i-D’s Tom Seymour meets Olga Kurylenko to chat Malick, spontaneity, childhood and modelling.
After meeting her for an audition in Paris last year, Terrence Malick cast Olga Kurylenko in his latest film To The Wonder. She stars as Marina, a bipolar French woman uprooted to the plains of Oklahoma and compelled to allow her troubled relationship with Ben Affleck’s Neil completely unravel. Said to be based on autobiographical experiences, Malick – once married to a French woman – directed the film without a script and with barely any dialogue, encouraging his actors to improvise almost every scene. Kurylenko tells i-D about the experience.
When you auditioned in Paris, the scene didn’t involve any dialogue or script to read from. How did you respond to such a spontaneous style of direction? In a way the audition was a good reflection of Malick’s approach to filmmaking. It was good preparation. You have to use your body and your face to portray everything. You end up feeling like an animal.
Have you ever acted like that before? No, but I totally embraced it. I loved it. I could film like that all the time. You never know what you’re going to do next when you’re directed by Terrence. The scenes and the elements are giving to you at the last moment, so you can’t think on them, you can’t act them, you have to rely a lot more on your instincts. Everything is spontaneous. I think it gives a real freshness to the movie, and it’s very refreshing for an actor as well, as its such an unconventional way of working.
Terrence Malick was married to a French woman when he was young. Did he have a very clear idea of who your character was, or did you discover her together? Terrence explained my character to me through his words. He never gave me a script. He would tell me through stories about her past; where she comes from, what she went through, the pain she was carrying inside. And then I had to read three novels – Anna Karenina, Karamazov and The Idiot – as my homework. They replaced learning a script I guess. We would sit together and discuss certain moments in the novels, and I started finding myself using that material when I was on set.
Malick is almost a mythical figure in the film world. How did he differ from any expectations you may have had of him before you met? I try not to judge people before I meet them. I’m always quite open. But I couldn’t expect anything of Terry because I knew nothing about him in real life, as no-one else does. I was surprised to discover how warm he is. He makes you comfortable right away; he welcomed me like a friend, or like part of his family almost.
How long did it take you for you to gain a real sense of what he wanted in the performance? Very little time, because Terrence makes you want to open up; talking to him is very therapeutic. He has this psychic part to him, like he’s seeing through you. It’s as if he understands what you’re thinking without you saying it, like he’s reading your mind. I tried to hide things from him, but soon you have to give up. I was very in tune with Terry in order to be able to do all of the things he asked of me. We had to be connected with him all the time, because you never know – at any given moment – what he’s going to come up with. I just abandoned myself for him and for this movie.
Have the themes explored in the film – faith, love, commitment – impacted on your own beliefs? It didn’t impact on me personally because I had to be this unstable person for two and a half months. There was no script, so it’s not just one scene that you’re going to play at some point and then it’s out of the picture and it’s done. During the two months of filming, Terry would keep returning to similar states of mind and you don’t know when he’s going to ask you to be there, so I had constantly had to prepared for the darkness my character possessed, and the folly of her situation. She’s either in a manic state or she’s down, and that’s a disturbing state to be in. I became concerned at times that I was not going to be able to come out of it, that I was becoming her.
You were brought up by your mother in rural Ukraine before being discovered on the Metro in Russia as a 13-year-old. What principles did you learn in your childhood that you retain now? I had a great childhood in a way. I was lucky because I was surrounded by love. Even though I missed one parent I think I received more love than some kids with two parents get. That’s very important for stability, more so than wealth I think. I learned a lot from my mother; she tried to teach me something throughout my whole life. She had me go to music, art, dance and drama schools. I was constantly busy trying to absorb all of those things. I was used to living very simply and that’s what I’m content with. I don’t really need much, because we never had it.
What’s your advice to a young Ukrainian girl who wants to pursue a career like yours? Learn a foreign language, because without another language it’s not going to work. Acting is one thing, but getting out of the country is a completely different thing. Getting out of the country and living somewhere else is difficult. I got lucky because I had modelling, and that allowed me to buy my apartment in Paris, feed myself and be independent. But without that, I doubt whether I would have been able to make it as an actress.
To The Wonder is in cinemas today.
Text: Tom Seymour