'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Alicia Vikander ('The Danish Girl')

Alicia Vikander - 88th Annual Academy Awards nominee luncheon- H 2016
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"I'm still trying to get used to it," Alicia Vikander, the 27-year-old Swedish actress, says of her newfound international stardom as we sit down to record an episode of the 'Awards Chatter' podcast. In the last year, Vikander has become widely known for her beauty and style; her rumored relationship with Michael Fassbender, with whom she will soon be seen in Derek Cianfrance's The Light Between Oceans; and especially for her work. She starred in an astounding seven films released in the U.S. in 2015, two of which — Alex Garland's Ex Machina and Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl — have secured her spot on the map.

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For Vikander's performance as an android with artificial intelligence in Ex Machina, she won the best supporting actress Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award and was nominated for the best supporting actress Golden Globe and BAFTA awards. And for her portrayal of the early 20th century painter Gerda Wegener — whose husband became one of the first recipients of sex reassignment surgery — in The Danish Girl, she won the best supporting actress Screen Actors Guild and Critics' Choice awards, was nominated for the best actress Golden Globe Award and is now nominated for — and favored to win — the best supporting actress Oscar.

With a year like that, it seems only reasonable to assume that Vikander's path always pointed towards acting, but it did not. Growing up in Sweden, she did do some acting as a child (her mother is a well-known Swedish stage actress), but she also spent years training to become a professional ballet dancer and, after being rejected from theater school, applied — and was accepted — to law school, which was what the producers on many of the short films in which she appeared told her they had done before winding up in their careers.

As fate would have it, though, she landed — after five auditions — her first leading part in a feature film in Lisa Langseth's Pure (2009), "a role where I could actually show a lot of range," she says, and for which she won Sweden's equivalent of the best actress Oscar. The film was rolled out at film festivals around the world, and Vikander began to receive increasing attention, but the idea of achieving international stardom? "It wasn't even a thought that you could do it," she says. "I mean, [Greta] Garbo and Ingrid Bergman? I read that in the history books in school and it felt like a fairy tale. My dream was to be at the Royal Theatre and do plays and then be one of those actresses who could then, maybe every second or third year, do some good interesting feature or film or be in a more in-depth TV series. That was the peak of what I dreamed of."

However, things quickly began to snowball for her. She landed the lead in a Danish film, Nikolaj Arcel's 2012 film A Royal Affair, for which she had to learn Danish in just two months, and which wound up as a nominee for the best foreign language film Oscar. (She shares a Cinderella-esque story about how she wound up in couture for the first time, at the Cannes Film Festival, a day after this film wrapped.) That same year, she appeared, in a supporting part, in her first English-language film, Joe Wright's Anna Karenina, which was shot in the U.K. Then, to her amazement, she received her first call to come to America to test for the lead in a Hollywood production, Snow White and the Huntsman.

Snow White didn't pan out — Kristen Stewart won the role — but, over the next few years, she landed plum parts in a plethora of international films that would all, coincidentally, hit U.S. theaters in 2015. Through no fault of her own, three weren't widely seen (Seventh Son, Son of a Gun and Testament of Youth) and two weren't especially good (Guy Ritchie's The Man from U.N.C.L.E., her first foray into comedy, and Burnt) — but two couldn't have gone over much better.

She knew from the minute she read the script of Ex Machina that it was something special. "I don't think I've ever jumped on a phone to my agents faster," she says, and she wound up auditioning for the part via videotape from Australia. She calls Garland "an extraordinary first-time director," sharing some of the helpful notes that he gave her about her characterization of a woman who essentially serves as a Rorschach test. As she puts it, "It all comes down to, 'Do you believe that this thing has consciousness or not?' If you do, then you see a young girl trapped in a room by two men, and then suddenly the idea of the film becomes very different." She continues, "Even me and Alex said, 'Let's not talk about that. Let's keep the ambiguity there, even between us.' "

The Danish Girl, which she shot more recently, accorded her the opportunity to work with two Oscar winners who have a rich history together, Hooper and Eddie Redmayne, and to tackle one of the earliest known stories of the trans experience, bold territory into which few other films have traveled. But, she says, "What drew me to this film was the love story. It felt like these two were almost soul mates." She landed the part after a successful "chemistry read" with Redmayne; benefited from research about Wegener and the trans experience, conversations with trans people, three weeks of rehearsal and a set on which copies of Wegener's art were on display. Never could she or her collaborators have imagined, though, that the film would open into a world in which trans issues were suddenly front-and-center, seemingly everywhere — from Laverne Cox to Transparent to Caitlyn Jenner.

Making all of these films has been one thing. Promoting them has been quite another. "We counted," Vikander says with a laugh. "It's been like 65 days of press over the last year!" That's a rather insane figure, but she's not complaining. She's living her dream. "This job, a lot of the time, especially in the beginning when I didn't know so many people, it's very lonely. There were so many stories and experiences that were beyond anything I could have thought, and I kind of turned my head everywhere looking for someone that I could, like, freak out with or talk to, like, 'Oh, my God! What's happening?!' " She continues, "I remember when I walked into those rooms three years ago I didn't know a soul, and it was quite tough." But, she adds with a smile, things have changed: "After just one or two years, you're like, 'Some of them are my colleagues now and I know them!' "