An enforced pause meant that the globe-hopping, high-achieving Alicia Vikander had the chance to stop and reflect. Now she's back at work, it's not all business as usual...
Photography: Hans Feurer, Styling: Hortense Manga
‘I’M IN A GARAGE!’ cries Oscar-winning actor Alicia Vikander. She picks up her laptop and twirls me around on Zoom to prove it. Indeed, she is surrounded by grey concrete pillars and industrial strip lighting in, what I can gather, is a subterranean garage somewhere in Paris. And then she’s back, the camera on her dainty figure with hair scraped back into a ballerina’s bun, revealing tiny white ear buds that wouldn’t have looked out of place on her character Ava, the AI robot she played in Ex Machina.
It’s not her garage. She’s on set for the ELLE cover shoot, but Vikander is perfectly happy with the set-up. After all, she says, this is her first day back at work after several months.
As coronavirus shuttered the world, Vikander was stuck in France where she’d attended Paris Fashion Week, sitting front row at Louis Vuitton – a brand she’s been an ambassador of for five years. With European borders rapidly closing, she escaped the capital city to her holiday house near a small farming village in rural France, where she spent most of lockdown holed up with her husband, the actor Michael Fassbender.
The Zoom calls she took there, for work and to catch up with family, had a slightly more homely background than the one she’s framed by now, with a bookshelf and a window looking out onto greenery. I ask whether there was ever, you know, any risk of Fassbender walking past the window unsuspectingly while she was on a call. It’s not happened thus far... ‘But that’s the thing when you’re in your house,’ she laughs. ‘There’s always a risk of someone in the background. My husband was often around making coffee or putting the boiler on,’ she says, giving a rare domestic insight into the life of one of Hollywood’s starriest, but famously private, couples.
However cosy the set up in France sounds – and it does sound idyllic, with trips to the market, grilled fish cooked on the BBQ, impromptu dancing in the kitchen and virtual poker nights with her family – her enthusiasm for being back at work is palpable.
‘I’m actually really excited,’ she says in an accent that is mostly transatlantic, though she pronounces certain words with a clean, staccato edge – the only evidence of her Swedish native tongue. She’s not oblivious to the new normal though: ‘What we’ve gone through these past few months... I realise how different it feels being back to what we used to call “normality”.’
For the past 16 years, normality for Vikander has been a fairly peripatetic existence. At age 15, she moved from Gothenburg – on the west coast of Sweden, where she lived with her mother, also an actor – to Stockholm to join the Royal Swedish Ballet School. After three years there, she made one of the hardest decisions in her life: to quit ballet. ‘It was such a tough decision that I couldn’t even train or be in a dance studio... For about a year I had to stop everything, that was just what I had to go through,’ she recalls.
But performing wasn’t something she could give up easily, and aged 20 she landed the lead role in the Swedish coming-of-age film Pure, for which she won a major award in Sweden. It was the first of many accolades for Vikander, who has worked continuously since then, making at least one film a year. In 2015, she starred in five major releases, including The Danish Girl for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Around that time, she met future husband Michael Fassbender on the set of The Light Between Oceans, where the Irish-German star was taken by her ‘bravery’ as an actor. Vikander has said that she was struck by his openness, such as the way he’d solicit her advice for trickier scenes. The couple married in October 2017 with a low-key ceremony on a beach in Ibiza and chose to settle in Lisbon, ‘to get away from London and big cities’.
I ask whether they would consider working together again. She takes a moment to think before saying, ‘I would love to work with him one day, but we’re very much individuals, which I love and I think is good in any relationship. We both take on parts because it’s a film that is right for us, so it would have to be the same if we were ever to work together again.’
Indeed, one of the most beguiling things about Vikander is the films she’s chosen throughout her career, which have been much more art house than Hollywood superhero. That is, before she inherited the role of Lara Croft from Angelina Jolie for the 2018 remake of Tomb Raider.
This enforced hiatus then, is the longest the 31-year-old has ever been in one place for more than a month in a long time. As someone who is renowned for their discipline and dedication – Joe Wright, who directed her in her first big English-speaking role in Anna Karenina, called her a ‘relentless perfectionist’ – to suddenly have to stop and just be wasn’t easy for Vikander.
