Before Alicia Vikander became the renowned actor she is today, her first passion was ballet. Observing her theatre actress mother on-stage as a young girl, she knew that hers was a creative path. As a teenager, she left her town to live in Stockholm—an act of bravery that would spark a life on the road—with the purpose of becoming a ballet dancer. Transitioning into acting was not part of the plan.
When she broke onto the scene with Anna Karenina and then Ex Machina and The Danish Girl, Alicia was cemented as one of the most exciting young actors, going on to a variety of roles that included Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, in A24’s The Green Knight and later in Firebrand (2023). Here, she speaks with Charles Finch about her origins in dance, how it gave her the tools to be a better actor, and how she first encountered the power of acting through Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher.
How do you choose your roles? Does it need to have an important message?
No, I think everyone has their own definition of what’s important. Everyone will make their own perception on the meaning of art. But I think I am drawn to roles that offer me experiences that make me nervous…the unknown. Parts that challenge me. Later in life, I also consider the sort of collaborators I will work with, and it’s become more clear that I’m intrigued by relationships with other artists.
As a dancer, do you feel there’s a convergence with acting? Do you use your dancer’s physicality on the screen?
Yeah, for sure. That’s something that was natural. My mother was an actress, so I grew up watching her on stage, and I began dancing at a very young age. Some people ask me about the transition—when did I leave dance and start to act? But that’s never really how I felt, because creating the characters and telling the stories was already there [through dance]. And I think I’ve noticed, especially as I’ve reflected later in my career, when you work with the camera, I’m always very aware, I become close to the DPs, I learn which type of lenses we use… I like to see how the camera view becomes a stage. I can see how big the space is in that framework. I then use my physicality based on that, depending on how far or close I am in the shot.
You can have directors who give you choreography, and even if that’s not what I want, I can see that as a challenge and I know I have that ability to do that with my body. Can I stand on my head and have a chat with someone at the same time and make it look natural? Yes [laughs]. So I love how my awareness of my body and my physicality can be part of my work as an actor.
In film it can be frustrating. In film, it’s often non-consequential and the rhythm can be cut from the process.
That’s one of the things you have to come to terms with, in the sense that you do not own your performance most of the time. In the beginning of my career, I could feel very vulnerable, and I think that’s where my interest in working with people I trust or connect with comes from—because you need to feel you aren’t putting your art too squarely in someone’s hands. But then you also should. You need to come to the point where you can’t have doubt. You need to have the generosity and belief that the person will take care of your craft. That’s when you dare to go places that bring you on a journey that can surprise you with something new.
The best actors have a certain kind of bravery, and I have always considered you as a brave performer. Do you think your Scandinavian upbringing, and the liberalism of that, gives you a fresh outlook to the work you do in other countries?
Definitely. The wonderful thing with my work is that my emotions and my experiences are my tools. I know there’s things I wouldn’t be as good at doing in the past… When it comes to my upbringing in Sweden, I think leaving was important—because there are certain aspects you learn about yourself and your environment only if you have spent time away.
You’ve always had a nomadic spirit.
I was speaking about this with my husband [Michael Fassbender] yesterday. I moved out of my parents’ home when I was fifteen, and lost myself in the capital, Stockholm. I had only been there once in my life before. For the first six months, I rented a room. I was lucky enough to find a ninety-square-metres space, and it didn’t have a kitchen—just a cooker connected to the wall, and a mini-bar as my fridge [laughs]. But I found myself in the creative Primrose Hill of Stockholm. I couldn’t believe I got to live there. And then I moved every six months from then on.
What pushed you to leave?
I got into ballet school in Stockholm. Today, they have a boarding school but that didn’t exist when I enrolled. I lived on one-hundred-and-forty-pounds for rent and food between fifteen and eighteen. Then, I stayed in Stockholm for a few years and then moved to London for a while, travelling ten months a year, and now I’m based in Portugal. My husband and I stopped and said, ‘we’ve been travelling so much our entire lives’. But then we began discussing where we wanted to go next.
What do you look for now in a director?
You said a good word: bravery. Someone who builds a family of great artists. Someone who proves to have their own vision, who can surprise me, and who I feel is making something unique that is unquestionably through their artist’s voice.
You never went to drama school. Did you naturally uncover a method?
Dancing is all about the drill—this constant work ethic has stayed with me as an actor. For example, I came to England first to start work, and my English wasn’t very good. And my first international film ended up being Danish, so I had to learn Danish [laughs]. I can tell you, there’s a lot of times I’ve been extremely envious of actors who have English as their mother tongue. As in, I need to spend times-twenty to learn or prepare a text, especially in the beginning. There have been so many hours spent trying to feel fluent in English, but then trying to pretend on film my English is better than it is…that needed time. But I liked it and drilled it into myself—it’s like doing the bar work in ballet.
It’s a gateway to technique through the material.
Yeah. It’s a new voice and sound. With body work, when I read a script that excites me, I start to walk or move like the character—which happens naturally and without thinking. At the beginning of my career, if a director suggested no rehearsals I would think, no—this is how we do it, step-by-step. I could get nervous. And now, I really am up for whatever the director wants, which has proven to be unique and fun. I told myself that there are other ways to prepare, and if this man or woman wants to do it a certain way, why not? Maybe it will have a surprising outcome.
I think probably the internal preparation is still happening. The journey is the interesting thing, isn’t it?
Totally. Except for several films, I spent a lot of time in the edit. The director invited me because I thought it was interesting, and I see many takes but when the film is done, I watch it only once! Following the premiere, there’s a beauty to letting it go out into the world. But who knows? When I have grandchildren, maybe I’ll show them. When people ask what my favourite film role has been, I don’t think about that. I remember the months in Africa, Japan, or Paris, with these people I’ve worked with.
Did you spend a lot of time around the movies as you grew up?
My mother was an actress, but we came from a very humble background. I didn’t understand that world—it was just part of my upbringing. But, you know, I was probably ten or eleven and I knew all of Shakespeare. Literature and movies were put in front of me. One of the first films I remember—and my mother didn’t show it to me, but I overheard her friend talk about it—was The Piano Teacher with Isabelle Huppert while she was at work. I was eleven [laughs]. That was one of my memorable film experiences. I kept it quiet to my mum, but I felt that I wanted to do what Huppert was doing.
It’s interesting that such a dark film was one of your early experiences!
It’s a magical time. At that age I was stepping into young adult life, but you still have that supernatural power to step into fantasies in a way that lessens later on. I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey around the same time. That blew my mind. My dad is a psychiatrist, and he introduced me to sci-fi and fantasy—that was his genre. When I watched 2001, it was the craziest thing I’d seen. But I hadn’t revisited it again until three months ago, because part of me didn’t want to explore how my memory of the film as a fourteen-year-old would compare, even if it is a masterpiece.
I have a much younger brother, who is twenty-one, and he hadn’t seen it. So three months ago, we watched 2001 together at my house in France. It was the same experience. Twenty years had passed and I felt like a kid again.
Is there something you would like to do in your career? Maybe direct movies?
Definitely the idea has been there. But it’s also about having the time. Having a young family, I kind of put it on the shelf, but the thought is there and has been for quite some time. But you know what? I have never been on stage.
And that’s the one thing. My mum was a stage actress. Growing up, to be an actor was not to focus on film or TV, but it was about being on stage. So it’s one of those things that in one way or another would honour my mum. That’s something I would love to do that I haven’t done.