn wearing Nike leggings, trainers, and Céline sunglasses. Arriving with her in Chiriaco Summit, a rest stop–size desert town of shipping containers and roving biker gangs, is a bit like watching an alien landing. An olive-skinned Swede, she glides in a way that feels almost ethereal and speaks with the pleasing, untraceable European accent that children of diplomats have. In Vikander’s charming English, American AC is “air-con,” a person who helps you out is a real “life savior,” and movies are always “cinema.” Here’s her encounter with American diner coffee: “I love that they give you these big cups and like these tiny. . . .” She means creamers.
Randy, our khaki-wearing ATV guide, also seems perplexed by Vikander. “So you’re an actress?” he asks. When she explains that she’s the new Tomb Raider, Randy’s face lights up with boyish recognition. “Tomb Raider?! Oh, my goodness.”
It’s true—Vikander, a former ballerina with a petite frame and delicate old-world features, is an unlikely Croft, the digital embodiment of teen male fantasies from the game consoles of the 1990s. Croft may have been the first heroine of video games, but like most women, she had to endure the indignities that being first entailed: an exaggerated bust, a tiny waist, short shorts. In 2018, a year after Wonder Woman redefined the modern action heroine, Croft is more Olympic athlete than pinup. Gone are the short shorts and belly shirt, replaced with sensible cargo pants. Vikander concedes that she wore a lightly padded bra for the role, but that it was mostly to help her get into a character. “What little I have I kind of pushed up,” she says.
The new film tells an origin story about how Croft became the invincible, gun-wielding archaeologist. The first action sequence shows Vikander racing through London streets—not atop Croft’s signature motorcycle (or an ATV) but on a bicycle. “Bicycling, that’s my big stunt!” she jokes.
“I knew I wanted Alicia to play Lara even before I met her,” says Roar Uthaug, Tomb Raider’s director, who reportedly chose Vikander over Daisy Ridley and Cara Delevingne. “She brings a vulnerability that I think is important. We’re not making a cardboard Hollywood hero. We’re making a girl that’s flesh and blood.” (Or as Dominic West, who plays Croft’s father, describes the reboot: “Less boobs, more fighting.”)
Vikander and I are now careening through sagebrush on the ATV. Her form is natural, easy. I do OK, but mostly I look like a rag doll trying to ride a lawn mower. With the temperature nearing 100, Vikander slips her arms inside her tank top to shield them from the sizzling midday sun, revealing a white lace bra. “Fuck it,” she says. “We’re in the desert. I’m hot. He doesn’t care.” Meaning Randy, who very gallantly tries to avert his eyes every time he turns in our direction.
I’m trying to be respectful, too, but it’s hard not to admire Vikander’s post–Tomb Raider figure, the product of a six-month shoot in South Africa that involved weight training, MMA fighting, climbing, archery, and swimming. “Alicia is quite badass,” says West, who spent his downtime on set surfing with Fassbender. “And she’s deadly serious about the work. I was always trying to get her out to the pub, but she was very disciplined.”
That resilience shows as Vikander easily maneuvers choppy terrain. And yet there’s something about her perpetually cool composure that hints at a sensitive being with impressive coping skills. “I think she gets that from ballet,” says Alexia Wennberg Alm, who grew up with Vikander in Sweden and remains her best friend. “From a really early age you kind of put on a stage face, and she’s always been very good at keeping everything together.”
It might also have to do with growing up as the daughter of a theater actress and a psychiatrist. There’s a hint of romanticism when Vikander tells me that her parents met at a party in the Swedish city of Gothenburg and fell in love talking about death. “It was four in the morning, and everyone had left,” Vikander says, “and they were like, ‘But we’d really like to finish our conversation!’ ” They split up shortly after Vikander was born, but she stayed close to her father, spending weekends with him and her stepsiblings. At her mom’s house, she remained an only child. “When it’s two women . . . you’re close,” she says. When Vikander left home at fifteen to attend the Royal Swedish Ballet School in Stockholm, she was more worried about leaving her mother than being on her own.
