Testament of Youth’s Alicia Vikander on playing Vera Brittain: I had terrified sleepless nights

The Swedish actress says filmmakers took a chance when casting her as the author, pacifist and British icon opposite Kit Harington and Colin Morgan

In the words of actress Alicia Vikander, the makers of Testament of Youth “took a leap of faith” when they chose to cast her as Vera Brittain – writer, pacifist, British icon and the centrepiece to this WWI epic. 

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Vikander is Swedish and, despite appearing in a string of English-speaking films (Anna Karenina, The Fifth Estate, to name just two), she needed a voice coach on set daily to imitate Vera’s plummy middle class accent. “I was terrified at some points,” she recalls. “Especially because I want to do justice to the person who existed… There were many nights at the beginning where I couldn’t really sleep.” 

For the most part, she pulls it off – and a rare dropped vowel does not detract from the 26 year-old’s moving, visceral performance. She depicts young Vera’s emotional turmoil when she sees her fiancé (Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington), brother (Taron Egerton) and friend (Merlin star Colin Morgan) – “my boys”, as Vikander calls them – head off to fight in the First World War.

But what makes Testament of Youth a breath of fresh air is the female perspective. Cinema audiences are used to big-budget, action-packed war movies set at the front, but Brittain’s moving account brings the focus back home, looking at what life was like for those left behind. And in her case – as in many – the war years were dogged with tragedy and loss, something Vikander portrays to tear-jerking effect. 

She says she drew on her own experiences to bring Brittain’s grief to the fore. “A year ago I went through a personal crisis which was very tough and, in one way, I saw sides to myself that I didn’t know. I don’t think you really know how you will react to certain situations until you’re there. It can be a big surprise because you may act in a way you didn’t think and it was a big resource to have that as an actress.” 

Brittain found her catharsis in her writing – her best-selling novel was followed by two more – but Vikander says she gets hers through making movies. “[Vera] actually did what she promised herself – to keep those young men alive throughout her book. I leave things behind with my films, in a way. I don’t know if it’s the same – maybe that comes out unconsciously from within myself.” 

When it comes to her roles, she acknowledges she’s been fortunate. After a string of high-profile parts in Sweden, she won a Guldbagge award – the Swedish equivalent to the Oscars – for her lead role in Pure. Since then she’s made the leap to the UK and beyond, winning acclaim for Anna Karenina and A Royal Affair, and has a string of major films cued up for release, including Ex Machina, Tulip Fever and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. 

“I’ve been very, very lucky,” she says. “I’m so fortunate to have been able to find a certain amount of female roles in the last two years. In general, if you read 20 scripts, out of them it’s very difficult to find good female roles. 

“For a long time in film, women have been looking to watch men and men wanted to watch men and finally there’s this change that just had to happen. You can see it now in society and it reflects now on film – films like The Hunger Games. Finally. Hopefully there’s a change coming.” 

Brittain was an early pioneer of that change – becoming a public figure as she championed pacifism, even when her opinions made her wildly unpopular during the Allied bombing of Germany in the Second World War. But 45 years on from her death, does Vikander think we still carry around the author’s message and the lessons learned from a century ago? 

“I think it’s a good reminder because human beings tend to forget. Everyone after the First World War never thought it could happen again and then it didn’t take that many years before it did. And now, with all the tension going around the world, I think it’s a good thing to remind yourself not to be caught up. Because it feels like it could be close again if we don’t remind ourselves.” 

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Testament of Youth is out in UK cinemas now