BEVERLY HILLS – The most surprising thing upon first meeting Alicia Vikander is her accent. As we sit down in a hotel conference room to specifically discuss her new film “A Royal Affair,” she sounds American. Well, maybe American with a hint of international upbringing. Considering Vikander’s Swedish background it was obviously unexpected, but then again, Vikander continues to surprise.
The 24-year-old actress has burst upon the international scene with two major roles in 2012: That of Queen Caroline Matilde in “A Royal Affair” (Denmark’s official foreign language film submission) and the naive Kitty in Joe Wright’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel “Anna Karenina.” Vikander just shot “The Seventh Son” with Julianne Moore and Jeff Bridges and has spent the last week traipsing around Los Angeles meeting studio executives, directors and producers. A pretty impressive rise from obscurity for an actress who has only filmed four movies to date.
“I think it’s 22 months now I’ve been living out of my suitcases. I don’t have an apartment,” Vikander says laughing. “I live at different hotels and couches and stuff. It’s fun.”
Ah, the life of a nomadic movie actress.
It was while shooting “Karenina” that the stars aligned for Vikander’s breakout year. Her starring role in Nikolaj Arcel’s “Affair” was well-received at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival with co-star Mikkel Boe Følsgaard taking home an acting honor. Since then she’s alternated between promoting “Affair” (a big hit in Denmark) and “Karenina” at film festivals around the world.
“Affair” is based on the true story of Caroline Matilde, a young Brit of royal lineage who becomes the Queen of Denmark through an arranged marriage with King Christian VII. Unfortunately, the King is a bit “off” (whether he is bi-polar, eccentric or completely mentally ill is up to interpretation) and her time in the conservative kingdom becomes love-less and solitary. That all changes when a friend of the king recruits enlightened doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) to be his personal physician. As Struensee begins to convince the King that change is necessary to move Denmark into the the modern world he also begins to fall for his employer’s estranged wife. For a time, the trio work together to make Denmark the most enlightened nation in Europe. Their utopia is fragile, however, as the old guard is constantly scheming to take back the country.
While the story isn’t known by many Americans, it’s been a romantic tale told to children in Europe for centuries. Vikandar knew the basic plot from her childhood, but she did a substantial amount of research to find out more about her character.
“My biggest treasure was when I, through Amazon, [found this book by an] English professor who had gathered her letters that she wrote from Denmark to her family back in England,” Vikander says. “So, it was quite remarkable when you have started doing your kind of prep work and building your character and suddenly I could sit there and read her actual words and get to know her. She lived almost 300 years ago, but what was remarkable was the fact that, you know, both me and Mikkel had – we talked about and discussed the fact that how much did the doctor, you know, involve her [with] the Enlightment and the philosophers? Here it was on paper; she was 16. I think it was her uncle [that she] described the fact that she just wished that she was a man but she could get on a horse and travel down to Europe and do whatever she wanted. And then you kind of understand the trauma she went through being that locked in the Danish port, not being able to express yourself or anything.”
In person, Vikander seems assured without a hint of overconfidence. She is humble about her success so far and seems to almost marvel at what she’s overcome saying she was “thrilled” to land the role.
“I was up against all these Danish girls and then I got the part,” Vikander says. “Taking on that as a foreigner was quite a bit thing. So, I wanted to make sure that they understood that I did my best in taking that on my shoulders.”
Many international actresses would have to wait for “A Royal Affair” to hit the festival circuit before they could dream of making the jump to English-language prestige fare. That wasn’t the case with Vikander. A casting director in England saw her debut performance in the Swedish film “Pure” and suggested director Joe Wright met with Vikander about his next project, “Anna Karenina.”
“[It was] his last day of post on ‘Hanna’ and I went to the studio and we had lunch,” Vikander recalls. “We talked about the book and the film, You kind of want to connect if you’re going to be able to work, but then it wasn’t my part by then. So then he also had a child in between and then I did ‘A Royal Affair.'”
It was over a year later when Vikander formally auditioned for “Karenina” and landing the role of Kitty was a validation that her decision to quit dancing was the right one. She notes, “I still love dance. I still run to the Opera as soon as I can and watch Opera and ballet, but so for me to then actually be able to use my experience that I do have and putting that in to the work that I do now, that was fantastic.”
Unbeknownst to the cast, Wright had a last minute creative inspiration which put Vikander’s dance skills to particular good use. Instead of shooting “Karenina” as a traditional period piece in its native setting of Russia, Wright decided to film the entire picture in an old theater using moving sets to bring the story to life. As in his previous films “Atonement” and “Hanna,” in particular, Wright has demonstrated he’s a master of comprising a memorable long take and “Karenina” is full of them. Sets transform with the turn of a camera and the cast had to delicately choreograph their positions (a few of which included real dancing) as though they were on a gigantic theatrical stage. Of course, in a story that will becoming increasingly infamous, Wright only made this decision just a few months before production was scheduled to begin.
As Vikander tells the story, “Joe called me and said, ‘Can you come down for a coffee?’ And I came down, he was like, ‘Well, we’re going to do another film,’ and I was like, ‘What? Aren’t we going to Russia in a couple weeks?’ ‘No!’ And then he brought up his computer and was like, ‘Yeah, we kind of did those drawings a few days ago and I presented the idea to the studio and they said, yes. So they’re going to start building this theater tomorrow.'”
Vikander says the change of direction was intimidating at first, but “it helped me at least to have the feeling that I didn’t know what to expect every day when I went on the set. I didn’t know what it was going to look like.”
Wright also used his magic by surprising the cast with his musical selections during filming. The production is set in the 1800’s, but the director would blast unexpected fare such as the Chemical Brothers to get everyone in the appropriate mood.
Vikander recalls, “It’s actually the scene in the film where when Levin comes back and she’s afraid that he’s going to be mad at her for her betrayal but then that whole scene we actually did only one take with sound ’cause he played techno every take on top from seven different speakers ’cause he thought that we were a bit lazy after lunch. So, he wanted to speed it up. He did that throughout the whole film.”
She just finished “Hotell” in Sweden as well as the previously mentioned “Seventh Son.” What’s next on her global cinematic tour?
“I have tons of meetings while I’m here so hopefully I’ll know what I do next year before I head back to Sweden for Christmas,” Vikander replies.
Wherever Vikander lands, let’s hope she has a comfy couch to sleep on.
“A Royal Affair” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. “Anna Karenina” opens in the same markets on 11/16.