It would behoove any cinephile to learn Alicia Vikander’s name, and learn it quickly. The Swedish actor first hit the states in Joe Wright’s 2012 “Anna Karenina” and since then she’s been working non-stop on an avalanche of films that all hit theaters this year.
Earlier this year, she played the robot Ava in Alex Garland’s directorial debut, “Ex Machina.” Later on this year, she’ll appear alongside Academy Award-winner Eddie Redmayne in Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl,” which she couldn’t yet discuss. At the moment, she’s taking on one of England’s most revered World War I memoirists, Vera Brittain in “Testament of Youth.”
During the “Testament of Youth” press day earlier this week, Vikander welcomed me with a warm smile and, as I prepared to sit across from her at a lengthy table, she instead insisted that we plot down on a comfortable sofa, curling her legs underneath her as we settled in. This youthful demeanor was only a facade for the thoughtful growing young woman she expressed, much like the subject she plays in the film.
“Testament of Youth” hits theaters today, June 5, in limited release.
What drew you to this role?
Well I’m Swedish so a lot of us outside the UK haven’t heard of Vera Brittain, and a friend of mine told me about the book a few years ago. I read it and I was just… I’ve seen films and documentaries, I’ve been in school and read about the first World War, but I was kind of shocked because, this was the first time I had read such a intimate story from a female perspective. About people who were not on the battlefield, who were kind of left behind. It feels like a story about youth. I wanted to bring the story to life, I hope that people are going to pick up the book now.
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Also, as a young woman, I was thrown by how much she felt like a woman of our time. She has the same thoughts that a lot of young women and girls have. She felt like someone who could sit next to me at a cafe. And suddenly she was just in another universe, because she talks about not being able to choose her own education, not being able to choose education at all, or not being able to go outside without someone looking after her, or being 18 and describing those very political, deep thoughts about herself and what she wants to do and yet she has never held the hand of a boy. it was very touching and seeing the female progression, the feminist revolution because of the first World War, the women kind of had to step in and take the men’s positions because of a lost generation. Mostly because you get so intimately connected to her story, she really opens up and is honest.
Did being a woman of 2015 inform your portrayal of Vera?
Yes and it was also how I feel about the story. It feels not like a period piece. It feels very modern. With a female story I think she started off as most people in the UK at that time who kind of believed in this war and believed the end was going to be easy and fast. In one way, we know that she became the great pacifist and feminist that she was, but she was also believing, she thought it was the right thing. We see that journey and the pivot point to where she sees the realization of the horror of war and what she then turned that into.
There’s a sentiment that young people of that era felt that they had a duty. Is that nonexistent now?
I think that’s a youth thing. Hopefully that exists still. It’s quite a youth thing to have that drive or think that you can conquer the world when you’re 17, 18. It was very much of the British culture, of the British Empire, that people were brought up believing they were invincible. But not referring to the military point of it, but in the drive of youth in general.
What are some of the responsibilities that come along with playing a real person?
I wanted to pay respect to everyone. First, I read her books but then her family and friends were wonderful to meet. That meant a lot because I wanted to pay respect to Shirley [Williams’] mother. She’s the one who remembers her the most. Then within that you also need to find your character within yourself. So I think it’s a midway of doing that.
Especially as a foreigner I wanted to work on my accent. I didn’t want anyone to think, is that a foreign Swedish girl playing Vera Brittain? Because then you’re thrown out of the actual story. But it was more about finding the emotional story of what she went through, that’s what I talked with her daughter a lot about when I met her. She knew her mother after the war, that’s the only mother that she knew. We talked about going back to letters, going back to diaries to imagine the journey she went on, and how that must have changed someone’s personality.
My next question was going to be about the accent because you are Swedish, when did you begin learning English?
When I was about 9 in school.
Do you speak any other languages? I know you learned some Danish for “A Royal Affair.”
I understand a bit of French; I would love to learn some more French when I get the time.
So in a language that’s not your first, what’s it like to learn different accents?
It’s really terrifying!
In “Ex Machina” you had sort of a standard American accent.
Right, I really wanted to nail this. She was born British. In “Ex Machina” Domhnall had an American accent and I had a bit more of an easy thing. It was like an American sound but it was fine if she had a special thing going on because she was the first of her kind. It is very different. If I would learn accents in Swedish it would be much easier! I had a dialect coach that I worked with a lot. I think the preparation work was the most important. That’s the scary thing you try to do so much work so that you can just let go. So the moment when you get on set you can just forget all about it and hopefully some of it has sunk in and found its place within you.
Having acted in American and European projects, what are some of the biggest differences for you?
I think the biggest difference is the press junkets! They’re a lot bigger in America for the bigger budget films. I thought it was going to be very different, the Hollywood industry, as a European, Swedish actress. Like that you’d just get lost, as would the true genuine art, and I’ve actually been proven very wrong about that. There is a lot bigger machinery but the nice thing is that in the morning it comes down to the actors and the director and maybe the DP meeting up in a room talking about what they’re going to do, talking about the scenes, preparation and then you go on set and you rehearse, and instead of bringing 30 people in the room you bring 100-150 and that’s a big difference, but the actual work, artistically is the same.
You have a ton of films coming out this year. Does your life feel a bit hectic right now?
It’s a lot of promotion, so it’s been hectic but in a contained way. Being on film sets back to back, those films were shot over like two years and now they’re coming out all at once. So it’s different work now, but I’m really excited for everything to finally come out.
You’re going to be everywhere, is that nerve racking?
Yeah a bit! In a sense that when I try to see it from an outsiders perspective I don’t really see myself within what everyone else does. I kind of been on set, for me it’s been two and a half years I’ve been in the work doing it, but just seeing it on paper now it’s the most weird thing it to see how fortunate with some of the people that I’ve done films with. I’ve done films with people I grew up admiring, seeing on the screen as a kid in Sweden. I never thought I was going to get abroad work. I thought maybe I was going to work in a theater in Stockholm. That was probably my biggest dream within the sphere that I had. So that is quite overwhelming.
I recall when we chatted with you about “Ex Machina,” you mentioning that you love sci-fi.
Yeah I had just seen “Moon,” and I told my agents that I wanted to do an intimate intellectual sci-fi and then one of the best scripts that I ever read came by and that was “Ex Machina.” I love “Bade Runner” and “2001” all the old ones that I grew up with. I think HAL was my one… if I had any idea in my head while doing Ava, it’s HAL.