Louis Vuitton’s latest muse stars in The Man From U.N.C.L.E and dates one of the world’s hottest actors: Alicia Vikander is the Swede taking the A-list by storm
It’s 8.15am, and Alicia Vikander – Louis Vuitton’s latest style ambassador, and possibly the hottest young actress in the world right now – walks into a café near her home in north London, and orders a coffee and chia porridge. She’s 15 minutes early for our meeting, clearly planning to have breakfast before I arrive; except I’d had the same idea. She laughs, though, when I suggest we ignore each other for a while, saying we’ll have more time to talk before she has to leave for work. “I’m such a morning person,” she says in a low, slightly husky voice with barely a trace of her native Swedish accent. “Which is helpful, because you normally start at 4.30-5am if you’re filming.”
Today she’s recording additional dialogue in a sound studio, make-up free and dressed casually in trainers, a short skirt and oversized white V-neck. Even so, she is astonishingly beautiful, and it’s a tribute to her talent that her striking looks are not generally the first thing you notice on screen. Vikander inhabits a role completely, utterly convincing whether she’s playing a middle-class Brit whose life is derailed by the First World War in Testament of Youth, or an intelligent but unmistakably mechanical android in Alex Garland’s thoughtful directorial debut Ex Machina.
Next month sees the delayed opening of her first blockbuster, Guy Ritchie’s stylish reworking of the 1960s TV series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. In this kind of film, we’re used to female characters who exist solely to be the love interest, but here Vikander’s impossibly glamorous East German car mechanic is central to the action, while the bad guys are led by an equally glamorous Elizabeth Debicki.
“Seeing one of the big-franchise movies have such strong female characters is quite rare,” says Vikander, who at the age of just 26 is in the enviable position of being able to pick her roles. “Here they have their own agendas, and it was fun playing a character where you’re not sure what side she is really on.”
It’s also the first time she’d been asked to act in a comedy, which she says was scary – although she adds that fear tends to be what drives her. One of the film’s funniest moments involves her character, Ava, doing a drunken dance in a hotel room, and she says that wasn’t in the initial script: it grew out of weeks of rehearsals at Ritchie’s home.
“It was a nice, collaborative vibe and [Ritchie] made me improvise – which, when it’s not in my native language, got me even more terrified! But then you start to trust each other and to have fun.
“It was a revelation when somebody actually laughed at something I did.”
Vikander’s parents separated when she was a baby, so she has no memory of them together. Her childhood was spent mostly in Gothenberg with her mother Maria, a successful theatre actress, but she also regularly visited her psychiatrist father Svante, who went on to have five more children. She’s often asked if it was difficult, shuttling between two very different environments. But much to the contrary, she says, “I got so much love. Children are very adaptable as long as they feel safe. With my mum, I lived in a very urban, cultural environment and I got to be the only child, then every second weekend I was part of this huge family in a much smaller town, going to the lake during the summer months.”
She acted on stage as a child, but Vikander’s main focus was always dance, and at the age of 15 she moved to Stockholm to study at the Royal Swedish Ballet School. That taught her self-reliance, but, she admits, was tough at times. “At first you were high on the fact that you lived in your own little flat, and it was fun prepping the dinner or doing the laundry. But once the term started, it got quite lonely: a lot of homework, long hours, six-day weeks. But most of my class were in the same position. Some came from Iceland, Denmark or Finland, so we’d meet up and make dinners together on Sundays.”
She says that having the focus you need to be a dancer has served her well ever since, as well as an awareness of movement that she uses to good effect when building her characters.
She trained hard, and suffered injuries – “I still have a back injury that’s never going to be fully recovered” – but ultimately came to realise that she didn’t want it as badly as some of the other girls. “I could see that they had some twinkle in their eye that said it was fun being up at 5am with all the injuries. They loved it.”
She says that giving up ballet was one of the hardest decisions she’s ever made, but it led her back to acting. After a couple of TV roles, she applied for drama school – and got rejected, two years running. So she decided to study law instead. She’d already bought her books and was ready to start her course when she was offered the lead in Pure, a low-budget indie film that in 2009 won her a Guldbagge Award – the Swedish equivalent of a best actress Oscar.
More Swedish roles followed, and then she was asked to audition for the lead role in the 2012 Danish historical drama A Royal Affair. It was the first time she’d been to Denmark, and she didn’t speak the language at all. So when director Nikolaj Arcel spoke to her afterwards, she didn’t understand him: he had to repeat himself in English before she realised he was giving her the part.
