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By Ken Rivadeneira | May 1, 2013 | People
Kurylenko plays Vera Evans, a half-Dutch, half-Gypsy former dancer, on the hit series Magic City.
The actress costars with Tom Cruise in Oblivion.
A pivotal moment in The Ring Finger, French director Diane Bertrand’s moody 2005 film about a young woman who becomes an object of possession, involves Iris—the girl in question, played by Olga Kurylenko—accepting a gift. Her beguiling employer bridles her feet with two crimson pumps, binding their leather straps around her ankles as she marvels at how perfectly they fit her. She must always wear them, he says, even when he’s not watching.
Few people in the US have viewed this film, let alone heard of it, with the exception of perhaps Miami Beach Cinematheque members and other art-cinema aficionados. Yet it remains Kurylenko’s fondest movie role. As the Ukrainian-born model-turned-actress describes the legitimacy she feels the abstruse production gave to her early career, her voice trembles. “When I did The Ring Finger, I wanted to do theater,” she tells Ocean Drive. “I didn’t think, Oh, I’m going to play a pretty girl and walk around,” she says. “I played a very normal and simple peasant girl, and I was nothing like a Bond girl—nothing sexy at all.”
Less than a decade in the film industry, Kurylenko, 33, is preparing for her biggest year as an actress. A week after our interview, she embarked on a global promotional tour with costar Tom Cruise for Oblivion, the $120 million post-apocalyptic epic that opened on April 19—just a week after the debut of another project, To the Wonder, an esoteric drama directed by Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life) and costarring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams. And the second season of Magic City, the Starz series created by Mitch Glazer (The Recruit, Lost in Translation) in which she plays an empowered socialite in 1959 Miami Beach, is in post-production, set to hit TV screens June 14.
Until now, Kurylenko has been known largely for her role in 2008’s Quantum of Solace as Camille Montes, a new breed of Bond girl who, as the antithesis of the sex kitten archetype established in the ’60s and ’70s by the likes of Ursula Andress and Jane Seymour, rough-and-tumbled against hordes of mercenaries with Daniel Craig’s 007. Even though her role was low on sex—not even a love scene—as Montes accompanied Bond through various locales on a mission of vengeance, Kurylenko caught the fancy of male moviegoers worldwide. That same year, she appeared on the covers of Maxim and FHM, among other glossies that projected her sensual image—one of exotic allure combined with a no-qualms-about-ass-kicking self-assurance. (A “marriage-threatening” kind of beauty, Mitch Glazer humorously notes to Ocean Drive during a phone interview.)
Kurylenko makes light of all the attention placed on her fierce physical appeal. “I do sports and work out for action movies because I have to. I’m a bit lazy if it’s just for myself.” She punctuates this statement with a sheepish giggle, the kind one might suffer after letting slip an embarrassing secret about oneself.
Knockout beauty aside, Glazer says her success is no accident. “The year she’s having, most actors would cut off a finger for,” he says, alluding to her work ethic. “Olga’s at the pinnacle of her career, all on her own shoulders. No nepotism, no ‘My father was an actor or producer.’ This is a woman who is really self-made.”
The actress grew up in Berdyansk, Ukraine, at a time when that country was on the brink of economic collapse, raised by her single mother (who threw out her father when she was 3), and with few prospects of getting out of the small coastal city on the Sea of Azov. “Mine was a town to leave if you wanted a big career, like many towns in many countries. I mean, whenever it’s a small town there are fewer opportunities—people go to big cities, of course,” she says. “In Berdyansk, there’s nothing apart from the beach and vacation. Like Miami, it’s a holiday place: It’s nice and warm in the summer, and we have tons of tourists, and in the winter it’s dead.”
Mother and daughter struggled in those days, sometimes running out of money for food, even going hungry at times. “Everybody was worried about surviving,” Kurylenko recalls. Although she enjoyed the fantasy of becoming an actress and joined the school theater, “I never thought I was going to make a job out of it, especially in those times. It was impossible. Acting wasn’t considered a job that would allow you to survive.”
Her life took a storybook turn at age 13, when a modeling scout spotted her in a subway station while she was in Moscow on vacation with her mother. By age 16, Kurylenko was on her way to Paris and was signed to Madison Models (now New Madison), launching a career that soon included covers for Elle, Vogue, and Glamour, and work for such brands as Bebe and Victoria’s Secret. After her success in the fashion world, her desire to act resurfaced. “The moment I came to Paris, I realized [Western] cinema was much more advanced,” she says. “I thought, Aha! Here it’s possible [to have a career in acting]. Well, why don’t I try it?”
Paris was also the first time Kurylenko dealt with the downside of being a successful model. While not a household name, her star was rising—which she feared would limit her chances of being taken seriously as an actress. “I said to my modeling agency guys, ‘Stop sending me around, I’m not going to fly around the world anymore, I have to concentrate on something else.’” She laughs, then parodies her agents. “‘Are you crazy? Your career is going so well right now.’ ‘Exactly, that’s why,’” she responded.
Auditions followed, Kurylenko scored a part in Seal’s music video for his 2003 single “Love’s Divine,” and then The Ring Finger came along. “I met the director, did the audition, and that’s how it started.”
Glazer knew he wanted to cast Kurylenko in Magic City when her agent sent him a copy of The Ring Finger, and eventually reconceived the character of Vera Evans on the show to carry that “soulfulness” he saw in Kurylenko, whose performance in that film relied primarily on body language. Vera, initially meant to be a “shiksa goddess, a kind of blonde trophy wife,” became a post-World War II displaced half-Dutch, half- Gypsy ex-dancer searching for a place to belong amid Miami’s 1959 glitterati. “It’s weird to say this as a writer, but the things Olga does without dialogue, the look and those eyes—it’s given Vera more depth and more power than I could have dreamt,” Glazer says. “I’m just projecting, but there’s a sense of longing for a place to belong that I see in the character of Vera and in Olga, and I write to it.”
It’s a longing she expresses several times during the conversation, tied specifically to that initial accomplishment with The Ring Finger. “I always wanted to go back to that very first film,” she says. “I came into this industry to be an actress—or to try to be an actress. I don’t want to be a—” she cuts herself off. “You know, a celebrity. I didn’t come into this world for that reason.” Almost every up-and-coming actor repeats this Hollywood trope, yet one believes it coming from Kurylenko, who talks about acting with the same intensity as when discussing her love for her mother or the challenges of growing up in Ukraine. “It didn’t come, that opportunity [to act]. I looked for it,” she notes. “It was my choice; I wanted it.”
But when you’re part of a franchise as huge as 007, it’s nearly impossible to escape celebrity. Of her role in Bond movies, she says, “Not that I didn’t have a great time on Bond, which I have to point out—because I had a great time,” she says. “[But] nobody wants to be typecast.”
Fans of Kurylenko’s no doubt cheered the news of her casting as Julia in Oblivion, directed by Joseph Kosinski of Tron: Legacy. An enigmatic stranger, Julia crash-lands on Earth and enraptures Tom Cruise’s Jack Harper as he grapples with discovering that his futuristic society is not what it appears to be. “This film is more unreal, surreal [than Quantum of Solace],” she says, citing the high-tech sets and props as major departures from what she’s used to seeing on a soundstage. Rather than relying solely on digital trickery, Kosinski and his team built fully functional vehicles such as a “Bubbleship” that immersed the actors in the action; suspended on a gimbal (a device that rotates freely on an axis), the Bubbleship had Kurylenko spinning 360 degrees as it simulated flying at high speeds. “Oh, it was terrifying! And I wish I could have had a stunt double, but I had no choice because they were filming my face so close. I even asked, and they said, ‘Uh-uh, girl, you gotta go in there.’”
On working with Tom Cruise, Kurylenko is cagey: “I forgot everything. I’m in oblivion. No, I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” she teases with a taunting snicker. It’s not hard to understand the reluctance to comment on the experience beyond the typical promotional speech—it was a great experience, and she learned a lot. For one, details about the production of Oblivion were shrouded in extreme secrecy until its premiere; for another, rumors of the A-lister setting his sights on Kurylenko have been the fodder of gossip rags and blogs since Oblivion was still in production, stoked by news of Cruise’s divorce from Katie Holmes.
Those tall tales continue swirling in spite of Kurylenko’s relationship with actor Danny Huston, whom she met on the set of Magic City here in Miami and who earned a Golden Globe nomination for his work on the show. Although the pairing is hardly a secret (“They are a striking couple,” Glazer says), Kurylenko seems least comfortable discussing the dynamics of maintaining a Hollywood romance. “It’s not easy when you travel around. Some people manage it,” she points out. “It requires more scheduling, let’s put it that way. And it depends how good one is at scheduling.”
Having been twice divorced (to fashion photographer Cedric van Mol and entrepreneur Damian Gabrielle), Kurylenko still sees herself raising a family. “But you never know. Maybe I’ll just end up adopting kids. We’ll see.” Kids are a cause particularly dear to Kurylenko, who in the past has worked with the UK-based charity Hope and Homes for Children, which serves to end the institutionalization of orphaned children in Central and Eastern Europe and Africa by placing them with foster or adoptive families. “In Ukraine, they would have tons of kids who live by the hundreds in these big institutions where there’s only one person who looks after them. So they get no love, no family feeling, nothing,” she says, remembering her visit in 2010 to one of those state orphanages. “People develop all kinds of psychological problems when they grow up like this. Especially because they’re not touched, they’re not hugged. All that is very important.” In yet another show of sincere vulnerability, the actress admits that her career has taken away time from her work with the organization. “I’ve been so concentrated. It’s true that I was very busy establishing myself,” she says. “But it’s easier to support others when one is very established, and I think one also has more power to change things. It was very important for me to know where I stand.”
Accepting the bridles of fame without becoming possessed by it, that’s where she stands.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID SLIJPER/TRUNK ARCHIVE; craig blankenhorn/starz entertainment (magic city); universal pictures (oblivion)