It isn’t easy to stand out amid the warped funhouse mirror of glamour and opulence that is the Cannes Film Festival—a celebration of film so “highbrow” it’s not only set in the Côte d'Azur, but has also taken upon itself to ban flats, a grotesque form of plebeian footwear.
At this year’s edition, however, all eyes were on a sylphlike Swedish beauty as she glided down the boundless red carpet in a Valentino Couture silver velvet gown. With nary a film there, and boyfriend Michael Fassbender in tow, the 26-year-old ex-ballerina was nonetheless the most in-demand actress at Cannes, courted by producers for a trio of plum roles opposite Tom Hanks (The Circle), Matt Damon (a fifth Bourne film), and Fassbender (Assassin’s Creed). Yes, Alicia Vikander is all the rage, and it’s high time you joined the bandwagon.
Riviera courtship and fashion distractions aside—she’s also the new face of Louis Vuitton—Vikander has earned her stripes onscreen, dazzling audiences as a humanoid robot in the sci-fi thriller Ex Machina and, this Friday, playing real-life protofeminist Vera Brittain in the stirring World War I drama Testament of Youth.
If all that weren’t enough, Vikander has five more films due out this year, including Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E.; Tulip Fever, opposite Christoph Waltz; Adam Jones with Bradley Cooper; The Light Between Oceans alongside the boyfriend; and, last but not least, The Danish Girl, which stars Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe, one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery. Needless to say, it’s a very topical film given the recent Vanity Fair cover featuring Caitlyn Jenner.
“Yes, the Vanity Fair cover! It was a beautiful cover,” says Vikander. “It’s interesting what topics are being told, because people say that the film is ‘so now,’ but The Danish Girl took 12 years to develop. In society, it takes time for people to realize what is happening.”
It’s taken a bit of time for people to realize the potential of Vikander, too. After starring in several Swedish films and TV shows, she first made a splash as the Queen of Denmark in the 2012 Danish film A Royal Affair, which earned a Best Foreign Film Oscar nod. Prestige roles in Anna Karenina and The Fifth Estate followed, though both films failed to connect with audiences.
Ex Machina was the game changer. Alex Garland’s sci-fi indie centers on Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer working for the world’s biggest search engine, Bluebook. Its inventor/CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), offers to fly him out to his secluded home/research facility in the mountains and test an artificial intelligence breakthrough in the form of Ava (Vikander), a beautiful humanoid robot. The two start to bond, and Caleb soon realizes that all is not right with Ava.
Made for a modest $15 million and given a platform release, the film has gone on to become a critically acclaimed word of mouth hit—a development that’s made Vikander feel “overwhelmed and happy.”
As for how the effects team accomplished her AI look, she says, “The silver mesh that you see, except for the parts where I’m see-through, that’s just a whole Spider-Man suit. And the actual head that’s put on my skull they build on top, so I had a bald cap that was the silver mesh, and then they built my forehead on top of my skull every morning, which took almost four hours.” Unlike Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, Vikander doesn’t seem all too worried about the future of AI. “You’re afraid of the unknown, afraid of losing control, and afraid that machines are taking control of humanity,” she says. “Since I was doing the character of Ava and felt along with her, in a way, Alex reminded me how if you believe that you can make a consciousness, then we need to take care of it in the same way we do every consciousness. There’s so much evil in humanity, and what if this could be something greater than that?”
Vikander is in New York promoting Testament of Youth, and we’re seated across from one another in the bowels of SoHo’s Crosby Hotel.
Whereas her Ava was ethereal and subdued, Vera is a force of nature. Set in 1914 Britain and based on Brittain’s celebrated memoir of the same name, Testament’s Vera is a rebellious wunderkind who wishes to attend Oxford and become a famous novelist. She soon, against her every instinct, falls in love with Roland Leighton (Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington). When World War I breaks out, he—along with her brother and two friends—are all shipped out to serve on the front lines, so Vera in turn drops out of Oxford and works as a nurse, where she witnesses the heavy toll of war firsthand.
“She saw the entire war—but not on the front lines, the results of everyone coming back. I’d never seen an adaptation that focused on the people that were left behind,” says Vikander. “I’d also never been introduced to the female perspective of war. When I read Testament of Youth for the first time, it seemed like a girl my age right now telling her story that was put in a different universe. She had the same ideas about her, but was restricted by not even being able to go outside without a chaperone. She had to be that pigheaded, headstrong, and unreachable in the beginning because she had to be so determined since society was so against her.”
She adds, “It is still very hard in this industry to find very strong female characters.”
It’s a riveting performance by Vikander, who navigates a complex web of emotions, alternating back and forth from gritty to grieving. The film also reunites her with Seventh Son costar Harington, aka Jon Snow.
“I’ve seen about four episodes of Game of Thrones!” Vikander says. “I know he has long hair on the show. We were both in a film called Seventh Son, and became friends off set. It’s in his contract, I think, that he can’t cut his hair! But when I saw him with a wig on [in Testament], I was surprised by how good it looked.”
The 26-year-old ex-ballerina isn’t sure what’s on the horizon after 2015, or which of the Cannes trio of The Circle, Assassin’s Creed, and Bourne she’ll actually star in.
“All three projects are really great. James Ponsoldt’s script is great for The Circle, and Tom Hanks is involved, and then there’s Assassin’s with Justin [Kurzel], and Bourne. I don’t know, myself if I’m doing all of them! It’s going to come down to scheduling.”
She pauses, and smiles. “It feels a bit surreal that I’ve been working with such high-profile directors that I’ve looked up to, and actors that I saw on the big screen growing up in Sweden. It’s all very exciting.”