Born in Algeria, raised in France and honed to lethal sharpness on stadium stages worldwide, the dancer, actor and erstwhile licker of Tom Cruise's face takes on her edgiest project yet
It was not annoying, but why is it such a big deal to see people having sex? You see people kill each other on-screen all the time. That’s not a big deal; they’re just movies. People are giving Noé shit for having so much sex in his films. Why put so much energy into that? What’s wrong with sex?
Noé also sequenced what is probably cinema’s longest and most brutal rape scene, in his 2002 film Irréversible. Now you’re starring in his new film, Climax. Were you nervous about working with him?
He didn’t glorify rape. It’s controversial, but he’s still very talented. I love that movie. It’s a hard watch, but you know what? It makes you feel something. I was nervous to work with him, but not because of that; I was terrified of not understanding the character I was playing. I studied him before Climax. I spoke with him about the recurring themes of violence, sex and drugs. He said that he’s fascinated with people using drugs. In Climax, I play a choreographer, and we’re spiked with large amounts of LSD. First of all, I was turned off because I did not want to dance; I hadn’t done it in five years. And I’ve never done LSD.
Was it exciting to research mind-altering drugs?
Have you heard about Flakka? It’s the worst fucking drug. According to the nurses I talked to, it’s more fatal than heroin. I watched these videos: This guy was high, killed someone and was eating the person’s face. It was the scariest thing I’d ever seen. I did Climax without drinking or indulging in any substances at all. I didn’t want to alter my state of mind. I could never try meth or anything, because I would love that shit.
Now that I’m more educated, I know that you need to be a feminist. If you’re not, go fuck yourself.
You’ve mentioned being hyperactive. Do you still struggle with ADHD?
Yes, but I’m good at hiding it. I have trouble focusing. I think if I’d grown up here, I would have been diagnosed. When I was a kid, my grandmother would put all the porcelain vases away because I was a tornado. I was exhausting for everybody, even myself. My teachers always told my mom I wasn’t paying attention. It was hard for me to listen to the same person talk for hours on end. I still catch myself thinking about something else. If I’m reading a book, which I love to do, it’s really hard. I will back up and read a line, then read it again, even if it takes me longer. I always think, What’s going on with me? But I have a lot of energy!
Were you a troublemaker growing up?
I went through a phase. It was never anything dangerous. When I was a kid in Algeria, we were not poor, but I wore the same clothes all the time. I had a few outfits and one pair of shoes. When I moved to France, I realized I was not cool, and kids made fun of me for it. From 10 to 15 years old, I was picked on. They made fun of my lips because they were big. The kids would pucker their lips and make fun of how I spoke. It wasn’t a great feeling. Then I went straight into dancing and the arts; that’s what made me feel good. You can be valued because you’re talented, and you’re respected no matter what. I felt like I fit in there. It saved my life.
Was your parents’ divorce difficult for you?
I was four years old when they split. My dad was already in France. I didn’t see him much when I was young. It was tough not having him around, but he came back to Algeria to help us move. I came home from school one day and the house was empty. I had no idea. When it happened, there was a civil war going on in Algeria. There was no water running through the faucets, and we had a curfew of seven P.M. It was brutal. My dad is a composer and a public figure there. He was very opinionated, but if you voiced your opinions about the situation in Algeria, you would get killed. It was too dangerous for my mom and me to stay. It was also dangerous to leave, so we had to sneak out. But I wasn’t scared; I was excited.
You didn’t drink alcohol until you were 28 years old. Why?
Once, when I was 14, my mom was on a work trip and I was home alone. She always made crepes with some sort of rum or hard liquor. I was curious, so I started drinking by myself. I drank to the point that I made myself sick and puked in the middle of the living room. I had to clean it all up. My mom never knew. On my first tour with Madonna, I never drank alcohol. Then on my second tour, I thought, I want to have fun and explore these things! I remember we went to Noble in New York, and I had a glass of champagne. The next day I was hungover.
She’s the best! I loved dancing together. I own a copy of the PLAYBOY issue with Madonna on the cover. I was at a record store in Algeria with my father when I was six years old, and I picked out Tina Turner, Madonna’s Like a Virgin and Michael Jackson’s Bad. I listened to Madonna on a red cassette player with a yellow microphone all the time. I destroyed the Michael Jackson tape from listening so much. I had no idea how big they were; it was just my jam. I remember asking my mom, “Why doesn’t Madonna marry Michael Jackson? He’s the best and she’s the best.”
You were cast to be on Michael Jackson’s This Is It tour, but he passed away before you ever got to dance with him. Were you at least able to meet him?
I want to cry now just thinking about it. I was on tour with Madonna, but we had a hiatus of five months. I was sent a personal invitation to audition for him, and I just knew I had to go. I did not think I was going to get picked; I’m not very good at auditioning. But I got a callback the next day. I was in my fourth round, and then Kenny Ortega, the choreographer, called my name. It immediately broke my heart, because I was like, I’m fucked. I didn’t want to let Madonna down. We decided I would work with Michael after her tour. I was driving down Sunset Boulevard when I got a surprise call from him. I pulled over and he said, “Hey, Sofia, I just want you to know that you’re an amazing dancer. God blessed you, really, God blessed you, and I really want you in my show. We will make that work.” It meant so much to me. Soon after, he passed away. It was so tragic.
