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Bond girl Olga Kurylenko counts her blessings

From model to actress Kurylenko is game for any role including being director Terrence Malick's muse and star of his latest film, writes James Mottram

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 June, 2013, 3:35pm
 

It's just after lunchtime and Olga Kurylenko is raiding the mini-bar of her London hotel suite - not for alcohol, but to see if there's any sugar for her coffee. "They should have sugar in the mini-bar," she says, but all she can find are chocolate bars, which she considers dipping into her espresso until I tell her that's a bit weird. "I am weird," she retorts. "What do you want to do? At this point, I can't hide it, can I?"

Maybe not. But, at least until now, the slender, dark-haired Ukrainian has managed to keep any oddities under wraps while building an impressive film career. A former model who graced the covers of Vogue and Elle when she was 18, she starred in French hit thriller The Serpent before featuring in 2008 James Bond film Quantum of Solace - which proved a baptism by fire for her. "I was like a machine for two months, flying all round the world, doing all these premieres and promotions," she says. "But it's a good school. I learnt a lot."

Surviving the curse of the Bond girl that has derailed so many young hopefuls, the now 33-year-old Kurylenko has recently starred opposite Tom Cruise in sci-fi film Oblivion and Colin Farrell in Seven Psychopaths. But, far more intriguingly, she's become the latest muse for Terrence Malick. The director behind Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line is an enigma to the media, shying away from publicity of any sort. So why is "Terry" - as all his collaborators dub him - so secretive?

"It's not that," Kurylenko says. "He's shy. I can see it. He's so shy. I don't want to speak for him, but he's one of those people. I think he can't talk about himself. He could probably talk to you about something else, but not about himself. He's not that kind of person. He's not that vain." Plus, she says, he doesn't want to offer pat sound bites about his work. "That's why his movies are mysterious."

As frustrating as it is beautiful, To the Wonder is unlikely to win Malick any fresh converts. With its doomed love story told in glances and whispers, the film is even more experimental than his 2011 Cannes-winning opus The Tree of Life, as Kurylenko's single mother Marina uproots her life in Paris to be with Ben Affleck's Oklahoma engineer. So strange is the film, Affleck barely speaks a word, with the story driven by Marina's hushed voiceover.

It was literally a miracle ... I kept thinking after I went back home, 'It's not only in books and movies, it happened to me!'
Olga Kurylenko on being discovered

Arguably the first Malick film not to garner the reverential praise reserved for his work, it's still a phenomenal opportunity for Kurylenko - just ask The Tree of Life's Jessica Chastain what being a Malick muse can do for your career.

Oddly, Kurylenko's audition consisted solely of a close-up of her face. "I didn't have to say anything. And then he said, 'OK, I want you for the part!'" It was as if Malick was staring into her soul. "I think Terry is just very perceptive. I think he can see through people, and if they can be those characters or not."

Pretentious as it sounds, Kurylenko talks about a "telepathy" between her and Malick, and speaks as if he had cast a spell on her. "I did anything he asked me and I didn't question him. I remember he asked me to open and smell the garbage, and get into it - and I did it. I knew it's going to look like a masterpiece afterwards. That moment didn't [even] end up in the movie! There were tonnes of moments where I'd be like 'What?' But for Terry, you'd do it."

What about the film's theme; would she give up everything for love like her character? "Ideally, I think I would," she says, smiling. "I'm a bit of a romantic. In theory! But then the mind steps in and starts talking."

Given she has two marriages behind her - to French fashion photographer Cedric van Mol (which ended in 2004, after four years) and to entrepreneur Damian Gabrielle (which lasted little over a year) - it's good to see she hasn't been put off affairs of the heart.

Now she's with actor Danny Huston - son to director John and half-brother to Angelica. The pair met on the 1950s-set TV show Magic City, now in its second season, in which she plays a former nightclub dancer to his Miami mobster. Despite their 17-year age gap, she seems enamoured of Huston, having been introduced to his family circle. "I met his sister, his nephew, his mother," she says excitedly.

Raised in the small town of Berdyansk by her art teacher mother Marina - her parents divorced when she was three - Kurylenko was certainly not weaned on Hollywood. It was only when a modelling scout talent-spotted her on the subway, while on holiday in Moscow, that her life changed. "It was a miracle," she says, rather dramatically. "It was literally a miracle in my life. I kept thinking after I went back home, 'It's not only in books and movies, it happened to me!' What are the chances? It's crazy."

Within three years, and still only 16, she was invited to leave her homeland and join Parisian modelling agency, Madison. "If that didn't happen, I know I would have rotted away in Ukraine!" she says, again rather dramatically. "I wouldn't have had much future in that little town. I had to get out. I was very lucky. My mum said, 'It's a really good chance. If it doesn't work, you come back in a week and you will have seen Paris'."

While Kurylenko began to gain work for the likes of Roberto Cavalli and Victoria's Secret, she views modelling now without a shred of sentimentality. "The lifestyle taught me survival," she says.

Needing a more solid base, she made the move into film with 2005's French-language tale The Ring Finger - "a wonderful little art movie" but it didn't help her a jot when she approached an American agent with it. "I gave him a copy of the film, and he said, 'I'm not even going to watch it. I don't watch French movies.' He said, 'Do an English movie first!'"

She did, winning roles in the video-game adaptations Hitman and Max Payne. "It's so hard," she sighs. "When you see a film like Hitman come along, you grab it. 'It's an English-speaking movie! I'm doing it!' Seriously, I was happy." Not least because it led to her starring opposite Daniel Craig in Quantum of Solace - although she says it was never an ambition to be a Bond girl. "Bond wasn't my goal. It just happened, which was a great thing. But it was never a goal."

With her career now on a fast-track to the A-List, she's recently completed the thriller November Man, opposite another ex-007, Pierce Brosnan, while also sinking her teeth into the intriguing-sounding Vampire Academy: Blood Sisters. And she's fully aware of why she's doing them.

"If you do these big blockbusters, suddenly people know who you are. That's how it works. It's the industry. You have to do that. That's what people watch." Maybe she's not so weird after all.

thereview@scmp.com

To the Wonder opens on Thursday

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