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The Telegraph (2018)

Alicia Vikander on becoming Lara Croft: 'My skin went blue with cold and I couldn’t speak for four hours. My mum said, Alicia, this is too hard'

March 9, 2018   |   Written by Louise Gannon

In the luxury apartment of a West End hotel, the Oscar-winning actor Alicia Vikander is not quite feeling herself. ‘This makes me feel very small and a bit overwhelmed,’ she says, nodding towards the spacious sitting room furnished with embroidered sofas and hand-painted armoires. ‘This is really not who I am.’

Dressed in black leggings and an oversized navy cable-knit sweater, Vikander does look rather small. She opts to sit on a stiff dining chair, pulling it up close to the table. Her hair is pulled back into a ponytail, there is no make-up on her face and, at 29, she has the serious, youthful air of an international student.

Her possessions (largely books and casual clothes) barely take up half of one of the many wardrobes in the apartment, which is her home for a week during the promotion of her new film, Tomb Raider. The only exception to this frugality is a large double-banded diamond ring on her wedding finger.

But Vikander is not small. Right now, in the movie industry, the Swedish daughter of a psychiatrist (Svante) and a stage actress (Maria) is huge. She has managed to pull off the difficult trick of being acclaimed by critics while having the populist clout to put bums on seats in cinemas. She has also given gossip columnists plenty to write about after marrying the equally sought-after German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender at a low-key ceremony in Ibiza six months ago.

Vikander started her film career in Swedish art-house movies such as Pure (2010), in which she played a troubled 20-year-old who finds solace in the music of Mozart, before appearing as the ingénue heroine Kitty in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012) and then starring in the globally acclaimed Testament of Youth (she played a young Vera Brittain) and Ex Machina (which saw her nominated for Golden Globe and Bafta awards).

 Two years ago, she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for The Danish Girl, in which she pretty much stole the film from Eddie Redmayne as Gerda, the conflicted wife of Einar Wegener (Redmayne), the first known man to have a sex change, in 1920s Denmark.

She has a habit of making surprising choices. She has flitted from art house (Euphoria, The Light Between Oceans) to fantasy (Seventh Son) to light comedy (Burnt) to big-budget blockbusters (Jason Bourne). Her latest film is firmly in blockbuster territory; she’s taken on the iconic role of the archaeological adventurer Lara Croft in a reboot of Tomb Raider, alongside Dominic West and Kristin Scott Thomas.

In the months before the film started shooting, she honed her body into a ripped, muscle-bound fighting machine – not only so she would look the part (photographs of her in a red polka-dot bikini on holiday with Fassbender last year caused a veritable social-media frenzy), but to enable her to do all her own stunts. ‘I think it’s your duty to commit as much as possible to the role and who she is as a woman,’ Vikander says. ‘For me, building myself up and doing stunts as an actress was in part about becoming her, and to be honest it was also a lot of fun – I like to push myself.’

She grins. ‘People think of me as this art-house girl. But when I was a little girl in Sweden the films I loved were all those amazing action movies – Indiana Jones and The Mummy. The idea that I was being asked to do this movie…’ She pauses and shakes her head. ‘I am an actress from a tiny country where even just to think you can be in a movie seems like a dream, and then to be in a movie that you dreamt about as a kid just seemed completely surreal.’

She pauses again and says seriously, ‘So if I was going to do this, I was going to do it the very, very best I could. I was going to give everything. Everyone remembers Angelina Jolie [who played the character in the noughties], but I wanted to make Lara Croft my own.’

In the run-up to making the film, Vikander added 16lb to her 5ft 5in frame working with fellow Swede and fitness trainer Magnus Lygdback, who has trained everyone from Britney Spears to Harry Styles. Lygdback’s method spans weights, circuits and rock climbing, as well as archery and mixed martial arts (MMA). Vikander threw herself into it. ‘I loved the discipline,’ she says. ‘It reminded me of my dance training years ago, but this was different, it was about transforming myself.