You spent two years jobless in Los Angeles before booking Kingsman: The Secret Service. How did you manage?
I literally woke up one morning and I didn’t want to dance anymore. I was terrified. I didn’t care about being fancy; I just wanted to pay my rent. It’s all I cared about. Then my agent fired me and I cried so much. I was so broke my dad had to help me a few times. I started housekeeping and living off savings. It took me another year before I booked Kingsman. They loved my audition, and the next day, I woke up to a message saying to pack all my stuff: I was leaving for London that afternoon for a second audition. The director, Matthew Vaughn, read two scenes with me and said, “All right, I’m happy.” I called my parents right away. They needed the news more than I did.
Why was Tom Cruise a mentor to you on The Mummy?
He taught me a lot on set. It’s observing his dedication. His acting is what taught me the most. He would tell me at length about lenses and anamorphic format and all that sort of technical stuff. I thought, Oh my God, he knows all this shit, and I know nothing. He would never just sit in his chair and watch. He was always hands-on. He was also always early to set. If I were the director, I would love to work with people like him.
You did a #TimesUp post on Instagram about wearing black to support women. What does the movement mean to you?
It means a lot. I was proud to be part of the 5050×2020 movement at Cannes, where Cate Blanchett spoke about equality for women. Women need to be respected. Women are strong, valuable and important. Women matter. When I was younger, I was working on a commercial, and there was a producer who was seducing me. I was naive. I was told to go grab a bite with him. I thought the entire crew was coming, but then I was sitting there and seeing weird behavior from him. I had to face that. We need the movement in order to make a difference, and it needs to be strong. We need to voice it as loud as we can until everything is equal. I first heard about feminism when I was quite young; I didn’t know what it meant or understand the importance of it. Now that I’m more educated, I know that you need to be a feminist. If you’re not, go fuck yourself.
Have you ever feared for your life?
I had a stalker. We dated when I was 24, and he stalked me for two years after we broke up. Once, at two A.M., I was driving down the highway and he was following me. I was shaking. As I was trying to get away, my car spun uncontrollably. I hit a tree and the car ended up upside down. The moment I opened my eyes, I took a breath, went straight to unbuckle the seatbelt and crawled out of the car. A woman grabbed me and started praying to Jesus. I was like, “What’s going on?” I had a piece of glass in my eye. I was so shocked. See, again, this is men thinking they can do whatever the fuck they want with women. This guy would control my life with fear. Fuck that shit.
Algeria recently expelled more than 13,000 migrants. It has been reported that people were left to travel across the Sahara, often at gunpoint, without money, food or water. Did that have a personal resonance for you?
It’s a tough one. My dad always goes back to do projects there and is working on a documentary now. He has revolted against what’s going on. It breaks my heart. I remember when I was a kid, people would always knock on my grandparents’ door. They were from the south, and they would ask to do work in exchange for food and a place to sleep after a long journey. My grandmother would always say yes. Every time I came to visit, there would be a new person staying there. We got lucky and left under different circumstances. Imagine the people who are less fortunate. It’s not normal to me, and something needs to be done.
Am I heterosexual? I guess. Who knows? I think I feel more attracted to men. I’ve kissed women. It was fun.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Trump’s travel ban, even after the disgrace of separating children from their families at the border. As an immigrant, what are your thoughts?
It’s depressing and it’s awful. I’m an immigrant coming from Algeria to France and then to America. I can’t believe what’s being done, and it’s not okay. You know, I feel very weird: For a long time, I have felt bad that I got to live in France and then America. Every time something good happened to me, it would always be laced with guilt. It’s why I can’t be interviewed in Algeria. I can’t sit across from someone and have such a strong opinion and not say it. That’s why I try to be careful.
Let’s get back to your personal life. What does love mean to you?
It’s about sharing on a deep level. It’s important when I feel it. I think we are all driven by that. That’s why people do the craziest things ever. That’s why people built the Taj Mahal—for a feeling. I don’t search for it; I’ve always been baffled and surprised by it. It’s interesting, because when I was growing up, I thought life is great: You meet people, you go on a journey, then you meet someone else. You change boyfriends. That’s normal. When I was 28, I thought, I want something else. I want to value it. I love strongly.
How do you identify sexually?
I don’t like labels. I love people. I have had more men in my life. I’ve never been in a relationship with a woman, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I do. If I feel it, I’ll be honest with it. Am I heterosexual? I guess. Who knows? I think I feel more attracted to men. I’ve kissed women. It was fun. I fall in love with people all the time, but I’ve never been in love with a woman. I’m sexual, and it shouldn’t be taboo to talk about it.
Are you single?
I don’t know.
You’re 36 now. What have you learned about yourself over the years?
All sorts of things. I shape myself every day. I learned that I have courage. There isn’t a day that I don’t realize where I came from and what I get to do today. I’ve just been invited to be a member of the Academy, which is insane. I feel blessed with life. If I tried to do in Algeria what I’m doing now—if there wasn’t a civil war and my mom wanted to stay—it would be really difficult for me to exercise my art. I feel very grateful.