by Zoë Stagg
photography by Richard Grassie
“We don’t even look up anymore, if you look at people, we all look down. We look at our phones; we’re either tweeting or Facebooking or chatting or texting — in the meantime, life is happening and we don’t see anything. ”
Call it a red wire/blue wire moment – that turning point every movie hero will eventually face. For Olga Kurylenko, it was a stranger’s tap on her shoulder at 13. A modeling agent caught sight of her, discovering the Ukranian-born brunette on her first trip away from home. That chance meeting in a Moscow subway station launched a career trajectory that took off from magazine covers to the roll of Bond Girl (2008’s Quantum of Solace) and beyond, because like every hero faced with a choice, she knows that “everything depends on how we react to those lucky or unlucky moments.”
In that one instant in the Moscow underground, she grabbed that lucky moment, chose the correct wire, and saved herself. Part optimistic dreamer, part pragmatic survivor, Olga’s determined alchemy turned chance into success. “I don’t believe that luck has everything to do with it. If you don’t move, and you don’t pick up the waves, if you don’t jump and start surfing it, nothing is going to happen.” She rode that tiny ripple from a subway station to Bond Girl fame, and now has new projects constantly rolling in. After a year and a half of constant filming, both the Terrence Malick-directed To the Wonder, and the sci-fi, graphic novel adaptation of Oblivion are set to open, marking the diverse success wrung from that lucky start. Although she’s on big screens opposite Ben Affleck and Tom Cruise, the rising tide of her career has done little to drown out the lessons of her humble beginning.
Olga wrote about her experience working on Malick’s dramatic romance, echoing his notes about her character’s blend of candor and insolence – traits she figures she leaves on the screen. “I don’t know if I’m very insolent. I’m not sure about that. But hey, I could be oblivious to what I am, I guess one should ask my friends, maybe they’ll contradict me.” She laughs, the joke making it clear that there are no Bond Girl airs in her private life. Pics snapped and posted on her Twitter show the same – getting ready for a heady, industry night at the BAFTAs, and Olga’s posting playful poses, peek-a-booing out from behind giant bouquets of flowers, captioned “Happy girls!!! :)”
Before you can tweet about red carpets and roses, you have to get invited to the event. Her quick-climbing career keeps her mailbox full. “My friends see me as a concentrated Super Woman who’s going for her goal, and I don’t see myself as that way at all. I’m just following life, but they see super motivated – which I am – but I don’t see myself in that stormy way at all.” That she still describes her path as just “following life” without the Super Woman tights shows that not much has changed since the Moscow subway. She’s still the child of a single mother who struggled to make ends meet in newly independent Ukraine. She’s called it a “fairy tale,” as though she somehow magically stumbled into an easy paycheck, but that “easy” came after 26-hour train rides to get to work. And it has paid off. “I have a different life now, a better life of course, but somehow I’ve stayed that same person. It’s like I don’t realize that I have this life. My friends constantly have to wake me up and remind me that I have it. I live very simply, even though I have a choice not to. I think that’s because that’s the only way I know how to live.” She remains close to the struggle of her childhood and has worked with the Ukrainian organization Hope and Homes for Children, adding philanthropy to her lingering prudence. “I’m still very careful about everything.”
Being careful about everything includes her career, and trying to break out of the model-turned-Bond-Girl mold. “I didn’t want to do the same thing over and over. Being a James Bond girl is a great thing, but one doesn’t want to do just that. It’s not very easy to do, there are only so many projects around and when people see you one way it’s very hard to say, ‘Well, no, I’m something else.'” Like everything else in her life, she worked for it. “It’s a tough battle. I don’t know if I’m succeeding, but I can say that I’m trying, that’s for sure.”
Though it might be depicted as a red-or-blue wire moment in a Bond movie, in the most recent Malick film it’s “The Wonder” – an ancient force that guides us. In this modern world stuffed with distraction, Olga notes how easy it is to miss. “We constantly pass by things that are given to us that are miraculous or beautiful, but we’re hurrying with our heads buried in something actually not very important. We don’t even look up anymore, if you look at people, we all look down. We look at our phones. We’re either tweeting or Facebooking or chatting or texting – in the meantime, life is happening and we don’t see anything.” Her English-by-way-of-French turns dreamy and musing. “I think people often don’t notice the miracles because they’re concentrated on the wrong thing. Everything in the media is turning us away from miracles and turning our heads in another direction.”
That’s a concept she’s no stranger to. From the modeling scout to James Bond, she’s been turning heads her entire career, though even that – being known for her beauty – is yet another fight. “It’s definitely harder. I’m very happy that I modeled, but maybe if people didn’t know I did, it would have been easier. The fact is people were aware, so I did struggle more.” The truth is, beauty doesn’t preclude brains, despite what we’re told. “It comes from society and our education. Especially before women had more rights, men basically ruled, and of course the only thought a woman had was to be a perfect woman – in the sense of being a desirable woman under the wing of a man. To marry a man and to be covered. To be a perfect wife and to have children. That’s how the genders have been raised for centuries. The man is the smart one, the strong one, and all the woman needs to do is be desirable. A woman didn’t need to be smart. All she needed was to be cute, clean, young et cetera, et cetera. In a way, thank God for feminism!”
She’s worldly enough to know that that message isn’t everywhere. “There are still so many countries that have years and years to go to when the woman is ever going to be considered equal to a man. Many women live that way. It’s not women’s fault, it’s society’s fault. They tell little girls, ‘You have to grow up to be a perfect wife.’ In many countries it’s still happening. Take Latin America or Russia for example, it’s still like that. There are tons of places in the world where there is still a long way to go.” The girl who brought her first paycheck home at 13 escaped that, thanks to that twist of fate.
If there’s a reason her friends see her as Super Woman, it’s because she was raised by the original. “Maybe in that way, it was lucky I didn’t have my father around. I grew up with a mother who supported our whole family by herself. She was woman and a half. She repaired the whole apartment by herself, she could repair any electrical appliance, she would paint ceilings, walls – by herself. And she worked, she made money, whatever money it was, she did everything. She was the woman and the man. She had to survive by herself. And she did it.”
It’s made Olga tougher and more self-sufficient than any movie hero, and determined not to be anyone’s damsel sidekick in real life. “My mother always told me that she prefers to be alone than with the wrong man. This is something that I’ve remembered for my whole life. I saw this strong woman who chose to go beyond those values, she preferred to be happy the way she is, and stay alone.” And it all goes back to making the most of the choice you’re presented with. “Maybe it’s luck, because it made me realize I’m fine the way she was. It’s not the best thing, but if I have to do it… I always knew: I have to support myself, I’m the one. I’m never going to rely on anybody, whether it’s a man or a woman, it’s me. If I can’t manage it, I have to try harder. It’s the only option for me, I don’t have other options.”
No red wire, no blue wire, just making the most of the chance you’re presented with, and for Olga Kurylenko that’s a pretty explosive feat.