In the late ’90s, a new passion entered Olga’s life. With modeling money in her pocket, she began frequenting a local Parisian cinema, seeing up to three movies a day. She fell in love with the work of her favorite director, David Lynch, citing his nightmarish 1997 flick Lost Highway as a formative viewing experience. But it was Breaking the Waves, the devastating 1996 drama from controversial filmmaker Lars von Trier (her “second favorite director”), that changed her life. “After I saw that, I wanted to do what Emily Watson did in the movie,” says Kurylenko of the Academy Award–nominated actress’ performance. “I thought, if acting can lead you into playing a part like that, then I want to be an actress.”
For several years, Kurylenko balanced modeling gigs with acting classes, yet her runway hustle led casting directors and producers to view her as an object rather than an actress. “I got parts offered to me, but I didn’t want to play them because they were too trashy,” she says. “Being a model, of course, people try to get you into these overly sexual parts.”
What’s interesting is to be sexy but not know it.
All it took was one person (a woman) to see beyond Olga’s beauty. Independent French filmmaker Diane Bertrand cast her in the lead role for her 2005 art-house psychodrama The Ring Finger, an ambiguously disturbing, erotically charged, David Lynch–esque affair. In a brave performance that earned her Best Actress honors at the Brooklyn Film Festival, Olga played a young woman who works for a scientist specializing in preserving people’s keepsakes. “It’s still the movie that I’m the most proud of,” she says.
Feeling good about her prospects, Kurylenko moved to New York for a year to give American movie acting a shot. But in one of her first meetings, she had a rude awakening. “To go for auditions, you need to be represented by an agent, so, first, I had to get one,” Olga says. “I went to see someone, and I said, ‘Look, I played the lead role in this French movie,’ and he said, ‘We don’t watch French movies. It doesn’t matter. French movies are not important here.’”
As if that wasn’t brutal enough, he stuck the dagger in a little deeper, adding: “You’re never going to work in America if you don’t work on your accent.”
Heading back to Paris to continue working there, Kurylenko set out to prove that agent wrong. By 2007, she scored a big Hollywood role, playing the pierced, tatted-up sexpot Nika Boronina in the gory, action-packed video-game adaptation Hitman. Olga made a lasting impression in one memorable sequence where she walks across a hotel room in a thong.
Somewhere around that time Kurylenko sensed that her career was going in a problematic direction. “What’s interesting is to be sexy but not know it,” she says. “You’ll be in a restaurant, and some girls will walk in and you can tell that they really want to be sexy. It’s written on their faces because that’s all they want to show. There’s a fear that one might not look further. People don’t think that you’re interested in showing something else. I understood that there could be a danger in that.”
One year after Hitman’s release, Kurylenko landed the role that instantly immortalized her name alongside the likes of Halle Berry and Ursula Andress: the part of Camille Montes in the James Bond flick Quantum of Solace. Her scenes with Daniel “007” Craig—whether defying death in a high-speed boat chase or pistol-whipping a Bolivian military general—proved that she possesses a rare combination of stunning beauty and ass-kicking physicality. The label “action actress” was added to her “sexy actress” reputation.
She had to make a choice. “Everybody was telling me, ‘Now you’re going to get stuck in this Bond Girl image,’” says Olga. “Suddenly my goal was to not stay a Bond Girl my whole life. So I was very careful, and I rejected a couple offers where I didn’t want to play another sort of Bond Girl character. I don’t know what was a better choice: to take those roles after Bond where I’d just be the sexy, pretty girl, or to not take the jobs and not appear in the public eye at all? I chose the second option. I think I did the right thing. I could have been more visible right after that movie, and maybe I’d even be a bigger star at this point, but I didn’t want that.”
When the producers of Magic City approached Kurylenko last year about joining the cast, they initially wanted her to audition for the character of Lily Diamond (played by Jessica Marais), a promiscuous, often bare-breasted girl. But Kurylenko was much more interested in Vera, who was originally written as an older, American, more buxom blonde—but still, a less sexual part. “It would have been so easy for me to fall into that and go the Lily route,” she says. “I really have to protect myself. At this point, I shouldn’t be doing those kinds of overly sexy, frequently naked roles.”
Save for her brief yet memorable appearance in Seven Psychopaths, which finds Kurylenko rocking a bikini while trading lines with a hilariously unhinged Sam Rockwell, her roles will emphasize acting over eye candy. To the Wonder affords her the chance to show off her dramatic chops next to Oscar winners Ben Affleck and Javier Bardem. As for Oblivion, the actress isn’t spilling any beans just yet, but the Cruise billing, prime April release date, and presence of TRON: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski promise a sci-fi blockbuster without any T&A.
The variety of Olga’s upcoming projects is satisfying to a girl who loves to switch lanes. It’s also gratifying to know that one of her earliest haters has been eating crow for half a decade now. “People were telling me that every actress in town was trying to get the Hitman part,” says Olga. “That’s when that agent said to me, ‘OK, now I want to represent you.’” She promptly refused his offer. “It was the principle,” she says. “And I still have an accent, of course. So he was wrong.”