Sally A. Edwards chats with "Atomic Blonde" and "Climax" star, Sofia Boutella about upbringings, moving across the world and intuition.
Interview and Art Direction by Sally A. Edwards
Photography by Sarah J. Edwards
Styling by Sofia Boutella and Sally A. Edwards
Hair by Andy LeCompte for Wella Professionals
Make-up by Francesca Tolot for Cloutier Remix
How Moving Across The World Created A New Life for Sofia Boutella
It's all about timing. As a child I was always told, "All in good time." "Give it time." Powerful statements that are likely growing in importance with how fast paced our world has become. These quotes relate remarkably well to Sofia Boutella's story so far.
Sofia danced with award winning confidence and has been seen by millions around the globe having toured for many years with Madonna. However, she first started out as an actor and dancer, multitasking with both for two years before putting the former on hold.
At 30, Sofia stopped dancing and decided to return to film. It took two years, a lot of training, study, auditioning and copious amounts of patience. Then, she landed a handful of very big budget, very edgy roles far from her beginnings in Algeria and even her life in Paris. The initial roles required hours of make-up and a lot for Sofia to get her teeth into character-wise. Offers then snowballed with parts opposite Charlize Theron and James McAvoy in Atomic Blonde, Jodie Foster in Hotel Artemis and the remake of Fahrenheit 451 with Michael Shannon and Michael B. Jordan. Talk about all in good time. Now Sofia can be seen in Gaspar Noé's, Climax, a music and danced fuelled horror.
We got together to discuss everything from Sofia's upbringing, big moves, creativity, our unexpected mentors and music. Finding inspiration, moods and the ukulele.
I know you were born in Algeria and then moved to Paris, then LA. At what ages did you make the moves?
"I moved to Paris with my Mum when I was 10 years old. Then I moved to LA on my own when I was 24."
How do you find all the differences between each place?
"It was very different in Algeria when I was little, first of all there was a civil war. It was not a safe place at the time and it was not a place where you would get a lot of [things]. You know, as a kid it was not a place that was accessible, there wasn't a lot of toys, not a lot of candy like there was in France and a lot of things for kids really that were accessible. There was a curfew at 6pm, there was water through the faucets only once a week for an hour and that was different, but as a kid you don't really realise that was what was happening. Then I moved to France and there were all these things, like supermarkets and stores and shops and it was candy for the eyes, you know? So that was very different and I had a hard time adjusting with the kids. I was never the popular kid because I always had the same pair of shoes and my clothes weren't cool."
Oh, I know that! [Laughs]
"[Laughs] So I had to adapt. It was a culture shock. You know, then LA is another culture shock, but I was already moulded to know how to adapt like a chameleon. So I think when you have to [do that] at such a young age, you can adapt to anything after in life in general. I found that by myself, I feel like I don't see changes or differences in culture in countries as a barrier or as an obstacle. On the contrary I embrace it and I like to discover all the different eclectic cultures and styles."
Do you think you go out and dig for more because of your experiences when you were younger? I find – that because Sarah probably told you our background didn't she, that we started working when we were really young. We started BLAG when we were really young; far too young!
"Yeah, she did. It's a pretty fascinating story. What's the question? Sorry."
Do you think you're more hungry and you hunt more for things because you didn't have that when you were growing up, because now the world's kind of opened out to you?
"I'm not entirely sure why I thrive so much, or why I have something that's pushing me from my back towards anything that I'm doing in my life and anything that I get involved with without really understanding why. It seems to be stronger than me in the sense that I have no power over it. It's kind of controlling where I go, what I do and how I do things. It generally comes from my heart, it seems to be something that's bigger than me and I don't say it from an arrogant place at all. On the contrary, I'm just following what I feel that I need to do and that seems right for me."
Do you feel like you're almost on a mission in a sense?
"I don't know if I'm on a mission [laughs]. If I look back at everything that I've done so far, it feels like a mission [laughs]. It seems a lot, but at the time I felt like I have [extra] time through it, like even when I stopped dancing, I didn't work for two years when I was 30. It's a weird time to change career and to change dynamic. I auditioned a lot and I did a lot of meetings, but the pace was always each thing is on its own time. I made sure of that because I started acting when I was 17 – I did [acting and dancing] for two years, it didn't work for me, so I stopped acting because I just wanted to dance. Then I moved to LA when I was still dancing and took theatre at Stella Adler for a long time. When I wasn't in LA because I was busy dancing, [when I'd go back to LA] I was always at the theatre, then after a while I felt like I was hiding behind the fact I was dancing. I was pretty lucky and successful as a dancer and I got really cool gigs and I thought, 'I'm hiding behind that factor' so I decided to take the leap and to stop, I understood that and I understood that even if it takes time, I needed to do that."
I wanted to speak to you about the comparisons between acting and dancing, because you did a lot of battles didn't you?
"Yeah, I did yeah."
