Swedish actress Alicia Vikander came to the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival this year to receive the festival’s President’s Award and to show Karim Ainouz’s film “Firebrand”, in which she plays the 16th century British queen Catherine Parr, alongside King Henry VIII of Jude Law. For Vikander, it marked a return to the Czech Republic, where she made her first international film, 2012’s “A Royal Affair,” starring another queen, the controversial 16th-century Danish monarch, Caroline Matilda.
Between those two true dramas, Vikander has starred in films including “Anna Karenina,” “Ex Machina,” “Jason Bourne,” “The Green Knight,” and “The Danish Girl,” for which she won the Academy Award for Best Best Supporting Actress.
During her trip to Karlovy Vary, Vikander sat down with TheWrap to discuss “Firebrand,” the importance of representing unapologetic, honest women on screen, and how sickening it was to smell the special perfume Jude Law commissioned to capture the scent of a dying woman Henry VIII.
When he received his award at Karlovy Vary, he said that his international career started in the Czech Republic when he came here to film “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 filmed that movie, it was the first time I left Sweden. It is one of the first great memories of my life.
I was in my early 20s, and I pretty much remember everything, I think more vividly than many other movies I’ve made even after that. It was amazing to be here and go to work and put on those costumes, working with Mads Mikkelson. It was something amazing. We were in Prague for a long time, but then we also traveled and formed a community in these small towns and drank a lot of beer. I don’t even like beer, but that’s a really great memory I have. (laughs) I think I’ll always be very bright around that experience. And obviously, that movie 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 recreates the chaos of Henry VIII’s court. When you were making the film, did you feel immersed in that world?
Obviously, in the cinema you come every day and do your job, it’s not like the theater where you represent everything every night. You go in these pockets, and I always feel like naturally by the time you get to the middle of your movie, you start to feel like you have it in you. All the pillars of the bridge come together and you can see everything.
With period pieces, it is very difficult to find something that is exact. Either you build sets or you have to go to different places to try to put them together. But the historical setting of this movie, we actually shot it in a house (Haddon House in Derbyshire, England). It’s an incredible place. My husband (Michael Fassbender) filmed “Jane Eyre” there. He came to my session and said, “You’re shooting in the exact same rooms as me.” (laughs)
It gives you a very special feeling. We started rehearsals there, and Jude and I had trailers where you normally go. But neither of them wanted them. We found our little corner of this old farm 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 come in and teach us things, and we tried to immerse ourselves as much as we could in the world. There were many arguments between me and the women who acted as my ladies-in-waiting. We were trapped in these two small rooms and 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 about 300 men and eight women. That feeling is already intimidating enough.
The movie really conveys the idea that she may be the queen and the most powerful woman in the country, but in reality she has very little agency and power in her own life.
Yes. Yes. You have to think about what I thought was impressive with what she actually managed to do. It’s quite extraordinary, considering what we’ve just said. That she manages 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, educate them. And that her political thoughts and dreams be put in writing and published. Then you realize that it is quite extraordinary.
And part of her life as a mother is for other children whose mothers have been kicked out or killed.
Yes. 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 thinking about it, a woman in a situation where her husband and her life are in danger, and every day she’s locked in a room, and if you put all these facts in the present tense, then she starts to realize what you are working on.
Seeing this as an American a year after our Supreme Court took away some rights women had, reinforces that a period piece isn’t just about the period.
No, it definitely isn’t. I mean, that’s the hard part. Humans are difficult. I don’t think humans have changed in 500 years. I think it’s just the world around us or social structures.
So is it important to you at this point in your career to make films that focus on the female experience?
In my somewhat short career, I’ve still been able to see a very radical change in how the industry looks and how movies are being made. Obviously Catherine is a woman in the story, which I think is very interesting when you find stories that haven’t really stood out. If she had been a man, we would have known, you know? But then, for me, the challenge right now is that I want the women’s stories to be told as honestly as possible. I want a woman to be wonderful, beautiful, nasty, weird and unapologetic. I want the full look. And I think that’s been the problem before, is that you limit a female persona to something much more simplified. So I think that’s what I’m fixing now.
How much research could you do on the real Catherine Parr?
500 years ago, right? Television and movies have fed us a lot about Tudor times over the past few years. But when you get to the historians and when you read the books, you realize that these are the same facts. And then it’s just people’s imaginations that fill in 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 gosh, this is actually her voice.” The first book is a lot of her sentences, which is one thing, but the other book is much more challenging. And that’s when I really felt like I started to understand who this woman was. It wasn’t until I got to read her books that she, 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. So I said, “Okay, now I have a human here.”
Jude has talked about the special scent she had made to capture the scent of Henry and his infected leg. How was he working with it?
When I act, I use music a lot. I go with my airpods between takes. Sometimes I’ve even asked to put music on sets, you know, if we’re doing wide shots and we don’t have to use sound in the shot. And obviously the smells are the same. It’s like it takes over your senses and guides you in a different direction whether you want it to or not. It’s the same thing that music does to you.
Jude also gave me my own scent, which was a very, very nice gift. But there is a national dish in Sweden called surstromming. It is like a fish that is rotten. I remember a jar of surströmming was opened and I almost choked, you know? My body had never reacted like this to the smell, but it was a reflex.
And that happened too, when Jude took out his box. And of course our director got so carried away that he would carry that box and open it everywhere for all the scenes. The cameramen couldn’t even keep working. The steadicam guy couldn’t hold the shot. So we had to wait until the smell left the room a bit. It was pretty intense. (laughs)
You said that music is important. What music did you hear in this movie?
Lots of electronic music. And classical music. It changes things up when you bring in music with lyrics, so I stayed away from that. Above all, I wanted music with a strong rhythm, like a heartbeat.