“I want to be her, Mommy!” shouts an elated little girl standing in a cluster of kids who have gathered spontaneously in Savannah’s Forsyth Park. With heads craned toward the sky, they are gobsmacked, rooted in place as if they’ve spotted a bona fide superhero. And in a way they have. On this crisp but sunny Saturday morning of her Bazaar cover shoot, Alicia Vikander is literally floating on air, pirouetting with balletic grace in a Louis Vuitton gown 50 feet above the mossy green. The Swedish actress seems preternaturally at ease and visibly in control, often calling the shots—politely—to the stunt coordinators and photography crew from midair. Remaining nonplussed in the face of extreme bodily risk is all in a day’s work for Vikander, who has made a career out of shape-shifting seamlessly into radically strong female characters in thoughtful indie films and commercial blockbusters alike. On-screen and in person, the 30-year-old star exudes a cool, timeless charm that calls to mind a young Ingrid Bergman. She is as unassuming as she is captivating—a badass with delicate poise and a hushed, confident cadence.
Back on terra firma, Vikander, dressed in Goldsign jeans, a black Isabel Marant blouse, and Jimmy Choo flats with her hair tied in a messy knot, is sitting in a cocktail bar across the street from Forsyth Park. “In this industry, you must be willing to throw yourself out there, which I enjoy,” she says. She has just ordered a vodka martini, and kindly instructed the bartender to dump the vermouth after just a swish around the glass. “I’m good at hiding all those nerves inside. Something I’ve heard all my life is, ‘Oh, you seem so tough.’ I think one of the main things I do well is to not show that I’m shitting my pants.”
That stoic facade is easier to maintain without a lick of an online footprint. “I realized early on that social media was not good for me; I personally didn’t find the joy in it,” declares the actress, who tried Instagram for a month before Marie Kondo–ing it out of her life. Also easier to maintain without an Instagram account: privacy. Vikander has been quietly married to the Irish actor Michael Fassbender since 2017.The A-list couple keep a deliberately low profile, residing in Lisbon, Portugal, where they relish languid early mornings filled with ocean dips and yoga. “I was brought up in a very cold, dark country, and Portugal is the opposite,” Vikander says of her adopted home. “My husband loves to surf, so we like being close to the sea.”
At times Vikander appears delightfully unaware of her own celebrity status. “Every time I do press, I’m suddenly met with the reality of my fame,” she explains. “I sometimes forget how my life has changed.” When she was starting out, Vikander didn’t anticipate having a viable acting career, let alone becoming an international fashion plate. She was rejected from drama school three times (“part of me felt like I didn’t belong,” she confesses). In fact, she was a week away from starting law school when she was cast in Lisa Langseth’s 2010 drama, Pure, for which she won the Swedish equivalent of an Oscar. At that point she never looked back.
After her breakthrough role as an emancipated robot in 2015’s Ex Machina, the actress won an Oscar the following year for her performance in The Danish Girl. Since then she has pumped iron to portray the Tomb Raider reboot’s shredded Lara Croft, and learned to speak Japanese for the upcoming murder mystery Earthquake Bird, which takes place in Tokyo. Also in the works? A starring turn in Julie Taymor’s much buzzed-about Gloria Steinem biopic, The Glorias: A Life on the Road, in which both she and Julianne Moore portray the legendary feminist. “Alicia and I are thousands of miles and five decades apart, yet we both grew up wanting to be first a ballet dancer and then a lawyer—a combination of art and activism,” says the real-life Steinem. “I think we would have been friends as children, and it’s a miracle that we’re meeting now, across continents and time. We both found work that we love—writing and acting—and we use it to make the invisible visible.”
In addition to her many screen roles, Vikander has also emerged as a major style icon in recent years, thanks in part to Louis Vuitton artistic director Nicolas Ghesquière, who tapped the actress as his muse, dressing her in youthful, rulebreaking looks as she promoted The Danish Girl. “Nicolas is a risk taker,” she says of her decision to join forces with the designer. “His work is fashion-forward but relatable. I feel cool and feminine in his clothes. They’re like my armor.Ghesquière, likewise, has no trouble explaining what drew him to Vikander. “Alicia has a strong sense of self and style,” he says. “Her life and career have been on a very fast trajectory, and yet she has remained the same determined, confident, and beautiful young woman since the beginning.” The designer is also quick to applaud Vikander’s integrity: “I am always impressed by people who don’t make compromises. She can transform herself without betraying herself.”
