Even her hometown can't get a bead on 'Romeo' gangster Lena Olin. Can Hollywood?

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated February 11, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

Movie premieres are always Hollywood events, even thousands of miles away from Hollywood. Last month at the Stockholm opening of Mr. Jones (which appeared in the U.S. last October), the film’s stars swept past the flashbulbs and microphones to reach the stage of the Roda Kvarn Theater. Richard Gere, dazed with jet lag, said hellos in a country he had never visited before. Lena Olin greeted her hometown neighbors.

”I was on the verge of speaking English when I thought, ‘Oh, this is a house full of Swedes!”’ she says with a light laugh, relaxing in a hotel suite after the event. In Sweden, Olin is One of Their Own: their export, their local girl who was lured away by Hollywood. Not all of her compatriots feel proprietary pride, of course. In a cab ride to the theater, the driver held forth on his kind of Hollywood star: ”Basinger!” Why? ”She — what do you say — provocates my animal instincts!” How about Lena Olin? ”Too strong,” he says. ”Too tough!”

None comes tougher than Olin’s Mona Demarkov, the psychotic hit woman who torments bad cop Gary Oldman with her sexuality, her gun, and her maniacal laugh in the hyperviolent comedy-thriller Romeo Is Bleeding, directed by Peter Medak (The Ruling Class, The Krays). But American movie audiences first saw Olin’s strength six years ago when she played the knowing Czech seductress of Daniel Day-Lewis in 1988’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. She was the troubled Holocaust survivor and voracious mistress of Ron Silver in 1989’s Enemies, A Love Story (for which she received an Oscar nomination). Even in 1990’s big-name bomb Havana and in Mr. Jones, she kept viewers’ eyelids from drooping.

Going for a gangster role after two flops is just the sort of idiosyncratic choice that leaves Olin’s critics — particularly her tough Swedish ones — wondering what exactly she wants to do with that ripe talent of hers.

”If a film I’ve done is very acclaimed in the States, then when it gets here, they have to find something wrong,” Olin says with some amusement. ”But if something is not that well received in the States, then they go, ‘Well, she’s a great actress!”’

It’s the business of acting that keeps this dark, often volatile, Swede on an even keel. ”I’m the sort of person who, if the shoelace is not tied, I want to cut off both my feet!” she bursts out, pointing to her stylish black ankle boots. ”Now I don’t dare do it, but when I used to be more able to express myself in the streets, if I didn’t get off at the right subway station I would be so…” she makes a raging grrrr in her throat. ”And people in Sweden, you know, people just stare at you like you’re a lunatic here!”

The Stockholm-born Olin, 38, comes from a theatrical family — her parents were actors who divorced when she was a teenager. Drama-school training at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre led to a felicitous association with Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, who wrote the part of Anna in the fine 1984 made-for-Swedish-TV film After the Rehearsal for her. However, Bergman wasn’t always happy with his star: Tensions arose when she became pregnant with her son, August, now 7, whose father is Orjan Ramberg, a Swedish actor with whom she had a five-year relationship. Nor was Bergman thrilled with Olin’s odyssey to Hollywood. ”He still works in the theater, so he thinks anyone he cares about should be in the theater, nothing else,” she explains. ”They shouldn’t get married. They shouldn’t shoot a [Hollywood] movie. But he’s watched what I’ve done.”

Perhaps, she muses, she’ll do a Swedish movie next, having recently read a script that she really liked but ultimately decided to forgo. Certainly Romeo director Medak thinks that she can do anything she wants: ”Lena has no inhibitions and the mysteriousness of all those other Swedish actresses who made it incredibly big on the screen. She’s big and tall and solid-she’s got a great classical quality, a tremendous cleanness.” For the moment, Olin would like to stay put in Stockholm with her son and her live-in boyfriend, director Lasse Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape). With Hallstrom, she says, she is ”not depressed. Which I was, constantly. I always went through these cycles. But I haven’t been now.

”The frustrating thing with life is that you can’t capture it. You can’t say, ‘I love you and you love me, and it’s there forever and nothing is gonna change it.’ That’s why we’re so much in love with life, but it is also a big struggle. To me, film is a way out. Even if I’ve been dead for a while, people can look at something that I did and say, ‘She was pretty and she did a good job.’ It’s something that’s there. And it’s something that nothing can change.”