Vikander acted in theater as a child, but once in Stockholm, she was denied admission to drama school four times in a row. She got a job at a Levi’s store, took a trip to India, and considered going to law school. That time of feeling adrift was something Vikander wanted to instill in the new Croft, who begins the film as a 21-year-old struggling to make rent on a shared flat. “She hasn’t found her footing in the world just yet,” Vikander says. “The film is really her discovery of herself. ”
After getting her first film roles, in Swedish director Lisa Langseth’s Pure and the historical drama A Royal Affair, Vikander moved to London. Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina followed, and at the age of 21, she went to Los Angeles to take meetings, as they say. “It became very apparent how vulnerable I was,” she says, recalling how she was told to curl her hair and put on high heels for morning auditions. “It was very not me, but I did curl my hair, and I did put on a pair of heels. As a younger woman, with much less self-confidence and not knowing you don’t have to do something. . . .” She trails off. “If everyone else says this is what you do, then who am I to question it?”
With the reckoning of Harvey Weinstein still close enough in the rearview mirror, Vikander’s words sound a familiar alarm of what the industry is like for young women. “I was in such shock and disgust when I read those stories,” Vikander says. Tulip Fever, Vikander’s film with the producer, was released last September, just before the allegations surfaced. “I personally have never found myself in similar situations like some women who have spoken out,” Vikander adds. “I’d heard that he was an incredible bully and that he does anything to get what he wants, but I never thought that meant sexually harassing women.”
For Vikander, the antidote to Hollywood’s public perils has been the private moments when other women have empowered her. Like Julianne Moore, who came to Vikander’s defense when a man in a position of power made a cruel, loud joke at Vikander’s expense on the set of the 2014 fantasy film Seventh Son. “I was really embarrassed, and I would have just laughed it off,” Vikander says, not naming the man. “But Julianne turned to him and said, ‘If you ever do that again, I’m walking out of here and I’m not coming back.’ ” Vikander’s eyes go glassy during this story. “She was just, like, Don’t you fucking say that again. It showed me that she had the power. And that meant so much to me.”
Vikander joined fellow actresses including Reese Witherspoon, Natalie Portman, and Michelle Williams at this year’s Golden Globes in promoting Time’s Up, the new initiative to combat workplace sexual misconduct and inequality. The movement started over the holidays as women in the industry began to email one another. “It was such a community that came together,” Vikander tells me the day after the awards show. “I got on the phone with Natalie, whom I’d never met, and Reese. Suddenly I felt like I made a lot of new friends. One thing that really got to me in their initial email was the fact that—because women are not as well represented in all industries—we often have to fight for jobs. The competition is so tough that instead of getting to know each other and working together, we learned at an early age to compete for that single spot. So then to get on the carpet yesterday and feel like I had actually made friends with the other actresses and people I admire, it was really cool.”
Our ATV ride over, we pull back into the parking lot, covered in a layer of dust so thick it looks like we’ve gotten bad spray tans. I’m relieved to hear her admit that there were times she felt nervous during the ride. “I think I imagined it would be much less bushy,” she says, “and when we got there, I was like, Shit! This looks exactly like a place where all the snakes would live.”
After scrubbing down with baby wipes, Vikander and I are back in the car, heading to Palm Springs for lunch. “They’re going to be like, ‘Oh, my God, these girls didn’t have a wash,’ ” she says. And yet there’s a sense that this is a more natural state for Vikander. Not dressed for red carpets or cooped up in hotels, but getting to roam around outdoors. I tell her that I envy her ability to appear fearless, and Vikander nods. “People always think I’m not scared,” she says. “I’ve noticed that whenever I feel stressed, everyone thinks I’m fine, and later it’s like, ‘I was not fine.’ That’s just how I deal with it. I need to tell myself I’m OK. And then I am.”