‘I had to eat every three hours, five times a day, no sugar, no fast carbs (bread, cereals and potatoes). It was pretty hard as I’m a big foodie and we filmed in Cape Town, which has such great restaurants, but Magnus would give me a diet sheet, and on set food was brought to me so there were no excuses.

‘Breakfast was three eggs and there was a lot of lean fish and rice for lunch and dinner. My body started to change quite quickly and I loved being so powerful and looking so muscly.

I loved the fact that it was my job to spend days training in the gym transforming myself into this strong, badass woman.’ She looks down at her slight frame and shrugs. ‘Those muscles have all pretty much gone. It took six months to look like that and just a few weeks for it to disappear. But at least I am free to eat bread. I make my own bread.’

Vikander’s stunts included impossible-looking cliff jumps and MMA fighting. ‘I loved everything except the water,’ she says. ‘I had to spend hours in water with a wind machine on me to create waves. One scene they had to keep reshooting because my skin went blue with cold and they couldn’t hide it with make-up.

Another time my mum and dad came down to visit me. We sat in a container between takes and I couldn’t even speak for four hours. I just sat with a heat lamp with my mum saying, “Alicia, this is too hard.” But I knew she understood this is the way I do things. She is also an actress and she knows what you have to put yourself through if you want to be your best.’

Among other actors and directors Vikander is known for two things: commitment and intensity. Her drive is extraordinary. It has taken her just half a decade to go from foreign-actress status to Hollywood A-lister, but in that time, she has made 17 films. Fassbender has admitted to being anxious about working with her on The Light Between Oceans (shot in New Zealand in 2014), which is when the couple first fell in love. ‘I said early on: “This girl frightens me.” She is so fierce and brave… it kind of bowled me over.’ Dominic West describes her as ‘terrifyingly talented’.

Vikander does not agree. Not yet. This is a woman still wanting to prove her worth as an actress. She was turned down for drama school not once but four times. ‘Every job I do, I feel a fear of what people think,’ she says in her near-perfect English.

In person, though serious, she is more open than expected. She talks about cooking for her husband and friends: ‘I spend hours in the kitchen. It’s my way of relaxing. I make a good bouillabaisse with a lot of saffron, I make curries, pies and bread. We also like to go out and boogie every now and again.’

There is very little of Hollywood about Vikander. In the way she dresses – ‘I would describe my style as Scandi simple’ – and the way she thinks, she is the opposite of a diet-obsessed LA actor. Her first move once she has committed to a film is to find out where filming will take place, ‘and then research and book up restaurants for four months in advance. When I get on set everyone else is completely thrown that I’m organising all these meals out.’ And on Tomb Raider, she was so blown away by the set that had been built of the tomb, she asked if the crew’s children could spend a day running around it with her. ‘I genuinely found it so exciting and I wanted to be with kids because I knew they’d have that exact same excitement I was feeling.’

She and Fassbender recently moved from London to live in Lisbon because it is ‘simple, beautiful and warm’. She says, ‘A lot of our friends moved there and we thought, “Why not?” It’s a great city to live in. Beautiful food. And I am learning to speak the language. I’m not great at it yet… give me a little time.’

Vikander’s childhood was unconventional. Her parents split up when she was just a few months old and she divided her time between living with her mother in Gothenburg and visiting her father – and five half-siblings – at weekends. At the age of four, her mother took her to see The Nutcracker. She immediately became hooked on dance and at nine she joined a dance school. At 15, she was accepted into the Royal Swedish Ballet School in Stockholm, and moved to the capital.

Two things become clear as she talks. Her time at the ballet school was not a happy one, yet it gave her the discipline and work ethic that have become her trademark.

‘I look back on that time and I don’t really recognise myself,’ she says. ‘I was very young and I had to become responsible for myself. At first you have the thrill of the freedom of living on your own [she shared a flat with other young dancers], but then when you have to get up at 6am every day for 10 hours of schoolwork and dance classes, you realise you can’t possibly put in as much work into your school studies because so much time is taken up with dance.’

She continues, ‘In the wake of all the talk about abuse there should be more eyes on these elite schools, whether it’s dance or gymnastics or sports. There is a lot of pressure – both physical and psychological. And a lot of it is abusive because there is a lack of actual care for those kids – the focus is purely about performing to the highest standard at whatever cost.

