Olga Kurylenko can’t help that she’s beautiful. But the star of Seven Psychopaths, Magic City, and To the Wonder is much more than eye candy.
This feature appears in Complex's October/November 2012 issue.
It’s an exceptionally hot early August morning in Los Angeles, and Olga Kurylenko is running late for ballet class after breakfasting on a seasonal veggie omelette at BLD. Luckily she’s pushing a rented Fiat two-seater, a vehicle that’s perfect for whipping in and out of Beverly Boulevard traffic without signaling. Olga is all about switching lanes, whether those around her are ready or not.
“Sorry, that’s what I call ‘French driving,’” says Kurylenko, referring to the vehicular tactics she learned during her years living in Paris, where the narrow roads and laissez-faire approach to traffic stops inspire aggressive maneuvers. From ages 16 through 29, the Ukrainian-born stunner worked in the City of Light as a successful model. Signed to the world-renowned Next agency, she walked runways, graced the covers of magazines like Marie Claire, Vogue, and Elle, and heated up photo shoots for Chanel cosmetics and the lingerie company Lejaby.
Though she danced as a teenager, the 32-year-old’s skills have gotten rusty. Now she’s on the verge of dancing full-time again in the upcoming second season of the Starz original series Magic City, so her moves need to be on point.
Magic City depicts the shady, often criminal ways by which Ike Evans (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) oversees the Miramar Playa hotel circa 1959. Kurylenko plays Ike’s trophy wife Vera, a former showgirl who hops back on stage in the next batch of 10 episodes. With only a few weeks left before she starts five months of shooting in Miami, time is of the essence.
Training for the former Bond Girl (see: 2008’s $586 million worldwide grosser Quantum of Solace) is about to intensify, as will her work schedule. Days before she leaves for the M-I-A, Kurylenko will head to the Venice Film Festival to attend the worldwide premiere of To the Wonder, Terrence Malick’s new enigmatic drama. Then, in October, shortly after Magic City’s shooting schedule gets underway, Seven Psychopaths opens. This darkly comedic, ultra-violent crime flick features Kurylenko as a mobster’s main squeeze. Next April, the gorgeous actress will get even more exposure when she stars opposite Tom Cruise in the IMAX-ready science fiction epic Oblivion.
The pint-size Fiat bobs and weaves through the congestion easily. At a stop light, while idling in the middle lane, Olga realizes that Dance Arts Academy, an inconspicuous studio on La Brea, is off to the right. As the light turns green, she zips across the right-turn-only lane, cutting off an unhappy driver in the process.
During the 10-minute drive from BLD to Dance Arts, she playfully exclaims “French driving” five times. “If someone stops us, I’ll just start speaking in French,” she says, her eyes hidden beneath a pair of dark sunglasses. “That probably won’t work, but it’s OK.”
In America some people say, ‘Why do you want to make money so much?’ And I say, ‘Well, I guess you didn’t starve as a kid.’
If anything, she could try manipulating the fuzz in Russian. Olga was born and raised in Berdyansk, a port city in the Ukraine that was financially strapped when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Her mother, Marina Alyabusheva, was an art teacher. She divorced Olga’s father shortly after Olga was born, opting instead to share child-raising duties with Olga’s grandma, Raisa. Resources were scarce in their household—a small, four-room flat often crowded with extended family looking for a place to sleep. While other kids were enjoying sweets and treats, Kurylenko was living on potatoes and cabbage.
Olga still remembers making her first $30 as a 15-year-old model in Moscow. “That was the first time I ever held dollars in my hand,” she recalls. “I’d never seen dollars before in my life. And then I got $100, and it kept increasing. I would send my mom cash. What made me happy was that, suddenly, I could help my family.”
No wonder Olga isn’t afraid to admit that money is a driving force behind her career. “When you grow up without it, you want to have it,” she says. “It’s funny, in America some people say, ‘Why do you want to make money so much?’ And I say, ‘Well, I guess you didn’t starve as a kid.’”
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.”
When Olga Kurylenko asks you to dance with her, you’d better be limber enough to keep up.
At Dance Arts, Olga offers words of encouragement to her passenger, who’s more Borat than Baryshnikov. She scopes the baggy T-shirt and Jordan basketball shorts and laughs before throwing out a last-chance lifeline. “You really don’t have to do this if you don’t want to,” she says. “I’ll understand. Ballet isn’t as easy as you may think.”
Guessing that her dance partner has all the grace of Frankenstein’s monster on a Quaalude binge, she offers a final word of advice: “Try to follow what I do.”
Rushing down the hallway of the ballet studio, Olga points out a large group of grade-school-age girls in black leotards practicing in an adjacent room. “If they can do it, you can do it, too,” she adds before stepping into the beginner-level class. “Just try to keep up.”
In early July, photos from the Oblivion set showed Olga and newly divorced Tom Cruise kissing—in character, of course. 'Those shots were clearly from the set,' she says. 'There was a spaceship next to us!'
For her part, Olga won’t have to worry about keeping up with preconceptions anymore. With her multilayered Magic City character, she’s found the perfect balance between sexiness and drama. The show’s benefits have spilled over into Olga’s off-screen life too. She’s currently dating co-star Danny Huston, whom she met during Magic City’s first season. Their relationship was able to withstand a flurry of gossip items in early July, when photos from the Oblivion set showed Olga and newly divorced Tom Cruise kissing—in character, of course. “Those shots were clearly from the set,” she says. “There was a spaceship next to us!”
Inside Dance Arts, there’s no flying saucer alongside Olga and her sweaty dance companion—only a ballerina’s practice barre. Clad in tight red Abercrombie sweatpants and a black tank top, she's in the zone, cracking a couple smiles but mostly staring into the wall-size mirror and nailing every move with piercing intensity. Impressively limber, she lifts her legs above her waist with ease while her cohort can barely raise his ankles halfway to his knees.
The humiliation is short-lived. After a grueling 45 minutes, Olga looks every bit the professional dancer, casually chatting with the instructor. Her “friend,” on the other hand—gasping, his T-shirt soaked with sweat, and a damp towel draped around his neck—looks like Rick Ross after a decathlon.
Back in the Fiat, Olga keeps a straight face. “You did great,” she says with a radiant smile. “That was brave of you.” It’s enough to make any guy think he’s ready to sign up for the next Swan Lake audition—but not everybody switches lanes so easily.
WATCH OLGA'S BEHIND-THE-SCENES VIDEO:
ADDITIONAL CREDITS: (STYLING) Leila Baboi. (HAIR) Campbell McAuley (MAKEUP) Spencer Barnes. FIRST, SECOND, & SEVENTH IMAGES: Top by Lisa Marie Fernandez / Pants by adidas by Stella McCartney / Harness by Chromat. THIRD & FOURTH IMAGES: Top by Lisa Marie Fernandez / Pants by Nike. FIFTH & SIXTH IMAGES: Top and shorts by adidas by Stella McCartney. NINTH IMAGE: Bodysuit by Olima Atelier / Sneakers by Nike / Bracelet by Gilda Grey. TENTH IMAGE: Tops by Lisa Marie Fernandez.