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Sofia Boutella: From dancing for Madonna to Mummy dearest

The French-Algerian actor walks, talks and fights like an Egyptian opposite Tom Cruise in Universal’s new take on its monster franchise

Universal Pictures

Five years ago, Sofia Boutella woke up one morning and realised she was craving a career change. So she approached her boss for a heart-to-heart and confessed she wanted to be a full-time actor.

“She’d always been supportive and she asked me if I had booked a movie. I said, no. She said, ‘What if you don’t work for the next eight months?’ and I said, ‘Even if it takes two years, I feel I need to commit to this properly.’ She gave me her blessing, and it took me two years, just like I said, to get Kingsman – and it’s since then that things have changed.”

That former boss was Madonna – Boutella had been one of her backup dancers for six years, performing in numerous music videos and at the 2012 Super Bowl. The Algerian-born dancer was no acting novice, mind: she had done a several movies in France as a teenager, had starred in British dance film Streetdance 2, and was the main character in the posthumous video for Michael Jackson’s song ‘Hollywood Tonight’.

But at 29, she was wondering: “Am I hiding behind the fact that I’m a dancer?”

Nevertheless, Boutella’s sinewy physicality didn’t hurt when it came to the part of Samuel L Jackson’s henchwoman in Matthew Vaughn’s unexpected hit Kingsman: The Secret Service; nor for the role of alien warrior Jaylah in Star Trek: Beyond. Now she takes on the title role in the reboot of The Mummy from director Alex Kurtzman, which reimagines the bandage-clad monster of old as a resurrected Egyptian princess harbouring a 2,000 year old grudge.

“Ahmanet is a princess who is promised to become Pharoah and is betrayed by her father when he has a son,” says Boutella, who is currently visiting Australia to promote the movie. “She goes and makes a pact with the wrong god, and from then on she’s cursed.” When Ahmenet’s tomb is uncovered by a US soldier (Tom Cruise), she’s ready to rise and wreak destruction on the modern world.

The film is the first in a planned series uniting the classic monsters from Universal’s horror vaults, including the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster. (The name of Russell Crowe’s character in The Mummy – Dr Jekyll – makes those intentions plain.)

Happily, blockbuster franchises aren’t the boring white boys’ clubs they used to be, and it’s heartening the filmmakers have cast as the villain a woman with a North African connection.

The daughter of a jazz musician and an architect, Boutella recalls growing up in Algiers during the 1991-2002 Civil War. “There were bombs exploding here and there. There wasn’t butter, there wasn’t bread, there wasn’t candy or toys. But as a child you don’t realise. I just remember playing in my grandmother’s garden, having fun with very few things. I didn’t need much.”

She began ballet classes at age five with two Bolshoi-trained sisters, Faroudja and Kamir. “It was probably the only ballet class [in Algiers] at that time. I was so so energetic when I was little, and my dad thought it would be good for me, and that’s how it started.”

The family moved to France when Sofia was ten, and she would go on to join the French national rhythmic gymnastics team – valuable prep for a role involving wire stunts alongside an actor known for not relying heavily on stand-ins.

“Tom does his own stunts and he encouraged everyone to do the same,” she says. “But he also makes sure that you’re well looked after, that you train, and are prepared. He got the best people to cook us meals. We trained with his trainers. If we needed anything, he was there for us.”

The Mummy opens on Thu Jun 8.