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It was four in the morning when Noomi Rapace got called from her trailer to stick her arm up a sheep.
“They woke me up and said ‘it’s happening! The baby’s coming!’,” Rapace recalls. “I basically put my hands up the mama sheep and pulled out the baby.”
Not a regular day at the office for Rapace. The Swedish actor, launched to international prominence as Lisbeth Salander in the original The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009), is more accustomed to Hollywood backlots and franchise tentpoles — her post-Dragon Tattoo career includes roles in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, starring alongside Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and together with John Krasinski in the Amazon Prime series Jack Ryan.
So what convinced one of Europe’s biggest stars to shoot a low-budget genre film — Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Cannes Un Certain Regard entry Lamb — in rural Iceland?
“Valdimar didn’t really pitch me the project. He can’t lie and he’s very shy. So he just came to my house in London, gave me script, a lookbook and a book of Icelandic poems,” says Rapace. “But as soon as he left, I called my team and said: ‘I’m doing this no matter what.’ There was no money but my whole spirit just told me, you’ve got to do this, it spoke directly to me.”
In Lamb, Rapace stars with Icelandic actor Hilmir Snaer Gudnason (White Night Wedding) as a childless couple tending to a herd of sheep in a remote farm. One day they discover a mysterious newborn on their land, which they decide to raise as their own. But in the tradition of the darkest Nordic folktales, their choice to defy the laws of nature will bring chaos and destruction.
“In Iceland, so many of the stories, the folktales are nature-driven because that’s what people are afraid of, and if you are afraid, you imagine something out there,” says Jóhannsson. “The dark rocks become trolls, the landscape becomes threatening.”
“I knew this story somehow. I grew up on a farm in Iceland. The way I was brought up, I lived very close to life and death,” says Rapace. “Watching my parents deliver baby lambs and then seeing at slaughter time when you kill the lambs and eat the meat. For me it felt like going back to my roots.”
The international teaser for Lamb — A24 picked up the film for the U.S. ahead of its Cannes premiere — contrasts the stunning natural beauty of rural Iceland with a sense of impending doom. Something— an unseen force in the dark outside — looms ever closer.
“We use the old folklore way of telling our story, very simply and very clear,” says Rapace. “And I think also very Icelandic. People don’t speak a lot and there is a calmness even in the most brutal situations. It’s not straight-up horror. It’s more psychologically and internal.”
“For me, this film is about loss and how much this couple is willing to do to try and recapture the happiness they had before, to make their life bearable,” says Jóhannsson.
Making Lamb has also been, for Rapace, a kind of rebirth.
“I’ve been on this crazy journey. I left Sweden after The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and I divorced my husband that same year. My life changed a lot,” she says. “I came from a lot of trauma and a lot of chaos. Since then I’ve been rebuilding myself. Now coming back to Iceland and shooting this movie, it all comes full circle. It was very emotional for me.
Without sounding too cliché, it’s made me want to reconnect to my roots, to where I come from, and do to more European cinema, to maybe do less action and more internal drama.”
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