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Acting Up: Noomi Rapace’s Interstellar Performance on Apple TV+’s ‘Constellation’

The Snapshot: In the new Apple TV+ series Constellation, Noomi Rapace is a Swedish astronaut who returns to Earth after a disaster on the International Space Station and discovers there are pieces of her life missing. She sets out to expose the hidden truths of space travel while recovering what she has lost.

The Performance: There is something particularly difficult and fascinating about playing a character who has no idea what’s going on. Not the stupid kind, the clueless moron who meanders through life without an intelligent thought in their head, but rather the brilliant person caught in a situation they don’t understand. That’s the kind of person who must unearth the truth and do so in a way that will be satisfying not just to the character, but to the audience as well.

This is, in essence, Jo, the role that Swedish actress Noomi Rapace inhabits in Constellation. An astronaut who is the best in the world at what she does, who is used to contending with the unknown as a space traveler. But when that unknown suddenly becomes something inside her own head, it’s mind-melting for both her and viewers alike.

Noomi Rapace and Rosie/Davina Coleman looking at each other outside. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+.

Rapace’s performance is especially impressive when you consider that, for the bulk of Constellation’s first season, Rapace has to play Jo in several different ways. She sees things that she’s not sure are real, remembers details differently from how the rest of her family remembers them and when she tries to relay the events of the tragedy that sets the story in motion, she is contradicted not only by the administrators on the ground but by her fellow astronauts who were there with her.

The confusion is constant, and it’s easy for an actor to lose control of that, to make the audience feel sorry for them, or, conversely, to stop caring. That kind of thing can get frustrating, after all, which can lead very quickly to indifference. But when it’s done right, and the audience is brought along for the ride, the frustration is in concert with the character, and instead of indifference, what arises is empathy.

Rapace engenders the audience’s empathy with work that is astonishing in its complexity. There is never a time when we’re not with her, not also wondering what’s going on and what is missing from her life. Why does she remember her family’s Volvo as red instead of blue? Or why does she wonder aloud if her husband Magnus (James D’Arcy) remodeled the kitchen since she went up to space several months earlier?

Spoiler alert: He didn’t. Also, the car has always been blue.

When the answer finally arrives and both Jo and the audience are simultaneously clued into the truth, there is a sense of satisfaction that we went on this ride with her, wondering with her what answers would finally be revealed. Good writing goes a long way in accomplishing that, but without the central performance holding it all together, that writing can be utterly wasted. A bad performance can render it meaningless, whereas a great one can elevate it even higher. Rapace does that with every expression, every beat of silence and every motion. Rapace’s Jo is not just an astronaut on a mission to find the truth, she is also a proxy for viewers who want answers as badly as she does. Pulling off both of those things is to carry a heavy load, which Rapace shoulders with relative ease.

You’ll end up wanting to watch the show a second time, not only to get a better sense of what’s going on and view the clues it offers on the path to illumination but also just to enjoy the work that Noomi Rapace gives us in every single frame.

James D’Arcy and Noomi Rapace in hugging outside. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+.

The Career: It was 2009, when Noomi Rapace was nearly 30 years old, that she became a sensation here in North America. And she did it in a trio of Swedish films. True, she was playing a character made famous literary trilogy by author Steig Larson, in what came to be known as The Millennium Saga, starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Rapace played hacker Lisbeth Slander. She spoke not one word of English in the three films, and yet, by the end of that first film, she was an international star.

Of course, her ability and charm were well known to Swedish audiences, as Rapace — formerly Noomi Norén, before she married fellow actor Ola Rapace in 2001, though she kept his name after their 2011 divorce — had been on the big screen there since she was a kid. Born in Hudiksvall, Sweden, she earned her first role in an Icelandic film at the age of seven, became a mainstay of Swedish theater in her teens and twenties and won the Danish version of an Oscar for her work as a teen mother in the 2007 film Daisy Diamond.

But obviously, it was her work as Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous “girl” of the movie’s title, that changed everything. That role earned her a BAFTA nomination, another nomination for a European Film Award, and won her the Guldbagge, otherwise known as the Swedish Oscar.

From there, the offers came rolling in. First, there was Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, then Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel, Prometheus and Brian De Palma’s Passion. There have been more than a dozen other roles, leading up to her star turn in Constellation. The key word being “star,” because that’s what Noomi Rapace has become. Right in front of our eyes.

Constallation premiered February 21 on Apple TV+, and all first season episodes are now streaming.

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