Vogue Arabia in the May issue speaks to the Arab actress about her upcoming summer blockbusters, The Mummy and Atomic Blonde, and her memories of growing up in Algeria.
Under a vanilla sky, in a dusty, open field, a small group of children no older than 10 kicks around a soccer ball. It’s a typical scene in Bab El Oued, a bustling neighborhood of Algiers. On closer inspection, however, the ball reveals itself to be nothing more than a big clump of sticky tape. It is bundled together and tossed around to the delight of the laughing girls and boys, oblivious to their underprivileged environment. “Those years in Algeria were some of the best of my life,” says Sofia Boutella from her home in Los Angeles. With two films scheduled for a summer release – The Mummy in June and Atomic Blonde in July – it’s difficult to imagine any one of the dancer-turned-actor’s 35 years to be anything short of extraordinary.
In a tone that is borderline blasé, Boutella tells me that she is gearing up to embark on her first international press tour for The Mummy, along with her co-stars Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe. The trailers for the film feature the usual explosion scenes and run-for-your-life sprints associated with action star Cruise. Boutella plays the headline role of the mummy, Princess Ahmanet. Thousands of years ago, the princess was chosen to be Egypt’s next queen – but her ambition got the better of her, and she was buried alive. Resurrected as “the mummy,” Boutella’s character is a tornado of fury. Her ghost roars through the wind, menacing entire cities; her athletic body breaks through chains; her eyes flicker with feral emotion – mostly hate and vengeance. In other words, don’t expect Boutella to play a lifeless prop in bandages. It’s not her first brush with Egyptian role-play, either: in 2012, she was a principal backup dancer for Madonna’s Cleopatra-themed Super Bowl halftime show. “I stopped dancing because I wanted to dedicate everything to acting,” says Boutella. Another reason, perhaps, is that she already twirled her way to the pinnacle of success as a dancer in the entertainment industry. With even Michael Jackson and Madonna reportedly fighting over her to perform in their respective tours, there were little to no challenges left for her to overcome.
Boutella, who was born in Algeria to an architect mother and a jazz musician father, started studying ballet when she was five years old. The family fled the Algerian Civil War in 1992 when she was 10 and moved to Paris. There, a teenage Sofia gravitated towards rhythmic gymnastics and her dedication to the sport saw her compete in the French national championships. She blended her classical ballet training with the physicality of gymnastics and spent all her free time break-dancing in the Parisian central neighborhood of Les Halles. She practiced her knee spins and helicopter moves in front of the reflective glass of store windows and performed outside cinema theaters that would ultimately feature her name.
Sofia Boutella performs to Madonna’s “Isaac” song during her Live Confessions Tour in London | YouTube
An ocean away in Los Angeles, renowned choreographer Jamie King (the man behind Britney Spears and Madonna’s world tours) was searching for a fresh-faced female dancer for a Nike commercial. After poring over hundreds of video submissions, he came across Boutella’s. “That fire. That beauty. That’s Sofia. I knew we had to have her,” he says. The Nike video, in which Boutella break-dances with rare agility and speed, served as her big break. Her name spread like wildfire throughout Los Angeles. Soon, Boutella began touring with Madonna for her 2006 Confessions world tour. Of her years working with the queen of pop, Boutella says, “Madonna is a strong woman who taught me a lot about discipline.” During the “Bedouin” segment of the concert, to the song “Isaac,” Boutella performed a solo dance in an oversized abaya in a giant cage against a backdrop of projected sand dunes. While many women advocate their right to wear an abaya or a hijab, there are also many who are forced to do so. Boutella ultimately flung the abaya off and freed herself from the cage, sending a powerful message about Arab women’s desire for emancipation.
Sofia Boutella for Nike Women | Youtube
On YouTube, this video, along with a dozen or so others showcasing Boutella dance, run, and break, has garnered hundreds of thousands of views. “Now we know how she did so many of her own stunts in Star Trek Beyond,” wrote one commentator about her role as an alien scavenger in the 2016 science fiction film. Before that, she was cast in Kingsman: The Secret Service as Samuel L. Jackson’s assistant. The role saw her resurrect the twists and flips from her Nike commercial, which was so impressive that the team behind Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron, purportedly created a role for Boutella.
Under a mop of wavy, chestnut-colored hair, Boutella’s large, almond eyes peer out at you. Her cleft chin is tucked inwards in a gesture that is almost self-protective. After witnessing such a force of a physical performer – be it via her dance videos or her acting roles – it is almost curious to see her appear so demure, even shy, as she says, “I am a hyperactive person, who always needs to create.”
The Algerian actor has since traded in her athleisure work attire of tank tops, baggy pants, bandanas, and sneakers to channel old-Hollywood glamour in black lace frocks, and the sequined and feathered Chanel dress she wore to this year’s Academy Awards. Boutella’s beauty and talent served as a bridge to the world of cinema – but it is her innate determination and humble nature that will continue to catapult her onto the world stage.