When you're dancing and especially with battles, you're on view literally from 360 degrees aren't you? Then when you're acting, specifically being shot for the screen it's very different. So how do you find the differences and similarities and the confidence you've had to build up from doing the battles, because that's pretty out there. I don't think I know any actors who would be able to handle that, but you've got that strong live connection haven't you?
"Yeah, yeah I love live and there is nothing like it and I'd like to experience it as an actor. But I didn't do just battle, I started with ballet. I did that for a very long time, I started when I was five. Then I started hip hop as a rebellious sort of state of mind because I wanted to break all the rules that [you were supposed to follow], so I started doing that when I was 16 and then I entered battles, then I was part of a crew and it felt like a family. I always wanted to have a big brother so there were a lot of men everywhere and I didn't want to attract the attention of them on a sexual level; on a flirtatious level, so I would cover myself so I wouldn't have that sort of dynamic with the people that I knew. I just wanted to learn dancing from them. Then I danced for Madonna for 10 years and that was another [experience] of having to learn how to dance. So I didn't do like just battle, that 360 way of dancing. I've done everything, all sorts."
You've obviously done loads and loads of work with Madonna, what's it like working with someone who's got the most next level work ethic, ambition and passion?
"She taught me so much and she still does. There is no comparison to her work ethic to her level of work and she cares a lot and that's admirable and I really look up to her and she taught me so much. She really opened the door for me."
Brilliant. It's funny, you had Madonna and we had Beastie Boys [laughs].
"Oh, oh cool!"
Yeah, we met them when we were teenagers. We've been in each others lives since the day we met. I learnt so much from them from age 19 onwards.
Now you have quite the list of films you've done including Atomic Blonde [alongside previous BLAG cover star, James McAvoy], can you tell us about that?
"It's a spy film that takes place in 1989 in Berlin and I play a French spy opposite Charlize [Theron] and I love the fact that it's a period piece. I've never done one before. Yeah. Do you call movies period when they're in the future as well?"
I don't know? That's an interesting question.
"I'm thinking about it now, I've never thought about it. I'd say yes because it's based during a period, past period or future period. I don't know."
I suppose it is, because you've maybe can't call it futuristic because it's going to leap above then at some point.
"Yeah, I loved to be in that film too because Charlize is really great in it, she's kicking ass, she's strong. She has action scenes that are powerful and very gritty and nasty. Nasty in the sense that she's going [in], she's rolling up her sleeves and fighting, it's sweaty, it's gritty, it's very realistic and she's so good. She's really, really good and it's a highly entertaining film with a really cool story to follow. There's a cool dynamic that happens between her and I."
Did you set out with an idea of the kind of films you want to make with regards to the stylistic approach and the credibility, or do you think it just started to come to you?
"I feel like people ask me a lot about what kind of film I want to be a part of and 'what do I want to do?' I feel compelled about storytelling, I feel compelled with putting myself inside a different skin and exploring and having fun with that. I feel like I haven't done enough for me to start framing things that I would like to do. I feel I'm still an open book as far as what comes my way...
What I'm trying to get at is do you think you attracted those roles to you in anyway?
"I don't know, I have no idea. All I know is that I care and I want to do things for the right reasons as in I don't pretend that I do to... I'm not that kind of person, I'm not trying to change anything or pretend that I can make a difference in the world or anything whatsoever, but I personally like to just be a part of artistic projects. I think I danced from a place of character when I was a dancer. There was always a story behind and even Madonna always treated her dancers like actors and there was a story behind everything. So, to me it seems like a natural continuation. [Acting] spoke to me when I got cast when I was 17 in this movie [in Paris], I ended up playing the love interest to this lead guy and I loved it and I decided to take classes because it it made sense.
"I kept going and I kept doing that until now, but I just love it. I think movies are a great tool to help people relate, you know maybe it does something, maybe it can and its a great escape also, or the opposite of relating to discover new things or to just have a window that's aside from people's everyday lives. Movies can be used for all sorts of things and I think they're powerful and they're almost like music, but I still think that music is the ultimate... for me! [Laughs] I think it's the ultimate form of art, it's powerful how music can find its way to the language of the soul, it's way more powerful than any other form of art, it's really fascinating."
I find with music if I'm going along and doing things, then I just stop and put loads and loads of music on, it completely refuels me for art or design, or whatever it is I want to do next.
It's really interesting. Now, I wanted to speak to you about how everyone now seems to need or want to have a personal brand don't they? Because you've got a specific look and a specific style, do you do this to attract projects to you? Do you have a boundary on how you deem your personal brand or do you just want to be yourself and you don't get involved in that kind of thing?
"I don't know, I wake up every morning and feel different. You'll see me, I'm a bag of tricks because I don't feel like I'm consistent enough! [Laughs] I think for the longest time I felt like I was... I couldn't find myself, as in I didn't necessarily have a sense of identity, but because I felt like everybody was so consistent with their style [laughs], but I feel like I wake up every morning and I feel differently, so... well, some sort of consistency, I'm not a schizophreniac, but I don't know, I dress differently depending on how I feel, I don't feel like I have a brand, I've never thought about it..."
