Alicia Vikander poses for Vogue US Magazine – January 2016 issuse
In the blink of an eye Alicia Vikander has gone from little-known ingenue to serious Oscar contender. Rob Haskell meets Hollywood’s skyrocketing star.
My doorbell rang at 5:45 a.m., a half hour early. I suppose I was expecting a suited chauffeur with a joyless expression to match my own, his starlet cargo waiting behind tinted windows. But when I opened the gate, there was Alicia Vikander in black leggings and cross-trainers, her familiar face, with its deeply golden complexion and wide-set brown eyes, looking stricken. It was a fear I recognized immediately, having been up much of the night myself. A few weeks earlier the Swedish actress had suggested that we go skydiving after I threw out some rather tame ideas for a Los Angeles playdate—a game of tennis, a visit to a nearby farmer’s market, a sunny hike in the Palisades. Now the moment had arrived.
“I’m all nerves,” she said, her teeth chattering softly. “I think I never really believed we’d have to go through with this.” Then she sank to the floor of the breakfast room and, while I made us coffee, gathered my two dogs into her lap as if desperate for the solace of something terrestrial. Her phone rang. “It’s my mum,” she said, laughing nervously, “calling to make sure I’m not going to die.”
After some wan assurances in Swedish and a double espresso, we drove to the desert, suited up, boarded a plane whose blunt nose had been painted with shark’s teeth, and jumped.
“I have no recollection of that free fall,” she says a couple of hours later, over a Thai lunch in Silver Lake, the Eastside neighborhood where a number of her old friends from Stockholm, writers and musicians mainly, are living on a sort of expat Scandinavian commune. “Apparently adrenaline makes every six seconds feel like a single second, so time collapses.” Alicia’s English, British-accented, is immaculate, her voice low and conspiratorial. Though a reserve prevails in her demeanor, there seems always to be the threat of giddiness, muted by a natural air of gravity. On-screen Alicia is at once steely and fragile, world-weary and childlike. At times she suggests a less mischievous Anna Karina, Godard’s muse, but mostly she resembles no one at all.
I had assumed, when she suggested our morning heart-starter, that Alicia had a daredevil streak, but it turned out that she was merely solving a problem. The year before, when a group of friends planned a sky dive in New Zealand, she assented in spite of her terror, not wanting to be the boring one. But the dive was canceled due to bad weather. “I was so happy. I thought, Great; let’s go and have a glass of wine instead. So when you suggested I cook with you, which I would have loved, for some reason I was reminded of all the fear I had leading up to that jump that never happened,” she explains, “and I thought, Well, if he’s willing, here’s an opportunity to fix something.”
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To those who knew Alicia as a child ballerina, and to those blown backward by her intense displays on the sets of studio pictures in far-flung locales and with soaring budgets, this determination is a given.
“I push myself hard,” she concedes. “I don’t like pain, exactly, but as a ballerina I lived in constant pain. At ballet school in Stockholm, I remember we had a locker where if someone had been to the doctor and gotten painkillers, we divided them among us. In a sense we were all addicted. After I quit dancing, for a while it felt strange not to be in pain. It was as if an old friend, not a good friend but a presence, always tagging along, had left me.”
Alicia, who turned 27 in October and celebrated with a big birthday dinner in New York, is smack in the middle of one of those enchanted seasons that occur in Hollywood with the frequency and fanfare of a comet burning across the sky. LikeJessica Chastain in 2011, she seems suddenly to be in everything, all at once. In the last year she has had six films in American theaters, including Testament of Youth, where she played the celebrated pacifist Vera Brittain; Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; and Alex Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina. Tulip Fever, a seventeenth-century romance, and The Light Between Oceans, costarring her real-life boyfriend, Michael Fassbender, are due to arrive this year. Come summer, she’ll star opposite Matt Damon in the next Bourne installment.
“To be quite honest, it’s nerve-racking, the way these films sort of piled up,” she says. “It’s a mixed feeling when everything you’ve ever wanted in making films is coming true, and yet you feel scared because it’s happening all at once. Suddenly you’re in rooms with people you’ve looked up to for years, the Judi Denches. You wonder if you’re good, if you have what it takes. You carry an anxiety around with you—I’ve met many actors now who will say this—and the lonely feeling that this could be your one chance.”
Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, which recently hit theaters, may be a tipping point for Vikander, not to mention the movie likely to guarantee her a front-row seat at this year’s Oscars. (It, along with Ex Machina, have already earned herGolden Globe nominations.) Though the film tells the story of Lili Elbe (played byEddie Redmayne), a Danish artist who in the early 1930s underwent the first known gender-confirmation surgery, it is in equal measure the story of Lili’s wife, Gerda, who grapples with the loss of her husband but grows to become Lili’s closest ally and fiercest advocate.
In a year that saw both wide-ranging enthusiasm for prominent trans figures such as Caitlyn Jenner and the actress Laverne Cox and a painful setback in November, when Houston voters rejected an anti-discrimination ordinance in that city, The Danish Girl’s timing feels serendipitous. And yet the script had been floating around Hollywood for more than a decade before Hooper seized it. It took another six years to cobble together the financing. “This was not a film of the ‘now’ when we started making it,” Alicia explains, “and it’s frankly amazing to think of the cultural change that has taken place since we started. But I think it’s important to remember that the issues Lili encountered 100 years ago are still issues. You read the statistics about how trans people are physically and psychologically abused, how they are discriminated against at work. This is a civil rights movement.”
Hooper had seen Vikander in Ex Machina and invited her to read with Redmayne, who had already signed on. The director was moved to tears. “Eddie saw me crying after the scene ended,” he recalls, “and he said to me later, ‘Well, there’s no great suspense around who you’re going to cast.’ The only other person who’s overpowered me in an audition that way was Annie Hathaway when she came in to read for Les Misérables.” If there was any early obstacle, it may have been Alicia’s coloring: She is not the ice sculpture that Hollywood often imagines for its Nordics. Again and again, she has been asked to wear long sleeves and SPF 100 in order to help the makeup department conjure the desired pallor. “Two years of films where I had to be white as a ghost,” she says now, laughing. “But I’m a real Swede! In fact, I’m a quarter Finnish. Here I go, exploding stereotypes.”
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