When Alicia Vikander sat down with director Guy Ritchie about a starring role in his slick reboot of the 1960s spy series The Man From U.N.C.L.E., it wasn’t exactly a run-of-the-mill audition. “We drank coffee, ate Snickers cookies, and talked about music history for three hours,” she says. “It was so weird, because Guy talked about the next time we’d see each other, but I was like, ‘Am I going to do my tape now?'”
That Vikander, 26, landed the role of glib East German mechanic-turned-secret agent Gaby Teller after little more than shared pastry would seem unusual if her high-speed It Girl trajectory in Hollywood weren’t already bordering on the unreal. In only three years, Vikander — whose name is pronounced Ah-LIS-ee-ah Vic-AN-der — has amassed the sort of filmography that many actors spend a lifetime scrambling to build. So far this year she’s played a wartime nurse in Testament of Youth, a crafty witch in Seventh Son, and an alluring android who challenges ideas about higher intelligence in Ex Machina.
This fall, she stars in a run of prestige projects beginning with October’s Burnt, an ensemble piece featuring Bradley Cooper as a disgraced chef. In The Danish Girl (out Nov. 27), she portrays early-20th-century artist Gerda Wegener, whose spouse (Eddie Redmayne) was one of the first people to undergo gender-reassignment surgery.
She’s already filmed the 17th-century love story Tulip Fever and the literary drama The Light Between Oceans, in which she and reported real-life boyfriend Michael Fassbender play a couple who discover a baby in a rowboat. Next year, she’ll team with Matt Damon for his return as Jason Bourne.
Even Vikander herself finds the pace — and scope — of her rise dizzying. “I never thought I would make a movie outside Sweden,” she says. Few from her country had. “Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman did it, but that was quite a while ago.”
As a child growing up in the university city of Gothenburg, Vikander was determined to forge her own path. The daughter of a stage-actress mother and a psychiatrist father who split up when she was a baby, she studied dance intensively for nearly 10 years. But after graduating from the Royal Swedish Ballet School, Vikander decided to pursue acting instead. “I could see the other girls in my class that I admired, and I was almost jealous because they had a passion that I really tried to have,” she recalls. “Going professional was something I had seen in front of me for so many years, [but] it took me a few years to confront for myself that it wasn’t the road I was going to go on.”
By age 20, she had landed small parts on Swedish TV shows and her first film role as a music-obsessed millennial in 2010’s Pure, for which she won Sweden’s prestigious Guldbagge Award for Best Actress. (At the time, Vikander was scraping by on shifts at a flower shop and considering law school.) But it was her work in a pair of 2012 period dramas — the Danish-language film A Royal Affair and director Joe Wright’s epic Anna Karenina — that catapulted her to international attention. Danish Girl director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) cast her in part because of those films. “There’s something about her training as a dancer,” he says. “She can have this aura of rigor and toughness. She has a wonderful strength to her.”
Vikander credits her close relationship with her family as a source of that strength: She spends as much time with her five half-siblings as her schedule allows and regularly sends her parents scripts for projects she’s interested in. “I trust them,” she says. “It’s nice to keep them involved.” She notes, too, that her father’s work with transgender patients helped inform her performance in The Danish Girl. “He’s a great person to turn to when it comes to personal stories about people,” she says.
Despite her rising celebrity — she’s the new face of Louis Vuitton — Vikander hopes to maintain a few simple pleasures. She plans to remain in her adopted home of London for now, and she says she’d rather be in the produce aisle than the makeup chair. “As soon as I have a day off, I go to the supermarket,” she says with a laugh. “That’s my very favorite thing.”