Unless you've seen any of the films in the 'Millenium' series – that is, 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,' 'The Girl Who Played With Fire,' and the final installment, 'The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest,' which opens in theaters this weekend – then you probably don't know who Noomi Rapace is. But if you've seen even five minutes of any of them, then you cannot forget her: the young actress offers a breakthrough performance as Lisbeth Salander, a bruised but indefatigable woman who not only survives a brutal childhood, but a brutal adulthood, and emerges as the toughest female lead in a movie this side of Ellen Ripley.

Cinematical sat down last week with Rapace at the Los Angeles press day for 'The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest,' which opened in limited release on October 29. In addition to talking about the tough challenges presented to Lisbeth (and by extension, herself), Rapace examined how and why she thinks that the violence her character endures must be depicted as authentically as possible, and reflected on the deeper messages the movie series communicates beneath its glossy, entertaining surface.

Cinematical: Obviously when you started playing Lisbeth Salander, you had a lot of back story that had to be integrated into her personality. How tough was it to digest all of her history and then be able to play scenes and be present?

Noomi Rapace:
Actually I'd read the books a couple of years before, so I knew everything about her, and I also knew that I had three movies to give out small puzzle pieces. It was extremely important to me to be truthful and to stay with her – to not let too much out. Actually, I had this big fight with Niels, the director of the first one, because there was a scene at the end of the first film where Lisbeth opened up and she told Mikael everything about her life and her childhood and what her dad had done to her mom. It was like really everything, and when I read it, I was like, this is not possible, and I called Niels and said I'm not going to do this. He said, "You have to, because otherwise we don't have a film. A lot of people all over the world won't see the second one, they won't see the third one, they haven't read the books, and they want to know – they have to know." And I said maybe, but I won't do it. So he was really angry with me and he said, "we don't have a movie." And I said, okay, call the producers and let them know we don't have a movie – but I'm not doing it! And he couldn't force me, so we didn't do the scene, and after a couple of weeks he came back to me and said, "okay, I think I got it. What if Mikael is the one who's talking? What is Mikael says, 'it's okay, you don't have to tell me. I'm just happy that you're here and you saved my life. I can really tell that you have gone through something, but it's okay.'" And that's the scene that came up instead.

But I think I always knew that I had to protect [her character]. She is a person who learned to survive, and she learned to control her feelings, and she would have created a protective, hard shell – and that was extremely important for me to do that. Because sometimes when you read a script, there's so much "blah blah blah" and people talk too much, and it's like, this is boring. You don't have to – you can tell it with your eyes, or you can tell it with your whole energy and the way you move your body. You don't have to talk all of the time. So that was quite challenging as well, because sometimes the director would ask me, "come on, give me a bit more; we want to see." But I was like, I can't, because she doesn't so that! But I knew that if everything goes the way I want and if they will trust me, I will have three movies to show and to give out small pieces in each one, and then in the end [audiences will know]. I think the beauty is that it's somebody else at the end of the third film who's telling the whole story; she doesn't do it, and I like that.

Cinematical: Was there some aspect of her history or her personality that you knew if you characterized the right way that everything else would sort of fall into place?

Rapace:
For me, it was extreme. We had a lot of discussions about the rape scenes. For me, I knew that we needed to have those scenes, because they tell something so specific and in a very good way, you can see how she managed to [become empowered]. Somebody does these horrible things to her, and her hurts her really deep, but she can turn the whole situation into strength in a way, and she comes back and she fights back and she takes control. And that for me tells something so important about how she managed to survive through all of the things. So it's like a side story, actually, with the lawyer; you don't really need it for the main plot. So actually at one point the producers and director and screenwriters were talking about taking the whole story out, and I said, we can't do that because then we will lose her. Those are really important things, and the information you get about her, and the way she handles the whole situation tells so much about her. So I knew that if we had those scenes, and if I had the courage and the strength to go into them and do them all the way, then we would have enough to tell something important about her.

And I think in those kind of scenes, it's extremely important because I hate when you see movies and you have like sexual violence or violent scenes when it's not necessary. When you see, oh, this is only entertainment – they only just want to flirt with the audience or just do it in a sexy way - because a rape can never be sexy. I saw a film called 'Irreversible,' and the rape scene, when I saw it, it nailed me to my seat because they did it in a very realistic and horrible and cruel way. That was actually the first rape scene that I'd ever seen that I believed in, so when I talked to Niels and to Peter Andersson, who played the lawyer, I said we have to just go into it and do it all of the way. I have to put away my vanity and we have to just find a way to do it really as close to reality as possible, in a way.

Cinematical: Given the intensity to bring to these scenes, were there any in particular that you were dreading a little bit because you knew it would be emotionally taxing?

