Alicia Vikander attends the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion & The Catholic Imagination Costume Institute Gala at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 7, 2018 in New York City.
Alicia Vikander attends the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion & The Catholic Imagination Costume Institute Gala at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 7, 2018 in New York City.
Alicia Vikander has a mantra. “When things are hard,” she begins, slowly, “I say, ‘Yeah, but it’s not tougher than ballet school.’” Alicia enrolled at the Royal Swedish Ballet School at nine, and danced with companies until she was 19, which amounts to a childhood spent in permanent discipline. “One thing you learn in a school like that, if it doesn’t break you, is that no one does [the work] for you.”
It’s a rather worldly lesson to have internalised as a child, but as preliminary training for Hollywood, you’d hazard the lesson was invaluable. Today, the 29-year-old Oscar winner still has the physical mannerisms of a dancer: she sits, back straight on her chair, legs crossed, occasionally grasping her feet and rocking from side to side. Her first English-speaking role was only “six or seven years ago”, and she speaks slowly and carefully, though it doesn’t seem like the uncertainty of the non-native speaker, but instead a deep-rooted thoughtfulness.
“EXTREMELY IMPORTANT ISSUES ARE BEING BROUGHT UP ABOUT EQUALITY, SAFE WORKPLACES AND EQUAL PAY.”
For there is plenty for Alicia to reflect on. Next week, her latest film, Tomb Raider, will be released; she, of course, plays the video game riot grrrl Lara Croft in the new adaptation, directed by Norwegian director Roar Uthaug, and co-starring Dominic West and Kristin Scott Thomas. It is one of the last projects Alicia had committed to before she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2016, for her role as Gerda Wegerer in The Danish Girl, which means that she is now, for the first time in two years, picking new projects, working out who she wants to be next. She recently took four months off – the first break in five and a half years when she didn’t have something else in preparation – and travelled to Japan: “Number one on my list until I went – and I want to go back and see more.” She is reading, greedily. “I don’t want to say what,” she says, coy, granting only that she enjoyed Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and Homo Deus. She is tentatively interested in producing. “I love filmmaking, so as an actor it’s been wonderful, but you come in at a later stage in the process. But to be there and develop an idea and move forward – that’s what I put a lot of time into thinking about right now.”
And, crucially, Alicia is re-examining Hollywood itself, which is volatile and pitching wildly. In October 2017, the sexual assault allegations made against producer Harvey Weinstein kickstarted the #MeToo movement that has galloped around the world. Hollywood is in a period of painful self-examination; meanwhile, its women are righteously furious. In January, more than 300 Hollywood actresses, including Natalie Portman, Reese Witherspoon and Shonda Rhimes, launched Time’s Up, an anti-harassment initiative pledging a fund of more than $13 million to help women everywhere take aggressors to court; at the Golden Globes actresses wore black to symbolise the new mission. The BAFTAs prescribed the same dress code, and in February, Uma Thurman spoke, powerfully, about her treatment by Weinstein and his antic auteur Quentin Tarantino.
“I’VE NEVER FELT SUCH SUPPORT FROM WOMEN. IT’S WONDERFUL.”
Alicia worked with Weinstein on period drama Tulip Fever: a unilateral disaster that was delayed time and again, and ultimately grossed only $7 million of the $25 million it cost during a limited US release. She wasn’t aware of any accusations levelled at the producer, and says she has never been “put in any situation like that”. “We were just really disgusted and shocked,” she says, quietly. “It felt horrible.”
Alicia talks about the importance of amplifying victims’ stories, and is determined that we must not “put the focus on [perpetrators]”. “It’s been wonderful to see that, more and more over the weeks and months, the focus is on the women and what they’ve gone through, and what the change can be,” she says. She observes that equality in Hollywood, and everywhere, is not just about optics, but also the measurable, visible things like appointing female directors and producers. “Extremely important issues are being brought up about equality, safe workplaces and equal pay. But also, I think, that in any industry, we women have been taught that you have to elbow your way in, because there are no spots for us, so in a big group, it’s only going to be one woman who gets a shot. That’s imprinted. And suddenly, I’ve never felt such support from women. It’s wonderful.”
Notably, she was also part of a group of 900 actresses in Sweden who pulled together a live staging of anonymous stories of sexual harassment and assault – three weeks after the Weinstein news broke – which was attended by politicians and was broadcast live on Swedish television. “It was incredible,” she says. She has been fortunate to work with female directors, such as Swedish filmmaker Lisa Langseth, with whom Alicia has collaborated on three films; Alicia hopes that one day she can be a mentor to a younger actress in the way that Langseth has been to her.
“CHANGE IS ABOUT INITIATIVES LIKE TIME’S UP AND 50/50 BY 2020, IT’S ABOUT MAKING SURE YOU INCLUDE WOMEN IN ALL DEPARTMENTS, ABOUT REALLY MAKING AN EFFORT TO NOT ONLY HAVE WOMEN IN FRONT OF THE CAMERA, BUT ALSO BEHIND.”
