Courtesy of HBO
Sofia Boutella stars in Ramin Bahrani’s screen adaptation of Ray Bradburty’s classic novel Fahrenheit 451. Set in the near future after a second American civil war, media is the opiate of the masses, facts and history are re-written and books are burned by ‘firemen.’
Michael B. Jordan (Creed, Black Panther) plays Montag, a charismatic and fast rising young fireman who begins to question his beliefs and turns against his mentor, Captain Beatty, played by Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals, The Shape of Water).
Ms. Boutella is Clarisse, one of Beatty’s informants, who is also part of the underground movement – known as Eels – fighting to save books. Clarisse encourages Montag to join the rebellion.
“It was collaborative, and creative and Michael B. Jordan is so invested, so thoughtful. He’s a joy to work with – they all were,” she says.
Ms Boutella was born in Algeria and started dancing when she was just five years old. Her family moved to France when she was 10 where, in her teens, she began to dance professionally.
She has toured the world as a dancer, notably performing with Madonna on several tours. Her last ‘gig’ as a dancer was at the Super Bowl. As an actress her films include Streetdance 2, Monsters: Dark Continent, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Jet Trash, Tiger Raid, Gateway 6, The Coldest City, The Mummy, Star Trek: Beyond, Atomic Blonde and Climax.
Are you living in Paris now?
SB: No, I’m in Los Angeles. It’s been twelve years six months now – twelve years!
Do you enjoy it?
SB: When I’m there, yeah!
But you’re away a lot. Is that hard?
SB: No, but I have such a nomadic family – they were so well travelled and I think I have that in my blood. When I was young my dad told me, “Go where it takes you – you don’t belong to me, you don’t belong to your mother”. That’s the best thing I’ve ever been told. It gave me such courage when I was younger to be like, “Now I’m gonna go there.” I meet so many people who feel like they miss home as soon as they go out of their comfort zone, which is nice for them, but for me, because I was told that, it’s like, “No – any opportunity to leave!”
Do you miss your family?
SB: I miss my family a lot but I’m very close to them and I’m very grateful that they gave me that [advice]. It’s a present, isn’t it? I think I would say the only downside of it is that when people ask me “where is home?” I don’t know. I feel very much a part of the world and belong to this earth. I’m Algerian – I’m proud of where I was born and my background. I’m proud of where I grew up, France, but I feel like I’m from everywhere. It’s interesting – I don’t know where my home is. If people were to ask me, “where do you want to live?” In LA? Maybe not. New York? Maybe I’ll try it. London – why not? I don’t think I want to go back to Paris or Algeria. So I feel like I need to keep going places I’ve never been.
Did you know Ray Bradbury’s book before this film?
SB: No, I didn’t unfortunately, and I was surprised by it. I was talking with another woman yesterday who grew up in France – she was given it in high school. I was not given it to read in school, and I’d never heard about it in France when I was studying. When I was given the script, I was like “Oh, what’s this? That’s based on a book?” So I read the book before I auditioned and it was fascinating and amazing – how ahead of its time! Incredible. If anybody, like in my position, doesn’t know about it, they need to know – everybody needs to know about this book.
It’s always a difficult process adapting a book to the screen. How do you think your director, Ramin Bahrani, has done bringing it up to date for a contemporary audience?
SB: I think he did excellently in the sense that he not only adapted it well for the screen, but he adapted it very well for our time and for people to relate to as much as possible. The times we live in now are quite scary, so the book and the movie come right on time. They were working on it and writing the script before the election – that’s mad to me as well. I think it’s essential, the message.
What are the crossover themes for our times?
SB: Fake news, social media, emojis – just the simple fact that a lot of my friends now, instead of writing a sentence, they just write the emoji that goes with the emotion that they’re feeling so they’re not writing an entire sentence. “How are you feeling?” They say, “This morning I woke up and I felt quite – ” without the vocabulary. It’s not my friends’ fault! It’s because of what they’re given – it’s like, “Oh, that’s faster”. It’s going to be whatever is faster – everything goes way too fast now. That’s why people don’t open books, because the moment you start reading you get anxiety about what you are missing. What are you going to miss that’s not going to give you the opportunity to fulfill your life in the best possible way? Everybody’s having that fear of missing out. I think it’s scary. It’s the pace in which things go that restricts people. Like, emojis are way faster – do that! Fast food – do that!
The film also shows mass media covering the book burnings and the ‘firemen’ are like celebrities, which also feels like the way media covers events today in the world we live in. What did you think of that?
