Noomi Rapace On Lamb, That Chilling Ending And Her History Of Mothering Weird Creatures Onscreen

The actress and director Valdimar Jóhannsson talk about scouring Iceland for pregnant sheep, the design of Lamb's unnerving central character and what the film's climax means.
Noomi Rapace On Lamb, That Chilling Ending And Her History Of Mothering Weird Creatures Onscreen

In the Icelandic movie Lamb, now streaming on Mubi, childless sheep farmers Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) take an unusual interest in one of their new lambs, taking her home, naming her Ada and raising her as their own. The film unfolds as a calm portrait of blissful domesticity, reflected in the serene landscapes and perpetual sunlight, but an unnerving central image and glimpses of a darker peripheral presence threaten to disrupt the peace. Lamb is restrained to the point of ambiguity, lending itself to multiple readings, yet confirming none. Is it a cautionary tale about the perils of messing with nature? A delicate exploration of life after loss? Rapace and director Valdimar Jóhannsson talk about why the film has just one nighttime scene, how they arrived at Ada's design and that shock ending:

How would you describe Lamb to someone who has yet to watch it? Because I've seen it described as a horror movie but it's the sweetest, most wholesome horror movie I've ever watched.

Noomi Rapace: How would I describe it? I wouldn't! Valdimar's advice is: Don't watch the trailer, just go watch the movie. But it's a family saga.

Valdimar Jóhannsson: It's definitely not a horror movie. It's more of a family drama. 

There are so many stretches of silence and so many things that are subtly implied instead of outright said in this movie. Valdimar, why was that important to you? Were you ever worried that people would find it hard to understand what you were trying to convey in the absence of dialogue?

Valdimar Jóhannsson: I think people actually understand things better if there's not much dialogue. We decided from the beginning that we wanted to have as little dialogue as possible. That becomes interesting for the actors because then they can't fake it.

Noomi Rapace: There's nowhere to hide. Most films are based on dialogue and then actors tend to rely on those conversations. You know exactly where the camera is and that the editor will cut between the two people. But Lamb was more of a 360-degree approach — everything is alive, all the time and you're working with animals and children, which  only adds to that. So you just have to live, rather than play the part.

There's just one night in the film Christmas night and the rest of the film takes place during a perpetual day. What was the thought process behind that?

Valdimar Jóhannsson: It was like that in Iceland. In the summertime, it's light for 24 hours and so we wanted to stay true to that. Some of the scenes were shot after midnight but they still look like daytime scenes. It just doesn't get dark. I thought it would be strange to fake a night, to fake the dark.

Noomi, how did you approach playing Maria? Because she doesn't have much dialogue initially but her physicality does the talking for her you can see the grief rolling off her.

Noomi Rapace: It felt like a great gift when Valdimar and his producer, Hrönn Kristindóttir, came to me and asked me to do this film with them. I felt connected to Maria straightaway. I felt like I knew her. Then we had many conversations and began to develop her, but she just came out of me. I didn't really have preparation time on set, we didn't do any rehearsals but the character just poured out of my system. I don't think any other character has come to me that easily. She was probably already living in me, just waiting for Valdimar to knock on the door and ask her to come out. 

Both of you grew up on a farm. I feel like children who have pets or live with animals are exposed to the concepts of loss and death at a young age and grow up with a better understanding of them. Was that your experience and did it inform the film?

Noomi Rapace: Farm life contains life and death in a different way and you get exposed to both. You see your best friends — who are dogs and cats and horses — being born and then you see them die, which is heartbreaking. But you also get to familiarise yourself with the circle of life, which you then have to get used to. It gave me a great understanding of farm life. 

Valdimar Jóhannsson: Noomi arrived on set one day before shooting began. On her first day, she had to deliver the lambs and then drive a tractor.

Noomi Rapace: It was a full-on beginning. It was this eerie moment. We were all waiting for the mother sheep to get ready to deliver the baby. I was in my trailer and Valdimar was down in the barn. Then someone knocked and I had to run and get down on my knees. I was shouting, "Roll camera! The baby's coming!" It was a powerful moment, but a scary one. Life is so fragile. I saw this little baby come out and I wiped the mucus off her face and saw her stand up for the first time. To see life begin, it's very powerful.

