Alicia Vikander is a Diamond in the Rough

Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander made a name for herself in nuanced art films Ex Machina and The Danish Girl. Now she’s leaping into action (and putting her ballet training to use) as fierce treasure hunter Lara Croft in Tomb Raider.

Alicia Vikander is a Diamond in the Rough

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Photography Greg Williams / Stylists: Jill Lincoln and Jordan Johnson / Hair: Chris Naselli / Makeup: Sabrina Bedrani

If the world can be divided into two types of people—those who like to chat to the person sitting next to them on a plane and those who don’t—you could reasonably assume that Alicia Vikander might be among the latter. For one thing, she’s famous. In fact, this month the Academy Award-winning Swedish actress will make the leap to action star as Lara Croft, the heroine in the Tomb Raider reboot, a role played by Angelina Jolie back in 2001 and based on the wildly popular video game series. Vikander is also intensely private, with a knack for dodging even the most innocuous questions. Asked about the last time she broke a rule, for instance, she laughs at a memory, then shakes her head: “No, I don’t want to say that to you.”

Yet, as it turns out, the 29-year-old actress will not only engage her seatmates, she’ll also offer them gifts—or at least that’s what she did on a recent trip to Los Angeles from Lisbon, where she lives with husband Michael Fassbender. “I finished the book Homo Deus on the plane. It was fantastic, and I gave it to the guy next to me,” she says, referring to Yuval Noah Harari’s sequel to the intellectually digestible bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. “Hopefully, he’s read it by now.”

Today, wearing jeans and a black moto jacket, Vikander is sitting in a makeshift dressing room at a Hollywood studio, getting primped for a photo shoot. She’s doing publicity for Tomb Raider, which is why the enormous space is littered with Egyptian sarcophagi and other faux relics. It’s a change of pace for Vikander, who in 2016 won a best supporting actress Oscar for The Danish Girl, in which she gave such an eruptive performance as bohemian artist Gerda Wegener, the wife of one of the first men to undergo gender-confirmation surgery, that she practically stole the film from co-star Eddie Redmayne.

While Vikander is happy to go from serious drama to action adventure, she did have early concerns about originality. “When I got the phone call, I thought, ‘Oh, haven’t they done Tomb Raider?’” she recalls as a makeup artist dabs gingerly at her face. “Hearing that this was going to be something different attracted me to the part.”

Billed as an origin story and directed by fellow Scandinavian Roar Uthaug (who made the 2015 noirish disaster film The Wave), this installment aims to avoid the hot-girl-with-guns trope. “Lara Croft has been this sex symbol, but films from back then, oh, my God, the view they had of women and power is so different,” says Vikander. “She had to be brought into our time.” Whereas Jolie went for full-throttle butt-kicker with a sultry twist, Vikander will satisfy the modern demand for flawed superheroes. Armed with a modest hunting bow, she’s a more human protagonist, searching for purpose after the disappearance of her adventurer father (played by Dominic West). “This is a girl trying to figure out what path she’s going to take in life, and there’s a lot of pressure on her,” says Vikander. “She’s like me when I was 20.”

During that phase of Vikander’s life, she was an aspiring actress living in a Notting Hill London flat with members of Icona Pop, the Swedish electropop duo whose breakthrough hit, “I Love It,” had yet to be released. She had just given up ballet after nine years of intensive training, three of which were spent at the distinguished Royal Swedish Ballet School in Stockholm. “I realized it was so easy to be in that bubble and never get out,” she recalls. “Once, my New Year’s resolution was to find friends outside of the school so I could see what’s beyond the grounds. I’d see a cool girl and say”—feigning honking enthusiasm—“‘Where are you going? A party? Okay, great!’” To this day, the people she met during her version of Rumspringa remain her closest friends.

Vikander’s acting career got off to a bumpy start. In 2011, she flew to L.A. for the first time to audition for the lead in Snow White and the Huntsman, but she lost out to Twilight’s Kristen Stewart. “I thought [the experience] was just going to be a story for my grandchildren,” Vikander recalls with a smile, “telling them about that one time I was in Hollywood pretending to be in a film.” But she kept on, and the roles started coming: Kitty in Anna Karenina (2012), a humanoid robot in Ex Machina (2014), an unwitting spy in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), her Oscar-winning turn in The Danish Girl (2015), a cyber-ops boss in Jason Bourne (2016) and a Dutch ingénue in last year’s Tulip Fever.

But Vikander’s acting bug can be traced back much farther than this. Growing up in Gothenburg, the daughter of divorced parents, she often accompanied her actress mom to the theater, where she guesses she saw Romeo and Juliet 20 times or more. “I probably knew a big part of the Shakespeare catalogue but, sadly, I didn’t remember it when I did my scenes while applying to theater school,” she says, letting out a disapproving yell as a stylist tugs too vigorously on her ponytail. As a teen, she had posters of Bruce Willis and Leonardo DiCaprio on the wall. “I took a lot of pride that I had him as my favorite before Titanic,” she says.

Though she didn’t get into theater school, Vikander winces at the notion that she is untrained. “What we learned in ballet school was to find our characters deep down and develop them,” she says. “We had to get so aware of small movements, how to tilt your head and flicker your eyes.” Even today, despite billboards advertising her buffed-up Tomb Raider physique, you can see the nimble grace of a former ballerina as she navigates puddles in the back alley where today’s photo shoot is taking place.

