During TIFF while she was in town to promote the premiere of Terrence Malick’s latest poetic opus To the Wonder, actress Olga Kurylenko was on the verge of being everywhere at once. After being one of the Bond women in Quantum of Solace and a brief role in Seven Psychopaths, the Ukrainian born actress and model went on to appear in two films opening in Canada this week. Beside the Malick film, she will appear opposite Tom Cruise in the big budget sci-fi epic Oblivion.
But again, this is TIFF, and the stunning Kurylenko is sitting with me in a room full of expensive bottles of wine in a downtown Toronto hotel to talk about working with one of the most iconic and elusive directors in cinematic history. In Malick’s follow up to The Tree of Life, Kurylenko plays half of a married couple (her spouse a nearly wordless and blue collar looking Ben Affleck) that finds itself at a literal and spiritual crossroads. It’s an expressionistic look at the very irrational nature of a kind of love that spans years.
Kurylenko sat down with us to talk about working with Malick, essentially being used as a kind of paintbrush, working to maintain her character, and what the film says about why the very topic of discussing love is so elusive.
Dork Shelf: You have the equally enviable and incredibly difficult task of being someone who’s essentially the lead in a Terrence Malick film. Did it feel like you had to carry a lot of the weight of the material yourself?
Olga Kurylenko: Well, honestly, I kind of did. (laughs) I was on the set every day. I was the first one to arrive and I was the last one to leave. I was in Oklahoma for, I think, two and a half months, then I went to Paris to shoot that section of the film. And we shot from morning through the evening. Terry never stops. (laughs) He just gets so excited that he wants to just keep going. He’s very passionate and he never stops because he doesn’t want to lose any of those precious moments.
And as you saw, my character in the film is always in some sort of state of movement. So I was never sitting down. I was always walking, dancing, jumping, fighting, and as you could probably guess there were many more fights in the film that we shot that were never used, and that was probably for various reasons. First, probably because it would have been very long (laughs). We shot way more material than could have ever made it into only one film. And we had a director who always wanted to keep going. We were crying, and screaming, and throwing chairs, and breaking walls with fists, and in the end that takes a lot out of you.
It’s also tiresome because I was playing a character with a form of depression, and she’s at times sad and lethargic and not quite well. It just gets worse and worse because she’s in this foreign country now where she doesn’t really know anyone and she can’t find any sort of support from her partner. He’s very cold and shut down and she’s someone that’s utterly in love with him. And she’s so full of feeling that she can’t contain any of her thoughts. Even when she doesn’t speak it, everything is in her eyes and in her body, and you can see everything that she’s feeling, but from him you can’t get anything. She can’t understand what he’s thinking, but she’s trying so hard to figure it out, and to find some kind of a reaction. And it’s hard to get that, apart from at the end. She finally does get a reaction from him, but it only comes at further damaging their relationship, and she does that even out of a very deep love. It’s never because she was having fun. She’s just desperate and doesn’t know what to do anymore, and desperation is an all encompassing feeling that can take a lot out of you.
DS: Do you think it was hard at times hard for Ben to not have a reaction to what you were doing?
OK: (laughs) You’ll have to ask him to get the full answer to that, but we became – under Terrence’s influence and supervision – the entirety of these characters. Ben, even though he isn’t anything like this in real life, was purposefully coming across as mean. That’s what his character was. Shut down and devoid of expression. You can see that he’s feeling everything, but that he’s fighting it. He won’t show it. He’s there, but hesitating. He always thinks that the grass is always greener on the other side, because when he’s with Marina, he’s thinking of other girls. Of course, when he’s with other girl’s, he’s thinking about Marina! One has to make up their mind and decide what he wants, but his decision is usually revolving around the things that he’ll never have. He’s very indecisive, and that drives my character mad because she’s completely into him.
DS: In a recent interview when Ben was asked about the film he said that Terrence Malick often uses actors like paint and paintbrushes where he creates the visual first before placing in the dramatic. Would you say that’s kind of a true statement?
OK: Yeah. I can see what he means by that. I would agree. The thing is that Terrence has many stories in his head at once and he’s always filming many different possibilities, and I think a lot of those elements are mostly crafted in the editing room. There’s always a possibility to go different ways, and he shoots all of them. He has enough material here for a couple of different movies here, for sure.
DS: So in a way when he’s filming all of these different elements did you even know how large of a role you were going to have or what the movie would even end up being in its final form?
OK: I made a couple of jokes along those lines. (laughs) I said to him, “Terry, how much of this are you cutting? Are you going to just see my arm in the movie?” It’s actually still kind of a surprise to me that I’m in as much of the movie as I am, but I did have a feeling it would be like this, mostly because I was the person who was on set every day while other actors would just come and go. I was there all the time, and Terrence told me that this was, in fact, going to be Marina’s story. But again, he could have changed it all and completely in the editing room. He had a lot of material with every actor, although probably more with mine just because we spent two and a half months together almost every day. I had a feeling, but it’s never sure with him, and now I just feel honoured, and blessed, and humbled to… well, first of all to have even worked with him and to have met him in the first place. To be able to interact with him is just wonderful. He’s a very interesting person. He’s very creative, very smart, and after a while I was just glad that in the end all of my body parts were able to show up on screen. (laughs)
DS: The dialogue is often muted and often used as a background sound outside of the narration in the film. How did he direct that? Was there actual dialogue or were you left your own devices under his guidance?
OK: He did often tell me that silence is stronger than words, and there were moments where I just wanted to say something and he could see my starting, and he would just say “Shhhhhh. Don’t speak.” And I would be, like, “Well, why can’t I say anything? You gave me all these pages with all this text?” And he said, “No, no, no! It’s all there. I can see it in your eyes. Don’t say it. Just think it.” He said it was just more interesting that way and that’s how he sort of thinks. He thinks it’s stronger. He once told me “Words often break these things. They take the mystery away.” These are his words, and in a way quite often he’s right. It creates this different kind of universe, right? I said to other people today that the words can lie, but the body, and eyes, and facial expressions can not, really. We can say anything and not mean it, but there’s no way you can portray these kinds of feelings if you don’t feel them. There’s no way.
DS: The few words seem to sort of equate a sort of poetry that Malick seems to be striving for. Do you find it strange compared to other films that you worked on to go to something larger than this that maybe a sparser approach could have worked better?
OK: When you say it’s a kind of a poem, that’s absolutely what this is and what he sort of strives for. I think it’s beautiful that there’s this quality and that it works. You’re absolutely right that it’s poetic, and as you said, it’s interesting because this movie is mostly silent when film is still such a visual and audio based medium and has been for so long, but there is a lot of writing that goes into this. There’s a lot of pages of just thoughts, and I never read the script because there’s wasn’t really a script. I read Terry’s thoughts. He would just give me pages in the morning and he would show up and just give me twenty pages for the day, and he would do that every day. It’s a lot. It’s more than any film on a set. When you film on a normal set, you film a page and a half to two pages a day.
You can’t speak 15 to 20 pages of dialogue in a single day. There’s just no way, and that’s why he’s sort of adopted this approach. With Terrence, it’s just all pages on the meaning and thoughts behind that day’s particular mood. It’s a lot to process. It goes through you, but you don’t necessarily have to speak it. It’s like a fundamental work ethic that he just installs in you like a computer program, and you’re just there. Things are always spontaneous, but you never don’t know where you are because you just went though a bunch of philosophical thoughts, and what they are providing are just extraordinary. It reflects a lot of truth about our world and our lives. I feel blessed just to have read them. I was always instructed on set every day to actually burn the pages! (laughs) But I couldn’t really bear or bring myself to do it. I think they should have been put in a museum.