Actress Sofia Boutella opens up about taking a chance on tricky films
Even at the highest level, acting is still about playing dress-up. “When I was little, I used to put costumes on,” explains Sofia Boutella, relaxing in her hotel suite holding a cup of honey and lemon. “I wore my mum’s stuff. I would wear big dresses and try to fit in her heels, and put a hat on that didn’t fit me. Stuff like that. It’s more fun when you can look the least like yourself as possible.”
If it’s a trick to help preserve her anonymity as she climbs the Hollywood ladder, the Algerian-born actress has managed that pretty well so far. She was the high-kicking, blade-footed assassin in Kingsman: The Secret Service and the white-faced alien scavenger Jaylah in last year’s Star Trek Beyond.
Now co-starring with Tom Cruise, she’s just as unrecognisable as the title character in Universal’s new horror reboot, The Mummy. Playing Princess Ahmanet, the mummified Egyptian royal who plans to wreak havoc on the world after her slumber is disturbed, it’s the perfect disguise. But Boutella has no desire to hide on screen – a former dancer for Madonna, she’s a total perfectionist.
“I was doing this training for The Mummy, and I filmed myself,” she says. “Watching it, it didn’t look right. I thought: ‘How can we fix that?’ And that’s what I do, when I watch the end result.”
Directed by Alex Kurtzman, a former screenwriter whose credits include Star Trek and Cruise’s Mission: Impossible III, The Mummy is the first in a planned series of horror movies reviving the classic Universal monsters of the past. The so-called Dark Universe will see the return of Van Helsing, The Wolfman, The Invisible Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon and next, in 2019, the Bride of Frankenstein.
For The Mummy, Boutella admits it was an “exhausting” process – certainly compared to playing Jaylah in Star Trek Beyond. “The Mummy is something else. The stages where you see her, and meet her, and she regenerates – that requires research and tests, and that was quite tiring. I think it’s one of those films where you can always be one inch from being the worst film ever. It’s finding that fine line.” What does she mean exactly?
“Clichés can happen so easily with horror movies in general, and with a Mummy movie. It’s been done before,” she says. The whole team worked incredibly hard, she adds, to find something “unique and relatable” about a character first played by Boris Karloff in 1932’s The Mummy.
“I loved the journey, massively, because of how complicated it is.” Of course, being alongside a mega-star like Cruise is always going to help.
“He’s wonderful,” she says, before apologising for gushing. “I consider myself very lucky to be working with him. He knows the craft massively, and you can ask him any question about anything – sound, lighting – and he knows it. His movie references are on point. He really is passionate. He loves his work.”
The pair even traded Dubai stories.
Cruise famously filmed a climbing stunt on the Burj Khalifa for Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.
“He was telling me how he shot that scene,” says Boutella, who filmed Star Trek Beyond in the emirate. For her part, she was immediately taken with the city, its architecture and history. “It’s very interesting politically, Dubai, what happened for the country. When they discovered oil, the country boomed.”
She’s also spent time recently in Budapest in Hungary, filming forthcoming espionage adventure Atomic Blonde alongside Charlize Theron.
“Budapest itself looks more like Berlin in 1989 than Berlin does nowadays,” says Boutella, who plays a French Secret Service agent. “I think there is a law in Budapest where you cannot build to a certain height; the criteria is very strict and I think that’s what kept the city looking the way it does. It’s a very charming city.”
Boutella clearly has a curiosity for the world around her, a fascination that started early. Now 35, she has spent much of her life on the road, after her parents moved to Paris when she was 10.
A dancing gig with Nike led her to joining Madonna’s dance team for her worldwide Confessions tour.
But gradually, she felt the pull towards acting after scoring a role in StreetDance 2, which actually left her uncomfortable. “I felt I had my butt between two chairs. I didn’t like the feeling.”
Since her transition away from dance, Boutella has not just made blockbusters – with small movies like Jet Trash and Tiger Raid also on her CV. In the case of the latter, which was shot in Jordan, she played a kidnap victim who turns the tables on two mercenaries.
“I don’t mind jumping into something obscure and quite tricky,” she says. “I don’t want to just play characters that I like or situations that I agree with. Life is not like that, is it?”
• The Mummy opens on June 8