Interview: Olga Kurylenko

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Stylist Team
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If there’s one actress who sums up the phrase independent woman, it’s Olga Kurylenko. Stylist spends an afternoon of art gazing with one very tough cookie

Words: Julia Maile, photos: Rex Features

Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Mid-way through my interview with Olga Kurylenko I’m having a mini panic attack. I’ve suggested we meet at the current exhibition at London’s Saatchi Gallery; Gaiety Is The Most Outstanding Feature Of The Soviet Union: New Art from Russia. Olga grew up in the Ukraine (formerly part of the Soviet Union) and her mum is an art teacher, so we can talk art and acting. What I didn’t realise is what it would feature; images such as the one we’re now confronted with – a two-foot-high cancerous penis. Talk about a conversation starter.

ABOVE: Olga with Tom Cruise on the set of Oblivion in New York

But the 33-year-old actress, who’s here to talk about her lead role in reclusive director Terrence Malick’s latest film To The Wonder, doesn’t make a fuss. She arrives alone, wearing a fine red cashmere knit and skinny jeans, with a black woollen coat tied tightly around her waist. She appears slight and fragile, almost birdlike, with pale, luminescent skin. Physically she’s very different to the role that shot her to international fame, as the tanned, muscular Camille in 2008 Bond film Quantum Of Solace. I catch other visitors glancing at her, doing a double take, m then staring openly. “Nobody ever comes up to me,” she tells me later. “But some people look, so I don’t know if it’s because they think they know me.” Or maybe it’s just because she’s just incredibly stunning.

In To The Wonder Olga plays Marina, a free spirit who falls in love with handsome American Neil, played by man of the moment Ben Affleck. Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem co-star; Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastain, Michael Sheen and Amanda Peet didn’t make the final edit. The film is classic Malick; a lyrical series of situations with little discernible storyline, full of dreamy sequences and captivating shots of nature. Malick’s restless camera follows Olga as she skips through the golden wheat fields of Oklahoma. “I’m like a kid,” she says, laughing. “I think that’s maybe why Terry picked me, as I’m not really self-conscious.”

Olga appears in almost every frame, and her whispered narration is some of the only dialogue. The film elicited both cheers and boos when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, so I wonder whether playing such a pivotal role made her feel more responsible for its success or failure? “I actually never thought about it, but yes that’s true. But it’s not something that’s going to wear me out. I’m not a person who takes it that seriously. I let go, what’s done is done. You cannot be liked by everyone.”

Born survivor

We’re met with a series of photographs showing men and women perched on the edge of the windowsills of Soviet tower blocks, seemingly about to fall. “This is the face of Russia and the Ukraine,” Olga tells me. “It symbolises so much. People feel that no matter what we do, how far we go, we don’t have hope.” Does she think it makes people more reckless? On the contrary, Olga says, “They’re trying to survive. They don’t go off and go crazy. There’s more of that here [in Britain] because when you have comforts in life, you become reckless because you’ve got too much. When life is so hard, you care about other things.”

ABOVE: Olga in Bond flick Quantum of Solace

Olga is speaking from experience. Born in Berdyansk, Ukraine, she was raised by her mother, Marina, and grandmother, Raisa, in the small four-room flat they often shared with their extended family. “People say I was starving. I didn’t eat caviar but I wasn’t starving. We mainly ate cabbage and potatoes.” This modest start fostered a steely determination to succeed. “I’m a feminist and never wanted to depend on anyone or stick to a certain kind of life because I have no choice. I would have died.” Gesturing to the people in the photos, Olga asks, “Do you think they think about culture? About music and art? They don’t. They think about bread and what they’re going to feed their kids. And I didn’t want to have to think about that.”

Olga’s feminist side seems at odds with some of her role choices. She’s undeniably sexy. And early appearances reflect it; she bared all in her debut film, 2005’s French indie psychodrama L’Annulaire, and again in 2007’s action flick Hitman. Since then, she’s turned down these types of roles, preferring to stay out of the spotlight rather than compromise. “I’m not against playing a sexy role again but it is good to juggle and change. People kept telling me, ‘You’re going to get stuck in this Bond girl thing’, and I was like, ‘Really? Well I guess I will try not to.’ So far I think I’m happy with my role choices, but that doesn’t mean that tomorrow I’m not going f*ck it all up.”

If her next role is anything to go by, there’s little chance of that happening. Having shaken off the Bond tag with her captivating performance in To The Wonder, she’s entering blockbuster territory again. Beating off competition from Noomi Rapace, Brit Marling and Olivia Wilde, Olga won the lead role of Julia in this year’s sci-fi thriller Oblivion, opposite Tom Cruise. The experiences on the two films couldn’t be more different. “In Oblivion, you become a character once you step on set, whereas with Terry’s film, you’re constantly a character. I was afraid to read or watch other films because I didn’t want to go elsewhere [in my mind].”

A small role in last year’s Seven Psychopaths gave Olga a taste for comedy so next up she wants to do a rom-com. How does she feel about her Seven Psychopaths co-star, Sam Rockwell, describing her as “one of the boys”? “That’s a compliment,” she says. “Boys are cooler. If they have a competition and someone is better than them, they’ll respect and accept it. I don’t have that many girlfriends because it takes a particular…” she trails off. “Type of person to be friends with you?” I offer. “Yeah. I’m not friends with people from the industry; my friends are from when I was nobody, they’re not friends because I did a Bond film.”

ABOVE: Olga at a screening of To The Wonder last year

Working with Malick made Olga realise who her true friends are and that she could find happiness in simplicity. “One August I did two vacations. First I spent a week at a very.…” she considers her words. “Big place. I was extremely bored. Then I went to Provence with my friends who have nothing. We walked through the hills and ate saucisson and fromage. And that was so much better; true happiness is about nature and people who have heart and want to talk about stuff rather than buying bags.”

Feminist Agenda

Despite being in a relationship with her co-star in the US drama series Magic City, Danny Huston, Olga remains fiercely independent. “In Russia – and I mean any ex-USSR country – there’s this belief a woman cannot ever achieve anything or make her own money unless she goes with a rich man. It always made me so angry, so I decided to prove them wrong. I will make my own money, not depending on anybody. I wasn’t married to anyone influential or even anyone who earned money.” Twice divorced, Olga married French photographer Cedric Van Mol in 2000, then American entrepreneur Damian Gabrielle in 2006.

Olga attributes her feminist streak to her time in France. She moved to Paris at 16 to work as a model and has lived there on and off ever since. The move changed her completely. “Women’s rights were very developed there and I remember travelling back to the Ukraine and the way they looked at women shocked me. I’ve thought about speaking out about feminism but you know, who am I to do that? It will never change.”

At this point Olga checks herself. “I shouldn’t go on, it’s going to be the most horrible interview. I’m really bad at them because I’m too open with the truth.” Personally I’m really enjoying our discussion; Olga is intelligent, honest and interesting, speaking passionately about issues she feels strongly about, then lightening the mood with her easy laughter and recommendation for the Best. Lip-balm. Ever. [Montana Emu Ranch Lip Therapy in cherry almond flavour.] Not once does she glance at her watch or try to hurry things along, so it feels more like having coffee with a friend than a famous actress. She seems confident and content with her life, but is she? “I’m a happy person because I allow myself to have moments of melancholia. I’m very sensitive, everything is written on my face. If I have a problem, I’ll say it. If I don’t like someone, I’m not going to pretend I do. I don’t know how else to be. People might criticise, but at least you know who you are.”

To The Wonder is out 22 February; Oblivion is out 12 April