After a long day of work, Sofia Boutella does what many of us do—exchange the day’s ensemble for a trusty pair of sweats. Hers just happen to be a personal gift from Madonna. “She gave me these on my first tour with her,” Boutella, a former professional dancer, explains of the black tracksuit she slips into after wrapping her photo shoot with BAZAAR. “They’re still my favourite comfy clothes,” she shares, completing the off-duty look with a pair of classic Doc Martens. What else would you expect from a terpsichorean, who had just spent the entire day leaping and pirouetting in the heat around downtown Los Angeles?
Boutella makes the cover of BAZAAR Malaysia’s 15th Anniversary Issue, which, coincidentally, is exactly how long it’s been since Her Madgesty gifted her the tracksuit. Although she was born in Algeria and raised in France, it was in Los Angeles where Boutella was thrusted into rehearsal upon booking her first gig with Madonna. She was thrilled, of course, but she knew she was standing at the foot of an enormous learning curve. There was choreography to master, the physical demands of a worldwide tour to prepare her body for, and—no big deal—she needed to learn English. “I struggled to understand what everybody was saying, but I had to learn very fast,” she recalls, speaking now in near-perfect English glazed with a French accent. “It was incredible to be thrown into that world. Watching Madonna work, I learned so much.” And learn she did; applying that same energy and passion on set as she would on stage over the years. Case in point: her bold, electrifying dance moves, which seemed to juxtapose against Louis Vuitton’s 18th-century inspired Spring/Summer ’18 collection. Even in a brocade tailcoat (the same one French first lady Brigitte Macron was spotted in, just a few days before our shoot), she keeps it on point—literally, on her toes, dancing through the streets of Vernon.
In a world of Insta-fame, Boutella’s career path is a timely reminder of the pay-offs that come with persistence, staying true to oneself, and trusting time. Her first on-screen appearance came in 2002, when she played—surprise!—a dancer in the French movie Le Défi. She loved the experience and enrolled in acting classes, taking on a few more projects in Paris. In the beginning, “it wasn’t that much,” she says. “In the span of four years, [I only had] maybe three or four projects.” She was pursuing dance at the same time, which began to demand more and more of her time. “I decided to devote myself to dance, focus on that, and not have my butt in two chairs,” she says of the conscious decision to shelve her acting ambitions. “The dancing that was required of me at the time was really intense because it required a ton of travel,” she adds. “I was always a suitcase away from any place.”
Once the touring settled down, so did Boutella. After relocating to LA full time, she took classes on and off for six years while maintaining regular work as a dancer. “I never tried to do anything about [acting],” she declares. “I never tried to make that my job. I just loved taking classes.” Spoiler alert: that changed.
The turning point for her came when she booked a role as a salsa dancer for StreetDance 2 in 2012. Being on set again was intoxicating, and she wondered if she’d been hiding behind her busy dance schedule. She began to reconsider committing to acting full time. “The desire of dancing would not leave my heart,” she says, but, “after two years of really contemplating taking the leap, I woke up one morning wanting solely to act.” Her final gig as a professional dancer was 2012’s Super Bowl XLVI halftime show alongside her pal Madonna—not a bad way to go out.
“I made the decision [to act full time] without having booked anything or an agent,” she says. “I stayed for two years without getting a pay cheque, without working.” She took classes like mad during that period. “You don’t get better at acting without acting,” she says plainly. “I just wanted to act. I was like, ‘I’ll play a cactus in any movie right now.’ I just [wanted] to be on set; to learn how the camera and sound works. Anything is experience.”
Two years of passion-fuelled dedication later, she appeared in her first major release, Kingsman: The Secret Service, in 2014. Among her accomplishments since are roles in Star Trek Beyond, Atomic Blonde with Charlize Theron, and The Mummy alongside Tom Cruise. “As an actress, I love to be part of movies that are purely entertaining, but I also love complex films that are more physiological.” She currently has two projects in post-production: The action-thriller Hotel Artemis with Jodie Foster, Sterling K Brown, and Jeff Goldblum; and the HBO adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 with Michael B Jordan and Michael Shannon.
Such ease flitting from one prismatic role to another says a lot about Boutella’s repertoire; something she has most certainly applied to all aspects of life, including fashion. Who else could transition from a disco-ready couture gown for a movie premiere to a bohemian Gothic-lolita look at London Fashion Week?
As an actress, Boutella stands out with her spirited strength, the discipline instilled by dance, and the unique sensitivity she has for movement. “The body language I give to my characters is something I take from dancing,” she explains. “I pay attention to how people move. The way people sit will tell me who they are and what they’re like. The way people smoke their cigarettes, the way people drink … do they lift their pinky, do they not? I pay attention to all that.” That observant quality was no doubt honed during the challenging periods where, without language, all she had for communication was movement.
Still, literacy wasn’t the only difficulty she faced during the transition. There have been more challenging times: at 10 years old, her family got the chance to escape Algeria, which was experiencing a violent civil war at the time. “I was lucky to be able to leave the country when I did,” she says. “People were trying to escape by boat and they would either die [trying] or be caught and brought back to the country and put in jail,” she reminisces. But thanks to her father’s work, the family was able to settle in Paris. “Moving to France was a big deal,” she says, “and I had to adjust to that.” While she was comfortable speaking French, she didn’t yet read or write in the language. Acclimating was necessary, but it certainly wasn’t easy.
Kids at her new school paid more attention to clothes than she’d ever thought to consider, in part because she hadn’t had much of a wardrobe. As a child, Boutella’s clothes were mostly made by her mother and grandmother, and she owned just one pair of shoes at a time, which she had to keep until they were worn through. “Even when [the shoes] had a hole, it was a few more months [before I got a new pair],” she says. “In Algeria, we had to wear a blouse on top of our clothes and everybody looked the same,” she remembers. “In France, you don’t have that, and I started to realise, ‘Oh my God, I’m not cool.’”
With the confident peroxide bob and contrasting dark brows she sports these days, it’s hard to imagine Boutella as “not cool”. She absolutely epitomises “cool”, but that’s what happens when you’ve been routinely launched out of your comfort zone and made to find stability in foreign environs. Change cultivates confidence.
She wouldn’t have seen it played out any other way, though. “I just stuck to what I believed in my heart and the passion that I had,” she says. “I embraced changes and moving and I loved just exploring different cultures.” I ask her what she wishes she’d known 15 years ago, touching down in LA to begin work with Madonna, with no inkling of the remarkable path ahead. “Looking back, I would tell myself, ‘You’re doing good, and I’m proud of you.’” She determines. “I would be nice to myself. That’s what I would do.”
Videography: Chris Monberg
Hair: Sascha Breuer/Starworks Artists
Make-up: Fiona Stiles/Starworks Artists using Dior Makeup
Manicure: Mazz Hanna/Nailing Hollywood Management Inc using Chanel Le Vernis
Production: Ambar Servin
Retoucher: Love Retouch
Styling assistant: Mariam Gafaar
Photography assistants:Brian Lipps; Piero F Giunti
Production assistant: Lauren Schlessinger
Location: Vernon, Los Angeles (@thesandboxla)