Rapace:
I think all of those more complicated scenes, like a love scene, or if it's a brutal scene, I think you always have to find a way to [make sure with your collaborators] that you know, "okay, we have the same vision." We want to go in the same direction, because it's not possible to do it alone. I don't think I could do it then, if I felt I'm the only one who wants to do it realistically. So I think the love scenes in the first film but also in the second film with this woman, and when my half-brother buried me alive and when they shoot me in the head and all of that, I think those scenes, I had to prepare and I had to decide to destroy my resistance – all of my issues that could stand in the way, and just free myself completely to the situation and just jump. Because I think probably everybody hates to be naked and to do those kinds of scenes, but if you know that we need it, then you just have to do it, and it's all about trust. So I had a lot of those moments where I had to talk to myself and say, okay, don't whine, just do it. And then when you're done, I don't think I ever feel like satisfaction – I can know and I can see things that I can work on and do better. I'm very self-critical, but I can at least let it go if I know that I did everything I could, and I was not looking at myself from the outside. I was in it.

But that's very hard. That's pretty complicated, because I don't want to be self-aware. I try to prepare as much as I can before, and then when I actually start to shoot, then I just want to open up and to be able to be there and not analyze. I don't want to be there looking at myself, and I never go to the monitor and say, "oh no, I want another one because that was not so good," or I looked fat or I looked ugly or I looked too skinny or whatever. It's like I just have to be in that world, and it's up to the director and the people around me to be the eyes.

Cinematical: How careful are you having to be with your career after this? Obviously you will have some great opportunities since Lisbeth was such a powerful, complicated character, but do you have to make sure to take things that are markedly different from these films?

Rapace:
Actually, I've done two movies since I finished the 'Millenium' films, and in one of them, I play a mother, and I was in the Venice Film Festival with that movie. I play a grown-up mom with two daughters and a husband and she's living a normal life, and all of the journalists in Venice, they asked me, "did you do this film because you wanted to do something completely different?" And I said no, I don't think about it like that. This script came to me and I loved it, and I wanted to work with Pernilla [August], the director. But it was more like I don't want to plan my career, like, okay – now it's good for me to do a romantic comedy so people can see if I'm funny and I can be cute. Ugh. That's not the way I think. It's more like it's all about the persons – the script and the director and the other actors, that's everything that matters.

But then I did a film in Norway called 'Babycall,' and it's about a mother who escaped from a violent husband, and she's living under witness protection; she's really weak and she's really fragile and she has difficulties sorting out what's reality and what's going on in her head. It's a movie with many levels, and I loved the script, and it was really heavy and really difficult and I did a lot of research on brains – I talked with a doctor about psychological diseases and all of that. That was completely different, and the director said to me, "you look too strong," because I had a strong body after [playing Lisbeth Salander], so I completely stopped training. I didn't do anything for like six months because she is not a fighter – she can't fight back. So actually the films I've done, and also the film I'm doing now with Guy Ritchie, it's very far away [from Lisbeth Salander], but it's not like I've been looking for that. That's what people have offered me, and I have been reading hundreds of scripts, and I think that the only thing that I have to know is that I in my heart want to do it. I can't do it because it's a good thing to do, or because it's well-paid; I have to find something that hits me.

Cinematical: The 'Millenium' series has some serious ongoing conflicts between Swedish men and women. Do you see this trilogy as pure entertainment or does it have something deeper to say about the relationships between men and women in Sweden?

Rapace:
I think that Stieg Larsson was a very political and digging journalist, and I think he was fighting for a better world, in his way. And I think that when he wrote those books, I think he wanted to put the spotlight on some things that we don't want to talk about in Sweden. Because Sweden is a "very nice" country, and everybody has this picture of Sweden now that's of a perfect, equal, diplomatic, neutral country, but we have so many ugly things that we don't talk about. And I think he wanted to dig up the sh*t and put it in front of everybody and say, "look – this is our country. This is going on right here." So yeah, I think that he sent a message to everybody through the books in a smart way, because it's entertaining at the same time.

And I know many women and girls that if somebody does something terrible to them, if it's some kind of abuse situation or whatever, they turn it against themselves. It's so typical that they start to hate themselves and are punishing themselves – and everything goes inside, and you will never get rid of it. It will grow like a f*cking cancer. But I think the way Lisbeth reacts is she actually hates the one who did it; she doesn't hate herself, and that's good. And I think that's something that we can actually see as a good thing. But I don't mean you should go and hit people and torture people, but I think it's better to react and to get it out. So I think that he actually wanted to make people admit and force people to see that in our perfect country, look, this is going on.