How Sofia Boutella is defying all norms as a creative

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For someone who is playing the monster in a film called The Mummy, Sofia Boutella is incredible to look at with her striking features and sculpted physique. But in a career that has appeared explosively sudden, the elegant 35-year-old – whose family fled to Paris in 1992 following the outbreak of civil war in Algeria – has managed to dodge being typecast as another gazing ingénue, instead landing roles as gutsy, feisty and complex women.

Having already wowed the world in the latest incarnation of the horrifying Egyptian bogeyman, Sofia is set to cement her star status further in Atomic Blonde where she plays Delphine, a French spy who becomes romantically involved with Charlize Theron’s British agent. “I’m humbled to have been able to be on set with so many great actors at this stage in my career,” she says. 

“I never imagined things would move so quickly. But working with Tom Cruise and Charlize Theron and other great actors was like being in film school every single time. I feel lucky and blessed.”

Though it may appear as if she has appeared out of nowhere to land at Hollywood’s top table, the dancer turned actress has been working with some of the biggest names in showbusiness for some time.

After moving to Los Angeles from France in her mid-20s, she toured extensively as a principal dancer with Madonna and studied acting for six years before making her big-screen breakthrough in 2012’s StreetDance 2. This was followed by a turn in Kingsman: The Secret Service as the amputee assassin Gazelle, then alien warrior Jaylah in Star Trek Beyond.

“It’s pretty phenomenal and it feels like I haven’t stopped working over the past two years,” she says.

“It’s exciting for me to suddenly be on a set with some of the top people in the business, and find myself doing scenes with actors I once dreamed about working with as a teenager.”

She may have starred in some of the biggest films of the moment, but it still only scratches the surface of what she is capable of as an actress. Her impressive physical agility – she studied gymnastics as a child, even making the French national team in her teens – makes her ideal for roles that require such athleticism. Atomic Blonde also required a level of intimacy, in particular for one very steamy sex scene with Charlize Theron.

“She made things very comfortable for me, especially in those intimate scenes, and it wasn’t that hard to work with someone who’s so gorgeous,” purrs Sofia in her melodic French accent.

“I really appreciated being able to have the chance to work with someone who is a very strong and generous woman.”

The characters in her two latest films could not be more different. In Atomic Blonde, she must be a mysterious and alluring femme fatale; in The Mummy she was simply an abomination. Considering her natural beauty, the latter was only possible with an exhaustive daily transformation.

“The biggest difference [between the roles] was not having to spend four hours in make-up every morning to become that character,” she explains. “It’s a pretty intense process, but it also adds so much depth and feeling to the way you become this monster

“One of the main reasons I wanted to do the film was because they made the mummy a woman. I think it’s important to explore why a woman like this becomes a monster and understand the terrible things that turn some people into monsters. She’s a metaphor for what can happen when people suffer through very bad things.”

Sofia herself is no stranger to adversity. And though she talks happily about her childhood, it can’t have been easy having to leave her native Algeria during a civil war and then adapt to a new life in Paris.

It was difficult at first, but then I grew to love French culture and started to get involved in gymnastics and dance,” Sofia explains. “I loved expressing myself through that and I hoped that I would be able to make dance my life.”

Growing up in a creative household – her father, Safy, is a well-respected jazz musician – her love of the arts is inherent. Her mother, an architect, encouraged her to “learn something artistic outside of school”, and Sofia smiles broadly as she reminisces how her mother dropped her off at her first dance class aged five, expecting her daughter to take it “very seriously”.

“And I did,” she says. “My home was a wonderful environment which gave me this beautiful feeling about wanting to do something creative with my life. They never really had to push me, either. I wanted it so badly for myself.”

As a dancer, she studied ballet and modern dance, often earning money by break-dancing in the streets of Paris during her youth.

She modelled for Nike, starred in a Michael Jackson video, and of course performed extensively with Madonna for around eight years, both on stage and screen.

“Madonna is an amazing person. It was out of this world to be able to work with her. Like nothing you can ever predict or imagine,” she gushes. “Yes, she has this ‘out-there’ large persona, but she’s the sweetest, most down-to-earth woman. She’s taught me so much about the world and about myself. She shaped a lot of who I am.”

With such dazzling achievements and starry connections, it would be easy to assume that Sofia’s transition to acting was a shoo-in, but that was not the case. During her six years studying acting, she attended many auditions and was “rejected a lot”.

“I was probably a little crazy and naive, but I had a lot of passion and ambition and I think that helps in taking you where you want to go in life. I know it did for me,” she says, smiling.

“For about two years, I was always hearing ‘No’, which begins to make you lose your confidence. I didn’t fit inside any box. Casting directors couldn’t figure me out. They thought I was Brazilian; I was half-black, half-white. They didn’t ‘get’ me.”

Inevitably, when acting roles did start coming along, she was cast for her skill set rather than her looks, acting talent or charisma – though arguably she has all of these things in abundance. The bottom line is that her physical prowess gives her something very few actresses possess: in StreetDance 2, her break-dancing is breathtaking; in Kingsman, her athleticism makes her a feisty and formidable foe; and in Atomic Blonde, she is utterly compelling, her gymnast’s poise and dancer’s grace ever present.

Even in the midst of her great run of success, she is a little wary, wanting to keep developing her acting for fear of being typecast.

“There’s a danger in that even though I have the physical ability to play these characters, I don’t want that to be all I do,” she says firmly. “I’d like to do more drama and maybe some comedy, and not always rely on my physicality.”

With her mark officially made on Hollywood, and a very healthy bank balance thanks to her new blockbuster credentials, she can afford to take her time with the next phase of her profession. And if nothing else has been established during her comparatively short acting career, she has shown the courage to follow her instincts.

Atomic Blonde opens on August 3.

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