Plus Director Michale Boganim On Bringing Chernobyl To The Screen
With a lead role in Terrence Malick's upcoming untitled film and a supporting role in Martin McDonagh’s "In Bruges" follow-up "Seven Psychopaths" (read what she has to say about those projects here), Olga Kurylenko’s star is firmly in the ascendant. But these roles also mark a shift away from the looking-hot-while-things-blow-up parts in "Max Payne," "Hitman" and, of course, "Quantum of Solace" that first brought her to our attention. During our interview at the Marrakech Film Festival, we asked whether this new direction was an accident or something she had planned.
“It was deliberate.” she said, instantaneously. “I had to refuse a lot of parts that were like [those] because at some point I didn’t want to do too much of that. It’s very hard to refuse some things, especially good productions and great actors, …but I was like ‘I’ll play against him but in another [film].’ It was my breakthrough and I loved all of those films and I’m grateful, but you know it has done what it had to do for me.”
But though her heart may lie with her more auteur-driven work to come, we’ll soon be seeing her in a couple more genre pics, including “The Expatriate” with Aaron Eckhart. Shot while “Land of Oblivion” (more on that below) was on a shooting hiatus, Kurylenko said “I just thought I wanted to do a little bit of action again… And I really liked working with the director, Philippe [Stölzl], he’s very good, he comes from theater and I could feel that the way that he staged everything was very deep work.” Of her role she said, with disarming honesty: “At first it was an American role so I thought maybe I can play an American girl… but with my accent it was tough. In the end I’m a foreigner,” she sighs.
Busy as she has been of late, when we reminded her of the 3D Chinese fantasy epic “Empires of the Deep” in which she plays a mermaid, which has yet to be released, she actually looked startled. “Oh god, I forgot about that! That was a long time ago, what’s going on?”
What’s going on is that it seems to have been in postproduction for a long time. Originally slated for a 2011 release that’s clearly not going to happen now, ‘Empires’ was shot in 3D in China and was apparently a “strange experience” for the actress. “I acted at some point with a guy who only spoke Chinese to me and I had no idea what he was saying. It had a mix of people, Americans, Europeans and Chinese… so I don’t even know what language it’s in.”
Kurylenko took the role “…because of the 3D” she said. “I had seen already 'Avatar' and I was like, oh my god, it’s amazing and something like that would be great. And the costumes! My costume and makeup took five hours every day. I had to come in at 4:00 am and the girls would paint on me, and stick all of these things to me. I had these wings like a fish['s fins] and a tail and it was very cool. I just couldn’t understand what anybody was saying but I learned very quickly. In those five hours they were teaching me Chinese.” Attention, menfolk: Kurylenko in body paint – perhaps we should have made that the headline?
Refreshingly candid and unapologetic about both her decision to try and take on some more challenging roles and her love for a good old-fashioned dress-up session, Kurylenko also spoke about “Magic City,” the '50s-set STARZ series on air next year in which she stars with Danny Huston and Jeffrey Dean Morgan.
“I just spent five months in Miami. I got to wear some great frocks. The most beautiful clothes ever, '50s, it’s stuff that made me feel like such a woman. I think over those five months I never put a pair of pants on, because it made me want to dress like a woman. And suddenly I had super long red pointy nails… I grew them out because they didn’t have fake ones in those years, they were very pointy and bright red. Red lipstick, red nails.”
But a million miles away from the vampish glamour of the Miami Beach mob scene in the late '50s, is the role she plays in the film she was in Marrakech to promote: “Land of Oblivion” (read our review here). Set immediately prior to, and then 10 years after the Chernobyl disaster, Ukrainian-born Kurylenko responded to the script on a very personal level. “I thought, I have to tell this story. I remember it. Of course as a child I didn’t understand what it meant – people who were not scientists or doctors couldn’t understand. I was five years old then and I just remember not being able to play under the rain anymore. I had to wear a hat if it was raining because [my Grandmother] said ‘your hair will fall out’ because the rain is radioactive. And that’s when I remember ‘radioactive.’ I only knew it means ‘bad’ and your hair falls out. I do vaguely remember [people] speaking about babies being mutated, like horrors, but I think it was traumatizing me and they didn’t want to scare [me]. So I actually learned about it much later.”
It is pretty much an open secret that the Chernobyl disaster, and the full scope of the devastation it caused, was the subject of a high-level cover-up, the effects of which can still be felt today and which made the story feel even more urgent to Kurylenko “… when I read this [script] I thought, ‘what are other films I’ve seen about Chernobyl?’ and I thought ‘I’ve seen none. There isn’t anything.’ …My worry is that they [the authorities] kind of succeeded if we don’t hear more of these stories. So it’s good that there are filmmakers like Michale that are interested in it.”
Later we got to sit down with the film’s director, Michale Boganim, herself. Israeli-born, her motives for bringing “the first fiction film about Chernobyl” to the screen may seem obscure. But for her previous film, documentary “Odessa, Odessa,” which detailed the experiences of Russian Jews leaving Odessa for New York and then Israel, she spent a lot of time in Kiev “where Chernobyl is very present” she said. Indeed, she even went on one of the Chernobyl tours (Kurylenko’s character in the film ends up as a Chernobyl tour guide). “Many of the people who worked [on the tour] used to be from [the region]. The first woman I met was from there, another, the security guy [showed us]: I got married here… I’m from here…”
This ‘lost home’ aspect of the film is the theme to which the director related the most; during the many interviews she conducted as research, she discovered “the greatest trauma was not the radioactivity, it was the fact they had to leave their home.” Boganim herself was uprooted from her homeland at an early age and therefore, she said “I Identify very strongly with the trauma of these people who left very suddenly their homes…You can never come back to what was there before.”
But while the themes may be universal, the setting is specific, and Chernobyl is a divisive issue. “We showed film in Kiev and it was very controversial there,” she observed, a lot due to a kind of heroism myth that has sprung up around Chernobyl. “[There is] the idea of the motherland and that people sacrificed their lives for the motherland and it was not like that, some people hid, some people went crazy, some people killed themselves after Chernobyl.”
And it’s not just in the former Soviet Union that it was felt to cut a little close to the bone. “At [the festival in Tokyo] it wasn’t allowed to run in competition. [They were] afraid because of Fukushima. But the response from the public was great – they want to know.”
With Kurylenko mentioning that the “poetry” of Michale’s script had been one of the things that attracted her to the project (“I thought if the story must be told it must be told this way…with a poetical beauty”), Boganim was no less impressed with the actress’s work on the film, although initially, she laughs, “I didn’t know who she was.”
“Olga read the script and she called again and again [saying] ‘I want to do it'…I was skeptical in the beginning, you know, a Bond girl…but she really convinced me. [People thought she would be] too glamorous, too beautiful, but really she did an amazing job, and accepted the makeup and hair where she’s destroyed physically, not made to look beautiful. [Being Ukrainian] she didn’t have to invent the character. People are surprised [by her performance], a lot of the people who were suspicious before.”
And it’s true, we called Kurylenko’s performance a “small revelation” from the former Bond Girl, and a hopeful sign of good things to come. As for the film, it’s a small story, but important for what it represents: hopefully the beginning of a canon of work that can break down the wall of silence and misinformation that has built up around the disaster, and memorialize its victims in a more honest way. In Boganim’s words “There are a hundred films to be made on Chernobyl.”