Olga Kurylenko—the Ukraine-born, Paris- bred, London-based model-turned-actor who made a big splash as the combustible, revenge-seeking Camille Montes in the 2008 James Bond film Quantum of Solace, and who stars in the upcoming Terrence Malick film, To the Wonder—will never be cryogenically frozen.
It’s not that she doesn’t trust the science—though she doesn’t—it’s that she doesn’t trust human nature: “What if they forget to unfreeze you?” she asks with Slavic sincerity. “Who’s giving you a guarantee that they won’t throw you in the garbage? I don’t trust anybody. There’s no way I’m going to trust that someone will unfreeze me. There’s no way.” She follows up with a soft, wistful punctuation to her train of thought, an endearingly peculiar feature of her conversational style: “But it would be nice to never die.”
We’re seated at a shadowy corner table at French brasserie Plein Sud in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood. After settling in and ordering oeuf dur mayonnaise (“I love mayonnaise,” she says), I present her with a small token of appreciation for re-arranging her schedule and taking the time to fly up from Miami, where she’s currently shooting the second season of the Starz series Magic City. It’s a copy of Alan Lightman’s small and magical Einstein’s Dreams—a book about a young, woolgathering Albert Einstein that imagines a series of bell-jar worlds where time moves backwards, in circles, in waves, and not at all. We discuss the book for a few minutes and, perhaps through its subtle suggestion, our conversation over the next hours bends backwards, rolls in circles, and jumps fitfully between topics, as any good conversation should.
Earlier in the evening, my first interaction with Kurylenko comes via text message while I wait in the lobby bar of her hotel. She’s stuck in traffic and running late. Then comes the more revealing, “I’m hungry, tired, and I need a massage!” It sounds enough like a command to allow my slightly lubricated imagination to momentarily get away from me, but she follows up quickly with an abating “LOL” that put my head back between my shoulders.
She arrives shortly after, apologizes again for being late, and shoots up to her room to drop off her bags, giving me a moment to jot down my first impressions: “She’s tall [5’ 10”], long, lithe, and comfortably dressed in jeans and a light, loosely fitting gray cardigan. She’s a natural beauty, her hair pulled off her face into a ponytail, and her green eyes are filled with energy despite protestations to the contrary.”
Actually, let’s start at the very beginning…
Kurylenko was born on November 14, 1979, in Berdyansk, Ukraine, a small port city located on the northern coast of the Sea of Azov. When she was born, the Ukraine was a Soviet republic. She was 12 years old when Ukraine passed a referendum on a declaration of independence, which became a leading factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991. “Suddenly we were poor and we couldn’t eat,” she recalls. “My mother’s salary would run out and the envelope would be empty. And it was always an envelope, never a bank. There was no point in a bank.”
The experience had a profound effect on her, and to this day she always pockets little snacks to carry with her because she’s afraid of being hungry. “It’s a psychological fear,” she says. “I loved birthday parties because they had food in abundance. I would just eat. Up to here,” she says while she snaps her hand to her jawline. “But I was still hungry. The very first years when I immigrated to France I had to learn not to do that. I had to learn how to live with money.”
But before France there was a trip to Moscow, with her mother, when she was 13. An agent approached her on a subway platform about a modeling opportunity. Her mother was hesitant, but fortuitously allowed the young Kurylenko to later travel back to Moscow and learn how to be a model.
She was 16 when she left Ukraine for France, and it wasn’t long before she signed with a modeling agency and began working steadily, eventually securing commercial work with Campari, Bebe, Kenzo, and Victoria’s Secret and landing on the covers of Vogue and Elle.
“From the moment I got to Paris I never struggled,” she says. She tells me that it was watching Emily Watson’s performance in the 1996 film Breaking the Waves that made her want to be an actor. When I suggest she was setting the bar pretty high, she bites back, “Hey! Otherwise what makes you dream? Of course it’s the big things that make you dream.”
As a child her dreams were neither of acting nor modeling; they were of Bach and ballet. “I was so good,” she says of the seven years she spent studying piano as a child. “I played so much Bach, Mozart, Prokofiev, Schubert, Beethoven… and I’ve forgotten everything!” And then talk turns to her youthful love of dance.
“I loved ballet,” she says. “It’s such a pity I had to stop.” After a moment I ask why. “I got hit by a car and my leg was broken. Badly.” She puts her hands together and then pivots them apart at the palm and says, “One piece was sticking this way and the other was going that way.” It wasn’t compound, but she could still see the break. “I was 11 and I freaked out. I thought, ‘This is it,’ and I looked at it and I didn’t think someone could put that back together,” she says. “I was traumatized. I thought that was the end of me.” When the cast came off, she remembers, “I had to re-learn how to walk because the muscles had atrophied, and one leg was much skinnier than the other, and my knee wouldn’t bend anymore.” She tried to return to dancing, but was so far behind she got discouraged and stopped.
