'The Green Knight' Star Alicia Vikander On Playing Dual Roles And Delivering A Defining Monologue [Interview]

There aren't that many female characters in Gawain and the Green Knight, the epic 14th century poem on which David Lowery's The Green Knight is based. There is one significant role: that of the lady of the mysterious castle Gawain stumbles upon during his journey to meet his fate by the Green Knight's hands, but she is less a character than a source of temptation — one of the many mystical obstacles that Gawain must overcome in order to prove his honor and chivalry.

So how does Alicia Vikander, who has become a sort of A24 darling with roles in films like Ex Machina, turn in one of the richest and captivating performances of The Green Knight? Well, it helps that she plays two roles: the part of the mysterious Lady and a role that was invented for the film, Esel, a prostitute who is in love with Gawain. It also helps that she delivers the defining monologue of the film — a haunting and terrifying poem about the nature of green and rot, and how it will probably consume us all.

However, in person, Vikander is not the chilly enigma that she plays in The Green Knight, but a warm and friendly presence who is more than happy to chat about the difficulty she had, as a Swedish-born actress, putting on Welsh accents. Read my full conversation with Vikander, in which we talked how she tackled dual roles, subtext-heavy scripts, and that monologue.

How did you come on board The Green Knight? Did you see the script beforehand or was it just a meeting, and you said yes?

Yes. It started with a meeting. I am a very big admirer of David [Lowery]'s work. We ended up meeting and spending a few hours, just talking. And he mentioned that he had this idea of a script he wanted to make he was writing it at the time, based on the Gawain poem. And I think he then mentioned, "Oh, there's not many women in it, there might not be a big part." And then he said, "But I'll send you the script." And he did.

And I thought he had done such a beautiful job with adapting a very daunting poem of course, due to how ambiguous it is, and how many different versions and moral aspects that people throughout time have been able to read off of these words. But I thought that the dual character of Esel and the Lady was a real treat. And I also just really, really wanted to work with David. So that made me say yes, and I'm very happy I did. I had such a wonderful time shooting it.

And were you aware of the Arthurian poem before you signed on, or did you do your research after getting the role?

I'd heard about the poem, but I hadn't read it. So it was not until that meeting with David, when I remember I went online. And I don't think I understood how much there has been written about that poem, and I can even take a PhD at university just about this poem. So it was pretty amazing to read all these. I found quite a lot of different, both PhDs and essays, about the poem and realized that there's ... especially throughout time, whatever moment in history people were in, of course, reflected what they read out of the poem itself. So, yeah.

Like you said, you play the two roles of Esel and the Lady. Was that casting decision there from the beginning? Was that part of the script, or was that something that emerged after you got attached to the project?

I mean, when I spoke to David afterwards, he hadn't said, "Read this part, read this part." So I didn't know which one he thought, but it was actually like ... Because it seemed very obvious that there was a mirror-like aspect going on, actually even could be between other characters too. And he said, "Yes, that's how I ... It was definitely there when I wrote it."

We had a conversation about it, and then he called me up at a later time and asked if I would be interested in playing both. So it felt very natural. In a very natural way, it happened. And then of course, we had a lot of conversations, talking about what it is that makes these characters feel like they're united somehow.

And that [has to do] a lot, I think, with this young character [of Gawain], who tries to get out in life and embrace adventures and the riches of life, and then of course, maybe sees that or visualizes that the green is always greener on the other side. And he has his woman in this film that he's clearly very close to, but he then seeks always to go somewhere else. And when he steps into the castle of the Lady, he gets enchanted, and it's the question if he chooses, or if he maybe can't see the difference between these two women and how you sometimes in life, just long for things that you can't have and forget that you might have already had it next to right from the start.

The dual casting of you for those two roles, I think, adds such an interesting new layer to the erotic subtext that was already in the poem.


So the character of Esel, like you said, was invented for the movie. Did you have a hand in crafting how her story plays out and her relationship with Gawain?

I mean, the character itself was written, was on the page, but then of course, David is such a collaborative filmmaker. And I think with also the brilliance of his writing and how it was so layered, that it felt like every time I read it, I could read something. I found new things all the time. And that was also the beauty when we made these scenes together.

I think that both in the relationship between Gawain and Esel, and Gawain and the Lady, it could still ... It was a lot of surprising moments when you come in, and you have this idea of what a scene is, and you've read it so many times. But then when we started to perform, it was so many new things that appear that I think surprised us, or surprised me at least.

And yeah, there's a relationship between Esel especially, I realized that it was a lot more sincere and deep. I mean, it's a coming-of-age story, but she clearly has some things down already and has life experience that makes her see a certain truth in quite a clear light.

As a performer, is it difficult to go into such a heady story and a subtext-filled script as this and give a performance that you are satisfied with? Is it difficult to work around all the subtext and all of the meaning that is rife within the script?

Yeah. I think you need to ... It's different. I mean, Esel, I think, it was another kind of simplicity for that role, in the sense that she says some of the most profound truths in the film about questioning him: "Why greatness? Why isn't just goodness enough?" You know?


And that's done in the beginning of the film. I thought that has a certain language in how that is performed. And then of course, there's a poem that the Lady gets to perform later in the film. And then I thought it was ... I enjoyed finding a middle ground, of wanting to honor something that is written and that needs to have a certain weight, but also, that character has a bit more of a magical side to her, can be seen as almost heightened in a sense. And that's also where the film starts to, in its language, go towards later on in the film. So, yeah. I enjoyed that. It was like two different journeys that I got to have, to be able ... to translate the depth and the meaning in different ways in these two parts.

Speaking of two different languages, you also put on two very different and specific accents for this film. Which was the more difficult of the two? And did you have to train to tackle some of the more, almost Middle English style dialogue of this film?

As a foreign actress, and the fact that English is not my mother tongue, yes. That's been my career, and still is. Just to get my English right is still difficult. So it is a lot more work. If I did 12 accents in Swedish, that would be 20 times easier than trying to do it in English. So yes, but it's also the joy that finding a physicality, or look, or feel and accent, that's kind of a direct access for you to step away from yourself and into a very different role. So in that way, it's always a very great tool to have and something that I really ... Even though it's daunting and scary, it's also very interesting and helpful in creating a character.

Let's talk about that monologue, the poem that the Lady reads towards the latter half of the movie, which you launch into. It's like this terrifying speech about green and rot and the creeping power of nature. It's an incredible moment in the film. Was that monologue intimidating to tackle when you saw it on the page? And how did that final product translate from the page when you finally got to perform it?

The poem itself just shows what a brilliant ... [Lowery is] not just a brilliant filmmaker, he's a brilliant poet. And I loved reading that poem over and over. And then of course, you end up coming on set, and you do so many different takes. And I think I ended up trying so many different ways. And then it's in discussions with David, his choice of where he wants to go, that's what ended up onscreen.

What would you say was the most challenging part of making The Green Knight while you were on set?

I think maybe what you mentioned, that thing of daring to embrace these big thoughts and ideals and questions about morals, and then making fit this world that David had decided to create, to make it feel real and natural and in the realm and whatever rules he had set up for this magical world.


The Green Knight opens in theaters on July 30, 2021.