WILD AT HEART
Written by Zan Romanoff | Photographed by Zoey Grossman | Styled by Sean Knight
“That’s so dark!”
Sofia Boutella is riding shotgun in my car, perhaps the filthiest vehicle currently on the road in West Hollywood, when she spots a stroller sitting on the sidewalk, abandoned in the dazzling Los Angeles sun. We’re on our way to her dentist, running 20 minutes late for an appointment to get her teeth cleaned. “That’s so dark,” she repeats. “What a weird vision. What a weird sight. There are some things it feels like you’re not supposed to see.”
This is not how the afternoon was meant to go.
The plan was pretty standard: I would meet Boutella on the rooftop of a hip Hollywood hotel. We would sip cocktails and take in the view. I would ask her questions about working opposite Tom Cruise in The Mummy, in which she plays the title role, as well as her part alongside Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde, both of which release this summer. She would tell me some mild Hollywood gossip, repeat a bunch of platitudes about hard work and keeping her head on straight, and send me on my way to write A Celebrity Profile: a greased-lens look at her and her life, constructed in order to give the public a relatable Sofia Boutella character to imagine floating from rooftop to red carpet and set to set.
And in fact, though our time together was replete with lifestyle details—our French fries were sprinkled with truffle oil and Parmesan—it was also dotted with pedestrian inconveniences, the kind of humdrum low-key annoyances that are hallmarks of recognizably civilian life. For instance, the rooftop bar didn’t serve French fries, or any food for that matter, and we were both starving, so we ended up in the dark, loud downstairs restaurant instead. A series of scheduling snafus had accidentally sent Boutella to a different hotel before she met me, so we only had a brief window to eat and talk, which is how I ended up steering her through pre-rush hour traffic while I fired off questions and she finished the last of her fries in the passenger seat. It was an intense afternoon—not dreamy, not “relatable,” but mostly very ordinary: two slightly harried early-30s women trying to do their jobs. Which makes sense: Boutella has never been that into the glamorizing softness of a neatly turned narrative anyway.
She was born into upheaval: She spent her early years in the midst of a violent civil war in her native Algeria. Her family fled to France when she was 10; they moved around the country until Boutella left to tour as a dancer when she was 18. She did that for more than a decade before leaving (a gig backing up no less a performer than Madonna) in order to focus on acting.
The decision had been a long time coming: She’d been acting since she was a teenager and always felt drawn toward the discipline. But she kept getting paid gigs as a dancer, and she loved it—until she wasn’t sure she did anymore. “I asked myself the question [am I ready to stop dancing] for about two years,” she explains. “For me, it felt like a question of life or death. I asked random people. I never do what people tell me, but I need to understand. I want to know how people behave in context. When I feel compelled, what do I do?” Ultimately, though, her answer came when it was ready. “I woke up one morning and [the desire to dance] was gone,” she says. “I cannot explain. Nothing happened. It was just gone!”
“I asked myself the question [am I ready to stop dancing] for about two years. For me, it felt like a question of life or death."
But then there was the matter of finding work. Boutella spent the next two years taking acting classes with a teacher named Arthur Mendoza, who previously had been a disciple of the legendary Stella Adler. Boutella studied the nuts and bolts, the technique and history of the craft—and did not get cast at all, in anything. “I did not make a paycheck in two years. I was broke.”
She considered go-go dancing to make ends meet, but discarded both options when she thought they might start to affect her emotionally. She wanted to save herself for what she considered her real work. She decided that she was going to be a housekeeper.
And then she got cast as an assassin named Gazelle in Kinsgman: The Secret Service (2014) in a cast that included Colin Firth, Mark Hamill and Samuel L. Jackson. Gazelle is a walking weapon; her prosthetic legs have been sharpened into lethal blades. It was an ideal role for Boutella, something that benefited from the physicality of her background in dance without pigeonholing her as an actress who had to be limited to crossover films. “I did not want to play a dancer in a movie,” Boutella explains. “I did not want to do a Nike commercial with words. I thought if I was doing a dance movie, I was going in through the exit door, trying to shimmy in in a slick way.”
“I did not want to do a Nike commercial with words. I thought if I was doing a dance movie, I was going in through the exit door, trying to shimmy in in a slick way.”
