For her new movie Blue Bayou, Alicia Vikander experienced several memorable career firsts: filming on location in New Orleans, learning the native accent for her character and singing on camera for the first time.
The film, written, directed and costarring Justin Chon (Gook, Twilight), revolves around a Korean adoptee Antonio (Lin) and his wife Kathy (Vikander), trying to keep their family together with Antonio facing deportation — a plot point inspired by a real-life deportation crisis for some adults in America who were adopted from other countries decades ago.
“I was a huge fan of Justin since I saw his first film, Gook,” Vikander, 32, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “So he was already on my radar, but I heard he had this film he was working on. He’s so impressive. Obviously, he’s an incredible actor, but then he now writes and directs. I immediately felt a connection with him and really wanted to work with him. Then this story brought to light by him was an issue that I wasn’t aware of, I actually didn’t really think was possible in any society. It’s not only in America, it’s all over the world, but these adopted children [because of] a loophole, can be forced out of their homes and away from their families. So I was very intrigued in bringing that story to light.”
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Vikander says although her character is a Louisiana native, she felt a connection to her that Chon also sensed after seeing her first-ever film Pure.
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“The role of Kathy is very different from anything I got to do before,” she says. “I come from a working-class family in a small town in Sweden. And even though I haven’t gotten to portray that on screen, mostly, it was interesting that Justin knew that connection. He said, ‘Well, I saw your film Pure, and it’s from your hometown, I think you will have full understanding for this role, even though you’re not American.’ And I really appreciated that and of course, understood there was a huge challenge. I wanted to prove myself and of course, went out to Louisiana quite early on to spend time there amongst people and enjoy obviously the culture and the food. New Orleans is almost like its own character. I don’t think we would have been able to make this film any other place.”
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The biggest acting challenge for Vikander was not the southern accent, but a powerful scene in which her character sings an emotional love song to her husband. The actress says this particular career first was her most nerve-wracking yet.
“I actually stood on that little stage, or Kathy did that night, and I looked down on my hand, and for the first time in my career, my hand was shaking,” she recalls. “And I had this crazy heartbeat going. And I kind of had a conversation with myself when they were setting up the shot. I was like, ‘Wow. You’re that nervous.’ And I was thinking, ‘How is this going to go?'”
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Vikander says her nerves subsided a bit once she got into a groove with the performance.
“I had been singing that song a lot in my apartment, in the shower, and it’s not an easy one,” she says. “But for that to be my first [singing scene], I was really nervous. Then we started to film, and you kind of get lost in the moment. It was also such a powerful scene, to me, because she sings it to Antonio in this film and they’re going through a very hard time. Sometimes when it’s difficult to put words to something, or they don’t weigh enough for what she would like to tell him or share with him, instead sometimes it can be easier to just do it with a song, because it goes down in a deep, purely emotional level. In the end, even though I was the most terrified, I think it turned out to be my favorite scene in this film.”
Blue Bayou opens in theaters Sept. 17.