‘It’s part of my personality, that if I have four days off then I want to use them to do something, to explore this new country or see these things. I want to use the time and I think that’s maybe not the healthiest way of living sometimes,’ she says, reflecting that her dad, a psychiatrist, has often told her as much.
‘I’ve struggled with a lot of both anxiety and stress over the years. My dad’s always said, “You know, Alicia [she pronounces her name with a thick Swedish accent to impersonate her dad], it takes three weeks for your body to know that you’ve stopped and you’re about to relax.” His voice has been ringing in the back of my head several times [during lockdown],’ she says.
It was only after week five of being stuck in the same house that she managed to ease into it and ‘really enjoy being with myself... how lovely it was to have a day when I was just a bit bored. That felt pretty amazing.’ Will she take some of the new-found calm with her into life post-lockdown? ‘I think it’s OK to work a lot, then take off three or four weeks a year... I’ll take up my dad’s three-week rule and try to take a chunk of time at some point to recharge and bring myself back to zero,’ she says, as a promise to her future self.
In the meantime, she’s gearing up for the release of her next big film, The Glorias, a biopic based on the book My Life on the Road by pioneering feminist Gloria Steinem. Vikander stars as one of four Glorias, hence the title – alongside Julianne Moore, who depicts the activist’s older years, and two rising stars who portray the young Glorias. Vikander plays the activist’s formative years from the ages of 20 to 40. Her first scene in the film is on a packed train in India, sharing chai with a carriage full of women in sarees. It’s during these travels that Steinem experienced the compassion of local activists who went into villages and listened to women’s struggles. Inspired, she returned to New York where she called off her college engagement and started out as a journalist, and later went on to found Ms., the groundbreaking feminist magazine.
Vikander’s portrayal of Steinem is already earning early Oscar hype. But it’s also a part that she’s clearly relished, mostly for the long conversations she’s had with other women about Gloria’s life. ‘The first thing I did when I read the book was call my mum and some of my friends’ mums to hear their memories of her back in the day. I was blown away by the journey she’s done and women like her throughout history,’ she says.
It seems the feeling was mutual. When I ask Steinem about Vikander playing her on screen, she says that her performance was enchanting: ‘Only [director] Julie Taymor – a genius in every way, including casting – understood that a Swedish/European actor could inhabit me, an American from the Midwest. From eating lunch with my father in a very American diner, to travelling with women on a train in India, Alicia captured emotions that can’t really be described... She inspires that most rare and crucial quality: trust.’
Although Vikander plays Steinem during the 1960s and 1970s – when the activist settled into her signature style of oversized aviator sunglasses and miniskirts, which were ridiculed by both men and hardline feminists – there’s a clear resonance with today’s protests in support of women’s reproductive and civil rights.
We talk about women in France not being able to get an abortion during lockdown and the events in the US following the murder of George Floyd. Vikander, like many people, has spent time trying to educate herself by watching films and listening to Black friends talk about their experiences. The only thing stopping her from joining the Black Lives Matter protests, which took place around the world, was that she was struck down by Covid-19, ‘I wanted to be out there but, for obvious reasons, I couldn’t leave my house,’ she says regretfully.
Playing the role of Steinem and being able to meet her, inspired a personal epiphany for Vikander: ‘I grew up in a house with a mother who taught me about the word feminism from the age of five,’ she says, ‘And I respect that, but then we’re all part of the general unconscious bias of the world we’ve been brought up in. I feel over the past few years and then seeing Gloria’s work and her history, we’re being confronted again with the knowledge that it’s been a very hard journey.
So much work and thought has been put into it, which sadly doesn’t often happen by itself. Time helps, but it’s also due to some incredible people along the way who have been daring enough when everyone else is trying to shut them down.’
She spoke to Steinem about her fears of challenging the status quo. As the film shows, the activist was terrified of public speaking at the beginning. These conversations helped Vikander confront some of her own fears. The actor describes her thirties as a new, more content decade. ‘I’ve finally started to be a bit more gentle and nicer to myself,’ she says wistfully. ‘I want to do all these things, and I want to progress and I want to be clever and smart and to learn. But I think when you’re in your twenties it’s hard, because you’re trying to find out who you are.’
