Actors who worked on Terrence Malick’s latest film, “To the Wonder,” fall into two camps: those who made it into the final cut, and those who didn’t. Luckily for Ukrainian-born actress Olga Kurylenko (best known for playing a Bond girl in 007’s 2008 outing “Quantum of Solace”), she falls into the former, unlike Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastain, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet and Barry Pepper — all of whom fall into the latter.
Editor’s Note: This interview originally ran during the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. “To the Wonder” opens in theaters, on On Demand and on iTunes, April 12.
In “To the Wonder,” which had its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival Monday, Kurylenko stars as Marina, a soul-searching Ukranian raising her young daughter alone in Paris who falls in love with traveling American Neil (Ben Affleck) and moves to Oklahoma with him. At first overjoyed by the change of scenery and the chance to start a life with Neil, Marina soon becomes disenchanted with it all as her relationship with Neil begins to unravel. Rachel McAdams co-stars as a past love of Neil’s who comes back into the picture once Marina returns to Paris after failing to get Neil to commit and marry her (thereby allowing her to live permanently in the U.S.).
The morning after the premiere, Indiewire caught up with Kurylenko, who demystified the Malick process and revealed what she makes of the film.
From a Bond girl to Terrence Malick’s latest muse — that’s a path many probably didn’t see coming.
Well, I kind of started with films that resembled Malick films more than the Bond one. My first film was this French indie film called “The Ring Finger” — “L’Annulaire,” au francais — and it was based on this Japanese novel. I mean, of course, it’s a different director, it’s a different way of working — there was a script. But, you know, that’s what I started with. So, I never saw my career going toward action in that way. It wasn’t necessarily my purpose; it just happened. At the same time, it was great that it happened, because it was big and it was commercial and people suddenly knew who I was. Because I remember with that little film, in America I couldn’t find an agent. I remember they told me, “Well, we don’t watch French movies.” I went to see someone with the DVD, and I said, “But I have the lead role.” And they said, “We don’t care. What have you done in America?” I said, “Well, nothing.” So I knew I needed that to work if I wanted to work internationally. But because people saw Bond and never saw the others, they thought that that’s what I came here for, I guess. But I always wanted to do films like Terrence’s films — not that I would never do a film like a Bond film again. I realized that it’s a good balance, and that that’s the secret of it, is to have a balance of both. You can’t do only small independent movies — or only big. People don’t really watch small movies, unfortunately. I mean, Terrence Malick is different because Terrence Malick is a master.
He has his following.
Exactly. He’s very special, so his position is different.
Were you a big fan of his work prior to taking this on?
Yes, I was.
How did he discover you?
I first did an audition in Paris where he wasn’t present. The casting director was just filming, I guess, all French actresses in Paris. And after Terrence watched my audition, he asked to meet me. So then I flew to the U.S.
How did that meeting go?
It went well! It was fascinating. He was present at the audition, and it was all about the eyes and the expression. And then we just spoke. He asked me questions that were fascinating because it felt like he already knew who I was and the experience I had in my life. So I thought, “How does he know that he could talk to me on those subjects?” It was like he was psychic. He understood who I was. It was so precise and so deep that I was just fascinated.
So you were sold.
Absolutely. At some point I was scared to think. I thought, “He’s reading my thoughts.”
What did you receive initially when you first auditioned? He’s known for not working from a script.
Well, the only thing I knew was that my character was connected to nature, loved nature very much, loved children. That’s kind of all.
Yeah, but that’s just for the audition. Later, of course, I was given much more. Once I got the part and we were talking about it, I got much more and I knew exactly who she was, and all her fears and all her aspirations. But, yeah, initially, it was just that. Nothing more. It was just about being connected to nature. Which a lot of his characters, especially feminine characters, seem to be. But for him, it’s very important, because he wants to show this force that is stronger than us.
In helping you prepare for the role, what did Malick have you do, if anything?
He had me read three Russian novels: “Anna Karenina,” “The Idiot” and “Brothers Karamazov.” “The Idiot” and “Anna Karenina” I had read before, so I just re-read them, so that was good. It was easier, because they’re really big novels. And it was really the best thing he could have done, because everything I needed for the film I got from the books. So that was his script, you see? He didn’t need to give me a script. Everything I had to understand and inspire from was in the books. And after that we spoke a lot about the characters — especially the female characters — in those books, and what they go through, what their relationships are with other women, and with rivals, especially. What he liked in Russian novels was that often the rivalry between women was so noble. There was no cattiness or anything. It was almost like they tried to love their rival.
But there’s none of that in this film.
None of that, but we filmed it. We filmed scenes with Rachel, and it was very much like that. There was a moment where Rachel comes to our house and visits. And I know it’s that woman. She comes back because she loves him, and she wants to talk to me. And we talk, and we talk — there was dialogue. At the same time, it’s a pity, because you do so much and you know everything can’t end up in the film. But they were wonderful scenes, I think. We would just talk, and he almost told me that I had to love her, you know? That I have love for her, because I understand. It’s such a pure and beautiful way of thinking and taking things. And my character, he wanted her to be candid and at the same time insolent, and to portray these two things together. And that’s something that a lot of characters in Russian novels have. They’re both.
Yes. And also Aglaya and — what’s her name — Nastasya Filipovna. They have these things.
Following the screening last night, both you and Rachel told the audience that many of your favorite scenes had been cut. Did he warn you that a lot of what you thought would make it into the film, wouldn’t?
No [laughs]. I think we know, but he doesn’t talk about it.
What do you make of his cut? Are you happy with it?
Well, apart from me being in it, I think it’s a very deep film. It’s heartbreaking. Because it’s not an easygoing relationship that’s portrayed, and it’s very sad, but yet it’s so true, because these things happen. But it teaches us a lot about love, I think. It’s about love in all its forms. I was surprised to see what scenes didn’t make it in the final cut. I honestly expected a harder picture, a darker picture.
Yeah. You revealed last night that your character goes through an extremely dark period over the course of her journey, much of which isn’t reflected in his cut.
Maybe it would have been difficult to watch. It’s heartbreaking but then there is light.
It’s deeply romantic.
Exactly. So maybe those scenes were too harsh. One would have to ask Terrence. But yeah, I was surprised to see that.
Did he screen it for you privately, or did you just see it in Venice, where it had its world premiere?
No, I saw it before Venice because I had to have interviews before the premiere. My agent had a private screening for me in Los Angeles.
Have you spoken to Terrence since seeing it?
No, it’s funny, because I didn’t have time. And actually, I hear that he’s already filming his next project, and I didn’t want to disturb him. He’s so concentrated when he’s in a project. But I really want to. I’d like to give him a call and just talk to him. I mean I have to talk to him [laughs].
You’re not gonna let him have it are you?
[Laughs] Well, I would ask if he’s planning to cut five more different movies from all the material he has. He has so much material!
Given that Malick never does press, you’re the one forced to answer for the film. How nerve-wracking is that?
Well, yeah, I’m the only one who spoke about the film. And now I have to explain to people what it is about. I wonder if Terrence could do it. It’s so hard to describe a Terrence Malick movie. You can’t just make a one-sentence plot. It’s impossible. I feel that I carry a lot on my shoulders, but I get what I deserve, I guess. Because I’m there most of the time, so now I’ve got to pay for it.