BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Maybe it was inevitable that whoever landed the lead in the original "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" would become Sweden's next big export.
Yet with or without a blockbuster role, Noomi Rapace always felt she would break out beyond the borders of her homeland.
Two and a half years after the debut of "Dragon Tattoo," the first of her three eye-popping turns as late author Stieg Larsson's untamed heroine, Rapace has stormed into Hollywood in Robert Downey Jr.'s latest Sherlock Holmes adventure and Ridley Scott's "Prometheus," a cousin to his sci-fi hit "Alien."
Rapace felt right at home among Downey's ensemble for "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," while she grew up on "Alien," ''Thelma & Louise" and other films from director Scott.
"Ridley Scott is one of my heroes since as long as I can remember. I kind of actually think that he saved me sometimes, because I always felt like an outsider in Sweden. I didn't feel Swedish. I always felt like something is different with me," Rapace said in an interview to promote "Sherlock Holmes," which opens Friday. "The Swedish people are quite repressed, and they hold back a lot of things. It's like people are really afraid of conflicts and emotions, and nobody really says anything straight to you. ...
"So in a weird way, I always felt that I was going to leave kind of what I came from. But I could never imagine I was going to end up with these people and doing movies with the best people in the world."
Rapace, 31, appeared in her first movie at age 7 while living in Iceland before her family moved back to Sweden, and she has been acting steadily for the past decade.
But it was her performance as brilliant, traumatized, ferocious and feral computer hacker Lisbeth Salander in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" that was her exit visa from Sweden.
All three films adapted from Larsson's best-sellers became worldwide hits, with Hollywood quickly jumping in for David Fincher's English-language remake of "Dragon Tattoo," opening just days after "Sherlock Holmes."
The world of Lisbeth — with her tattoos, body piercings and anarchic spirit — was not unknown to Rapace, who went on her own rebellious, punk-rocker tear in her early teens.
"There was a gap there when I was not into acting and I was against everything. First, I was into doing judo and kung fu. Then I was drinking a lot," Rapace said. "So I kind of lost track for a while, then I came back, I pulled myself together and I decided when I was 15 that I'm going to get sober and I'm going to become an actress."
She enrolled in a drama high school in Stockholm and built an impressive list of credits in Swedish film and TV in her 20s. When the part of Lisbeth came her way, she even wore some of her old punk clothes and shoes. Rapace came to the film pre-perforated, reopening an old stud hole of her own for one of Lisbeth's piercings.
To capture Lisbeth's intensity, Rapace also had to revive the wild spirit of her teen years.
"I had to just wake up that sleeping demon and say, 'It's time to come back now,'" Rapace said.
In the "Sherlock Holmes" sequel, Rapace plays a gypsy fortuneteller who teams up with Downey's great detective and sidekick Watson (Jude Law) against their archrival, Moriarty (Jared Harris).
Downey met with Rapace and was sold on her for the role even before he saw her in "Dragon Tattoo."
"Then I saw the movie and thought, my God, how are we going to take all that she's capable of and make this role worth her while and show a different side of her?" Downey said.
"She can kick ass, that girl," said "Sherlock Holmes" director Guy Ritchie. Rapace's Lisbeth was "scary. There's a very strong element of danger about her that she maintains like a wild animal, in a way."
Doing interviews for the "Dragon Tattoo" films, Rapace realized her English was weak, so set out to teach herself the language. Barely a year later, she was fluent in English when she turned up on set for "Sherlock Holmes" and Scott's "Prometheus."
Due in theaters next summer, "Prometheus" is the filmmaker's return to science fiction, though Scott and his collaborators are cagey about whether it's a prequel to 1979's "Alien," in which Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley first encountered the unstoppable space monster.
Co-starring with Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender, Rapace plays an archaeologist on an exploratory mission that runs into trouble in deep space.
"It's not a clean prequel" to "Alien," Rapace said. "It's definitely related. I think you will see connections" — including some between her character and Weaver's Ripley.Comment on this story
"They are kind of in the same family. Even though I think that my character is kind of more feminine," Rapace said. "She's more naÏve in the beginning and a believer and full of hope, and then in the middle of the movie, she kind of changes into more of a warrior and a survivor."
Early next year, Rapace is set to shoot the crime story "Dead Man Down" with Colin Farrell, reuniting her with "Dragon Tattoo" director Niels Arden Oplev.
Hollywood's version of "Dragon Tattoo" stars Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, who delivers her own fierce take on Lisbeth. Rapace said she was never interested in playing Lisbeth again herself, even though the film has the potential to launch a blockbuster trilogy whose commercial success would far eclipse the Swedish adaptations.
"I was done with her, and I felt like I left her when I was finished with the third movie," Rapace said. "I couldn't see any reason of kind of doing it again. I never want to repeat myself. I always want to move on and do new things. So no, it was not for me."