But she’s returned to dance recently with vigor. “I don’t go to the gym! I take dance classes,” she says. Her character, Vera Evans, on Magic City—about a Miami Beach hotel in the early 1960s—is a dancer, “so it’s partially for the role,” she says. “It’s so much fun though. To feel your body moving. I’m like, what have I been doing all these years?”
We talk about Magic City for a moment. The show also stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan as her embattled husband, Ike Evans, and her current beau, Danny Huston, as a sadistic mobster named Ben “The Butcher” Diamond. “I don’t like that they film so fast. We’re shooting episodes in nine days, but I love doing it,” she says. “You never know where the story is going. And we’re a family now.”
For years she’s kept a journal, and when I ask about her writing she says she’s sadly been too busy to keep up with it. “I think about it all the time,” she says. “There are so many things out there that aren’t true. I always think about the day when I write something real and people will be truly shocked.” She gets excited and her back straightens: “It will be nothing like the image people have of me,” she says, adding that she’s storing her life for an eventual memoir. Wait a beat. “If I survive.”
I ask if survival is a concern. She takes a delicate sip of New York City tap water and says matter of factly, “I’d like to live until I’m 200 years old.” (New York City tap water is good, but not that good.) Kurylenko is shooting for Ponce De Leon numbers, for 2179. Back in 2012 we continue to talk about life and death themes, and before we know it we’re returning to Berdyansk. “My grandfather died right in front of me,” she says. “I was eight or nine. I saw his last breath. It was disturbing, but I grew up in someplace so rural that by eight I had seen lots of dead people. You leave the coffin out and people come by. So I would go and look at every grandfather and grandmother that had died.” She pauses. “I’m glad I saw him die because I was there in his last moments. He wasn’t alone. He knew we were there.”
She starts to cry, but gathers herself quickly. I apologize for the dark turn our conversation has taken, but she says, “No. It’s good because I’m so busy that I never think about him or my grandmother. They’re a part of my life, but I forget to think about them. Now I’m remembering them. It’s good.”
And now we’re touching on the kind of dreamy poeticism that pervades the upcoming Terrence Malick film, To the Wonder, which stars Kurylenko as Marina, an independent woman struggling to understand the capricious nature of love. To the Wonder premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September to conflicting reports of boos and standing ovations—as Malick films are wont to do. Some stars, including Rachel Weisz and Michael Sheen, were unknowingly edited out the film, but Kurylenko was less concerned about ending up on the cutting room floor. “Terry told me that it was Marina’s story,” Kurylenko says, “but he’s done that before where the actor who was the main character didn’t even end up in the movie. He kept his word though. It is Marina’s story.”
The atmospheric film is pure Malick. Kurylenko stars alongside Ben Affleck, who plays her cold, distant lover, Neil; Javier Bardem as the wandering priest Father Quintana; and Rachel McAdams as Jane, one of Neil’s old flames. Marina experiences love and its dissolution, vacillating between free-spirited joy and uncontrollable fits of despair, and the film makes the suggestion that love is like the lens flares that flicker in the corners of so many of Malick’s films—or like the quicksand at Mont Saint-Michel that Marina and Neil dance on during the height of their adoration for one another: you have to catch it just right.
“I miss Terry,” she says. “It’s so amazing to be a part of his work. I think we had a connection, and his writing is so simple and beautiful.”
During filming, script pages would arrive every morning, “first thing, and never before because he doesn’t want you to rehearse too much and overthink it,” she says. “They always tried to recuperate the pages, and what they didn’t get back Terry or his assistant instructed us to burn. Nice fire,” she says, rolling her eyes. “It’s the most horrible act that can be done. Burning those pages.”
When asked about working with Ben Affleck, she surprisingly says, “It was awful. He had to be Neil, this cold person, and I assume he was instructed to stay in character on the set. I don’t know, but I assume because I just realized that’s what he did to all of us.” I suggest that it sounds like a form of psychological torture. “It was!” she says. “I went nuts. There are moments that, as Marina, I went completely crazy, but Terry didn’t put that in the movie,” she says. “Apparently it was too terrifying. People saw it and they freaked out, so it was cut. He drove me to that state though.”
Her voice slows and softens one last time as she sums up the experience of working with Malick. “It’s because of experiences like working with Terry that I feel like my life has been worth living and that my life makes sense,” she says.
It’s getting late and our night winds down. I walk her to the elevator bank in her hotel and she thanks me for the conversation, and I thank her in return. She wonders if I have enough material. I assure her that I do. As the elevator doors open she steps in and says, “Well… if you need more there’s always tomorrow.”