You think you can take it because you know it is expected of you, but I think I was probably one of just a few girls at my school who didn’t have an eating disorder. So many of the girls had bad ones. My mum talked to me a lot about food so it was something I was very aware that I didn’t want to happen to me.

‘It was a strange existence. We had very few hours given over to lessons, yet had to take the same standard exams as everyone else in the country and were made to feel very conscious to excel at everything. If you didn’t get an A in an essay, girls would be crying. I would cry. There was this constant air that you weren’t ever quite good enough, that you weren’t going to make it.

‘We lived in such a small world. All you knew were other dancers. As I got older, I made a vow to myself that I had to meet other people. I forced myself to go out in Stockholm. I would literally walk up to girls saying, “Hello, you seem really nice. Do you want to be my friend?” It makes me laugh when I think of it now but it actually worked. I made friends with a bunch of musicians and I opened up my world. At the age of 18, I fell out of love with ballet. It was so hard. I had no money. I lived in a flat with a minibar stocked with fish sticks, lingonberry jam and frozen meatballs. My dream then was to act.’

What happened next – after she was turned down for drama school several times – is pure Withnail and I. Vikander, who had won small roles in Swedish television shows, landed a lead part in Pure, which won her a slew of awards. Armed with this success, she set off for England along with two musician friends (Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo, aka the Swedish electropop duo Icona Pop). They found an apartment on Portobello Road in London’s Notting Hill, and all set about furthering their careers.

‘It was a tough time but it was a big time,’ Vikander says with a slight smile. ‘We had no money. We had a great address but the apartment was so bad. In Sweden even the cheapest places are clean but this was dirty, cold and like something from a different time. One night we came home and there were rats in the kitchen. We pulled the table out of that room, shut the door and never opened it again!

We had to often share a bed and wear as many clothes as possible because the heating didn’t really work. We all tried to stay out of the flat as long as possible. I went to auditions and found my way around London. At that point I thought, “I am Swedish, no one will have ever heard of me. Please let me get some work here.” I never even thought of America. My main worry was my money running out and that we lived in a flat with rats.’

She laughs. ‘We still talk about that now, and with Tove Lo [the Swedish singer, another friend], who would come and visit. We make jokes about it but these were girls a few years before I had walked up to and asked to be my friends. Now they are my family.’

Vikander has few worries now. With an Oscar, a talented (and handsome) husband, and scripts piling up at her door, she is in the sweet spot of her life. She is a big advocate for equal rights and is currently working to link up Swedish female artists who have spoken about abuse under the ‘#silenceaction’ banner, to the Time’s Up campaign.

‘It is so important, so humbling that women are speaking out and speaking up. I would never identify in any other way than as a feminist. I am a woman raised by a woman.’ Her few encounters with Harvey Weinstein (Tulip Fever and Burnt were produced by his company) passed without incident. ‘Nothing happened to me,’ she shrugs. There are times when her success makes her cry.

‘I miss my friends,’ she says. ‘I have sat with my girlfriends and told them my biggest fear is that I will lose contact with them because of my work. They just laugh at me and say, “It’s not going to happen.” We do this thing now where we have a meal together on Skype. We sit down with our food and a bottle of wine and we all talk and eat. It makes you really focus on being with each other rather than Skyping and packing your bags at the same time or checking your phone. My friends and my family mean so much to me because I have spent a lot of time on my own.’

And what of her husband? The couple are famously reticent about each other. She smiles. ‘I’m very happy. It is good we are both actors because we understand each other and we support each other.

‘I never dreamt about getting married. I just dreamt about falling in love. We are together for that reason. It should be the only reason. And I like being married. I do want children and a family. I like being part of something bigger than myself.’

She pauses to reflect on what she has just said, then adds very seriously, ‘I love to work, I am driven, I am ambitious, but in my life my relationships will always come first – above everything. That is the point of life, isn’t it? Otherwise there is no life.’

Tomb Raider is released on 15 March