It says a lot about her determination that when filming began weeks later, her Danish – considered the hardest of the Scandinavian languages to master – was good enough to see her through the project. The film was nominated for the best foreign language film Oscar, and soon after finishing it she came to the UK for her first English-speaking role, playing the naive Kitty in Joe Wright’s imaginative reworking of Anna Karenina.
Since then, she’s made films back to back. She has spoken English with a German accent in the Wikileaks film The Fifth Estate, as well as beautifully enunciated RP English in Testament of Youth, where she gives a moving central performance as Vera Brittain. She prepares intensely with a voice coach for each role, and says that when Guy Ritchie asked her to use her own accent for The Man From U.N.C.L.E., she was lost: “I have no idea what that is any more!”
Her work schedule has meant that she lived mainly in hotel rooms, but she started to notice that when she did have a few days off, it was London she went back to. “Stockholm is a gorgeous city, but very few of my friends still live there. They’re in LA, New York, London and Paris. Which is great, because I see them a lot – just not back home in Sweden.”
While making The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in 2013, she decided to put down roots in north London, buying and refurbishing a place between location shoots in Naples.
This summer, she’s enjoying her first break from filming in two years, with time to cook for friends, and to make finishing touches to her home. She has also spent a week on a yoga retreat in Costa Rica, where the monkeys woke her up at sunrise and she learned how to meditate again. “It really did me some good,” she says.
Although chatty and open with a raucous laugh that at one point brings the whole coffee shop to a halt, Vikander dislikes talking about her private life – especially relationships.
She met Michael Fassbender, 38, while filming The Light Between Oceans in Australia and New Zealand last year, and says there are so many photographs of them out there now that it is pointless to deny they are a couple. It must be hard, particularly in those fragile early weeks and months of a new relationship, to have it dissected so publicly, accompanied by photographs of moments you’d thought were private. She knows it comes with her job and says she thought she was prepared for the attention – but it was still a shock to meet up with friends, then days later see a picture of you all, sitting outside a café, splashed across the media.
“You realise that someone was there, watching, while you were having a coffee with your friends. And you just feel violated,” Vikander says. “It’s a strange feeling. But also, I totally know how privileged I am to be doing what I do, and it’s hard to talk about the downside because the upsides are so amazing.”
It’s different, she says, when she knows she’s going to be photographed at public events, when she’s prepared. As a teenager, she remembers seeing pictures of the annual Met Ball in New York, where all the top designers arrive with their current muse. So attending it this year with Louis Vuitton’s creative director Nicolas Ghesquière, in a gorgeous silver couture gown he’d designed for her, was both surreal and enjoyable.
“He’s a very visual, artistic person and very inspiring. He has introduced me to a fashion world that doesn’t feel that far away from my job,” she says.
“His shows are not just about a new collection – they’re an experience.
“[At the AW15 show] it felt like I was on a film set and I was actually part of a little journey, with the music, the models he’d chosen. And I could see references from old sci-fi and fantasy movies that I love.”
She still vividly remembers the first time she wore couture, at the Cannes Film Festival the day after wrapping A Royal Affair. “We had a heck of a party that night and stayed out until 6am, then got a flight to Cannes to do a press conference,” she says. She had packed nothing but, at the last minute, she was invited to a premiere and ended up having to borrow a Valentino gown.
It was made for a tall catwalk model and there was no time to alter it to her more petite 5ft 4in proportions, so she wore it with impossibly high heels, taking them off during the film. Then, as the credits rolled, she realised that her feet had swollen and she couldn’t get the shoes back on. Walking out barefoot with her overlong gown hitched up around her waist wasn’t really the image she was trying to project for her first Cannes red carpet, so she ended up marooned in the cinema while her agent ran to get replacement shoes.
She hoots with laughter telling this story, but she’ll be better prepared for the (many) film premieres she has this year. There is already Oscar speculation about The Light Between Oceans (in which she and Fassbender play a couple living in a remote lighthouse in the 1920s, who find a baby and decide to adopt it as their own) and The Danish Girl (again set in the 1920s, with Eddie Redmayne as the first man to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Vikander plays his artist wife, and describes it as “one of the most sincere and complex love stories I’ve ever read”).
In September, she starts work on the fifth Bourne film, which sees Matt Damon return to the title role. She’s not allowed to talk about it yet, but can’t hide her excitement. “I’m a big Bourne fan,” she says. “When I first lived in London with my girlfriends, if we didn’t have anything else to do on Sundays, we’d just watch the Bourne films again. So I think I’ve seen them all about 10 times!”
The Man From UNCLE is out on August 14. The exhibition Louis Vuitton Series 3 featuring Alicia Vikander will be at 180 Strand, London WC2, from September 20