Alicia Vikander doesn't get nervous easily.
Since making her English-language debut in 2012's "Anna Karenina," the Swedish actress has dazzled audiences playing sentient robots ("Ex Machina") and action heroes ("Tomb Raider"), winning the 2016 best supporting actress Oscar for her aching turn in trans drama "The Danish Girl."
But there's a moment in immigration drama "Blue Bayou" (in theaters now), when her character sings at a backyard barbecue, that had Vikander more frightened than she's been in years on a movie set.
"I was actually shaking when I shot that scene, which I don't think I've done out of nerves since my first English-speaking film," recalls Vikander, 32, whose only prior singing experience was in musical productions growing up. "When I stood there, I was like, 'Wow, Alicia, this has not happened in quite a while.'"
She had no reason to worry: Vikander handily delivers a stirring, full-throated rendition of "Blue Bayou," a mournful ballad about heartache and "happier times," made famous by Linda Ronstadt in 1977.
The performance comes at a pivotal moment in the film for Kathy (Vikander), a pregnant physical therapist in New Orleans raising a 7-year-old daughter with Antonio (Justin Chon), a tattoo artist and ex-con. Antonio was adopted from Korea when he was young and moved to the U.S. in the 1980s. But after a police altercation lands him in jail as an adult, Antonio learns that his adoption was never formalized and he is now facing deportation.
"This couple is going through this very traumatic experience and feels like they're not in control," Vikander says. "The communication between them starts to have difficulties. And then suddenly, when she sings, sometimes music is a more direct way to get everything out there. It's a beautiful scene and it felt like they got to connect on a very deep level."
Chon, who also wrote and directed the drama, first learned of stories like Antonio's through friends who were adopted. Foreign-born adoptees are now protected under the Child Citizenship Act, but because of a legal loophole, the bill didn't retroactively grant citizenship to adults already living in the States when it was passed in 2000.
"Adoptees were growing up 20, 30 years later to find out they were not thought of as proper citizens, which I found absolutely shocking," Chon says. "My job as an Asian filmmaker is to bring empathy to my community, and part of that experience is the adoptee experience. I hope people have empathy for (adoptees) going through this process of deportation, because essentially the system has failed them."
Vikander, who lives in Portugal, had no idea about the issue before reading Chon's script and wanted to help bring it to light. She also connected to the film's themes of identity and belonging, as Antonio befriends an ailing Vietnamese immigrant (Linh Dan Pham) and is introduced to a broader Asian-American community in Louisiana.
The actress left home when she was just 15, moving to Stockholm on her own to train at the Royal Swedish Ballet School. She eventually moved to London, where she lived with Swedish pop artists Tove Lo and Icona Pop before her big-screen breakthrough.
"I'm extremely privileged and I've never had any issues with immigration myself," Vikander says. "But (I was drawn) to that idea of trying to figure out how you define what you are: Is it the place you were born or around the people that you choose?"
Vikander is currently in Paris shooting HBO limited series "Irma Vep," after welcoming her first child this year with actor husband Michael Fassbender, whom she married in 2017.
As a new mom herself, she now feels an even closer connection to her "Blue Bayou" character Kathy, who desperately tries to comfort her young daughter and hold their family together.
When she shot the film in late 2019, "I didn't have a child yet," Vikander says. "Obviously, having a child will forever change your life perspective in every way. It's kind of a chapter in life that you suddenly get access to that you didn't have before."
Before production started on "Blue Bayou," Vikander spent three weeks in New Orleans immersing herself in the city's culture and food. When she wasn't interacting with locals to help perfect Kathy's south Louisiana accent, she was practicing alone.
"I spend so many hours talking to myself," Vikander says with a laugh. "Most of my friends are not in the film industry, and over the years, they've gotten to learn that sometimes when we're on holiday and I need to do prep for a film, I'll just sit in a corner talking."
And now, she has a new go-to karaoke song in Ronstadt's "Blue Bayou."
"I've practiced it enough!" Vikander says. "It's funny, after we finished the film, my husband was shooting in Hawaii and Justin was in Hawaii editing. So we went to karaoke and I forced Justin to sing (the song). Halfway through, he turned to me and said, 'Wow, it's really difficult.' I was like, 'Yes, I told you!'"
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Alicia Vikander on new 'chapter' with Michael Fassbender, first child