When Noomi Rapace and Niels Arden Oplev first met to discuss adapting the bestselling "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" nearly five years ago, one filmmaker's name kept coming up.
"We talked about movies that inspired us, and it always came back to 'Zodiac' and David Fincher," the Swedish-born actress, 33, said in a joint interview last week with the Danish-born Oplev, 51. "It was a little strange."
It's not lost on the duo that Fincher would later helm the English-language remake of their Swedish-language thriller. Neither Oplev nor Rapace has seen Fincher's 2011 take on the Lisbeth Salander tale — Oplev, for his part, said making the original put him in a dark place and "I didn't want to go back to that darkness."
But the pair was willing to create some new darkness with "Dead Man Down," a violent revenge story that opens this weekend and marks the pair's first collaboration since 2009's "Dragon Tattoo" (and Oplev's first film since then, period).
In the new movie, Rapace plays Beatrice, a French woman living in New York whose face was badly injured in a car accident and who now wants her hit-man neighbor, the Hungarian émigré Victor (Colin Farrell) to kill the drunk driver responsible. Victor, meanwhile, is on his own vendetta mission as he seeks to rain revenge down on a crime kingpin (Terrence Howard) who has caused his family unspeakable harm.
Though "Dead Man Down," written by former "Fringe" show runner J.H. Wyman, has received tepid reviews and is forecast to draw only a small number of filmgoers this weekend, it shares elements with "Dragon Tattoo": a man obsessed, a woman deeply scarred (this time on the outside) and some all-around evil.
"I love that the characters are so complicated," Rapace said. "It reminded me of 'True Romance' and those '90s movies I watch again and again — a combination of violence and craziness, but at the core people who are really fragile and cracked-up souls."
Though Rapace noted some differences between her new role and her signature one — "Beatrice doesn't want to commit violence, while Lisbeth would have gone to the drunk driver and shot him in the head" — it's no coincidence that she and Oplev are visiting familiar territory.
Soon after starting work on "Dragon Tattoo," the duo realized they shared a fondness for hard-boiled realism. "I love that about you, Niels," Rapace said. "We open all the doors to all the dark rooms."
Before they shot the infamous rape scene in "Dragon Tattoo," for instance, Oplev had a long talk with the other actor in the scene, Peter Andersson, saying that if he wanted to back out, this was the time; once they started, things would get intense.
"Of course [Peter] is not going to rape me but it had to feel real and emotionally disturbing," Rapace recalled. Oplev added: "On set, it's going to be real. That's my instinct; that's Noomi's instinct. You get so much back from cruelty."
Rapace has an uncanny ability to transform herself. Meet her at a social event with a glass in her hand, as at a "Dead Man Down" screening after party in Hollywood last week, and her heavily pierced, leather-clad "Tattoo" heroine is pretty much the last person that comes to mind. Oplev himself didn't recognize Rapace in the lobby of a Los Angeles hotel a few years ago, when the two found themselves talking in a group of mutual acquaintances and the actress, in a dress and high heels, wondered why Oplev wasn't saying hello.
Since starring in "Dragon Tattoo" and its two sequels, Rapace, who now primarily lives in London, has taken supporting parts in Hollywood tent poles such as "Prometheus" and "Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows" instead of bigger parts in smaller movies. It's a situation she says is a mix of design and circumstance.
"It's not like I've been avoiding [specific] characters. It's that there aren't really a lot of characters like Lisbeth around," she said. "What I have been avoiding is stupid action movies. I can do action scenes; I can do fight scenes," added the actress, who has trained in judo and other martial arts. "But I don't want to do just an action film. I don't find that fun."
Oplev, who got his start as part of the so-called Danish New Wave of the 1990s making violent movies such as "Portland," has been even more selective, choosing not to make a film for nearly four years after "Dragon Tattoo." (He didn't direct the sequels, which were helmed by Daniel Alfredson.)
"When you make something of that magnitude it puts you in a difficult position. It took me a long time to find a script I wanted to do," he said. "I really wanted to make my first American film special."
Rapace is now in New York to film Fox Searchlight's "Animal Rescue," a crime movie written by "Shutter Island" and "Mystic River" novelist Dennis Lehane that costars Tom Hardy and is set against the backdrop of a blue-collar bar and an animal shelter.
Oplev, meanwhile, is in North Carolina directing the first episode of the TV series "Under the Dome," CBS' Stephen King adaptation that is set to premiere this summer.
Rapace and Oplev said they don't see each other much these days, keeping in touch by text from various places around the world. But they'd like to make another movie together in the next few years.
"A romantic comedy," Rapace joked. "A dark comedy," Oplev clarified.