Valdimar Jóhannsson: It was also very stressful because by the time Noomi arrived, I think there were only seven sheep in the whole of Iceland left to give birth.

Noomi Rapace: I had been shooting another movie and during that time, they'd been scouting the whole country looking for pregnant sheep. 

I wanted to ask you both about Prometheus (2012), which is a film that I love. Valdimar, I know you were in the special effects department of that film, and Noomi there again you're a woman struggling with the grief of childlessness and becoming a mother to something not quite human and discovering how dangerous it is to mess with the natural order of things. How much of Prometheus informed Lamb?

Valdimar Jóhannsson: You learn something from every project you work on because they help you figure out who you are and what you want to do. You get to meet so many people.

Noomi Rapace: We didn't meet on Prometheus though because it was such a big team. But I've been mothering some weird creatures, I've just realised. What's wrong with me? Why am I drawn to these disturbing motherhood roles? But Prometheus was also a movie in which my role required a lot of physicality, and I didn't have a lot of dialogue. I lived Elizabeth Shaw the same way I lived Maria. Both of these movies were shot in Iceland so I guess that makes these women sisters somehow.

Looking back at your career, you're drawn to women who carry a lot of grief within them, whether it's Maria or Elizabeth Shaw or Lisbeth Salander from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009). And even in a more lighthearted movie like The Trip (2021), your character is still a woman with secrets. Is that the kind of character you naturally gravitate to?

Noomi Rapace: I'm very drawn to the complexity of someone who's been through a hardship that has broken something inside them. I always imagine characters as a broken mirror. So the audience gets to see only certain parts reflected. If I talk to you the whole night, you'd keep secrets. You wouldn't tell me everything. I've known Valdimar for a few years and he has a lot of secrets. Most people do in real life. Onscreen, a lot of times, a lot of characters are overwritten. They expose everything and there's nothing left for the audience to figure out. I like to under-promise and over-deliver, to let the truth about the character slip out in small doses and then the audience can put the puzzle pieces together. Brokenness is always more intriguing to get into than a character who is always solid and happy.

Valdimar, can you tell me about the design of Ada and what it took to achieve that on film?

Valdimar Jóhannsson: I'm not sure how I came up with her. I just did some drawings a few years ago. My grandparents were sheep farmers so maybe it came from there? The Ada onscreen was the result of us working with 10 children, four lambs and some puppets so we had to shoot each scene with all these elements. Sometimes the children or the lambs would not do what we wanted them to do. We had to wait for the right moment to shoot a lot of the scenes, so it was time-consuming. 

Noomi Rapace: It was not chaotic at all though, we had a good harmony, strangely. The humans had to be patient because we were in the middle of this animal kingdom. We just had to tap into a different mindset because we couldn't work the way we normally would on this film. From the first day, when we shot Ada's birth, it felt like we logged out from the world and logged into a different reality. And we stayed like that throughout the shoot. I've never been on a shoot like this, where each crew person felt like a member of Maria's family. They were all so invested in Ada. It was very intimate and personal. Shooting this way creates a realness that you can't look away from. It's amazing. 

For so long, the film is centered on this sweet idea of found family and then the climax is this violent reminder of how they never should've taken it for granted that Ada was part of their family at all. Was this the only way this story could end for both of you? What did you want audiences to take away from it?

Valdimar Jóhannsson: I think it's open to interpretation. There's no right or wrong answer so the audience should take away whatever they feel is correct. 

Noomi Rapace: Maria always knew that Ada was not there to stay, that she took something that didn't belong to her, that she needed her for a certain time in order to be able to heal and get out of the grief that was cramping her. It was almost a spasm in her. When the movie starts, Maria is barely alive. She holds everything in so tightly, it's like she's closed an emotional door. Ada becomes the bridge back to life. Maria starts engaging in life again, she starts dancing, she makes love to her husband. She's back. And even though her pain might be greater at the end because she's lost her husband and Ada, she's fully alive and feels everything again. It's the end of one chapter, but the beginning of another. 

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