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Interview: Alicia Vikander

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At first glance, letting a Swedish ballerina turned actor take on the role of Vera Brittain in the big screen adaptation of generation-defining Great War memoir Testament of Youth might seem like an unlikely choice.

Luckily the responsibility of such an emotionally loaded and extremely British role was something that wasn’t lost on Alicia Vikander (whose name is likely to become very familiar to you as 2015 progresses) for even a second.

The 26-year-old, who first scored critical attention in 2012 with the historical drama A Royal Affair and then alongside Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina, admits that little could be done to quell her nerves at taking on such an important role.

“I was nervous,” she says, when asked about the fear, in viewers’ eyes, of whether she could bring this very British character to life. “I totally get that. I was very verbal about it with James (Kent, director.) This was also the first film in my career where I didn’t have to audition, where they actually came to me... Are you kidding me? Why me?

“It was weird because I was sitting there fighting to get this part and I just couldn’t not say that.”

In Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain goes from an idyllic life in the months before the war to Oxford University, then to the front as a VAD nurse before eventually returning to Oxford – and experiences unmitigated loss along the way. How was it, getting into the head of a young woman a hundred years ago and in an entirely different context?

“I don’t think that people’s emotions (change) – I think it’s the context, or the social rules and society,” Alicia says. “Reading the book, her words and her voice, she sounds like a young woman – like us today, like someone I could meet down on the street. And that totally made me connect with her.

“And then you read a few more lines and you realise, oh – she can’t even get on the train, she can’t get an education. And you’re shocked, even though it’s information that I knew... maybe that’s why the book become as big as it did, because now it’d also become a history about feminism, to see what kind of female journey we’ve had.”

Vera’s defiance of her father and insistence that she be allowed to go to Oxford is well noted, and this level of independence is something that Alicia isn’t a stranger to herself – at the age of 15 she moved from Gothenburg to Stockholm to attend dance school, and in doing so lived alone in an entirely new city.

Considering that Testament of Youth was written 15 years after the end of the war, Alicia has been “thinking about that thing, about someone trying to look back on themselves ten years later. 11 years ago I moved to Stockholm by myself. And I look at 15-year-olds now and I think, how did I do that?

“But actually when I look back... I knew people who had applied to ballet school in Gothenburg in the years before me, the girls who got in, they did it. So I knew for years that if I tried to do it when I was 15, that if I got in, I was probably going to go. So I was prepared, in a way.

“I think young teenagers are more able to do much more than you think.”

She adds: “It’s a hard thing for me to say that I was independent, but I guess I was. It’s hard to give credit to yourself sometimes. But I really admire Vera and I hope that I will have her kind of drive, hopefully.”

Speaking to Alicia, you get the impression that this drive and determination is something that she and her character share. She tells me, in fact and in an extremely off-hand way, that she “auditioned for theatre school twice and I got into law school. I had a high school diploma but I went whilst I was doing my theatre training. I did some extra maths courses and things.

“I think it’s because it’s a tough industry; my mum was an actress and I’ve seen in Sweden how tough it is to get work, so I always wanted to have that back up and I’m very open to learn I think.”

To this end she researched her role extensively, by reading, as well as the 1933 book, the letters sent between Vera, her fiancé Roland and her brother Edward, which she calls “a very private and personal thing... to dig into this love story as an act of making this role. The book was written by a 35-year-old woman looking back on how it was being a young woman during the war, whilst this was a direct way to get to know her.”

One particular letter, the last sent from Roland to Vera, Alicia carried with her during the filming of the most harrowing scenes – the days after their planned wedding, “when his clothes had been sent back. It feels like a Hollywood moment, it’s so sad. He actually wrote back and he said, “I’m on the safe side. I’ll be back soon; when I see you next time you are going to be my wife.” It’s the happy ending to their love story and then, you know – truth.”

Devastation and loss characterise the film, but as Alicia says it is important to remember that Vera “was also someone that survived... this could easily turn into a melodrama, but it’s easier that we kind of know where we’re heading.

“It was important to find that journey, of a woman who is left behind, and about the life that goes on back home without being able to do anything.

“She took her duty; she went to become the VAD nurse. It is a very emotional piece, and I was tired because it’s draining. It was one of those amazing chances when you get such a substantial role... it’s hard to find female young ones like that, and I was in every scene so it was non-stop six-day weeks; we shot for seven weeks and I barely slept, and I was so nervous.”

She adds: “And also the accent, you know – being foreign and being Swedish; it’s not my native language. Apart from speaking another language, I knew I needed to make justice to this woman who was British.”

In reality she speaks with a slight American lilt, and one that is, thankfully, well hidden on screen. When we meet she’s finishing of Testament of Youth and starting her promotion of Ex-Machina, in which she plays a robot with human feelings alongside Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Issac.

These two roles, of course, couldn’t be more different – but it seems in Vikander’s DNA to pick roles that are interesting and provide a challenge, rather than take the easy route. To this end, she’s also about to star in Danish Girl, a film about the first ever sex change - “a Danish couple, Einar and Gerda, who lived as females together” - set in the 1920s and 30s in Copenhagen and then more liberal Paris. She’s starting rehearsals this week.

So, as she wraps up her work on Testament of Youth and prepares for it to hit cinemas, what lessons does she think we can take from Vera and her story?

The differing perspective presented by the film offers another side to a conflict that we think we know so much about, Alicia says, because “it shows the female side. It’s more about the people left behind, which is a big part of the war, of any country.”

Whilst being largely detached from the fighting it still remains “a story about the war, and it is important always to look back and remember. In the same sense that after the First World War she (Vera) became a pacifist, and she probably thought, like most other people, that we have learnt a lesson and this will never happen again. So in that sense I think that it’s important to go back in history and remind ourselves.”

A lesson that everyone should take from Vera Brittain and her legacy, without a doubt.

Testament of Youth is released in UK cinemas on Friday 16th January.

Read our review here.

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