LOS ANGELES – Alicia Vikander had just wrapped her exhausting 100-day Tomb Raider shoot last June when she decided to catch the summer movie sensation Wonder Woman for rest and relaxation.
Seeing Gal Gadot’s powerful Diana Prince at the center of the superhero world knocked Vikander out.
“I was amazed, I watched a battle scene onscreen with only women and realized that it was so far away from everything I have been fed my entire life,” Vikander says.
The visualization hit home, she says. “I’m a feminist, and aware, but I was like, ‘Wow,’ I hadn’t really even questioned that I only see men in these things. I felt thankful to them for bringing (us) this film.”
Nearly a year later, Vikander is returning the favor, stepping into the action boots of Lara Croft in Tomb Raider (in theaters Friday). Angelina Jolie previously strapped on the iconic video-game heroine’s combat-ready footwear in 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and the 2003 sequel Lara Croft: Tomb Raider — The Cradle of Life.
The news that the now 29-year-old Swede (who married actor Michael Fassbender last year) would take on the rebooted role was a surprise, mostly since Vikander is the toast of art-house film world — known as the beautiful and intelligent humanoid robot Ava in Ex Machina and the artist Gerda Wegener in The Danish Girl.
She has the acting chops and impossibly high cheekbones that make her one of the world’s most sought-after leading actresses, and a best-supporting-actress Oscar for The Danish Girl. But Vikander is definitely not the first name to come to mind for a swashbuckling screen heroine.
“I haven’t done the action scenes before,” says Vikander, wearing scarlet-red lipstick and a puffy white blouse when she sits down to talk at the Four Seasons Hotel. “I had seen stunt girls who were extremely feminine but had that physicality. It was like, ‘I want to do that, too.’ “
Vikander insists she was a huge fan of the Tomb Raider video game growing up, and she had shown her own grit, excelling in rigorous ballet training for nine years with the elite Royal Swedish Ballet School.
“I’d put ballerinas as some of the toughest people out there in the world,” says Magnus Lygdback, the trainer primarily responsible for getting Vikander in action-star shape. “I knew she would bring it and be Lara Croft.”
Playing the groundbreaking female action character also required Jolie to don impossibly tight outfits as the aristocratic English archaeologist, treasure hunter and tomb raider.
Alicia Malone, correspondent for movie site Fandango.com, calls the previous film incarnation a symbol of female empowerment, but “the Lara Croft character was overly sexualized, with her small costume and exaggerated breasts reducing her to an object for male pleasure.”
Even before Hollywood’s Time’s Up movement, the Tomb Raider filmmakers and Vikander went in a different direction with an origin story based on the updated 2013 video-game version of Lara Croft.
Alicia Vikander takes on the role of Lara Croft, originally brought to the big screen by Angelina Jolie.USA TODAY
Vikander’s budding hero is a broke East London bike messenger who starts her quest in a tank top and khaki combat pants as she searches for her missing adventurer father (Dominic West).
The character’s look “has kind of morphed, just by itself,” says Vikander. “It really feels like it’s been taken to our time, something a 2018 audience will relate to.”
Before training, Vikander set an action goal of achieving one pull-up, something she had never done before. (When she ultimately did six, “I was excited but surprised.”) Then she dug into the work, focusing on MMA skills, archery, weight and cardio training and a high-protein diet that cut out sugar.
While shooting on location in Cape Town, South Africa, Vikander would hit a specially made gym atop a truck for an hour’s workout before a rigorous day of shooting.
She took a brief break from the arduous shoot, jetting to Los Angeles to present best supporting actor at the 2017 Academy Awards. The Internet went nuts for her powerful look.
“Strength is the new glamour,” Lygdback wrote on Instagram with a post-Oscars photo showing Vikander gliding into the Vanity Fair party.
But director Roar Uthaug was more concerned about Vikander’s ability to effectively pull off the action. She rose to the occasion even after the long-haul red-eye flight back to South Africa.
“She went from Oscar red carpet to dirt,” says Uthaug. Vikander’s parents visited the set during one evening shoot as their daughter filmed repeated scenes in a cold water tank, dragging herself onto a beach.
“She had to crawl up from that water, again and again. She was so cold, her face turned blue,” the director says. “But she was ferocious about getting it right.”
The filmmakers are hoping for further installments, as set up by Tomb Raider‘s open ending. Jolie’s Tomb Raider was a box-office hit with close to $275 million worldwide, and the Croft character still resonates. Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations, sees a battle ahead with a still-powerful Black Panther, but predicts Tomb Raider will win the weekend with an estimated $25 million.
Vikander says she’d be game to revisit the role, if the film finds an audience. But that would require more work.
“Someone gave me this kind of present that it was going to be my day job to prepare for this,” says Vikander, noting that she’d have to ramp up the Lara Croft training again. “It took three weeks and it all started to disappear. And then it was like, ‘I better get back to the gym.’ “