For a while, Vikander had toyed with the idea of going into law, but a call from Swedish writer-director Lisa Langseth put an end to that. Though it took about 15 auditions before she landed the role in Langseth’s 2010 film, Pure, she clearly impressed the filmmaker. “Alicia was one of hundreds of girls who passed the camera, and she was so intelligent and sensitive and strong,” Langseth says. “Physically, you could push her very hard. A lot of people, no. They say, ‘I can’t do one more take.’ Alicia would never say that.”

In Vikander’s homeland, the word lagom has come to define a core tenet of the country’s cultural attitude. Loosely translated, it means “just enough, adequate,” and like hygge, the Danish concept of coziness, it’s being touted in the U.S. as a lifestyle trend. When I raise the subject, Vikander sits up in her chair. “Lagom is like the middle of middle grounds,” she says, with a hint of disdain. “You never want to give yourself credit. There is something similar called tall poppy syndrome, which is if one poppy grows a bit taller than the others, you chop it off. Like, you shouldn’t really stand out.” The word is fine as a response to a cup of tea, she continues, “but you wouldn’t let it define your emotion for somebody you love.”

Certainly, lagom doesn’t define Vikander. “I’d rather have the far ends of the spectrum,” she says. “I’d rather have had it been awful and then fabulous.” Tall poppy syndrome, too, doesn’t fit. Along with achieving A-list status as an actress, Vikander has established herself as a brand ambassador and muse for Bulgari and Louis Vuitton. Last October, she further raised her celebrity profile following her secret wedding to Fassbender, whom she met on the set of the 2016 drama The Light Between Oceans. Predictably, she refuses to say anything that isn’t tabloid-proof about the relationship. “I wanted it to be extremely private,” she says. “Of course, marriage is beautiful, but it’s not the big thing. People don’t seek marriage. They seek love.” 

Speaking of work, Tomb Raider is a sharp left turn compared to the more serious projects that conferred so much prestige in such a short amount of time. Yes, she’s adding to her arsenal the usual action-movie war stories—being blasted repeatedly with cold water until her lips were too blue to film, needing extra time to cover up cuts and bruises before being red-carpet ready—but none of that would have fazed her after a decade of toe tape and pliés. Still, Vikander doesn’t really seem to be the gamer-movie type, which may be why she took the part.

“The beauty of my work is that I can step into both a character and a world that is completely different from anything I’ve been in before, and even if this has more lightness to it than some of my dramas, it’s still the same kind of intense dedication,” she says. “I hadn’t done a big franchise. When I was 10, I watched the Indiana Jones movies. I was a huge fan of Greek and Egyptian mythology. The kid in me gets excited about being part of this genre.”

Vikander’s friend and Tomb Raider co-star Walton Goggins, who plays villain Mathias Vogel, believes the film adds another dimension to her career. “I don’t know that she’s been given the opportunity to show this kind of playful accessibility,” says the Vice Principals star. “It’s not so dissimilar from what Matt Damon did with the first Jason Bourne movie: a person who has these extraordinary capabilities, but is also so relatable.” The film was shot over five months last year, mostly in Cape Town, South Africa, but also London. Goggins recalls bringing his 7-year-old son to the set. “By the end of the second day, he looked at me and said, ‘Daddy, I want to be Lara Croft.’”

That said, Vikander is hardly retreating from the arthouse fare that launched her career. She’ll soon appear alongside James McAvoy in Submergence, based on the story by J.M. Ledgard, about a biomathematics professor and a British spy, which premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. It’s directed by Wim Wenders, which is especially thrilling for Vikander, who as a teenager hunted for a fuzzy pink sweater to match the one worn by Nastassja Kinski in Wenders’ 1984 classic, Paris, Texas.

Vikander is sometimes compared to Jessica Chastain, in that she appeared to go directly from obscurity to ubiquity. In eight years, she’s made 21 movies—an average of almost three a year. She did, however, allow herself a short break over the holidays, which were spent skiing in Chamonix with Fassbender and some friends. The keen amateur cook took charge of New Year’s Eve dinner, preparing a bouillabaisse, homemade bread and aioli. “I got back after the slopes in the afternoon and spent, like, three or four hours in the kitchen,” she says. “I love nesting. It’s proof that I am off.” Right now, though, “It’s back to school.”

In January, Vikander attended the Golden Globes, where she was excited to meet Reese Witherspoon and Natalie Portman. They had been emailing for weeks about Time’s Up, a legal defense fund initiated by women in the entertainment industry to provide support to those who have experienced sexual harassment or assault in the workplace. Vikander is among the original signatories of the open letter announcing the campaign at the start of this year. “I was extremely excited to be standing united with all these other women,” she says, and not only in the context of the protest. “I’ve been longing to work with women and not be the only woman in the room, which so often happens on film shoots.”

To that end, Vikander has started her own production company, Vikarious. Her first film is Euphoria, an eerie drama that reunites her with Lisa Langseth. It’s about two estranged sisters (Vikander and Eva Green), one of whom has some very unorthodox plans for their trip through Europe. The hope is that Euphoria and the films that follow it will bring about change in the film industry. 

“Something that Natalie and Reese said got to me, which is that women so often have to be competitive [with each other], because we’ve been fighting for the same few jobs,” Vikander says, shaking her head matter-of-factly. “The time’s up for that, too.”