TORONTO – Oscar-nominated filmmaker Terrence Malick is an enigma to many: Notoriously reclusive and media shy, he often eschews press events and interviews, and dislikes having his photo taken.
But behind the scenes, the critically heralded writer-director is quite open and jovial, says former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko, star of Malick’s romantic drama “To the Wonder” that opens Friday in Toronto.
“He’s very deep and you can talk to him for hours,” the Ukrainian-born actress said in an interview at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival.
“And he’s a funny person — one wouldn’t think, but it’s wonderful. Often he would just laugh onset because someone said something funny and he can’t stop laughing. You wouldn’t think that of him, because he’s a mystery; people don’t really see him.
“I feel honoured and blessed to have met him and to have worked with him.”
Kurylenko plays the whimsical Marina, a Ukrainian-born single mother who flits between states of mania and melancholy after moving in with American environmental inspector Neil (Ben Affleck) in his Oklahoma hometown.
The tale of transformable love and faith co-stars Javier Bardem as a troubled Catholic priest in the community and Rachel McAdams as Neil’s ex-girlfriend.
Like Malick’s Oscar-nominated 2011 family drama “The Tree of Life,” “To the Wonder” is a visually stunning feast for the senses with little dialogue and loads of rich cinematography and powerful music (by composer Hanan Townshend).
Also like some of his former projects, Malick didn’t give his cast members a script or hold rehearsals, preferring each scene to be spontaneous and fresh in his signature ethereal style.
Instead, they developed the role through intense conversations in which Malick came off as a mind reader before shooting, said Kurylenko.
“Everything we spoke about just seemed to have gotten really inside me,” she said.
“I had a feeling he was psychic, that he knew who I was, that he knew my past story, and I thought, ‘I just met him, how can he talk to me in that way, like he has known me for ages?’ And then I thought, ‘He must know more than I know.’”
“And then I was really scared to think!” Kurylenko, who got her big breakthrough in the James Bond film “Quantum of Solace,” continued with a laugh.
“I thought, ‘Maybe he can read (minds). … He is psychic, there is something very mysterious about this man.’ It’s quite extraordinary.”
Kurylenko said Malick, who got two Oscar nominations for writing and directing “The Thin Red Line,” sought her out for the role of Marina.
Even before the London-based former model flew to Austin to meet with the Texas native, she knew she would sign on.
“The thing is, with him it doesn’t matter the story, you just say yes,” said Kurylenko, who modelled in Paris in her teens and speaks several languages.
“Of course, after having met him I was totally impressed. … He was just such a lovely, interesting person, that just the thought of collaborating with him for two or three months was like the top of anyone’s dream.”
Shooting took place in Bartlesville, Okla., and Mont St. Michel, an island off the coast of Normandy, France that’s known as the Merveille, or “Wonder.”
Kurylenko had never done complete improvisation on a film set before.
But Malick told her: “Don’t overthink it and never let anybody shut down your instinct, because it’s the most important thing you have,’” and she found herself losing herself in the character — 24 hours a day.
“The thing is, he doesn’t want to lose anything, so if he sees a moment, he’ll start filming,” said Kurylenko.
“That’s why you always have to be in character.”
Malick helped Kurylenko get so inside her character’s head, she had a hard time getting out of it.
“I even was a little scared of staying there after the movie, because she’s a little bit disturbed and she’s quite unstable and I completely went there,” she said.
When production wrapped, Kurylenko and her castmates had no idea what — or even who — would end up on the screen.
“It’s a mystery, so when I was watching, I was just anxious to find out really what is it going to be all together, because I knew my story but I didn’t know the other people’s stories,” said Kurylenko.
“It was all a surprise.”
“To the Wonder” opens in Vancouver, Montreal and Ottawa on April 26.