New Voyager: From StreetDance to Star Trek — Sofia Boutella just hit warp speed.
This feature first appeared in the August 2016 issue of Empire
The most striking thing about the Star Trek Beyond trailers – aside from the U.S.S. Enterprise getting blasted to smithereens (again) – is Sofia Boutella. Yet you can’t even recognise her. As Jaylah, a fearsome warrior who allies with the Enterprise crew against Idris Elba’s Federation-hating Krall, Boutella is plastered in moon-white make-up, with bright yellow irises and jagged black facial tattoos. With apologies for the mental image, she looks like what might be the result from the mating of Darth Maul and one – or both – of the twins from The Matrix Reloaded.
Simon Pegg, Sofia Boutella and Chris Pine in Star Trek Beyond
Out of the prosthetics, Boutella isn’t exactly fearsome, although despite being very friendly, she is sort of intimidating. She’s extremely... still. She has an uncommon economy of movement thanks to 23 years of dance training. For most of the time we’re talking she barely shifts. She doesn’t fiddle. She doesn’t look away. She talks in a low voice, in an accent that’s thickly French (she moved there from Algeria aged ten), which she’s trying to soften to allow her to play broader roles, even though it’s the sort most of us with less elegant lilts would kill for. Star Trek’s newest recruit may be quiet, but she’s supremely confident. She initially had no idea what she was signing up for. And we mean that literally. When Boutella first auditioned for Beyond she didn’t even know what lm she was reading for and, she says, “It wasn’t until the callback that they told me it was Star Trek, and what character I was playing. Then they took me to the make-up trailer and said, ‘This is what you’re going to look like.’ And I was like, ‘Holy shit.’”
For Beyond’s director, Justin Lin, the decision was immediate: “I knew as soon as I saw her,” he says. “Usually when you’re writing you try to find someone to fit [what you’ve written], but I started crafting the character to Sofia’s strengths. I wanted someone who when you meet them has this strength, but you realise it might be a mask.” Footage Lin screens for Empire delivers on the trailer’s promise, introducing Jaylah on the planet Altamid, where a number of the Enterprise crew have landed after the ship’s demise. As Scotty (Simon Pegg, also screenwriter) is about to be offed by unfriendly aliens, Jaylah leaps to his rescue. She speaks in a broken English that Pegg wrote for Boutella’s accent, and fights with balletic grace, at one point alongside two holographic projections of herself, dancing her enemies into confusion. “I knew if we did it right,” says Lin, “it would be great to have a new character who could potentially join the family.”
Dance definitely helps in terms of action. I can memorise action in the same way I’d memorise body movement.
The impact of being part of that family is still to hit Boutella. “I don’t think I quite understand the extent of what I’m part of yet,” she admits. “To be honest, I’m not very familiar [with Star Trek]. I saw the two films of the new franchise but I didn’t grow up watching it. It’s the same with Star Wars; it just wasn’t a part of me growing up. I wasn’t geeking on it to be honest.” Though it’s her biggest so far, this is not Boutella’s first significant movie role. After a lead part in 2012’s StreetDance 2 and a small one in Monsters: Dark Continent (2014), she sprang into the spotlight in Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, playing Gazelle,the deadly henchwoman with razor-sharp prosthetic limbs. The film was a surprise international hit, making $414 million worldwide. “That was quite eccentric wasn’t it?” she says of the role, smiling. “Such a great experience. [Before that], I hadn’t worked for two, maybe three years [the Monsters sequel was shot in early 2013]. I’d been auditioning but I hadn’t booked anything. Then that was where I landed.” Acting is her second successful career. Boutella began dancing at the age of five and just carried on, until one day it became what she did for a living. “It wasn’t a decision. I just thought, ‘Oh, I guess I’m a dancer now,’” she says, “because I started making money from it.”
Boutella in StreetDance 2.
She appeared in music videos for Michael Jackson and Usher, and toured with Madonna. Yet dancing wasn’t where her heart lay. Since the age of 17, when she’d accompanied a friend to an audition for the French film Dance Challenge and wound up winning a lead role herself, Boutella had wanted to act. Success in dance, though, came more easily. It would have been simpler to carry on in that career, but six years ago she decided that if she was going to make it in acting, she needed to focus on that 100 per cent. “I haven’t danced since I stopped at 28. I haven’t even taken a class,” she says. The decision to quit was followed by two years of solid acting auditions but not a single job. “It was tough. It was really tough. But I never took one dance job in those two years [before Kingsman]. I could have. People said, ‘You can do this video and it’s this much money.’ I knew it would distract me and I wouldn’t do something else just to make money.”
Her fate changed with a single phone call. One morning her agent told her to pack her bags and get on a plane to London. Her Kingsman audition had gone well and Matthew Vaughn wanted to meet her: “My agent said, ‘Pack for five months, in case you book the movie,’” she says. “But if I didn’t book the movie I was going to be coming back the next day.” It's lucky she didn’t pack light. Her dance career may be over now, but it has not entirely left Boutella. She watches people, aware not only of her own body and what it can do, but also how other people use theirs: “Dance definitely helps in terms of action,” she says. “I can memorise action in the same way I’d memorise body movement, but it helps me even when there’s not action because people walk differently and have different body language. I watch that all the time, like the way you’re sitting right now.” Empire suddenly feels as though we have about 700 limbs and absolutely no idea where to put any of them. Boutella laughs. “See, now it’s changed. Now I see that you got really tense.”
Colin Firth, Matthew Vaughn and Boutella on the set of Kingsman: The Secret Service.
Boutella’s next role is another that leans heavily on physicality, and which confirms her new position on the big studio want list. She’ll be playing The Mummy in the Tom Cruise-starring reboot of the Universal monster series, making her the unlikely successor to Boris Karloff and Arnold Vosloo. Beyond that, she is keeping her options open, although, as Justin Lin's said, further Star Trek adventures are possible. Boutella has reached a point where she believes everything will, one way or another, be fine. Because, like Jaylah, she’ll keep battling until it is. “I always had that conviction,” she states. “I wasn’t arrogant or cocky with it. It was tough. I had moments of doubt but I didn’t have any choice. Acting was what I’d chosen to do and so I had to work as hard as I could.” She smiles. “I remember during those two years of auditioning my parents being like, ‘What are you doing?!’ and I always said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’” Happily for them, they never had reason to.