Lisbeth Salander is one of those instantly iconic literary characters that taps into something primal and universal in audiences. Since making her debut in Stieg Larsson’s 2005 mystery The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the character has been brought to screen by two different actresses — Noomi Rapace in the beloved Swedish trilogy adaptation and Rooney Mara in David Fincher’s 2011 film — and now, Golden Globe-winning The Crown breakout Claire Foy will put her stamp on the punk hacker turned sleuth in The Girl in the Spider’s Web.
However, this version of Salander is a little different than what we’ve seen before. Don’t Breathe director Fede Alvarez takes the helm for the latest spin on the Millenium series, and he turned to the fourth book for inspiration. Written by David Lagercrantz after Larsson’s death, The Girl in the Spider’s Web has never been brought to the screen, featuring a bit older version of Lisbeth, toned down from the extreme punk aesthetic, who takes center stage in a twisting mystery that somehow leads back to her own dark past.
Back in March, I had the opportunity to visit the set of The Girl in the Spider’s Web in Berlin, Germany and sit down for a chat with Foy about how she’s reinventing the iconic character once again. Foy was filming her character’s introduction in the film that day — a ferocious reminder of who Salander is and how she wields her vigilanteism. With a fearsome white war paint like a mask and hair spiked in a ragged mohawk, Foy joined a small group of journalists to talk about her take on the character, from costuming to creating her persona, Lisbeth’s relationships in the film, why she’s the anti-superhero, and how she fits into the conversations surrounding #MeToo, and more.
First and foremost, you’re obviously so transformed, and this look is amazing. I wanted to ask about a) what it feels like to live in that skin, and b) the makeup. It looks a little… superhero-y. Is that sort of a little bit of what’s evoking, or is it a different thing?
CLAIRE FOY: No, she’s not a superhero. I think the most amazing thing about Lisbeth Salander is that she doesn’t have any special powers, you know. She’s sort of an underdog, she has been an underdog her entire life. And the only power that she really has is that she’ll never give up, and she’ll fight to the bitter, bitter end. She’s sort of the most human person I’ve ever played, really, for that reason. This makeup is very specific, it’s not what I have the whole movie or anything like that, it’s partially practical to kind of disguise her face, but it’s also what Lisbeth does a lot, which is to try and scare people away so that they don’t underestimate her, I suppose.
As regards to living in her skin, she’s a huge contradiction and she’s incredibly strong and intelligent and sort of powerful in her own right, but at the same time she’s so vulnerable and she has so, so damaged by what’s happened in her life. And she doesn’t necessarily work from an entirely conscious level, you know what I mean? Because of all the things that have happened in her past, she lives her life in a kind of… she’s very, very closed off, and very, very- got her defenses up the majority of the time, and I suppose this sort of film is about her growing up a bit.
Does she do a lot of vigilante work?
FOY: Vigilante- do you mean to sort of suggest that she’s against the establishment? Or to mean she’s against government? She has no respect for authority whatsoever, because when have they ever helped her? Why would she have respect for them, really? They let her down at every single opportunity in her life.
So, I don’t think she’s a vigilante. And I don’t think that Lisbeth, in my head, when it comes to this story, as the story of the end of the 3 books, which was the fact that she was free of her identity that had been created for her. That she was a ward of the state and that she was in some way not like everybody else, that she was a menace to society. That she didn’t have the intellect that other people had, that she was somehow lesser than everybody else. And she doesn’t have that around her anymore, that’s been got rid of for her, in a way. And then she’s got to find her own identity and what she is, and I think you see her at the very beginning of the film doing what she can’t help, which is that she can’t help but get drawn into the injustice of the way women are treated, or the way powerful men take advantage. I think that’s what she’s just like, “I have to right that wrong.”
She’s moved to do it, she’s not just like, “What cause can I fight now, what can I do now.” It’s very specific, what she finds galling and she wants to right that wrong — I keep forgetting that I’ve got this face and I’m really sorry! I forget that I’ve got loads of wet paint on my face, so sorry, it’s been a bit intense.
When it comes to the look, her look is very extreme and I could see some people stepping into an outfit like this and the face paint and just feeling really out of sorts. How do you command her look?
