When Alicia Vikander auditioned to play 18th-century Danish Queen Caroline Mathilde in screenwriter-director Nikolaj Arcel’s upcoming feature debut, A Royal Affair, the Swedish-born actress faced a peculiar challenge: “After the last casting, the director came to my hotel to speak with me, and I just smiled and nodded,” says Vikander. In fact, it took Arcel three attempts to realize that Vikander, who’d just aced the audition, couldn’t really understand Danish.
Nevertheless, it’s a testament to Vikander’s facility for “pretending,” as she likes to call it, that Arcel’s only response was to say, “Okay, I’ll tell you in English: You got the part.” The 22-year-old Gothenburg-raised Vikander spent her childhood, quite literally, in the performing-arts world, sometimes sleeping in the wings while her mother, the Swedish stage actress Maria Fahl Vikander, was rehearsing. Vikander went on to train at the Royal Swedish Ballet School, but after a few injuries and subsequent foot and back surgeries, she decided to hang up her pointe shoes and follow in her mother’s footsteps. Vikander’s ascendance has been strong and swift: Earlier this year she was a dark-horse winner at the Swedish Oscar-equivalent Guldbagge Awards when she was named Best Actress for her performance in Lisa Langseth’s gritty psychodrama Pure, in which she played a symphony receptionist who, with an oft-absent alcoholic mother, seeks solace in her proximity to Mozart and Massenet—and in the arms of the orchestra’s married conductor. (In an interesting web of Scandinavian intrigue, Vikander beat out Noomi Rapace, who once held the lead in the play from which Pure is adapted; Arcel is of course best known for adapting the Swedish film version of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009), which made Rapace an international star.) As history—and the fact that Lars von Trier is an executive producer on A Royal Affair—would suggest, Queen Caroline’s perverse love triangle with her schizophrenic king and his German doctor is destined to take some similarly dark turns. But former ballerina Vikander is quick to see the bright side in inhabiting black swans and dancing in the shadows. “Every morning, call time was at 4:30 a.m., and I would always fall asleep in hair-and-makeup,” she recalls of work on the film. “But then an hour and 45 minutes later, I got to wake up a queen.”