"What's your brand?"
I don't know! I'm just going for being as real as possible and honest! But from a public perspective, we're hiding everything we're doing because we want to release everything we're doing at a specific time, so we're being very quiet. No one knows about some of the things we're planning and building behind-the-scenes.
"I think having changed careers so abruptly at such an old age..."
"Not old, but later on in your career, like I was experiencing what most people experience earlier on, or early or late twenties and it's different when you're an adult. Like, I felt when I was 20, I was still very much a kid and experiencing that. When you're more of an adult... it sort of relates again to my ability of adapting, it helped me again once there, but I feel like I was auditioning, auditioning, I just wanted to be in movies. Like I love independent films. The taste that I have in movies is completely different to what I have been doing and I would have been happy if I was in them, but I ended up being in those big films which I feel very grateful for, but I don't want to be too picky, I want to also forge myself, learn. I want to experience more and not be negative about my choices and not be too selective, at least for now, but I think after a while I will be because I'd like to do the movies that I love as an audience [member] most. You know?"
Loads of people now have multiple careers, but I guess you started young, I started young and I've done loads of different kinds of things. Is there anything else you'd do or are you absolutely set on acting and doing the right things to get the experiences that you want now?
"I think I'm just being focused, I think it's important. I had to. I've been very fortunate with some incredible roles so far and I feel like things have been shaped in a way to where I've been given very characterful characters to play, very specific and unusual and pretty cool. I feel like I do want to keep embracing that and embracing not necessarily because of the make-up, but because of the content and the interesting side of a character that I'd like to keep going that way. I have to be focused for the time being until I feel like my train is on its rails and you know you're going towards the right direction. I don't know, I might wake up one morning and decide I want to become a triangle player, who knows!
"[Laughs] I play the ukulele. That's just one thing because I needed to do something that [quiets my mind] and that's the one thing that does just shut my [my thoughts up] and I can travel with it because it's small. I was wondering what I could do and I bought my ukulele with Anton Yelchin who passed away abruptly and so I just really love my ukulele because we got it together. We were in Vancouver and because it sounds good and because the vibration of it, I don't know, it's just nice to sing and play and it gives me something else to think about which is good. If I want to learn a song or once I know a song it just shuts my brain up a bit, so I do that, but I'm [laughs]. I'm not gonna pretend that's what I do, it's just a side hobby really. I don't know, everything just sort of came in my heart slightly spontaneously, like I never made plans. When I was a dancer I never thought 'Oh what will I do when I can't dance?' I never thought of that. I just feel I'm a very passionate person and I care about everything I engage in without any thought. A part of me sometimes thinks I should now be more responsible maybe, but it doesn't ever work. I can't function that way. At least now, but I know that I go with my heart and I believe firmly in what my heart tells me, so I never second guess it. Right now it's too focused on that and I enjoy it, I feel extremely lucky and I understand that you know, I could've gone the other way around aswell, so I feel extremely fortunate, so I want to give it all the time possible. You know?"
And you were talking about music being your number one for creativity.
"Yeah, my Dad is a composer. So I grew up in a very artistic family, everybody in my family picks up an instrument, sings or draws. We were always encouraged from a very young age, instruments were put in our hands, there was music in our ears or crayons in our hands. So we were always constantly encouraged to do that. So yeah music and art has always been a part of our lives."
What would be your morning playlist?
"You see that's the thing, it depends how I feel."
It changes everyday! [Laughs] It depends on what you want to wear!
"Yeah, it depends what I want to wear. It depends how I feel."
Sometimes I put on films in the background instead of music which is interesting.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, totally. I like that."
Then some films have got great soundtracks.
"There's this band who uses movie scenes and compose and make music on top of the scenes with the dialogue. I forgot their name. They're DJs. It's pretty cool. I think they're French. But I listen to pretty much every sort of music, I love classical. Like, I'll have periods of time when I just want to listen to classical, I don't want to listen to lyrics or a voice and I absolutely love classical music. Sometimes I listen to jazz a lot, I love electronic music as well. It depends how I feel. Like I like rock music, I like Nine Inch Nails, it's dark and it's gritty and then all of a sudden I can't listen to that, but it really depends how I feel and what you need emotionally and nowadays I feel like I need a lot of calm, so I listen to classical music. I need to balance with everything I'm doing. It depends on what I need really."
I go to Maria Callas if I need calm down. [Laughs]
"Yeah, Maria Callas is gorgeous. Yeah, it's beautiful."
Then the soundtrack to Raging Bull is brilliant because there are so many different types of music. It's really good.
"Yeah, yeah. I love John Coltrane and Miles Davis or jazz musicians I go to easily or Beethoven all sorts of things."