When Sofia Boutella walks into a room, there’s kinetic energy that follows her. Graceful but powerful, I imagine it’s similar to meeting Audrey Hepburn in her prime. Fitting, perhaps, because Boutella loves the old black-and-white pictures. In the time we spend together, we speak about the power of dance, what drives Gaspar Noé, and whether or not Boutella could take on all the Chrises in an action movie of her own.
Famous for her roles in Kingsman: The Secret Service, Star Trek Beyond, and Atomic Blonde, Boutella has begun to take her career in a new direction by starring in Noé’s latest thriller, Climax. In the film, Boutella plays Selva, a choreographer getting a new troupe ready for a performance. At the after party of a rehearsal, someone spikes the punch bowl with LSD, and the celebratory energy quickly transforms into the twisted darkness of fifteen performers’ unearthed subconscious battling for supremacy and understanding.
Having spent most of her life dancing and performing—Boutella was a backup dancer for Madonna’s 2006 Confessions tour—her life on tour found its way into her portrayal of Selva. Noé invited Boutella to meet him in Paris through Instagram’s instant messenger service. When they met, Noé only knew that he wanted to make a movie about dancers on LSD. Hoping for a bit more, Boutella asked, “‘Okay. What else?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’”
“I was thrilled to play the choreographer because I thought, ‘How can I make that interesting to watch?’” Boutella recalls. She had just watched Possession, the 1983 film by director Andrzej Zulawski. Boutella is a cinephile from her early years watching ARTE with her mother. She lists Wings of Desire and Solaris as some of her favorites.
Many of the themes from Climax—betrayal, deception, trauma—can be found littered throughout Possession. Isabelle Adjani’s performance as Ana, and particularly the mental break she portrays, inspired Boutella. “I thought she must have worked with a modern choreographer or a movement coach to be able to move like that. So, I asked Gaspar if I could have a psychological journey similar to Isabelle in Possession. He said, ‘Yes.’” Boutella signed on to do the movie.
Boutella’s next concern revolved around who would be doing the choreography. ”[Noé] did not want a choreographer. I said, ‘Gaspar, I don’t know. I need that aspect to be thought out, and not by you because you have so much on your hands.’” She understood why he didn’t want to work with a choreographer. His films rely on natural instincts, natural light and his camera. Noé didn’t even audition the dancers. “He went to their element. He traveled for months going to vogue balls until he knew who he wanted,” Boutella explains. Similarly, Boutella led the ensemble cast as the only actor with training.
But Boutella knew she wouldn’t feel safe without a choreographer. Having met Nina McNeely two months earlier, she suggested she be brought in to help. “There’s something that’s quite visceral in her work and delivery. She feels these depths. I told Gaspar, ‘Please look at her reel. Please look at her work.’ I had to insist.”
Still reluctant, according to Boutella, Noé agreed to hire Nina. Two days into filming she asked, “How do you feel about having a choreographer now? He said it was the best present he had on the set.” The fruits of this decision can be seen on screen in the visually captivating and haunting performance sequence.
With only a five-page treatment instead of a script, Boutella began constructing her character. The treatment wasn’t story-driven. The actors received character breakdowns, revealing only basic information about who they were to play. “My character sheet just said ‘Sofia’ because we didn’t know what the name of my character would be,” she says, with a laugh.
“I thought it would be interesting to have something as complicated as a choreographer who, as a dancer, didn’t achieve her entire dream,” Boutella says, recounting her process. “She has a hard time finding her place between the grooves. She’s trying very hard to nurture these girls who do belong. She’s happy with what she’s accomplished. So that when everything starts to go downhill, it really affects her.”
Things go downhill fast, as the surprise LSD churns in the exhausted dancer’s bodies with a deadly combination of liquor, cocaine and ecstasy. Boutella, who has never done LSD, couldn’t find the “psychological dizziness” she was looking for in her research on acid. So, she widened her options by exploring the damage of more intense psychoactive drugs. She landed on two that defined her performance: krokodil and flakka.
“I wouldn’t suggest anyone look these up,” Boutella warns. “I wouldn’t look them up again unless I needed to for work. This one woman ate her own eyes.” As she describes the many atrocities she uncovered she shivers. “It was horrible, like watching a horror movie.”
Over fifteen days, Noe, the dancers and Boutella shot the movie in a linear sequence and built the story together. Given the film’s subject matter this was a grueling schedule. “Every day, we’d come in and see what we shot the day before. It was all one shot, and Gaspar would pick one take. Then we’d start rehearsing for 4-5 hours for an 8-10 minute sequence. Then we’d go to lunch, come back, and shoot 14 to 17 takes. They were very long days.”
Boutella stayed in character for most of the shoot. “Toward the end of the film, when everything is so frantic and neurotic, it’s hard to stay that way between takes,” she admits. “Staying focused was essential for me. We only had a few hours to go home and sleep. We had to be able to think on our feet and remain present. It was very important.”
Going into a Noé film, viewers can expect the vulgar and the chaotic. His sets operate as controlled experiments. Actors receive their outlines. Noé films every take, operating the camera or crane himself. Then the chaos slips in as the actors transform into their assigned identities. Some may feel lost on this type of journey, but Boutella learned to embrace it.
“Leaving room for spontaneity was such a gift at the end of the day. So much magic happened from the fact that we didn’t know what we were doing.” The French flag behind the DJ booth was one such happenstance. Noé wanted something to divide the space. It now serves as one of the major visual standouts of the trailer.
That lack of control fascinates Noé. “I asked him, ‘Why the repetitiveness of drugs, sex and violence in your movies?’ I was intrigued. Why was that always the recurring element?” Boutella recalls. “He said, ‘Because I’m fascinated by people losing control. He encourages that in a very peaceful and happy way, bizarrely enough. He’s a very kind man. I never saw him lose it on anybody or being disrespectful or stressed out. It was never done with any negative pressure.”
For Boutella, the release of control inspired. “I never looked at not knowing as a blessing. I always looked at not knowing as a lack of knowledge. Suddenly you’re in a room, and you see what’s around you and you can use that as an actor. But, if you’re very controlled to begin with, and you have very set ideas, it’s hard to unglue yourself from that.”
The actress doesn’t stint in her praise for the director. “Gaspar shines as one of the most gentle, kind and creative people I’ve ever worked with. Looking at his previous work, there’s no way you can have anything but respect for him.” Boutella describes Enter the Void, Irreversible and I Stand Alone as her favorite Noé films. The fact that Noé was in the fray with the actors, shooting each scene, built a lot of trust between the director and his actors. “He wants to be in the middle of it. He wants to feel it, and he wants to live it.”
When asked how she felt after seeing the film herself, Boutella simply says, “Holy shit.” Boutella adds that despite being there during filming, she couldn’t have predicted the final outcome. “I think I had the same exact reaction that the audience had as I discovered the film. I usually only watch my movies once, but I watched this three times. I was fascinated with how Gaspar built the arc. How did he go from everything is sober and fine to introducing us to the nightmare we enter?” She found it where Noé intended—in the chaotic dance pit and spinning over the punch bowl.