Tattooed, fond of black lipstick, creative with nail guns: Punk hacker Lisbeth Salander is fiercely unique -- or, as her creator Stieg Larsson puts it, a character who "looked as though she had just emerged from a week-long orgy with a gang of hard rockers." Naturally, she's attracted millions of fans to Larsson's Millennium Trilogy.
Count Noomi Rapace, the actress who plays Lisbeth in the Swedish films based on the books, among the legions.
"I liked her very much, from the first page," Rapace tells NPR's Melissa Block. "[It's] her fight for life -- that she doesn't accept what they have done to her, and she doesn't accept the destiny they are trying to force her into. I think it's kind of beautiful, the way she's fighting for freedom."
There's something both refreshing and familiar about the mentality that Lisbeth survives on, Rapace adds. She describes it succinctly: "If I don't see myself as a victim, then I'm not a victim."
Lisbeth has certainly endured more than most. Through the course of Larsson's trilogy, she's beaten, raped, shot in the head, falsely accused of murder and institutionalized. Twice.
Being Lisbeth Salander, she responds to the violence in kind.
"I felt like I knew something about her when I read the first book," says Rapace. "I think that I've always been fascinated by people who can turn anger into strength."
Rapace's childhood was far better than Lisbeth's, but the actress is accustomed to taking care of herself. She moved away from her family when she was very young and attended a drama high school far from home.
"I've always been very stubborn, had a very clear will of what I want to do," she says, "and I think that Lisbeth's pretty much the same. When she decides to do something, she does it, and nobody can stand in her way."
'It Felt Like We Were Down In Hell'
To prepare herself physically for the role, Rapace put herself on a diet, cut her hair and colored it black, then got all those piercings. She wanted to be more masculine, she says, a bit flatter and more boyish in her body. Before shooting the film, she underwent a rigorous regimen of kickboxing and Thai boxing, four or five days a week for seven months.
"I wanted to do my [own] stunt scenes," she says. "And I wanted also to wake up some kind of aggressive side in me. I think that everybody has some kind of animal inside, and sometimes it's good to let it out."
Becoming Lisbeth Salander was not, to put it mildly, a process for the faint of heart. The rape scene in the first movie is remarkably graphic; for Rapace, it was difficult to prepare for.
"First you have to ask yourself, 'Do we need this scene? Is this necessary for the movie?'" Rapace says. "Because I don't think you should ever have a rape scene just because it will make people talk about it. And when I asked myself, 'Do we need those scenes?' my answer was a strong 'Yes,' because [of] the way Lisbeth handles the situation, and how she turns his rape and the things he has done to her into strength. And she managed to stand up and collect herself and fight back. She starts a war against him, instead of against herself."
"So I knew that we needed those scenes," Rapace says. "And then -- then you just have to jump into it, and try to put away your vanity and all the things that can stand in the way."
Things, for instance, like personal self-consciousness.
"Nobody likes to be naked," Rapace says. "It's no fun at all. You have your own issues. ... All the things that can stand in the way, for the scene and for the character. I have to just push that away and go into the situation and do it."
She did it for a week; altogether, that's how long it took to film the rape.
"It felt like we were down in hell," Rapace remembers, "like we were down in some darker side of humanity for a week. But it was quite interesting, because in a strange way I felt calm when we were done with those scenes. I knew that I'd done everything I could, and then it's possible to let it go."
When it came time to film the scenes in which Lisbeth, true to form, returns to her attacker's apartment and viciously assaults him, it wasn't quite as difficult.
"I enjoyed it," Rapace says, "in a very strange way. I didn't expect it to be like that, but it felt kind of good to come back and to be the one in charge and to force him into all those things that she does to him."
"I was a bit surprised by myself," she adds. "I didn't know I had it in me. But ... I go so far into her, it's like her universe and mine almost melt together. So if she enjoys this situation, it will color me, and then actually affect me as well."
'I Can Put Her To Sleep'
Rapace filmed all three movies in the Millennium Trilogy back to back. It took a full year, and during that time Noomi Rapace was being Lisbeth Salander more often than she wasn't. The mother of a young child, she consciously struggled to maintain a dramatically different life outside of her character. It required a bit of a balancing act.
"I can't really leave her," Rapace says of Lisbeth, "but I can put her to sleep." It's a question, she says, of actively putting the character aside.
"It's like, 'Now it's time for you to go to sleep, and rest until tomorrow, and then I will wake you up,'" Rapace says. "But she's in me. I always carry around my character."
That's a skill Rapace has had to work hard to master.
"When I was younger," she remembers, "when I was like 19, 20, when I did my first feature films, it was really difficult for me to leave and step out of the character. But now I have my way of doing it."
Leaving Lisbeth Behind
Filming on the Millennium movies wrapped some time ago, and Rapace says she's been able to put Lisbeth Salander away for good in the intervening months.
"I'm not so sentimental, you know," she says. "I think it's good to leave things and to go on, and to say, 'This is it, I'm done now.'"
"Actually," Rapace says, "it was kind of strange. You know the last day, after [we filmed] the last scene, all the producers came with champagne and everybody wanted to celebrate. And I just said, 'I need to go to the bathroom,' and I just started to throw up. It was like my body was physically throwing Lisbeth out."
"I couldn't stand for an hour or something," Rapace muses. "And I'm never sick, you know; I'm not a person that [gets] sick. So it was kind of strange. So I think that -- yeah, I think I left her there."