SB: I think it’s a distraction from what’s essential and in my belief; it’s created for that very purpose. I think it’s a fascination for people – needing to, not worship, but idolize something. Why is that? I think it’s because they haven’t developed or read enough about things to have confidence in themselves so they rely on what they see. It’s a role model that is sort of maybe not portraying the best thing for them. Back in the day people would admire a philosopher or a poet, and now I suppose it’s stardom or reality shows – people that display their lives and the rhythm of their lives. People are hooked on that. It’s fascinating.
Do you watch some of those things?
SB: Yeah! I watch it sometimes for character research. I find it really interesting – I’ve never been hooked, just out of curiosity. I’m not mad at it – I’m mad at it when people let their lives be led by that, but I don’t actually mind anything and I’m not trying to tell people what to do or what to think. I just think that when people don’t trust themselves so much to the point of not having any interest in reading and to cultivating themselves.
Do you find time to read even though you’re so busy?
SB: I read so many scripts – that’s when I read. Sometimes I read scripts and trust me, I wish I was reading a book (Laughs). I went on holiday for the first time in five years and I thought I was going to read a book and then I read scripts instead because I couldn’t stop working. But I do – I just bought M Train by Patti Smith because I loved Just Kids. People keep asking me, “Which book would you save?” I had one, and then I had two – now I have three (Laughs).
What’s the other one?
SB: Oh, The Little Prince [by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry] and Notes from Underground [by Dostoevsky] because Ramin gave it to me for the movie and I loved it so much. It’s brutally honest and fascinating – he’s such an amazing writer. So it’s that and Just Kids now.
Can you describe your character for me?
SB: I play Clarisse McLellan – she’s an informant and very much a survivor trying to get by. She comes from the book people basically, and she rebelled against all that when she was a teenager. She sort of grew up to be selfish and wanting happiness – when you find her in the movie she’s trading information to get her life back, so she gives away her people. She comes from a very selfish place – she doesn’t seem to be a woman who has made the best decisions but the arc of the character comes very quickly, and I would describe her as a survivor.
She becomes pivotal, though, in Michael B. Jordan’s character’s decision to join the rebels who are trying to save books…
SB: They both share that guilt of the woman dying for her books – they’re both responsible for that. That’s when the arc happens – we didn’t have a lot of time at the beginning to establish what her rhythm would have been before. I really had just that scene with Michael Shannon at the club, at the VR bar. Michael B. Jordan and I had that moment when they both are here standing at the end of the scene when I change my look and my mood. That’s how you see I’m playing, that I’m different when I’m one on one with people. I need to get what I want, but when they’re both there, it doesn’t matter.
Why was that a key moment for you?
SB: That very moment is what gave me insight into how she might have been before. That line, “See you around, Montag” was perfect. Ramin agreed – it’s just one sentence! And the blonde hair establishes the selfishness. I think she’s selfish at the beginning of the film – very much so, and everything else after, she’s carrying this guilt. I think essentially deep inside when you see her at the beginning she’s very tough – “Give me that! I did this!” – but when you see her on her own, I think she’s an introverted, quite shy person. It’s different from the book because in the book you see her and she’s so bubbly, such a free spirit. She’s sort of like sunshine – she’s wearing a white dress, and she’s seventeen. I think our adaptation is very different, and I love it, but that part of the book also makes me smile.
What was it like to work on this film?
SB: I loved it. It was quite dark for me – I was reading the book that I read as a teenager, White Teeth by Zadie Smith which is a comedy. It gave me a contrast between what I was working on and the world I lived in, compared to where I came from and trying to build my character’s past – the family I must have grown up with, imagining what it would have been like to rebel against that, like every teenager does in a way. It was quite dark.
What kind of set does Ramin create for you?
SB: He’s so sensitive as a director. He would come up and lean and whisper – every note is very personal. He takes every suggestion. He’s wildly intelligent and I love how everything he treats is so essential and not only entertaining. I have done so many purely entertaining films, so it was gratifying for me to be a part of something that actually matters to the heart and matters to the world we live in. The set and the environment that we worked with were also very cared for, and we were very cared for intellectually. I love how he makes it essentially about the art and about the work and the intellect of it – I could call him any time and we’d talk about the character at length. I had so many questions and he gave me that opportunity. We sat together and read the scenes at length with Michael B. Jordan. He wrote with us as we spoke and gave each other notes, me and Michael – like “Look, I’m writing it as we go”. So he also wrote it for us. I remember being on set and turning to Michael and said, “Would you like to try one where we’re not kissing at all?” Because it’s not about that at the end – you can feel that, and it has to be so much stronger. I came to Ramin and he said, “Yeah, let’s try one.” It was collaborative and creative and Michael B. Jordan is so invested, so thoughtful. He’s a joy to work with – they all were.
