Rob Brunner
October 08, 2010 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Hollywood, it turned out, was nothing like Noomi Rapace anticipated. In August, the Swedish actress spent five frantic days in Los Angeles, meeting with directors, producers, and fellow actors who were eager to get to know the intense, mysterious star of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels (the final installment, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, opens here on Oct. 29). ”I was surprised,” says the actress, 30. ”I actually can see myself living there. I didn’t expect it to be like that, but there’s a kind of explosive energy. Everything has to happen now. It’s a full-speed train coming at you. I expected it to be much more about making money — more cynical.”

While in L.A., she got together with some of the town’s biggest names. Ridley Scott wanted to meet her (the director is working on an Alien prequel, although she insists their discussion ”was not specifically about anything”). And Robert Downey Jr. spent about 30 minutes with her — chatting, she says, ”about movies, and what kind of movies we want to do. Hopes and dreams, in a way.”

Why is this Swedish actress suddenly the talk of the movie biz? When the first Dragon Tattoo movie hit art houses here last March, expectations were relatively low. But the stunning success of Stieg Larsson’s novels helped draw attention to the films, and Rapace’s harrowingly convincing take on the emotionally damaged but oddly sympathetic computer hacker Lisbeth Salander was instantly considered definitive (there’s even talk of an Oscar nomination). With a big-budget, David Fincher-directed English-language version of Dragon Tattoo now shooting in Sweden, many fans are wondering whether the new star, Rooney Mara (The Social Network), can possibly match Rapace’s fiery performance. When asked how it feels to be handing off the role for which she’s become famous, Rapace laughs. ”It feels pretty good! I’m not so sentimental. It was very clear to me from the beginning that I would not do her again — I’m done with her. I lived with her for a year and a half, and I couldn’t have done more. I want to move on.”

Born Noomi Norén, Rapace grew up in Sweden and Iceland with her actress mother, Nina Norén, who played Lisbeth’s mother in Dragon Tattoo. Her father, a Gypsy flamenco singer from Spain, was mostly out of the picture. At age 7, Rapace landed a small part in an Icelandic movie, ”this kind of bloody Viking romantic drama,” as she describes it. ”I felt like the world just opened up in front of me.” Then, when she was 15, she announced that she was moving to Stockholm to attend acting school. ”I was very stubborn,” says Rapace, who speaks near-flawless English with a Scandinavian lilt. ”I said, ‘I’m leaving.’ When I look back, I can see that I was pretty young, but at that moment I felt like a grown-up. I felt like I knew everything, and the world was waiting for me.”

In 2001, she married actor Ola Norell (best known here for the foreign-language hit Together), and the couple decided to adopt the surname Rapace, which translates as ”bird of prey” in French. ”When I lived in Iceland [as a young child], I was out playing, and all of a sudden this big hawk was sitting on a cliff, watching me with amazing eyes,” she explains. ”They have such a strong focus — it’s like they know everything about the whole universe.”

Rapace was surprised when she got a call to audition for the role of Lisbeth, described in the books as tiny, tough, and boyish. She had loved the novels, but physically, she just didn’t fit. ”I’m pretty feminine,” says the actress, who had been doing TV and film work in Sweden. ”I didn’t look like her at all. But I knew that I had her inside of me. I felt that I could understand her.” Rapace has always been drawn to darker material, films that go places that other actors might not want to explore. ”I’m almost obsessed with the human psyche,” she says. ”I want to understand what’s going on inside us. What makes us do things under extreme circumstances? Why do some people commit horrible crimes, and why are some people good? What’s the difference? Where does it start? I’ve always been very interested in the complicated sides of humanity.” After she got the part, Rapace spent seven months doing serious martial-arts training, trying to make herself look harder, more masculine.

In some ways, the mental transformation was even more difficult. ”You have to use everything you can to get the audience to understand what’s going on inside you,” she says. ”Because Lisbeth doesn’t say anything. She’s so locked up in herself. I’m much more up-front, more direct. I had to close a lot of doors in me to get to who she is.”

Hornet’s Nest presented some even tougher acting challenges, since Lisbeth is confined to a hospital bed or in police custody for much of the movie. ”It was difficult, because I’m very physical,” she says. ”I like to do things and get things out of my body, but I was forced to be still in the bed and keep it cool. You have to find other ways of getting out what you want to.”

Since finishing Hornet’s Nest, Rapace has shot two Scandinavian films, including the upcoming Beyond, in which she stars with her husband. (The couple, who have a 7-year-old son, recently separated.) And last month, Rapace scored her first major post-Lisbeth role: She’ll be appearing alongside Downey in Guy Ritchie’s sequel to Sherlock Holmes, which started shooting in London on Oct. 4 and hits theaters next December. Holmes appealed to Rapace because of ”the actors and the director, pretty much. I’ve seen a lot of things that Robert Downey Jr. has done through the years, and he’s amazing. He has secrets. I want to know: What’s going on inside you? What’s behind those eyes? And I’ve seen all of Guy Ritchie’s films. He has a kind of sharpness that I like.”

What exactly she’ll be doing in the film is a bit of a secret, and Rapace isn’t talking. ”She is something else,” the actress says of the character, reportedly a French Gypsy. ”She is something that I have inside me that I’ve wanted to look more deeply into for many years. So when this came to me I was like, ‘Yes, I’ve been waiting to have a reason to open up those things.’ ” Is she referring to her father’s Gypsy heritage? ”You’ll see” is all she’ll say.

Rapace says she’s close to locking in her next role after Sherlock Holmes, which she also can’t discuss. If all goes according to plan, the part will involve working with people she’s ”always dreamed of getting the opportunity to work with.” But despite her growing fame and positive Hollywood experiences so far, she remains a little wary of stardom. ”I think it’s very important to keep a distance from the celebrity world,” she says. ”If you let everybody into your personal life, then people will shortly be bored, because they know everything about you. I don’t have this dream about Hollywood. I just want to make amazing films.”

What language barrier?
English may not be their native tongue, but these actresses have thrived in Hollywood anyway.

Monica Bellucci The Italian siren added a touch of class to action pics like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and The Matrix Revolutions.

Marion Cotillard A vivid 2007 turn as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose transformed the Parisian into an American star — and an Oscar winner.

Penélope Cruz Spain’s greatest export since sangría has racked up two Oscar nods, plus a win for 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Franka Potente After Run Lola Run (1999), the German actress ran to Hollywood, landing a coveted part in the first two Bourne films.

Audrey Tautou Despite U.S. hits like The Da Vinci Code, this French beauty is still best known as the impish heroine of 2001’s Amélie.

Ziyi Zhang The high-kicking Chinese star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Rush Hour 2 is set to topline a live-action version of Mulan. — Adam Markovitz

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