Alicia Vikander Wants to Put ‘Beautiful and Nasty and Unapologetic’ Women on the Screen

Karlovy Vary Film Festival: “I want female stories to be told as honestly as possible,” says the actress who plays King Henry VIII’s last wife in “Firebrand”

Alicia Vikander at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival
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Swedish actress Alicia Vikander came to the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival this year to receive the festival’s President’s Award and show the Karim Ainouz film “Firebrand,” in which she stars as the 16th-century British queen Catherine Parr opposite Jude Law’s King Henry VIII. For Vikander, it marked a return to the Czech Republic, where she made her first international movie, 2012’s “A Royal Affair,” starring as another queen, Denmark’s controversial 16th-century monarch Caroline Matilda.

In between those two royal dramas, Vikander has starred in movies that include “Anna Karenina,” “Ex Machina,” “Jason Bourne,” “The Green Knight” and “The Danish Girl,” for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

During her trip to Karlovy Vary, Vikander sat down with TheWrap for a discussion of “Firebrand,” the importance of depicting honest, unapologetic women onscreen and just how disgusting it was to smell the special perfume Jude Law commissioned to capture the scent of a dying Henry VIII.  

When you received your award in Karlovy Vary, you said that your international career began in the Czech Republic when you came here to shoot “A Royal Affair.”
I wanted to talk about what connects me to this place. And I really wanted people to understand how truly important it was. Those few months in the Czech Republic when I shot that film, it was the first time I left Sweden. It’s one of the big early memories of my life.

I was in my early 20s, and I almost remember the whole thing, I think more vividly than a lot of other films I made even after that. It was extraordinary to be here and go to work and put those costumes on, work with Mads Mikkelson. It was kind of mind-blowing. We were in Prague for big chunk, but then we also traveled around and formed a community in these little villages and drank a lot of beer. I don’t even like beer, but that’s a very big memory that I have. (Laughs) I think I will always have a lot of shimmer around that experience.  And obviously, that film then ended up meaning a lot to my career. So that was a pivotal moment, and to be back here was very, very moving.

“Firebrand” is visceral and immersive in the way it re-creates the chaos of the court of Henry VIII. When you were making the film did you feel immersed in that world?
Obviously, in filmmaking you come in every day and do your work – it’s not like theater where you play out the whole thing every night. You go in these pockets, and I always feel like naturally, when you get halfway through your film, you will start to feel like you have it in you. All the pillars of the bridge are coming together, and you can see it all.

With period pieces, it’s very difficult to find anything that’s accurate. Either you build stages or you have to go to different locations to try and put together. But the historical setting in this film, we actually shot in one house (the Haddon House in Derbyshire, England). It’s an incredible place. My husband (Michael Fassbender) actually shot “Jane Eyre” there. He came to my shoot and said, “You’re shooting in the exact same rooms I was.” (Laughs)

It gives you a very special feeling. We started rehearsals there, and Jude and I both had trailers where you would normally go. But both of us didn’t want them. We found our little corner of this old estate and were able to work there. And I think that really helped.

Jude and his men were there, and I was with the women who played my ladies. And we had these historians that came in and taught us things, and we tried to immerse ourselves as much as we could in the world.  There were a lot of discussions between me and the women who played my ladies in waiting. We were stuck in these tiny two rooms and we spent most of our time there. And all the other rooms, if you think about it, were for other scenes that we have with men. That just gave us a feeling. They told us that the court normally had like 300 men and eight women. That feeling is already quite intimidating.

“Firebrand” (Cannes Film Festival)

The film really brings across the idea that she may be the queen, and the most powerful woman in the country, but she really has very little agency and power in her own life.
Yeah. Yeah. You have to get in the mindset of what I thought was impressive with what she actually did manage to do. It is pretty extraordinary, considering what we’ve just said. For her to manage in that house, with that man, not knowing, “Am I going to live tomorrow?” Just put that in a present perspective. What room would that be, where you think your life is in danger every day? And then still manage to raise a family, to educate them. And to have your thoughts and political dreams put down on paper and get them published. Then you realize that’s pretty extraordinary.

And part of her life as a mother is to other children whose mothers have either been sent away or killed.
Yeah. That is very important. When you go back in history, you think it’s like another world, another time. But as soon as you start to think about it – a woman in a situation where she’s in danger of her husband and of her life, and every day she’s locked in a room – and if you put all these facts into present time, then you start to realize what you’re working.

Watching this as an American a year after our Supreme Court took away some rights that women had, it does reinforce that a period piece is not just about the period.
No, it’s definitely not. I mean, that’s the tricky part. Humans are difficult. I don’t think humans have changed in 500 years. I think it’s just the world surrounding us or the social structures.

So is it important for you at this point in your career to make movies that center the female experience?
In my somewhat short career, I still have been able to see a very radical change in what the industry looks like and films are being made. Obviously, Catherine is a woman in history, which I think is very interesting when you find stories that haven’t really been highlighted. If that would’ve been a man, we would’ve known about it, you know? But then for me, the challenge right now is that I want female stories to be told as honestly as possible. I want a woman to be wonderful and beautiful and nasty and strange and unapologetic. I want the full aspect. And I think that’s been the issue before, is that you kind of narrow down a female persona to something much more simplified. So I think that’s what I’m sorting out now.

How much research could you to into the real Catherine Parr?
It’s 500 years ago, right? TV and films have fed us a lot about the Tudor times for the past few years. But when you get the historians in and when you read the books, you realize it’s down to the same few facts. And then it’s just people’s imagination that fills out the gaps. So when people say, “We don’t know,” it’s actually the truth.

The incredible thing with her is that I was able to read her two books that she published. And that’s pretty wild, to be honest. Obviously, the version I read was translated into modern English. But I still started to feel like, “Oh, my God, this is actually her voice.” The first book is a lot of her prayers, which is one thing, but the other book is much more challenging. And that’s when I really felt like I started to get who this woman was. It was not until I got to read her books when, to me, she started to become human. She talks a lot about all the good things she does, but she spends millions on fabrics and beautiful things. Then I was like, “OK, now I have a human here.”

Jude has talked about the special scent he had made to capture the smell of Henry and his infected leg. What was it like working with that?
When I act, I use music a lot. I go around with my airpods between takes. Sometimes I even have asked to put music on sets, you know, if we’re doing wide shots and don’t have to use the sound in the take. And obviously smells are the same thing. It kind of just like takes over for your senses and guides you in different direction, whether you want it or not. It’s the same thing as what music does to you.

Jude gave me actually my own smell, too, which was a very, very nice gift. But there’s a national dish in Sweden called surströmming. It’s like a fish that is rotten. I remember a jar of surströmming opening, and I almost gagged, you know? I’ve never had my body react like that to smell, but it was a reflex.

And that happened too, when Jude pulled out his box. And of course, our director then got so carried away that he was carrying that box and opening it up everywhere for all scenes. The camera guys couldn’t even keep working. The steadicam guy couldn’t keep the shot. So we had to wait until the smell left the room a bit. It was pretty intense. (Laughs)

You said music is important. What music did you listen to on this film?
A lot of electronic music. And classical music. It changes things when you bring in music with lyrics, so I stayed away from that. Mostly, I wanted music with a strong beat – like a heartbeat.