Olga Kurylenko on Delivering the Terror of ‘Mara’

The actor details the depths she dove to replicate fear for horror movie thrills.
By  · Published on September 10th, 2018

Sleep kills. We’ve known this ever since Freddy Krueger first transformed Johnny Depp into a geyser of blood in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Demons love to snack on your soul while you’re catching a few winks. One sheep, munch, two sheep, munch, three sheep, gulp.

Where can a filmmaker take this primordial fear after decades of Robert Englund dreamscape hijinks and one-liner wisecracks? Documentarian Rodney Ascher found a way by exploring the real-life terror of sleep paralysis in The Nightmare, and now first-time director Clive Tonge snatches that conceptual baton for Mara. The actuality of the condition is a living hell, but an easy target for a creature feature.

Having already built a quality filmography of genre staples (Quantum of Solace, Centurion, Oblivion), Olga Kurylenko was looking to dive deep into the horror genre. Mara fit the bill. Kate Fuller, her psychologist-turned-detective, allows her to tap into that primal dread while also achieving significant screen time to kick monster movie ass.

On the eve of Mara’s release, I spoke to Kurylenko over the phone. We discuss her ease at falling into a petrified state, and how her horror movie process differs from previous experiences. Naturally, the chat cannot conclude without a little exchange regarding the much-anticipated The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.

Here is our conversation in full:

Mara requires you to go to some pretty terrifying places and to exist in long stretches of perpetual fear. What is your process for reaching such a state?

Well, you know, you just imagine that you’re terrified. I spoke to a lot of people about the sleep paralysis. I haven’t, unfortunately, or fortunately, had any experiences, while a lot of people have. Almost everybody I know has a story about it. My family. The thing is people experience it, but they don’t know what it is. And they’re, like, “Oh wait. No, I have it, I’ve had it like five times in my life.” You know, or somebody says, “Oh I have it quite regularly. I didn’t even know it was a thing.” I heard so many horrifying stories that it was pretty clear. I read things online about it, and about Mara and all that stuff. You really just merge into it. Quite frankly, it’s all there.

Also the atmosphere on set. They make it … the lightning, the monster, whether you see it or not. That’s how you kind of work with it. And of course, because I can’t move, all the fear … the only part of my body that can express any fear are my eyes. I guess the acting is very limited to the eyes in this movie because that’s the only thing that opens and closes and can move right or left. That’s pretty much it. You can’t move your body.

Watching it, I got the impression that that would be a very hard state to exist in for such a significant amount of time. I guess in the film, it’s in five, ten-minute bursts, but I imagine acting it, it would be torturous.

Yeah. It’s not easy because you do have to adopt a position. And once you’re in a position you really can’t move while they’re filming. You have to be there because you are paralyzed, and obviously, I’m acting like I’m paralyzed. So I could easily move an arm or leg, so I have to at the same time control my body and concentrate and be like, “Okay, you can move.” And my neck has to be safe and everything. So, yeah, it’s not an easy thing. And I was thinking, “Oh God, how do I portray all the fear with being pretty limited.” I can’t even make big facial expressions because I’m supposed to be paralyzed. For me, it was very important to … I was like, “How am I going to do this just with my eyes?” Yeah, so. It’s a challenge, it’s a challenge.

Is that a state that you can easily go in and out of? Or do you need downtime after that type of scene?

No actually, no. No downtime. I don’t know if it’s easy or difficult. I wouldn’t say that I was like sitting in some dark corner concentrating for it. I was just doing it. And quite frankly, when they have cuts, we would just start chatting.

So no big deal.

Yeah. You know, it depends on the actress. Some people will probably not talk to anybody the whole day. I heard about other actresses who just literally, you say “cut”, and they’re … I don’t know, they’re making an anecdote for the whole crew and they’re laughing. Like they totally snap out of it.

I’m actually happy to hear that. No method torture.

Yeah, no, don’t worry. I wasn’t in a miserable state. I’ve been in much more difficult states with other films, which were dramas and dealing with like loss of a close one, or some type of drama that happens in my character’s life. That is much more difficult. But this, it’s different. I knew that sleep paralysis is very real, but Mara isn’t. Well, and it is, because I guess people do describe all this, and just an old woman comes and sits on their chest. Because somehow they all see that.

But I was able to not to get too close to it, maybe? Maybe it was protection as well, because like I’m not going to start being terrified. I mean it was a concern because I was like, “Am I going to be able to sleep during making this movie and afterward?” I was like, “I hope it’s not going to scare me or do something to me and disturb me in certain ways.” So maybe psychologically I kind of protected myself from that, because that would be terrifying.

For me, sleep is very important. I don’t want to start being freaked out to fall asleep. Sometimes I was like, “Oh my God, what if I fall asleep” … like I read somewhere that it often happens when you sleep on your back. So since the movie, I’ve never slept on my back. And if I do, I’m like, “Oh my God, I have to turn to my side.” Because I don’t want to get sleep paralysis. I mean, I don’t know how much of it is true, but yeah. I always go to my side, because I don’t want Mara to come (laughter).

Yeah, let’s not start that. I don’t want that either. Does your process differ when you take on a role like this one versus something like Maria in Death of Stalin?

Oh yeah, completely. Yeah, of course, of course. No, of course. I mean this one, she’s a psychologist and I had to research what it is to be that. What it involves to be a forensic psychologist and dealing with, constantly seeing all sorts of homicides and deaths, or dealing with people that are traumatized. The film also has to be scary, it’s dark, and it’s spooky. It’s a totally different vibe; it’s not the same internal state, of course. It’s different for every role.

I’m sure the vibe also depends on who’s leading the set.

Oh yes, it’s very important. The director is very important. That’s a thing that we were all very lucky with. We had such a great crew, such a great team. The crew and the actors, we all got along. We all had big dinners once a week all together. The producers, the directors, the actors, and everybody was so lovely. In fact, I’m still in touch with most of the people from that film. It doesn’t always happen like that. Sometimes you just kind of part, and you never speak to people. You don’t really exchange your personal numbers. And I really, I’m in touch with a lot of people. We had fun. That’s why I think it’s important also to do that movie and get along because then you’re really able to have a kind of different look at it and have fun. Can you imagine doing this with people you don’t like? I mean, that would be awful.

Also, we shot mostly at night, and I hate shooting at night because for me night is for sleeping. So it’s dark, and you get tired, you sleep during the day, you miss the sunlight. I mean it’s difficult on the body. So you really need to be able to love what you do to do this kind of thing.

I would imagine.

We had fun.

Before you go, I don’t want to leave this conversation without talking a little bit about The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. We’ve been waiting a long time for that film, but maybe not as long as Terry Gilliam has been trying to get it made. What was your experience being on that set with Terry Gilliam? Did it feel different than other film experiences?

Yes. Well, it’s different because it’s Terry Gilliam. He is so amazing. What I can tell you is that I love the man. I am in love with the man. He is amazing, talented, funny … hilarious, even. He’s very out there, outspoken. He always says what he thinks. He stays true to himself. And he’s quite extraordinary. He’s a rare person. You don’t meet these people every day like this on the street. He’s a very special person. But in an admirable way. Lovely.

We laughed a lot, it was funny, because when we acted the scenes you really knew when he liked it. The set is very alive. People are different you know? Some directors talk more than others, or some you don’t even hear them, you don’t even know they exist. He was very much there, and laughing with you, excited with you. It’s great. You feel supported, carried through the film. Amazing guy. I can’t even stop talking, he’s amazing. He’s amazing. I loved it, and I would do it with him ten more times. Anytime.

Mara is now playing in select theaters and on Digital HD and VOD.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)