Street dance pioneer Sofia Boutella has appeared in numerous commercials – that was her in Nike’s ‘Keep Up’ campaign, dancing opposite a huge, thumping bass speaker in a darkened warehouse – and music videos from the likes of Madonna, Rihanna, Usher and Ne-Yo. But now she’s turned to acting, bringing an unnerving, intense physicality to her role in Kingsman: The Secret Service – in which she plays an assassin who’s had her lower legs replaced with lethal blades. She’s also been cast in the upcoming Star Trek movie, and she spoke to MF about the training required to be a dancer and to play a killer.
Did mastering the athletic martial arts needed for your killer character Gazelle come naturally?
I trained taekwondo every day for three months in preparation for the part, although I already had the flexibility and movements down from dancing. I just found it pretty strange to end a routine by punching someone in the face!
If we want legs as strong and flexible as yours, what should we do?
The leg work I do is about performing one movement over and over again for long enough until the muscle goes numb – that’s when I know it’s working. It takes me around half an hour so I put on some music and repeat the exercise until I can’t feel myself doing it any more. It’s hardcore, but it’s worth it. The feeling of being able to kick with greater strength each day is empowering.
You had only three hours to prepare for your Kingsman audition. How did you pull it off?
I’d never seen any Bond films or anything like that so I based the henchwoman character on instinct and what the director had told me. I think my athletic ability played a big part in landing me the role. Once I’d finished filming, I did actually watch a few Bond films – Sean Connery is my favourite.
How intense was training to dance at such an elite level with Madonna?
Dancing is such a great workout on its own that I never had to do much other training. When I toured with Madonna I just did a bit of Pilates in the morning and that was it. That’s why dance classes are such an amazing alternative to going to the gym. Try out a freestyle class like hip-hop and see how much you sweat. I’ve been doing ballet and rhythmic gymnastics since I was five years old and I’ve learned that dance training at any level is just about developing muscle memory. You do the moves over and over again until you’re doing them unconsciously. You should be able to think about something totally unrelated and still pull the moves off perfectly. The same thing applies for learning film lines and fight choreography – everything is about repetition.
What was the best thing about working with one of MF's heroes, Samuel Jackson?
He’s just as cool in real life as he is on the screen. He reminded me to have fun, which is important because I criticise myself too much. Samuel said putting too much pressure on yourself makes it hard to enjoy what you’re doing, which reduces the quality of the work. He taught me that if you focus on relaxing and try to enjoy the process of what you’re doing, you actually perform better.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is out now on DVD and Blu-ray
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Sam Razvi wrote for Men’s Fitness UK (which predated and then shared a website with Coach) between 2011 and 2016.