Olga Kurylenko got goosebumps in her first audition for Terrence Malick. It wasn’t simply that the reclusive auteur was considering her for a leading role in “To The Wonder.” Having flown out to meet him at his Austin, Texas base, she also marveled at Malick’s uncanny intuition. “I felt almost a telepathic connection,” insists the 33-year-old Ukraine-born actress, who burst onto the scene as a Bond girl in 2008’s “Quantum Of Solace.” “From the questions he was asking me and the things he was saying to me, he seemed to know everything about me and my past.”
At the time, Malick didn’t even have a script, so Kurylenko seems to have become his muse in weaving the tapestry of “To The Wonder”‘s longing narrative, which, by all accounts, is also steeped in the director’s own autobiography. Malick’s sixth feature traces the journey of Kurylenko’s melancholic Marina as she’s uprooted from Paris to the plains of Oklahoma with her daughter after falling in love with Neil (Ben Affleck), only to see their relationship slowly unravel. Starring alongside Kurylenko and Affleck are Rachel McAdams as the high-school sweetheart who re-enters Neil’s life and Javier Bardem as a local priest grappling with his faith.
Matt Mueller: Given Malick’s reputation for cutting actors out of his films, as he did with Rachel Weisz on this, or slashing their parts, as he did with Adrien Brody on “The Thin Red Line,”are you relieved not to have suffered the same fate?
Olga Kurylenko: I had a feeling it was going to be like that because I was the first one to arrive and to shoot by myself for two weeks, and then I was the last one to leave. Everyone else would come and go; I was the only one who was there from the beginning to the end. Also, Terry told me this is Marina’s story.
What else did he tell you in your first meetings with him?
I can’t really remember but, as homework, he asked me to re-read the big Russian novels: “The Idiot,” “Anna Karenina” and “The Brothers Karamazov.” I did, and then we spoke about them. I told him he had the most Russian soul of anyone I’d ever met, more than any Russian. I’ve never met anyone who knows Russian literature like he does. What he liked was how the characters, especially in Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, have qualities of being candid and sometimes shy but at the same time they can explode and do these atrocious things. He likes the insolence that characters in Russian novels have, and also how they almost take pride in destroying themselves. He wanted that in my character.
Did he give you a back story for Marina?
She’s a dreamer. I told myself that she probably wanted to be a dancer, but he didn’t tell me that. He told me certain things, like that she’d had a difficult past and that she’d had a disappointing relationship, before she meets Neil [Affleck], with the man who’s the father of her daughter. There’s a voiceover in the beginning where I say, “I never thought I could love again.”
Did you identify strongly with her?
Marina is a bit like a scared animal. She’s very shy; she doesn’t express herself through words – she feels. That’s why her relationship with Ben’s character is so difficult: she expresses everything through her heart whereas Neil is so shut down. It kills her that he can’t show his feelings because she’s pure love.
She’s meant to be based on Michelle Morette, the French woman Malick was married to for almost 15 years. Did he ever discuss that with you?
I heard that as well but I never asked him about it. It’s his life and I respected him too much to ask him that question. Whether it’s true or not, I almost preferred not to know.
Can you describe what it was like to be directed by him?
From the very first audition, I felt like I understood what he wanted from me. I could feel it without him saying it. It’s almost like he communicates telepathically. He doesn’t really speak too much. On the set, he would give us pages every morning so you know what you’re going to be doing during the day but there were always various possibilities. He could have made five different movies out of what we shot, with different beginnings, middles and ends.
There’s not much dialogue in the film. Was it difficult creating a character who speaks so little?
It’s difficult to express yourself with your body, but therefore interesting. It didn’t bother me, I loved it. And we did have text. He would give us pages in the morning. Sometimes it would be like 30 pages and other actors would be shocked: “I can’t learn all that, we’re shooting in an hour!” He’d say, “You don’t have to.” It never stressed me because I knew he didn’t need that. It wasn’t about learning the words, it was about absorbing the essence like a sponge.
Didn’t you ever find it frustrating?
Sometimes we would start filming and I would feel the urge to speak and he would be like, “Shhh! Don’t say it.” I’d say, “But you gave me all these things…” and he’d go, “The silence is so much better.” That’s why his movies are the way they are. He loves you to think it rather than say it.
Do you have a favorite scene in “To The Wonder”?
My favorite scene is cut! And it’s not one, there were like 10 of them. I did a lot of confession scenes with Javier. That was dialogue! Terry didn’t mind me speaking then! I loved those scenes. And there were more fights with Ben, horrible, terrifying fight scenes. Apparently there was a version where it was filled with those and they tested it and it just terrified the audience. It was too hard, they had to make it softer. When we had fights, I remember I had bruises on my wrists. From what we shot, it was clear to me that Marina was meant to be quite hysterical; if he’d kept them all in, it would have been a very different view on this woman.
Malick is a mystery to most people because he never does interviews. How did you find him?
Warm, caring, sweet. He told me I was like his daughter. I would ask the First A.D., “What are we doing today?” and he’d say, “I don’t know, go ask your Dad.” Everybody was making a joke of it because he was so protective of me.