Sofia Boutella: ‘All Americans think they are Irish. Right?’

The live-wire Algerian actor on dancing with Madonna and channelling Boris Karloff

"Ireland is beautiful. Though I suppose it rains all the time," Sofia Boutella says. "I drove to Kerry on the wrong side of the road for the first time. I thought I was going to have an accident with the sheeps. I was terrified. Why the hell do sheeps go in the f***ing road like this? Aren't they told?"

Today's younger movie stars tend to be well-schooled. They know what to say and how to say it. But you don't meet that many who swell with character and eccentricity. Boutella looks to be an exception. Born in 1982, the Algerian actor is, I suppose, not that young any more, but, after an initial career as a successful dancer, she is only now making louder noises in mainstream film. She was great as an alien scavenger in Star Trek Beyond. She was super in the recent Irish three-hander Tiger Raid. Now, opposite a breathless Tom Cruise, she plays the title character in Universal's latest disinterment of The Mummy.

It's a good role for an ex-dancer. There's a lot of feline writhing and demonic glowering. Those hours hoofing with Madonna on the Confessions tour didn't go to waste.

“Thank you. Yes, it was physical,” she says. “She’s never been pharaoh, but I think she’s carrying herself with some sort of pride that I wanted to find. I researched ancient mythology . . . ”


And she's off. Boutella talks as if speaking is about to be abolished and she must enjoy the chatter while she can. She went back and watched the 1932 version of The Mummy with Boris Karloff to get a few tips. She initially turned down the role, but, after devising a more offbeat villain, talked herself back into it.

She begins wrestling with her own body. One leg is curled up. Another is stretched.

“I have to move because my knees are bothering me so much,” she says. “When I danced, my body was fine, and then when I stopped they gave me trouble. I have to keep moving or I have to sleep. But it’s hard for me to keep still.”

The gypsy life

Boutella comes from a creative background. She was born in Algiers, the daughter of the versatile musician Safy Boutella – composer of brilliant scores such as that for Rachid Bouchareb's Little Senegal – and of a busy architect. When the civil war began in 1991, the family left Algeria to work and live in France. Sofia moved to Los Angeles many years ago, but I get the sense she's never really had a chance to settle in. She has danced here. She acted there. "Home" is a slippery concept.

"I live where the work is," she agrees. "I guess LA is where I hang my hat. But I haven't really been there for two years. I was in Vancouver doing Star Trek. I was in Budapest for a while. The longest I have stayed there in two years is a month and a half. I think I like the gypsy life. I get itchy feet."

What does she miss most about being away from home?

“That I don’t know where home is.”

Boutella maintains that becoming a performer was not something she yearned for from an early age. She has been dancing since she was five, but the drift towards the business was slow and steady. She doesn’t remember any big break.

"I wanted to raise dolphins but that is only because I enjoyed the TV show Flipper. Then I wanted to be join Doctors Without Borders because I had a board game based on that. But I just stumbled into being a professional dancer."

Around 10 years ago, she secured a job on a Nike commercial and found herself kicked into the big time. Handy employment with Michael Jackson and Madonna soon followed. Performers who work closely with Ms Ciccone rarely have a bad word to say about her. She seems to be the right sort of taskmaster.

“It was phenomenal,” Boutella says. “They were some of the best years of my life. I adore Madonna. She is so supportive. She is opinionated, which is wonderful. She cares about what she does. She is not half-hearted in anything she does. She doesn’t take this job for granted. You feel part of a family. She’s a woman’s woman.”

The Sheehan angle

Boutella began dating our own Robert Sheehan around three years ago and they have done much impressive red-carpet duty in the succeeding years. This partly explains her connection with Ireland, but she also feels an indirect connection through her own Algerian roots. Algeria's complex relationship with France mirrors Ireland's with Britain. They are both ex-colonial nations. They are both still interrogating their own identities.

“Yeah, there are some similarities between the Irish and the Algerians,” she says. “They have both been occupied. I noticed that in the people. They are totally different cultures, but there are these similarities. When something like that happens to populations, you can feel it. I am very sensitive.”

She barely pauses to deliver a parenthetical aside: “You don’t need to put that on paper if you don’t want to talk about politics. But if you don’t mind, then go ahead.”

She seems to have been buffeted into an impressively international class of star. The producers of The Mummy were right to break with cultural imperialist traditions – Boris Karloff, who played The Mummy in 1932, was from Surrey; Arnold Vosloo, the 1999 incarnation, is an Afrikaner – and seek out a north African actor for the title role. But Boutella gives the impression she could take on almost any national identity.

“It’s an interesting question I have been asking myself,” she says. “I left my country at such a young age. I had to adapt to what France was. I feel I did the same thing in LA. I can go anywhere. But I miss not having one place, because I have never really had that.”

Well, we managed to find an Irish heritage certificate for her costar Tom Cruise when he was last here.

“Yeah, all Americans think they are Irish. Right?” she laughs. “That’s sweet. I want mine.”

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist