Film

Interview: Settlers‘ Sofia Boutella on Imagining Life on Mars, the Choreography of Fight Scenes and What Madonna Taught Her

Algerian-born actress Sofia Boutella has had many occupations in her nearly 20-year career. After years of training in nearly every style of dance, her big break came when she was discovered by Madonna, who made Boutella a backup dancer on one of her tours and eventually cast her in a couple of the performer’s videos. Michael Jackson was set to hire her for his UK residency that never happened, but she ended up having to bow out of working for him regardless because Madonna extended her tour and couldn’t let Boutella go.

Her dramatic and powerful dancing style made her a natural to be an action star, and she soon began popping up in films like Monsters: Dark Continent; more notably as the knife-legged Gazelle in Kingsman: The Secret Service; as alien Jaylah in Star Trek Beyond; opposite Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde; and as the villainous Ahmanet in The Mummy, with Tom Cruise. Boutella returned to her dancing roots, starring in writer/director Gaspar Noé’s Climax, and more recently in the visually stunning 2020 Foo Fighters video “Shame Shame” and the Sundance offering Prisoners of the Ghostland, opposite Nicolas Cage.

Settlers

Image courtesy of IFC Midnight

Her latest film is Settlers, a science-fiction adventure (written and directed by Wyatt Rockefeller) about isolation and family, in which she plays Ilsa, a wife to Reza (Jonny Lee Miller) and mother to Remmy (The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince), all of whom are among mankind’s earliest settlers on Mars, who seem to be playing a losing game of survival. When a stranger (Ismael Cruz Córdova) shows up from a distant settlement and decides he wants to stay, the power dynamic shifts as the members of the family decide how to treat this new addition to their living situation. It’s a film about expectations, morality, entitlement and sexual politics, and like most great science fiction, it’s the subtext that is the film’s most dynamic layer.

I got a chance to speak to Boutella recently about the film and her career, and her insight into all aspects of her work did not disappoint. Settlers is now available on VOD. Please enjoy…

Before we dive into this film, I have a quick question about something else you did fairly recently, which was the Foo Fighters video. I’m obsessed with it because it kind of looks like a horror film, but it’s funny to be watching Dave Grohl being part of an almost-balletic dance. He’s mostly a support for you, but how did you approach that and get involved with that video? Did it take Dave a while to get comfortable being a part of something like that?

He was made for it. He’s always up for something, and you know from his whole career that his energy is so endearing. He was 100 percent up for it. It was all his idea. It was a dream that he had a long time ago, actually, that he put on camera for this video. He was great to work with and so much fun, and I love that project and the dance aspect, the depth of it. It was also the last job I did before we went into lockdown. Dave Grohl, it doesn’t get better than that.

I think it takes advantage of you as an actor as much as it does a dancer. It’s really effective.

Thank you.

What do you remember about those early conversations you had with Wyatt about this film and character, and what did you latch onto about Ilsa?

I loved the complexity of how she was written. I was intrigued when I read the script. I remember reading the script and having my own moral questions about what I would do in these circumstances. How complicated she was and her depth was always fascinating to me because she doesn’t come across as the most maternal mother, but she’s definitely wildly protective. You can see that love, and I love that complexity. That’s the aspect that drew me to the project, for sure. I don’t like when characters are given pre-made thoughts; I like when things are being questioned in that way. I was questioning my own morals as I was reading it. I find this circumstance very interesting.

What do you remember Wyatt telling you as far as what the film was about? I don’t mean the plot; I mean what it was really about underneath. There’s not a lot of dialogue in the movie, but there’s a lot going on.

What was interesting to him was to project and anticipate a future that we have with the direction we’re going in on Earth. He raises some questions that I had thought about, even before being a part of this, about the environmental backdrop that the movie is facing and considering where we are right now and where we might end up if we don’t have this place any more. In a way, it’s a love letter to planet Earth. Having filmed the movie and understanding the isolation and hostility that our characters are in, it’s nothing like anywhere we want to be, knowing how beautiful this place is.

When I spoke with Wyatt last week, I told him that this was one of the loneliest films I’d ever seen. How did you show us this isolation and the idea that you may never see anybody every again outside of this little tribe?

Yeah, it’s nothing I’ve ever faced before, and I’ve never been put in a situation like that. It was about spending so much time with it. You keep your mindset in that environment. It was also helpful to be in that part of South Africa, when the conditions were very isolated, very solitary, remote, cut off from the rest of the world, as much as we could—not quite as much as our characters. No matter what happens to us, we will continue to survive at all costs. Even that solitude would not kill us, even though it would be a hard way to live. I think our species would always adapt no matter what. It’s in our DNA to survive. When you meet Ilsa, she’s holding that secret and darkness, and that’s why she’s protecting Remmy from it. She doesn’t want her to know how it was on Earth. She doesn’t want her to get used to anything, because she knows it was more beautiful than what she’s currently facing. Remmy doesn’t know any better, so she’s happy with what she has, and I don’t want her to know much about the past. I want her to care about what she has in front of her. She’s raising her to be tough and strong, kind of like how she is. When you meet older Remmy, you actually see those characteristics in her.

The last couple of things I’ve seen you in, including Climax and the Sundance film Prisoners of the Ghostland, have really pushed you as an actor. Are you starting to look at new roles in terms of what will push you the hardest as an actor?

I’ve always been in that place, to be pushed and challenged, coming from a dance background. I’ve never met a dancer who settles into something, that doesn’t want to push and challenge themselves. I want to believe that everybody is that way. I feel that way and grew up in an environment that is that way, and I’ve always looked for those parts in films. I want to value a project and value the writing and the people I’m involved with, and with my agents and my team, I’m curating those choices. I’m a big fan of movies; I find them to be so inspiring, and they shaped my childhood and adulthood; they’re still shaping me and I hold them in such a dear place in my heart. I would want to appreciate them as an actress the same way I would as a member of the audience, in my choices in films. I was blessed to start up very quickly when I stopped dancing, they were huge projects with big budgets, but I always knew that I’d go back to do indies and smaller projects that would have moral issues that would give me a place to exercise various colors in these characters.

Is there a difference between fight choreography and dance choreography, other than music?

It’s completely similar. Having had a dance background totally helped me embody those characters. When I did Kingsman, I’d never done any fight choreography before—it was my first time. But some people thought I was a stuntwoman because I took to it so well, but it was actually hard for me to hit another human being; I had to rehearse after each take or each rehearsal or each punch [laughs]. When you dance, you have counts, which help you be very sharp and specific and altogether. For this, there were no counts in fight choreography, but the rhythm is very important, and for me, having established a rhythm is what helped me memorize the fight, and I had a song in my head. Every movement would have a rhythm to it. But even when you aren’t doing fight choreography, the physicality and rhythm of a character is very important—the way you walk and sit. I use my dance background all the time. The rhythm of a fight scene is like music for an audience and even the actors, if it’s done right. I associate that sound with music. It’s helpful, for sure.

You spend a lot of time with Brooklyn Prince in the film. Did the two of you do anything before or during shooting to establish a believable mother-daughter bond?

She was adorable from the first moment I met her, and she loved having tea. Every evening, she would come to me and say “Let’s have tea.” She would make the tea and prepare everything. She’s such an incredible human being, and I adored working with her. She’s so mature and ahead of her time, and she also knows how to go back and be a kid, which I very much appreciate and am glad she has that place to hold because she’s very mature. You don’t want her to grow up too fast. For our project, she was very much aware of her circumstances and the family’s circumstances. She was a dream to work with, and to talk to her about what we were doing, you didn’t have to talk to her like she was a child; you could say it to her as it was, and she understood right away and responded emotionally and intellectually very quickly.

With your dancing, you developed a unique style that feels like a full-on expression of power. When you were first starting to develop your style, where did that come from?

I wonder exactly what you have seen because I’ve done all types of dancing, but yes, what stood out were those dances with the quality you just described. I started with ballet and moved on to rhythmic gymnastics, where I competed for a while, then I did contemporary and then hip-hop and breakdancing, so I was kind of all over the place, but I focused on disciplines that I really loved. Coming from gymnastics and ballet and going to hip-hop, they are polar opposites. It helped me later on with projects I was involved with to be able to pull from all of these different styles and create my own style. Madonna gave me the opportunity to execute solos, and she had always explained to me the character’s perspective; she always wanted the depth of the number to be understood by the audience and she’s very present that way. As a dancer, that was a dream; it always meant something deeper and more profound, and a lot of the time, it was very organic and animalistic. I really liked dancing that way, so I did a lot more projects that way later on.

When you’re looking at roles, are you looking for acting roles that don’t require action, or are you looking at more dance-centric parts?

I did want various things at various stages. I remember after doing Kingsman, The Mummy, and Star Trek, I did want to go more indie, more intimate projects, which I voiced to my agent. Now I am telling my agent I’m ready for another action film that could be fun. I’ve done dark projects, but I remember saying I didn’t want to go too dark. It’s what inspires me in the moment. I tend to make sure I listen to myself and my instrument, which dictates where it’s right for me to go. Luckily with my team, we have fluid communication and it’s been a dream. I love the journey.

That being said, you handle the darker parts of your characters very well. Don’t be too scared of those roles.

Oh, I’m not scared of it [laughs], but even for your mental health, I think you can’t spend too much time doing dark things, and I get pretty sensitive to them. I feel very involved when I play a role that way, and I didn’t want to live in that all the time. I love all the ones I’ve done; I’m very proud of them.

Back to Settlers for a minute, I’m curious about your on-set relationship with Ismael, because you two are not meant to get along at first, and you seem ready to kill him at a moment’s notice for much of the film. Did it turn out to be that you kept your distance from each other, just to preserve that tense relationship?

You’d be surprised, we were actually very close. Me, him and Brooklyn were an incredible trio. Jonny Lee Miller left early on, but we were very close, and we understood what we had to do on camera, but we didn’t have to be that way all the time. It was an incredible experience to have had together, and it would have been a shame to have been hostile to one another. If there was another level of hostility and if it was necessary, we would have done it, but I didn’t personally find it necessary.

You shot a series recently, correct?

Yeah, I landed back in L.A. last night from Morocco, where I was for two months. We shot “SAS: Rogue Heroes,” about the Special Air Service, from 1941-1944 in north Africa, in Egypt.

Where will people be able to find that?

It’s for BBC, written by Steven Knight and directed by Tom Shankland, with Jack O’Connell, Dominic West, Alfie Allen, and Connor Swindells. They’re all such incredible human beings, and the story we told is about real-life people, so I have nothing but respect for this story and am so happy to be a part of it.

Sofia, thank you so much for talking. Best of luck with this film.

Thank you, Steve. Great talking to you.

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