Most people don’t work with Madonna, dance at the Super Bowl, and star in viral Nike commercials before hitting it big as an actress. Prior to booking her first major English-speaking acting gig in Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, however, French-Algerian dancer Sofia Boutella already had fans making Youtube compilations of her best work. The 32-year-old left her dancing career at its peak because, as she puts it, “I knew acting was calling me, whether I was good or not it didn’t matter. I had to do it.” Boutella spent two years auditioning before catching her break in Vaughn’s upcoming film, a time she realizes is short for most aspiring actors.
Adapted from the 2012 comic book series The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, Kingsman also stars Colin Firth, Michael Caine, Samuel L. Jackson, and newcomers Taron Egerton and Sophie Cookson. Originally male, Boutella’s character is a double-amputee with blades for legs and the right-hand woman of Jackson’s villain Valentine. After wrapping the film, Boutella worked on the independent movie Jet Trash.
Now based in Los Angeles, Boutella’s English is nearly perfect, but a few phrases slip past her and have to be explained. For example, “stage fright” (she doesn’t get it but thinks being nervous reminds you that you care) and “dailies” (a total perfectionist due to dancing, she couldn’t bear to watch herself until the final cut).
Interview sat down with the actress, smaller and more delicate in person than her ass-kicking performances would suggest, while she was in New York for only 24 hours.
KAYLA TANENBAUM: Can you tell me a little bit about your audition for Kingsman?
SOFIA BOUTELLA: It was actually pretty insane. I woke up one morning at about nine am and I had emails from my agent, saying there’s this audition. It was the same day at one pm. The next day they said, “You’re flying this afternoon to audition for Matthew Vaughn. Pack for five months because if you book it, you’ll stay, and if not you’ll fly back the next day.” I remember I read with Matthew and he said, “Okay, good, now we just need to talk with agents and producers.” He said it to me casually. At the same time, part of me was terrified to unpack.
TANENBAUM: What was the training like? How did your dancing background play into it?
BOUTELLA: It made it easier because I was able to reproduce what I observed from the stunt man, but it was still extremely hard because hitting with a lot of strength is another story. I could physically reproduce the movement; I understood where the balance was. Because I had the blades, what made more sense was tae kwon do because it’s very brutal and it showcases the legs. It would have been a shame if she had used a gun or she had used her upper body because of the fact that she’s a double amputee and she has those swords at the end of her legs.
TANENBAUM: In the comic books, your character is a man. How did that inform your performance?
BOUTELLA: At the audition, actually, when Matthew booked me, I wasn’t aware of the novel. I didn’t have time to do proper research. He booked me not based on the novel at all, so I thought, “There must have been something good that I was doing. I don’t want to be too influenced by whatever was written there. Let’s create something completely different now that we have upgraded from a man.” [laughs] I think she’s very much a woman, very feminine.
TANENBAUM: She is very feminine, but she’s a killer. It’s an interesting mix.
BOUTELLA: She’s a killer, but I wanted to bring a sweet side to her, something also protective and nurturing.
TANENBAUM: I see that in your chemistry with Samuel L. Jackson’s character. What was the best part of working with him?
BOUTELLA: He put me at ease. He made me feel comfortable. He was like, “It’s just fun, you know?” He didn’t just say it; he also behaved that way. He was so relaxed and he enjoyed being with me and acting with me, so I did the same thing.
TANENBAUM: A lot of your co-stars had never acted professionally before. Did you guys talk about that?
BOUTELLA: Taron [Egerton] and I did. I was under Sam’s wing and he was under Colin [Firth]’s wing, and we both said to each other, “Do you realize where we are?”
TANENBAUM: What was the mood on set like?
BOUTELLA: It depends. There would be times where it would be stressful because sometimes, technically—for light, camera, and all of that—you have to work fast. A lot of the time, Sam and I would chat in between, talk about the business, acting, about life in general. We’re just two people who have the same job. I was front-row observing masters at their craft.
TANENBAUM: Do you feel weird watching yourself? Have you seen the whole film?
BOUTELLA: I think my physicality stands out more than the drama for my character. I wouldn’t want to be thought of as action being all I can do. I’m really lucky to have done that kind of action movie. Matthew [Vaughn] is the best. He’s clever. He doesn’t spoon-feed his audience just because it’s action. He gives you everything: You have all the adrenaline you can hope for, but it also makes you think. The movie is fun, but it’s cleverly written. You’re not bored. A lot of the time you watch an action film and it’s highly entertaining but the story is so…chewing gum. You have a brain ache at the end. Not this film.
TANENBAUM: What was the best lesson you learned on the film?
BOUTELLA: To have fun. It is fun. I walked in there a bit nervous. I earned it, I auditioned, but a part of me wondered if I was going to be good enough. A lot of that comes from my dancing background because in dancing it’s never good enough. You push to excel, to do something amazing. In acting, I walked in with the same mentality. I’m trying my best now to just have fun. We’re playing make-believe.
TANENBAUM: But when you dance, you perform live. You only get one shot.
BOUTELLA: Yeah, but we rehearsed a lot. It was the same with Kingsman. We rehearsed for three months, and we workshopped until we came up with the right identities. When I was on tour with Madonna, same thing, we rehearsed for three months. It’s very intense and then once you are on the road—it’s muscle memory at that point.
TANENBAUM: What did you learn from Madonna?
BOUTELLA: Discipline, the importance of repetition. When you work with her, she has a story behind the steps. We’re not just dancers; she always considers her dancers actors. When I worked with her, she always explained to me why that piece existed, what she wanted to portray. That made me perform the piece on a whole new level than when we were just counting and being musical. I knew why I was doing what I was doing, and it’s the same with acting. It’s not just words. You have to mean what you say.
TANENBAUM: What’s more pressure: a red carpet appearance or dancing in the super bowl?
BOUTELLA: At this point, a red carpet appearance because I haven’t trained. Hopefully I get used to it.
TANENBAUM: Since you’re one of the faces of 2015, what do you hope to accomplish by 2016?
BOUTELLA: I would love to work with a voice coach. I’ve never worked on my American accent. I’ve never worked on voice, period. It’s something I would like to expand, to find where I can go. It’s something that I don’t feel comfortable with completely yet. Even though I can have conversations and watch movies [in English], it’s still not an automatic process in my brain. The same way you go and put a costume or makeup on, I think your voice sits there as well. I’m sick of talking like me. I want to talk like the character.
TANENBAUM: What’s your dream role?
BOUTELLA: I would love to try comedy but I want to do more dramas or more action films before that. I think comedy is really hard, that’s why I say that. I would love to do theater. I wouldn’t want to be stuck, to go back to back with action films. I have physical abilities so I can do that, but I don’t want to stay in my comfort zone. I want to be given something that is nothing like me because that’s the beauty of acting. People I look up to, like Sam, Daniel Day Lewis, Meryl Streep, I want to become like them. There’s no one movie that looks like the other. You really just see the character, and that’s so inspiring to me. Maybe not by 2016… [laughs]
KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE WILL BE RELEASED ACROSS THE U.S. ON FEBRUARY 13.
For more from the 15 Faces of 2015, click here.