Part of Vikander’s epiphany has been realising that it’s normal to change your opinion: ‘I think that’s important and that’s something Gloria said, too.’ Last year, the actor took an unconscious bias course. ‘It was so interesting. You realise that there are all these fast information [paths] in your brain that you’ve been taught and it’s OK to have had an opinion. I’m not as afraid... I thought I saw the world in one way, now that’s starting to change. That’s something Gloria said was OK: to have different versions of yourself, because you transform all the time.’
There was a time when Vikander was too scared to speak up for herself. When she first worked with Julianne Moore in 2014 on fantasy film Seventh Son, she recalls an incident when a man on set made a distasteful joke about her for everyone to hear. Vikander’s 20-year-old self didn’t dare say anything – ‘I was just thankful to be there. I was afraid of speaking up or losing respect, or that people would find me difficult’ – but Julianne Moore did. ‘I think she was like, “If you ever say anything like that again, I’m leaving and we’re done.” That changed my situation on set going forward and it meant the world to me.’
Although Vikander says she’s never experienced any sexual harassment on set, she recalls other uncomfortable environments: ‘It’s mostly been men, but women too, who have talked about sex on set in a way that I just don’t find appropriate in a workspace at all,’ she says. ‘I understand what can go wrong in those situations.’
She has seen a noticeable change since #MeToo, however; a recent project for Netflix involved a three-hour group session with the cast, which involved talking about boundaries – Vikander says she’s a hugger and had to realise that not everyone wants to be hugged on set – as well as laying down certain rules, including two colleagues not being allowed to meet in their hotel room to discuss work. She sat next to her co-star Riley Keough and, when they came out of the session, they couldn’t believe what they’d just sat through: ‘We said if it had existed when we were 20, it would have for sure been another vibe.’
But even before she started working in Hollywood, Vikander had already experienced the very traditional world of ballet. It’s clear that her relationship with her time there is mixed: it’s where she got her discipline and work ethic from, but it also put her, and her teenage body, under a lot of stress.
‘I’ve often thought to myself, If I were to have a kid, would I put them in ballet school? I do really treasure a lot of my work ethic and things that I got from that education, but it either makes you or breaks you. And it could have as easily have gone the other way [for me],’ she says.
The effect it had on her body image is also something that has stayed with Vikander: ‘Being in a leotard looking at your body in a mirror seven hours a day, six days a week and having people talk about your body in front of you and in front of other girls and boys... Growing up with that is not healthy.’
‘I was very lucky to go through ballet school without having an eating disorder. I don’t know how, I think it was my mum who talked to me about it every day,’ she recalls. ‘But when I stopped ballet, I continued to eat a lot and – it’s stupid because I was really thin when I was dancing – but I gained two or three kilos and I freaked out when I saw a photo [of myself] because my body had changed’.
It was then that naturally petite Vikander started restricting what she ate. ‘Like so many other girls I was like, I shouldn’t eat carbs. That was the first thing I heard about, so I stopped eating bread.’ It was only when preparing for her role as Lara Croft, when she trained at 4am most days before filming started and gained 5kg in muscle, that she says she really understood the importance of diet and a healthy approach to getting strong.
It’s a regime she might have to take up again soon if talks of Tomb Raider 2, directed by Ben Wheatley, come to fruition, even if the chances of Hollywood opening up again in the near future look uncertain. ‘The world we live in right now... there’s a lot of fear,’ she says, not allowing herself to get too excited.
With all this uncertainty hanging in the air, I ask whether she believes in fate, and things working out for a reason. After all, there was a time when it looked unlikely that she’d be able to do both The Danish Girl and The Light Between Oceans because of a filming clash, which was eventually resolved. The two films have been pivotal in her life, the former winning her an Oscar and the latter introducing her to her husband.
‘I think things come and go. I’ve played a lot of [the dice game] Yahtzee during lockdown. It’s pretty crazy when you play it a thousand times and you realise it’s going to end up being the same numbers for both people at the end of it. But somehow along the way you have the best luck ever and you win 14 times in a row,’ she laughs. ‘Sometimes you’re too busy to realise that you’re having a good roll and you can get blinded by the tough things you go through... I think it’s like that in life. But of course, that time was a jackpot!’ she says, flinging her arms up in front of the screen.
With that streak of winner’s luck, she signs off from the garage and gets to work. There’s no doubt that, for Vikander, there’ll be another jackpot just around the corner.
ELLE's October 2020 issue hits newsstands on September 3.
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