Growing up with a single mother in a modest household in Gothenburg, Sweden, Vikander viewed high fashion as more of a pipe dream than a reality. “My mom was an actress, and we never had the money for things that weren’t purely functional,” she recalls. “I remember when I bought my first magazine; it was a window into a world that seemed very far away from mine.” The paucity of resources made her more creative. “I did a lot of high street and secondhand shopping,” she says. “I loved having someone ask me where I got something, and I would say, ‘I got it at H&M.’ ” Adds Vikander, who pursued a ballet career as an adolescent but eventually quit due to injuries, “I enjoyed using my clothes as another tool to express who I am.”
That’s not to say there weren’t fashion faux pas along the way. “In my teens, I went through a full-on hip-hop period. I would wear huge hoop earrings, baggy trousers, and this reversible velvet Adidas jacket that I spent a lot of money on because I thought it was an investment piece at the time,” she reveals. “I’m not going to show you photos of that!”
These days, her off-duty wardrobe is mostly black, and “very Scandinavian” (she’s a loyal fan of hip labels from her homeland like Acne Studios, Rodebjer, and Totême), partly due to the influence of Lisa Langseth. The Swedish director not only cast the 20-year-old Vikander in her first film but also became a professional—and a stylistic—mentor. “I tried so many different looks until I met Lisa, who was in her 30s,” says Vikander, who worked with the director again in 2017’s Euphoria. “She plays with being slightly androgynous and rock ’n’ roll but also exudes femininity.” That’s when Vikander realized that it wasn’t always necessary to go to sartorial extremes to make an impact. “I think I just started to find my own style. I am very classic and have a lot of pieces in my wardrobe that I know I will have for a long time,” she says, tugging at her sculptural Ana Khouri earring. “I’ve started to wear a lot of blazers and simple-cut jeans. I love jewelry and coats. Shoes and bags also mean a lot to me. I like being able to just put on a T-shirt and jeans but then make an outfit with accessories.”
As we continue to sip our martinis, the conversation about style takes a more serious turn. I ask Vikander about the deep-rooted history of women and girls dressing for the acceptance of other women, or the approval of men, rather than for themselves. “My dad is a psychiatrist, and he told me that often his job is to tell patients that how they think others perceive them is actually far from the truth,” she says. “I think people are finally getting to a point where they care less about what others think and feel more comfortable playing with different versions of themselves. Brands that were once associated exclusively with upper-class, middle-aged women are now what teens want to wear.” And vice versa: “I love to see that CEOs of companies can wear streetwear.” Her eyes widen with excitement. “Michelle Obama is breaking convention by wearing thigh-high sparkly Balenciaga boots—she’s a woman who will always surprise me! I’m happy that we are getting to a point where people don’t need to stick to any category of age or social ladder.”
Vikander is adamant that fashion and feminism “go hand in hand,” and that they’re pivotal to a woman’s freedom of expression. Which brings us back to her role in The Glorias. “I was just overwhelmed by what Gloria has done in her lifetime and how much difficulty she must have had growing up in that time. I’m so curious what made her have the strength to confront what was so unbalanced in our society.”
The actress herself is actively pushing for change amid the watershed Me Too–Time’s Up movements. In 2017, she signed an open letter calling out Sweden’s film and theater industries for failing to protect women against sexual predators. And today Vikander is optimistic about the future: “It’s sad that a lot of us women haven’t had the opportunity to work together because not enough women were being hired. Suddenly we found a way not only of reaching out and getting to know each other but forging relationships that lead to creative collaborations. I’m working on several projects right now with girls that I met over the past year. That in itself is wonderful proof that a big change has happened.”
This article originally appears in the April 2019 issue of Harper's Bazaar, available on newsstands March 26.
Model: Giacomo Cavalli. Hair: Joey George for Dyson; Makeup: Gucci Westman for Westman Atelier; Manicure: Melissa Crosbie for Savannah Day Spa; Production: Sabine Mañas for Ghibli Media Productions Inc. Special thanks to Mansion on Forsyth Park and Savannah Day Spa.