Alicia Vikander

Louis Vuitton dress; Giambattista Valli Haute Couture headpiece.

Photographer: Willy Vanderperre
Stylist: Edward Enninful

Around four years ago, Alicia Vikander was heading from England back to her native Sweden. The actress, who is normally driven by a joyful determination, was a little sad: She had spent the last of her savings on a plane ticket to London so she could meet with casting directors about a part in Snow White and the Huntsman, a big-budgetreinvention of the classic fairy tale. “I was completely on my own,” she told me on a very chilly day in early February in London, where she now resides. We were having hot beverages at a small gourmet shop near her apartment, and Vikander, who is petite and very slim, with wide brown eyes, was swathed in a caramel-colored overcoat and a long pale blue wool muffler. She projected an air of self-sufficiency: polite but not warm, and certainly not vulnerable.

Vikander, 26, has been acting since she was 7, including a three-year run in the Swedish musical Kristina From Duvemala, written by the creators of Mamma Mia! When she was 15, she left her hometown of Göteborg, where she was living with her mother (her parents separated when she was an infant) to study at the prestigious Royal Swedish Ballet School in Stockholm. When she realized that she wasn’t going to make it as a professional dancer, she started thinking about trying out for English-speaking acting roles. She worked on her English—she now speaks it beautifully, with a slight British accent—and made tapes of herself playing different characters, hoping to land a part in an American movie. The tapes were sent to casting directors in the U.K., but neither Vikander nor her Swedish agent received any responses. “I never even heard ‘No thank you,’ ” Vikander said, taking a sip of her coffee. “So I decided I had to get myself to London.”

After meeting with the casting directors, she was en route to the airport when she received the call she had been waiting for: Executives at Universal wanted to send her to Los Angeles to screen-test for the part of Snow White. “I was on the phone crying at a Starbucks,” Vikander recalled. “People thought I was having a breakup with my boyfriend! I said, ‘No—it’s good news! I’m going to have a career!’ ”

Although she was whisked first class to L.A., Vikander did not get the part (it went to Kristen Stewart), but that may very well have been the last time Vikander wasn’t chosen for a plum role. This year she stars as, among other characters, a nurse in the World War I drama Testament of Youth; a sexy accomplice in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and, most notably, a charismatic android in Ex Machina, which arrives in theaters April 10. Directed by Alex Garland, Ex Machina is the chilling tale of an egomaniacal genius inventor (brilliantly played by Oscar Isaac) who creates Ava, an artificial being who attempts to engineer her own future. Using her dance training, Vikander created awkward yet fluid movements for Ava. It is a subtle, carefully layered performance—horrifying and seductive.

“I like Ava,” Vikander told me. She paused. “Sometimes, I don’t even want to talk about her. She is that precious to me.” I mentioned that Ava’s gait improved as the film progressed. “I never wanted her walk to be perfect,” Vikander maintained. “A perfect walk would have made her look robotic. And the last thing she should be is robotic. What is human is flawed. And Ava wants to be human.”

Ava is just the beginning of Vikander’s big screen domination. By the end of 2015, the actress will be seen in leading roles in no less than six films. A few months ago, she completed The Light Between Oceans, directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine), in which she and Michael Fassbender play a couple who tend a lighthouse on a remote island off the Western coast of Australia. During the making of the movie, Vikander and Fassbender began dating, and, although she wouldn’t discuss the relationship when we met, she had just returned from a long weekend in San Francisco, where Fassbender was filming Steve Jobs.

Vikander couldn’t stay in California for very long—she had rehearsals and costume fittings for The Danish Girl, which stars Eddie Redmayne as Einar Wegener, the first man to undergo a sex change operation, and Vikander as his wife. The film, which, like The Light Between Oceans, is set in the 1920s, is based on a true story. “They were both artists,” Vikander said. “My studio model doesn’t show up one day, so I ask my husband to put on stockings and high heels to replace her. He says no. But my character persists. And then, they kind of enjoy that reverse-gender game together for a while. But it quickly turns serious. The movie is really about the fear of losing someone you love.”

Noting that her driver had arrived, Vikander gathered her small brown leather purse, which was a gift from the designer Nicolas Ghesquière, now in his third season at Louis Vuitton. Although it was still a secret in February, it would soon be announced that Vikander had been selected as the newest face of Vuitton and, as such, would appear in the brand’s advertisements and wear Ghesquière’s clothes at red carpet events. She would not, however, be attending the Oscars this year, she said matter-of-factly. “But next year, the Oscars will be interesting. If all goes well, I’m going to have three films in contention. I’ve had many years of working a lot without being in the public eye. And that’s been good. But by this time next year, I think things are going to change.” She smiled. “I expect to be busy. I’m ready to be a bit more known.”

Hair by Sam McKnight at Premier Hair and Make-up; makeup by Charlotte Tilbury at Art Partner; manicure by Jenni Draper for Sisley at Premier Hair and Make-up. Set design by Emma Roach at Streeters London. Produced by Sylvia Farago. Lighting technician: Romain Dubus. Digital technician: Henri Coutant at DTouch. Photography assistants: Jared Beck, Jori Komulainen. Postproduction technician: Stéphane Virlogeux. Fashion assistants: Ryann Foulke, Dena Giannini. Makeup assistants: Sofia Bermudez, Kate Synnott.