“I’ve been really lucky; my first three films were all directed by a female director. I’ve had some really cool women to look up to. I think the sisterhood really creates a mentoring environment. Change is about initiatives like Time’s Up and 50/50 by 2020, it’s about making sure you include women in all departments, about really making an effort to not only have women in front of the camera, but also behind.”
Alicia grew up in Gothenberg, the only daughter of actress Maria Fahl Vikander, and Svante Vikander, a psychiatrist, who separated when she was two months old. She lived between their two homes and says she is very close to both parents, though undeniably it was her mother who shaped her identity. “My mum brought me to the theatre – it’s hard to say what’s nature or nurture. It’s a wonderful thing to grow up and see your parent doing something that they love, and that’s just been so clear as long as I’ve been alive.” She saw her mother perform this summer, when she was back in Sweden for a fleeting visit. “I saw my mum’s play. It was awesome. I sat there and was so proud. She’s fucking good.”
As a child, Alicia acted in small theatre productions and attended the Royal Swedish Ballet School, before an injury forced her to give up dancing. She auditioned for drama school twice, but failed to get in; she started appearing in short films and TV dramas in Sweden, winning a rising star award at the Stockholm Film Festival in 2010, for her feature film debut in Pure, directed by Langseth. Her first mainstream Hollywood role was as Princess Ekaterina in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, alongside Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, after which came a roll call of modern classics including Ex Machina, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Danish Girl, and The Light Between Oceans, where she met her husband, the actor Michael Fassbender. The two married in Ibiza last autumn.
“DUE TO ALL THE ACTION SCENES THAT [THE CHARACTER] HAD TO BE PUT THROUGH, I WANTED IT TO BE PLAUSIBLE THAT A YOUNG GIRL COULD FIGHT A MAN WHO’S OBVIOUSLY BOTH STRONGER AND BIGGER.”
At 29, she seems an old soul, though a mischievous spirit whirrs beneath the surface. She grins when she talks about shooting Tomb Raider, calling co-star West “a hoot”. “There was never a quiet moment on set.” Playing an action heroine was like professional playtime, and she gained five or six kilograms of muscle to play the role: “Due to all the action scenes that [the character] had to be put through, I wanted it to be plausible that a young girl could fight a man who’s obviously both stronger and bigger.” Learning to do a pull-up was exhilarating. “To feel like you have that strength is pretty cool.” Though she didn’t keep up the superhuman regime. “I realised it takes about four months to gain anything, and only three weeks to [lose] it all!” she exclaims with frustration.
Alicia trained with a mountain of a man called Magnus, a “cool guy”, who’d tease her. “I love to drink wine and eat food, and Magnus would sit next to me with his glass of wine and his dessert.” She gave up drinking for seven months, and ate and ate: “Three eggs at 7am, and two fillets of fish, a bowl of rice and veggies at 10am, at 1pm, at 4pm, and at 7pm. I ate more than I’ve ever done in my entire life.” She scorns people who ask her if she gave up carbs. “There was no getting rid of carbs. It was about eating good, and clean.” The physicality reminded her of ballet school. “When I danced, I liked that side of it.”
But she did miss menus, and wine. Cooking equals relaxation, having time to “choose ingredients for two hours and read up on some different recipes and make your own mix and then have friends come over, make sure they drink lots of wine, listen to music, and be in the kitchen for four hours. It’s my dream day.” Her knockout recipe is a bouillabaisse, homemade bread and homemade aioli; she also makes a mean pie. “My own dough – savoury pies and sweet pies.” When she’s on the junket carousel, turning up and finding she has a kitchen changes her mood. “It suddenly makes me feel like I have time off.” She’s delighted with her suite at the Ham Yard Hotel in Piccadilly, which is where we’ve met: she points to a small kitchen off the living room, smiling.
The character of Lara Croft was meaningful to her. “I was a kid who liked playing video games. But when I was growing up, no girls did, and I always hid it. I didn’t have a Playstation, but I went to friends’ houses. I remember that I’d never seen a female protagonist in a video game ever. I tried to play it, and was a bit too scared. I mainly spent time practising in the manor [in the game], running around. But then I did go back and play it in my late teens.
“And as a child I loved to go to the cinema, watch the big movies, the adventures – that genre specifically. I loved Indiana Jones, I grew up with the Mummy films, I loved those films. To be able to be a part of Tomb Raider was like a childhood dream.”
Alicia Vikander attends the “Tomb Raider” European premiere at the Vue West End on March 6, 2018 in London, England.
‘TOMB RAIDER’ EUROPEAN PREMIERE
Also joining Graham is Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander, who stars as Lara Croft in the new Tomb Raider movie.
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…
2018 Gothenburg Film Festival