Ukranian-born knockout Olga Kurylenko’s star is rising.
She’s a model, a Bond girl, and in the postapocalyptic world of Oblivion, she plays Tom Cruise’s leading lady, but the part that seems most ironic to the actress is that of “Olga Kurylenko—femme fatale.” In combat boots and without a speck of makeup, it’s clear that Kurylenko, 33, isn’t trying to sell the illusion that she rolls out of bed the glam seductress she portrays on film and on red carpets across town. “Of course it’s wonderful to be dressed as a princess,” she says. “You feel like Cinderella. But it’s important not to get stuck in that and think, I am a princess. I play a princess. When midnight strikes, I turn [back] into a gray mouse.”
That’s hardly the case for the striking 5-foot-9 French-Ukrainian actress, but if anyone has experienced a broad spectrum of life outside of the Hollywood spotlight, it’s Kurylenko. Born and reared in the former Soviet Union, she remembers a time when she didn’t think she would ever leave her hometown of Berdyansk. “I was going to live my whole life there,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I wasn’t like, ‘I want to be a model. I want to get out of here.’ For me it was impossible, a closed subject. Basta. I wanted to be a doctor. My grandma was a doctor, so I spent my childhood around her in the midst of medical books.” Kurylenko rolls her eyes at the idea that her childhood comes straight out of a Dickens novel. “When I tell people, ‘I couldn’t eat everything I wanted every day.’ They think, ‘Oh, my gosh, she was starving.’ So, we didn’t have sushi. We had potatoes and cabbage!”
The part of her story that does takes its cues from a fairy tale is being discovered in Moscow on her first vacay when she was 13. She and her mother, then a primary school teacher, were about to take the train back home when a woman stopped them. “She said, ‘I’m a scout looking for new faces,’” recalls Kurylenko. “My mom said, ‘We’re not from Moscow. We can’t come back.’” The scout convinced Kurylenko’s mother to send in pictures of her daughter, and a year later the young girl returned to Moscow to attend modeling school, where she took up acting as a hobby. From there, Kurylenko’s career took off, and at 16, she left Ukraine for Paris, by herself. But she soon found she missed acting and made up her mind to pursue it seriously. “Modeling was a very lonely job for me. I never hung out at all those fashion parties. I never felt like I belonged there,” she says. “I started taking acting classes, and then I thought, This is what makes me happier than anything else.” Encouraged by her acting teacher, she auditioned for—and landed the lead in—Diane Bertrand’s The Ring Finger in 2005. “There I was, a nobody. And [Diane] still believed in me,” says Kurylenko, still filled with incredulity.
Though she may be modest about her success (including an upcoming star turn opposite Ben Affleck in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder), Kurylenko has a way of seducing her audience—directors, producers, and fellow actors included (she is currently dating her Magic City costar Danny Huston). In her audition for Oblivion, writer/director Joseph Kosinski says the chemistry between her and Cruise was palpable. “The audition scenes were really tough scenes,” he says, “but she has a very instinctual process that is different than any other actor I’ve worked with.” Picturing Kurylenko as a sultry action heroine comes easy to those who have hired her, but it’s all a front, says the actress. “When I got the part in Quantum of Solace, [director] Marc Forster told me, ‘How come you weren’t worried at the audition?’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? I was freaking out! He said, ‘I could see in every girl how nervous [she was], but I couldn’t see anything with you.’ I was double acting. I was acting as a Bond girl and I was acting not to look scared,’” she pauses, entertained by the idea of her perceived self-assurance. “I guess I do that well.”