Alicia Vikander’s overnight success began earlier than even she can recall. On the phone from the Las Vegas set of the untitled next Bourne film, the 27-year-old Swedish actress who dazzled us in The Danish Girl, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Testament of Youth, and Ex Machina laughed when her first acting role was mentioned. From age 7 to 10, Vikander was a cast member of the musical Kristina från Duvemåla (written by ABBA members Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson) at the Göteborg Opera. “I think I was actually 6, and I don’t remember it that well, except for the end when I was told I wouldn’t be able to see all those actors and actresses I’d worked with for so long, for half of my life. But I did love being up around all those performers; they treated me so well. You always got to express your opinion with them,” she said.
But Vikander, who nearly pursued dance — she trained with the Royal Swedish Ballet from age 9 until her late teens — instead of acting, never had movie star dreams as a child: “It’s strange to say, but it would be like visiting another world. You know, I saw a lot of films. But it was just like, you know, wanting to be a princess. Even in the theater, I thought, well the highest ambition was one day I might get a position at the Royal Theatre. Swedish actresses might hope for that and maybe be in a film every three years or so.”
This year alone, Vikander has been in five films, which included her triumphant role as Ava the robot in Ex Machina and her Oscar-nominated Gerda in The Danish Girl. “That was a script that was going around in London; you heard about it,” she said. It had been in preproduction for about 15 years, and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon was set up three or four times with actor-director packages that evaporated. “I was on the Tube when I read that Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hooper were going to make it, and I thought to myself, ‘I can’t wait to see that film.’ A few days later my agent told me there was a role in it that I should read for.”
To prepare for the role of Gerda, Vikander familiarized herself with the trans community and found a wealth of information. “Each of their stories was so personal, but I thought that the people who went through transitioning with them might have their own stories. I imagined some of them were lonely. But it was a privilege to dig deep to find the character,” she said. It also helped getting costumed for the period piece. “You get an idea of who your character is, and then you go in [for wardrobe],” she explained. “That happens very early. Then you get a chance to see what the director thinks the character is. I like that. I wanted mainly to convey the strength, the drive of Gerda.”
Vikander’s most dramatic recent transformation — in the truly remarkable film she anchored last year — was as Ava in Ex Machina. Surprisingly, she confessed, it wasn’t much about special effects. “That was all me,” she said, including her android arms. “We didn’t have any money for that stuff,” laughed Vikander, meaning CGI and other effects magic. “You should have seen me. I was in makeup at 3 in the morning.” With only 32 widescreen shots in which the robot arms were shown along with the rest of Vikander’s body, the bionic imagery of her arms was added digitally. “I never once acted in front of a green screen,” she said.
Currently based in London, Vikander’s English acting parts have all been for British directors, including Joe Wright and Guy Ritchie. I wondered if she fancied any American directors. “Oh, yes. I just saw Sicario, and I would love to work for Denis Villeneuve [actually Canadian], the Coen brothers, or Charlie Kaufman,” she said.
Meanwhile, Vikander is looking forward to SBIFF and seeing Santa Barbara — especially after hanging around Las Vegas, a place that makes her laugh. “My parents were with me here when the Academy nomination was announced, and they went to Los Angeles with me, and they said, ‘Oh, it’s so rural here.’ After Las Vegas, everything seems rural.”
Alicia Vikander will be presented with SBIFF’s Virtuosos Award Saturday, February 6, at the Arlington Theatre (1317 State St.). Vikander will be joined by other 2016 awardees Elizabeth Banks, Joel Edgerton, Paul Dano, Jacob Tremblay, O’Shea Jackson Jr., and Géza Röhrig. See sbiff.org.