Swedish newcomer Alicia Vikander, as critic David Edelstein points out, is this year’s cinematic “It” girl, for sheer volume of output of films on the way. (Among them, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Light Between the Oceans, and The Danish Girl). Vikander already wowed audiences this year as the robot Ava in the futuristic Ex Machina, but her latest, the period piece Testament of Youth, reveals a more humane side. Based on the moving memoirs of pacifist and feminist Vera Brittain, the film takes place before, during, and after World War I, as Vikander’s character abandons her studies at Oxford to become a nurse in the armed forces when both her brother and her fiancé (played by Game of Thrones star Kit Harington) enlist. Her story, required reading in the U.K., is considered an elegy for a lost generation. “It’s so rare to have a female perspective on that war,” Vikander notes. The actress chatted with Vulture about playing a feminist icon, getting into a teenager’s mind-set, and why she needed to fake her cool stunts in Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
So you actually met Vera Brittain’s daughter, Shirley Williams, and had high tea with her at the House of Lords? What was that like?
[Giggles.] Terrifying? I did not sleep for two nights. I was really nervous, half-shaking. I probably used my passport five times to get through to that tea room. They have a lot of security! But when I got in there, I realized there was no reason for me to be that scared. She was utterly lovely, and to have her support meant a lot. She was like, “So you’re playing my mother …”
We had a long chat, and she has so many memories, and you want to pay respect to them and to her and to all the people around the world that have read her books. She didn’t want this to be Americanized, like a romantic love story. [Harington’s character] Roland [Leighton], of course, was a big part of the story, but a tribute to the strong woman, the thinker, the pacifist, the feminist that her mother became, that was really important to her. And the mother that she knew, that she grew up with, postwar. We talked about how she must have changed, especially since the book was written ten years after the events. I told her I understand, and she agreed that I needed to find the youth, the teenager that her mother was, and how she changed through all the traumas that she went through and the beliefs she had, how they changed through what she saw and experienced throughout the war. Her book, and why I love it so much, is so intimate and so raw. She doesn’t hold back. She doesn’t want to romanticize anything.
For the U.K., Vera is an icon, the voice of her generation. But for U.S. audiences, and probably for Swedish audiences, she’s not quite as well-known.
Right! Like you, I grew up in a country where we didn’t learn about Vera Brittain, so I had an outsider’s perspective, reading this, and the other books that Vera wrote, the correspondence, the letters, the diaries that she kept, to get into the words and feelings that she had at that time. The very young Vera. When I was reading her letters and her diary, I realize she didn’t include in Testament of Youth how she was ashamed how her dad tried to prevent her brother from going to war. “My father is not man enough.” So at first, she also had the belief of all those young men who were signing up, believing in the empire. There was a whole nation that believed that this was going to be over, that the war would be short and fast, and you can see the emptiness of a whole generation who were left behind, who also believed in that. And then they were faced with reality, the horrors of war, and probably felt guilt for having believed in that. I hope no one of our age has to do what Vera did, because I hope no one will have to go through that. But you can look around the world and see that that’s not the case.
Part of what Vera also goes through is this tragic romance. But they were really only together in person for a few days, and most of those were chaperoned.
Twenty-one days, I think? When you read the books, it feels like when she talks about ideals and ideas and fighting for her education, she feels like she’s from today. Her voice is so strong. And then it throws me that she hasn’t been alone in the same room with a boy! She wrote in her diary a whole page how it was when she touched hands with Roland for the first time, and it’s quite wonderful and sweet, you know? In one way, they were well educated, smart, intelligent, and forward when it came to all the other things, and I had to remind myself, Okay, but how was it the first time I held hands with someone? The difference is, I wasn’t 19 when that happened. I was probably 13 or 14 the first time I held hands with a boy. But that pure emotion itself is something everyone can relate to, right? And it’s probably the years between 15 and your mid-20s where you learn to flirt, where that happens a lot. So I went back to memories of my mid teens, how I actually saw love and life differently, even though it’s not that long ago. Both Kit and I are a few years older than what we’re playing in this film, so we just had to keep that kind of feistiness of being a young teenager.
You learned a little Danish for A Royal Affair, and you picked up some German for some of your scenes in Testament of Youth where Vera nurses German soldiers. That come in handy for The Man From U.N.C.L.E.?
[Laughs.] I only had to learn one line, a few lines? But yeah, in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., I do German, too. I wish that I could tell you that I knew German better than I do!
Your character is an East Berlin car mechanic, or a car driver? But apparently in real life, you don’t know how to drive?
No! I haven’t had any time! [Laughs.] I wish! I hope to learn this summer. I really hope that I’m going to get the chance to. I mostly just want to be able to travel! Get in a car and not know where I’m heading. But I didn’t tell them that I didn’t have a driver’s license before I got the part. [Grins.] So when I got the part, I was like, “So … we need to have a conversation.”
I had some amazing stunt drivers, though. I think they had just come off Fast & Furious 5, 6, 7, or whatever, and they helped me a lot. This was actually amazing … I came on set and I was like, “Oh my God!” when I saw this. So on top of the car, on top of my little 1960s Trabant, I had a cage, with a man sitting in a cage like this. [Crosses one leg over the other and gets in a cramped position to demonstrate.] He had a little steering wheel and a pedal, and there were wires leading from the cage connecting to the car. So he actually drove it for me! With me actually being in the car, not seeing him, but feeling like I was the driver. So I did like the weird tricks — pulling the hand brake and doing 180s and cool shit! — whilst actually kidding myself. I’m fooling myself that I did it. [Laughs.]