FOY: Well, for me it was very, very important that it’s me playing the part, I can’t just put the costume on and go, “This is the character.” Because that’s a lie. We’ve always, all of us together, have questioned and gone, “Did this feel right? Does it look right, is it too much of a cliché, is it too much of a- does this actually fit with who she is?”
I think I have always, from the very, very beginning of any character, start with nothing, start with the basics. I never like to put stuff on because it’s what people expect or anything like that. I always think less is more, so I always start with the bare bones, and then as time goes on you sort of think, “does that feel right or not?” So yeah, it’s been a process that we’ve all sort of done together. But I love the Lisbeth that we’ve created in the sense that she’s really, really composed and in complete possession of herself at some points, but at other points she’s like a 12-year-old girl who has been a victim and treated like a victim her entire life, and she’s like, “I’m not. I’m not a victim, I’m not, I’m not, that’s not who I am.”
Something that- when I was reading the books- that I really, really understood and made a lot of sense for the character for me was that from the outside, people, especially with victims of sexual assault, things like that, they find the victim, they find the person. It’s that the predator finds the victim as opposed to someone just walking around being a victim, they find the person that they want. And Lisbeth, to me, is that. From the outside she’s so easy to underestimate and say, “She’s vulnerable, I could take her.” But then if you try she’d cut your balls off.
This Lisbeth is way different from the one in the previous movies. How do you approach that, you are talking a lot about in books but I meant in previous movies. Obviously, you saw them, I guess, but the whole purpose is to do something different here?
FOY: No, I think this is character and this story has been told before, I think our version of this film is obviously the fourth book, so you sort of have a little bit more leeway in the fact that it is a different story. You’re not telling the story which was, especially the first book, which was the story of the murder and the thriller element of it, which was trying to find out and the investigation and those things. We’re not retelling that story, obviously, because everyone’s seen it and they’d go, “We know the ending!”
But I think by virtue of someone else playing a part, it’s always different, as story is always different. I don’t think we have attempted or tried to make it different, because I think if you try and do that then the audience will just see straight through the fact that you’re like, “Look, guys, we’re trying something crazy here.” I don’t think you can- you have to accept the world that you’re living in and I think people do that with this character. They are immediately drawn to her and her circumstance and what she’s going through as opposed to anything outside of her.
No, is the answer. I don’t know. I think the Swedish versions were incredible, I think the David Fincher version was amazing, and I think Rooney and Noomi are amazing. It’s just I’m doing it this time, which is weird for me, but so many things about it haven’t felt weird, which I find encouraging. I think that Fede is incredible, I think he is genius. I think Pedro, the DP, is genius, and I think it’s exciting for that reason, it’s a really exciting combo.
We’ve been talking to people obviously about, this falls within a certain period in the entertainment industry, with #MeToo, and how do you feel about this coming out in November and this presenting a very strong female, action-led drama, with real weight to it, as well. It’s not just kind of an action hero. In the midst of that, who is specifically a vigilante for women who have been victims of abuse.
FOY: Well, I think to say that, you can’t underestimate the fact that, when did the books come out? I don’t know the exact date of the books coming out, you know, this story’s been around for well over a decade. With that, I think the film was out 8 years ago… I think you can- I’ve done period drama where I’ve been asked that question. “What’s relevant about this story today?” And the point about stories and the point about dramas is it always is, because there’s people in it, and we’re all people.
I think that it sort of, to say that Lisbeth is around and that the story is around because it’s popular or it’s part of the zeitgeist, is slightly wrong. Because she’s, this character, has always been around, really essentially. I just think it’s the fact that it’s about people want to see women in the central roles, and she just happens to be a woman who has experiences what a lot of women experience. But she’s able to right the wrongs, I suppose, and it’s about seeing that fulfilled, really. But this film hasn’t come out yet, so I don’t know what the reaction’s gonna be, and I don’t know where it’s gonna sit, this conversation. You know, 6 months ago we wouldn’t have been having this conversation, so, you know, I live and hope that in 6 months time it will be an even bigger, wider conversation as well. So who knows, really.