Even after the scare of those lean years, she remains insistently thoughtful about what roles she takes and why. She actually turned down her part in The Mummy when it was initially offered to her: In the first place, she’d just spent months doing four-plus hours a day in makeup chairs as the alien Jaylah in Star Trek Beyond (2016), and she was wary of putting herself in a similar position again so soon. But she also had questions about the role itself: “I was afraid to play a monster. I was afraid it would stick to me, as a woman, and [I would] not work again. Who are the women who played monsters who did anything after? I didn’t see any examples,” she says.
Boutella spoke with the director and told him that her mummy needed to have “a strong, solid back story.” He delivered, giving Boutella not “just the usual: the girlfriend who’s jealous,” but instead a princess betrayed, a pharaoh’s daughter who’d spent her whole life preparing to rule, only to have the throne stolen from her when her widowed father remarries, and his new wife bears him a son whom he names as his heir.
Boutella’s approach to her characters is characteristic of her intensely cerebral nature—though, as with her dancing, ultimately the performance lives in her body, not her brain. “I read the script a lot, and I do a lot of research until I feel like I know what’s happening,” she says of her preparation. “And then I let it go and see what’s in my back pocket.”
For The Mummy, she ultimately found on-screen role models in Kathy Bates’ turn in Misery as well as Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Not monsters, exactly, but women who were dark and intense—evil but ultimately human.
When I ask Boutella if she feels that being a woman of color has limited her range of roles, she answers emphatically that she doesn’t. “I never want to victimize myself in that regard,” she explains. “Even if it happens to be true, I’m happier being oblivious to it. This is not what’s
going to drive my life, and I don’t want to let it. I want to see these characters as assets.” She attributes this spirit to her upbringing: “I was picked on massively when I arrived in France. The only way to survive that is to take ownership of who you are and what you’re about. That confidence never left me.”
“I was picked on massively when I arrived in France. The only way to survive that is to take ownership of who you are and what you’re about."
That said, she’s generally wary of taking political stances: “I want to be educated far more profoundly than I’ve ever been before I do anything” in terms of advocacy, she says. “Someone asked me recently, ‘What advice would you give to some little kid who lives in Syria?’ Look, I got lucky. I got lucky to get out of [Algeria] when I was little. Tell me to give advice to someone in America or France, and I would say, ‘Keep believing in your dreams.’ I’m not going to tell someone in Syria ‘keep believing in your dreams!’ It broke my heart, that question.”
Boutella seems mystified by the 360-ness that people demand from their celebrities, the need for them to dissect their lives and work (“My mom is an architect. Very valuable job. She’s never asked, ‘So, how did you come up with that wall? Why did you decide to put a tree on that rooftop? Tell us!’”), the way that the public asks famous folks to tell stories about themselves and then uses them to imagine that they know the person and not just their persona. Boutella’s personal policy is: “If artists are great at what they do, if I meet them and they’re dickheads orassholes, if I meet them and they’re not nice—I’m like, it doesn’t matter. I don’t care. What you do on that level is far more profound. You don’t have to be nice.”
She says she’s always felt this way, but it’s been reinforced over the course of a career spent working with her idols. “I think it’s a protection to dissociate,” she says. Like a Virgin and Bad were the first two cassettes she owned, and she listened to them until they broke; both Madonna and Michael Jackson went on to hire her to work for them. She dealt with this with characteristic sangfroid: “I was honored. I mean, I was honored. A lot of respect. But I just don’t fucking lose it.”
Her detachment had been a survival strategy during a turbulent youth and remains a professional asset as she continues to move into ever more rarified circles as an actress. But it does also come with certain costs. We’re still cruising down Fountain, a few miles past the abandoned stroller that so unnerved Boutella, when I ask her about languages (she learned English on tour in her late teens and early 20s) and about where she lives. After so many years of touring, does she consider any place in particular home?
This is the thing about having stories: they can help other people turn us into digestible, comprehensible soundbites, but they can also help us better understand ourselves. Boutella is at peace with her past, but she isn’t quite ready to start predicting a future for herself yet, in part because the only constant in that past was its chaos and unpredictability. “I’ve never done anything that I should have done,” she says. “I never knew anything I should have known when I should have known it.” She knows where her things are, but that doesn’t mean she knows where she wants home to be just yet. She knows what works she wants to do, but not how she’s going to spin it into the Sofia Boutella character the public is, increasingly, demanding of her.
Boutella isn’t fazed, though. “I’ve decided to just embrace it,” she says of her vagabond tendencies, and all of the things she doesn’t know. “It gave me strength in the sense that I can go anywhere. I’m always a suitcase away from anything.” MM