Early in the movie "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," central character Lisbeth Salander is bound and raped by her legal guardian. It's a harrowing scene from the first tale in novelist Stieg Larsson's so-called Millennium Trilogy that was nearly as difficult to film as it is to watch.
Peter Andersson, the actor cast as the guardian, couldn't bring himself to manhandle Salander, who is played in all three of the crime-story film adaptations by Noomi Rapace. The petite, 30-year-old Swedish actress kept encouraging Andersson to dispense with any gentle stagecraft, worried that audiences would think the impending sexual violence wasn't authentic. "Damn it, just hit me!" Rapace finally said.
Director Niels Arden Oplev watched in amazement. "Noomi is the kind of actor," he says, "who would rather get punched for real."
Larsson's three books are global blockbusters, and the first film in the Swedish-language trilogy (released domestically in March) has grossed more than $100 million around the world. "The Girl Who Played With Fire," the second installment about Rapace's disaffected computer hacker Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist (played by Michael Nyqvist), premiered in American theaters Friday, attracting mostly favorable notices and grossing a substantial $905,000 in limited release in 110 theaters, with 33 more locations to be added on Friday. (The third film, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," arrives in domestic theaters Oct. 15.)
Sony Pictures is currently developing an American "Dragon Tattoo" remake to be directed by David Fincher ("Fight Club," "Zodiac"), and any number of prominent young performers — Ellen Page, Evan Rachel Wood, Natalie Portman, Carey Mulligan and Kristen Stewart, to name but a few — have been mentioned as potential Salanders in the U.S. version. Rapace says that she likes Page and Wood as actors, but has no preferred favorite for Fincher's "Dragon Tattoo," hoping only that he and Sony don't cast someone so famous that audiences see the actor, not Salander.
For those who have seen the first two movies — including the directors who made them, and several film critics — it's difficult to picture anyone surpassing Rapace's performance, an intrepid combination of physical, sexual and emotional truthfulness. "Watching Rapace burrow deep inside Lisbeth's damaged mind, body and soul is its own sort of twisted pleasure," Times film critic Betsy Sharkey wrote.
Rapace, who was largely unknown even inside Sweden before the first film came out, transformed herself to play Salander, which required seven months of training (mostly kickboxing) and one year of filming for the three movies. Startlingly beautiful in person, Rapace lopped off her hair, added seven piercings (including a bull ring through her nose) and packed on rippling muscles (while losing about 12 pounds from her 5-foot, 2-inch frame) to play Salander, who as written by Larsson is, impossibly, as tough as she is tiny.
"I wanted to get rid of my female body and become more masculine in a way," says Rapace, who is married to actor Ola Rapace and has a 6-year-old son. "Because Lisbeth is not really enjoying being a woman."
The first book's (as well as the initial film's) Swedish title is "Men Who Hate Women," a scarcely subtle tip-off to Larsson's narrative bent. As imagined by the political activist and journalist, who died in 2004 just after completing (but before the publication of) his books, Salander has suffered through any number of personal horrors.
Salander's mother was beaten by Lisbeth's father, Salander was committed as a child to a mental institution to protect a Swedish spy program, and the very person assigned to her care — her guardian — exploited her in the worst possible way. Salander is a deeply wounded person, in other words — exactly the kind of character Rapace loves to play.
Her breakout role came with 2007's Danish drama "Daisy Diamond," in which Rapace starred as a single mother (and aspiring actress) in a precipitous tailspin, a mental collapse capped by infanticide. "It was a very dark and complicated film," Rapace says. "And it was very scary in a way — people in Sweden couldn't separate me from my character."
The casting director for "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" saw Rapace performing in a stage play, and she was among a few dozen actors summoned to do scenes with director Oplev for the starring role. "It felt like a suicide mission," says Rapace, who speaks English, Swedish and Icelandic. "Everybody thought they knew the character and that Lisbeth, in a way, was their best friend. When I read the first book, I knew her and felt like she was something close to me — I felt some connection to her from the very beginning…. It's like I woke up some aggressive monster in me."