What are Lisbeth’s feeling towards her sister? I always think they’ve been estranged for quite a long time, do you think that’s kind of needling at her? Is there a desire to reconnect there, or has she left her sister behind in a way?
FOY: I think Lisbeth has left herself behind, in the sense that as soon as she left the children’s hospital, that was it. Whatever happened pre- that date didn’t exist anymore, because it was too painful and too awful and how can someone live with that and think about it, actively think about it? And so I think that she genuinely has cut everything out of her mind and her life that would make her feel pain or make her feel anything, really. That’s one of the most fascinating things, I think, about her, is how much she feels or whether how much, it’s all just up here. You see that change. That’s why I think that the film really works, because you do see that crack and that, hopefully, letting in of the light a bit into the heart.
I think the relationship that anyone has with a sibling or a family member is always going to be something that your subconscious is in charge of and not you. I think she thinks, “No, I can- whatever, I don’t care, ugh.” But, deep down, you know, it’s always there, like little kind of… yeah, broke her heart a bit.
I think this a character that maybe on the surface might seem easy to oversimplify, because of the look and the intensity. You talked about it in your early process stripping it down to the basics, what were the keys that helped you understand her?
FOY: I think it’s always really, really luck when you’ve got some books. Because you have an insight. But there were things about her that I really found incredible, I really admire about her. I admire her lack of judgment, I don’t think she judges anyone. I think she finds people sort of interesting and bit weird, and there’s a lot of detail in the book about how when she’s hacking into people’s computers, she finds all sorts of things. Whatever people’s sexuality is, what they’re sexually- what gets them going, she’s just like, “Huh. That’s interesting.” She’s not judgemental, and that’s why I think people like the books. It’s because she doesn’t really give a shit. She doesn’t live within the realms of what society tells you- you should be married, you should have kids, you should be doing this. She’s just like, “Should I? Don’t want to.”
She doesn’t have to fit within that idea, and therefore she can work outside of that. She’s sort of on the fringes and she can observe society for what it is, really. I love that about her, I love that she’s bisexual and she just loves sex and has absolutely no qualms about enjoying it with whoever she enjoys it with. And Fede was very about this as well, she’s just not comfortable in her own skin. Although she puts up a defense and although she seems like she knows what she’s doing, she’s very easy to find her buttons, I think. She’s very easy to find what would make her feel uncomfortable and vulnerable and she has a purpose, really. It’s like people, places, and things. She has avoided being in situations with those people at those- you know, that’s what she does, she avoids them.
The look is a defense, it’s not like, “I’m super cool and I’m amazing and I belong to this group of people.” It’s not that. It’s a porcupine, it’s like, “Don’t come anywhere near me. Don’t even think about touching me.” That’s what it is, it’s not a statement. If someone said she was cool, she’d be like, “Huh?” She just wouldn’t get it.
There’s an interesting moment in the book where she’s just hacked into the NSA and left a message for Ed Needum. And in the moment, she feels really self-righteous and then afterwards she feels kind of empty, I think it says. Do you think she’s kind of a character who needs to constantly be doing something?
FOY: Yeah. Well, that’s what I mean about the fact that I think at the beginning she’s a bit bored. She has survived for so long fighting that when she has money, she’s like, “What’s next? Hang on. Oh, it’s me. I’m next, dear God, no! I don’t wanna think about myself!” And that’s why I think she then goes into that whole situation and why playing always helps her get a new job or whatever. I think the interesting thing with Lisbeth is what happens when she doesn’t have a task. And I think what I found really great about the second book was that after she solved that whole story and she’s fallen in love with Michel a bit and she’s had her heart broken, she just goes to Granada and reads about mathematical theorems. She has to engage her brain in something to distract from what she’s really, achingly needing to figure out, which is herself. She sort of goes into all these things, and that’s the thing with life, unfortunately, or fortunately, whatever way you look at it, that it catches up with you. There’s a line in this script which is that “You can’t outrun the darkness.” Or, “you’re in shadow.” Which one is it. Can’t remember. “You can’t outrun your own-“
Either one applies.
FOY: Yeah. You can’t outrun it, it’ll always find you. And that’s definitely in the story of this, that she tries her best to look in the other direction.