Did you enjoy working with him?
SB: Yeah, so much. I’d work again with him in a heartbeat. He’s the best. He’s so sweet and polite – such a gentleman. I love him.
How about the other Michael, Michael Shannon?
SB: I was such a fan of him. I just loved his work so much when I was young – his work in Revolutionary Road was always a reference to my agents because I told them, “I don’t want to play a lead, it doesn’t matter – look at Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road!” If I get that kind of complexity and character, give me one scene and I’m happy in a film. I don’t pretend to be anywhere near where he’s at with his instrument, but that’s what I admire. And he’s funny! He’s funny, kind, and sweet. We got to know each other more during the promo actually – we were paired together and we don’t have that many scenes together. We talked about plays yesterday because he was in the theatre so much and I told him I’d like to do plays at some point.
Is that one of your goals?
SB: Yeah, I’d love that. My acting teacher gave me plays to work on so I worked on a lot of Ibsen, Chekhov, Eugene O’Neill, and Tennessee Williams.
Were you struck by how this was a bigger film for Ramin, even though it was so small compared to your previous films?
SB: Yeah, it was still a big one for him! I remember when we came on set for the first time there were all these trucks and all these trailers – Ramin said, “I can’t look at this,” and I said, “Why?” and he said it was because he’d never had that kind of budget before (laughs). I’d do a smaller one – I just did a movie with Gaspar [Noé] that played this morning which I haven’t seen yet. I just want to work with artists and visionaries – I’m open for anything and I like the change and the switch but I’m very interested in people’s visions, like those of Ramin and Gaspar.
As you said you also worked with Gaspar Noé on Climax, which is also here in Cannes. I haven’t seen it but it sounds like you had to draw on your background as a dancer?
SB: Yes. Gaspar is such a talented person. Even if you don’t like his work, you can’t deny it – he makes you feel something whether you hate it or you love it, and that’s all I’m after. To me not feeling anything is the worst possible thing that can happen to art, so I think it’s okay to say “I didn’t like it”, but it’s not okay to say, “This is outrageous, this is not okay”. It’s like, “Why? It’s art.” Even more so when you get to know the person – he’s so kind, everybody loves him, and there isn’t one thing that he forces people to do. That’s fascinating because I was wondering how he gets all these people to do those things. He’s genuinely like, “If you don’t want to, it’s fine”. That’s the fascinating thing to observe for a set that didn’t invite for planning – nothing was planned. We had five pages of script – not even a script, a treatment to work with every day. We figured out what we did every day and it was a hectic set, but never once has he lost it. He never raised his voice toward anybody, and was so kind and thoughtful. When we’d watch a scene after takes he’d be like, “Oh, come sit – call everybody, call the dancers, make room. Bring chairs.” It’s like, “Gaspar, we’ve got to do another take!” He’s like, “No no no. Are you good? Do you need water? Here, have mine. A jacket? Are you cold?” It’s like, “Are you for real?” (Laughs). I loved it. We wrapped two months ago, can you believe it?
So variety in terms of work is your aim?
SB: Yeah, I’m really happy. I’m still shaping and carving and all that – I think that never stops. I think I’m still establishing what kind of rails I’m set on. I’m not on those steady rails yet, I’m still carving that, but once you’re on it you’re still carving. There’s all these things that you’re shaping. I’m exploring and I’m learning. I’m still learning loads – there’s so much stuff I don’t know.
Are you still dancing?
SB: Well, I did in Gaspar’s movie, but no, I don’t. I did a charity event for Sean Penn in January for Haiti in Los Angeles. He had auctioned a dress from Madonna at Art Basel a year ago and he asked her kindly if she didn’t mind re-auctioning it for his charity. They talked about having me dance for it and I couldn’t say no because of the charity and both of them – they’re so kind and sweet.
You danced with Madonna, right?
SB: Yeah, for nine years. I learned so much from her – she’s a fascinating, great woman. She works really hard and really cares.
Do you dance for yourself?
SB: Yeah when I’m at the club and drunk (Laughs). No, I’m joking. I would care too much if I started taking classes again – I’d want to fix it. It would touch my heart, it would affect me and so I need enough space away from it. I didn’t stop dancing like it was something I was peeling myself away from because it actually came quite naturally. I can’t wait to go back to class with ballet again, though – that’s what I’m looking forward to, taking contemporary class. I’d love to go back to that when I’m ready.