A time Vikander was not OK was in 2015, when she began to cross over from the anonymity that comes with being a foreign actress into the bewildering Hollywood spotlight. “I felt anxious and sad for the first time in my life,” she says. Pinpointing the period to the release of The Danish Girl, she describes the demands of interviews and red carpets as a splitting of the self. “When I read things about me I thought, That’s so far away from who I thought I am. It really messed with my head.”
A self-protective instinct set in—and a hesitation to, for instance, dance when out with her friends, knowing that several smartphone cameras are likely hovering nearby. (Riding in the desert, Vikander had said something about how we were probably safe from the paparazzi. I thought she was joking. We were in an area so barren and remote, it looked apocalyptic. And yet, a few days later, photos surfaced in the Daily Mail under the headline “Start your engines! Newlywed Alicia Vikander gets an adrenaline rush as she rides atv with pal just weeks after marrying Michael Fassbender.”)
At the Parker hotel in Palm Springs, Vikander sits with her back to the dining room. She tells me it was important to her that her wedding in Ibiza remained a small, discreet gathering of friends and family. “It’s not about being secretive,” she explains. “It’s just about choosing the few things that you keep private.” For now, Vikander has managed to maintain a distance from the Hollywood machine that tends to consume its new arrivals. When she and Fassbender travel to New York, they like to stay in Airbnbs in Bushwick. Her social circle is composed not of actors but of old Stockholm friends, like Wennberg Alm, whom Vikander has taken as her date to Cannes and the Oscars. As Wennberg tells me, “I talk to her more than I do with many of my friends in Stockholm. I think she needs all of us back home to remind her of everything normal.”
Besides Tomb Raider, there are as of now two more Vikander films on the horizon—Submergence, a Wim Wenders romantic thriller with James McAvoy, and Euphoria, a European family drama and her third collaboration with Lisa Langseth. But for the past five months, she’s been taking a break. She’s been catching up on reading, plowing through Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, the provocative macro-history of humankind endorsed by Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg. She even got to fly home to see her mother perform in a play in Gothenburg. “When I was a kid, I’d ask my mom, ‘Why are you crying when we’re singing in school?’ ” Vikander says. “And now it was almost the reverse. I was so proud.”
Recently she and Fassbender decided to settle down in Lisbon, which Vikander pronounces very “Williamsburg-ish,” describing its mix of history and turn-of-the-century factories. “And apparently Madonna moved there,” she deadpans.
When I ask about married life, she considers the question carefully. “I feel I’m more happy and content than I’ve ever been,” she says. Vikander and Fassbender met while playing a married couple in Derek Cianfrance’s The Light Between Oceans. Would they consider working together again? Vikander gives the kind of tactful answer that actors are so good at: Yes, if the right project comes along. “We had a great experience, apart from the fact that we. . . .” She looks at the ring on her finger and laughs. “I think he’s one of the absolute best actors I’ve worked with. Of course he’d done more films than me, but immediately when we started to work together he was so open to wanting me to chip in new ideas and thoughts. He would be like, ‘I’m stuck; what should I do?’ and I would say, ‘You’re asking me?’ That was such a sweet thing. . . . Life is about a lot more than work, but if it’s also your biggest passion, of course it’s something you enjoy talking about.”
Oh, and Vikander would like to clarify something: “The happy-and-content thing, that’s talking about my private life.” Professionally, there is still a lot she’d like to do. Euphoria is the first film Vikander has produced, as part of her new company, Vikarious Film, and she’s currently looking for its next project. She’d like to try writing and comedy, which she describes as “a big fear for dramatic actors.”
When I point out that she has a thirst for doing things she’s afraid of, Vikander seems to know what I’m talking about. “That feeling has brought me to a lot of projects,” she says. “Like I don’t really know how to approach a character or a story, and that excitement mixed with fear makes me want to wake up really early and work.”
“The Magic Diner Part II” finds the Tomb Raider actress, Alicia Vikander, holed up in the Ritz Carlton high above Manhattan’s Central Park, hiding from her admiring public, and fretting that her supernatural gizmo may have, at long last, run out of answers. Which is when a surprise visitor knocks at her door…