Actress Sofia Boutella embodies the titular character in the latest version of "The Mummy," a reinterpretation of the 1932 Boris Karloff film and a reboot of Universal's monster franchise. It shouldn't be notable that Boutella's furious ancient Egyptian villain is female, but it is.
"Why aren't monsters being played by women?" Boutella muses, lying on a couch during an interview here. "If you piss off a woman she's far more brutal than a man. How come they didn't think about that before?"
Boutella, 35, has selected one of Dior's "We Should All Be Feminists" shirts to wear while doing press for the movie, which opens Friday. She doesn't mean it as a political statement, but more as a general comment on why it's important to have equal representation on film. She's just pleased to be part of one that doesn't downgrade its female characters.
"Ahmanet is the ultimate feminist, I think," Boutella says of her character, an Egyptian royal who is denied her shot at becoming pharaoh because she's not a man, thus igniting her wrath. "What happened to her is something that's always existed and, weirdly, still does, being prevented from ever becoming pharaoh because her father has a child and the child is a boy. She's not OK with that. She doesn't victimize herself. And the movie also does not victimize her."
Boutella originally turned down the role in director Alex Kurtzman's film; she didn't want to play an angry monster, but a woman with real complexity and a back story. "But as much as I said no to begin with I'm so grateful I said yes," Boutella says. "I feel lucky to be part of this film."
"The Mummy" is the first in Universal's recently announced Dark Universe series, which will also include 2019's female-led "Bride of Frankenstein." It's the latest in a long line of reboots and sequels of well-known action franchises. Its success is far from guaranteed; an opening weekend of $40 million or less is predicted, a less than spectacular debut for a big summer flick.
The film stars Tom Cruise as a looter who pillages ancient sites for pricey artifacts. It's his character who uncovers Ahmanet's tomb and unleashes her evil on modern-day London.
As Ahmanet regenerates, stealing power by sucking the life force out of police officers and other men, she grows stronger and stronger, shifting in form. Kurtzman went through 24 screen tests with Boutella to find the final mummy look and the actress spent four to six hours a day in a makeup chair to prepare during the seven-month shoot. It all got to Boutella's head.
"It was a long time to spend with Ahmanet," she admits. "I love her – I have a lot of empathy for her – but she was hard to hang around with. I don't feel like that as a person. What happened to her never happened to me, so I don't walk around like that. It was a lot to go home with. It took a while to shake it off."
For Boutella, this process of acting remains somewhat new. Her first big role was in 2015's "Kingsman: The Secret Service," in which she played a lethal fighter named Gazelle who has swords for legs. It took her two years of auditioning to land the part and before it came along Boutella was considering taking a job as a housekeeper to pay bills.
The actress, who was born in Algiers and raised in Paris, moved to Los Angeles at 24, intending to pursue her career as a dancer. She's toured with Madonna, and appeared in music videos for artists like Michael Jackson and Rihanna. In 2012, as she was rehearsing with Madonna for her Super Bowl half-time performance, Boutella realized she wanted to give acting a real shot. The last time she danced professionally was in the field during that Super Bowl show.
Since "Kingsman," Boutella played an alien warrior named Jaylah in "Star Trek Beyond" and appeared in several indie films. She'll star opposite Charlize Theron in "Atomic Blonde" later this year, another action movie that emphasizes Boutella's ability to embody a role with real physicality. She may not dance anymore (except, she says, in the club when tipsy), but Boutella's dance background informs all of her performances, including that of Ahmanet.
"I wanted to find her strength and her power through the way she moves in space and the way she carries herself like royalty," Boutella says. "I wanted to find that rhythm. She doesn't move very fast. I wanted her to be floating in space instead of running. Boris Karloff did that – he looks like a mirage. He had that sort of majesty and I wanted to find that same kind of finesse and beauty. I thought it would be an interesting contrast with the monster."
That sort of intensity and emphasis on physicality are what drew Kurtzman to cast Boutella in the first place. After seeing her in "Kingsman," he knew she was right for the role. "I [was] blown away, not just by her obvious physical ability, which is extraordinary, but by the fact she conveyed so much with her eyes," the director says. "To have the audience credibly believe that she is a 5,000-year-old princess who carries herself with an air of royalty befitting a bygone age, I needed someone who could control her body and also honor what is essential of the Universal monster movies – I needed people to fear her as the monster and needed them to sympathize with her."
Boutella trained intensely to become Ahmanet, taking up boxing and stick fighting in preparation. Most of her fight scenes are against Cruise, with whom Boutella quickly bonded. She talks about him constantly and has dozens of photos of them together on her phone, many of which she posts on Instagram at his bidding. She learned a lot from his dedication and professionalism — but admits she enjoyed getting to smack him around on set.
"It was such a joy," she says, gleefully. "I had a lot of pleasure beating him around. We had such a good laugh on set. He helped me and told me how to make it look like I'm hurting him even more. I love when you get to work with people who care about the project as much as you do because then you're altogether in. I feel like I've been lucky so far to have the chance to work with people who work that way. He's definitely one of them. He doesn't take it for granted."
Next Boutella flies back to L.A. to film "Hotel Artemis" alongside Jodie Foster and Jeff Goldblum. She is interested in projects that deal with human relationships and, whether she says it directly or not, in strong female roles. Still, she doesn't feel like she's yet in a position to be overly picky.
"I'm so new to this job and I'm learning so much that I feel like I need to do more," Boutella says. "I need to experience more characters in order to be more specific. Right now I'd play a cactus in a movie. I'm up for anything. I'm not after having the lead or being in a blockbuster Hollywood film. I'm after reading the material and loving it. That's all."