How Sofia Boutella Nailed Her Trippy, Drug-Fueled Performance In Climax

Photo: Courtesy of A24 Films.
Climax isn’t the kind of movie you can casually turn on as background noise to clean your house. Gaspar Noé’s latest project, in theaters March 1, centers around a group of French dancers whose sangria gets spiked with acid during a three-day rehearsal in 1996. And though there’s not much more by way of a plot, it’s a visceral, physical experience, one that burrows into your gut and leaves you as spent as if you were one of its frenetic dancers, trapped in a drug-fueled nightmare.
But if watching the film feels like a bad trip, actress Sofia Boutella, who plays the film’s lead, insists that the atmosphere on set was far from unpleasant. “Gaspar [has] one of the chillest sets I've ever been on in the sense that there's never anybody who would be disrespectful, or is stressed out and putting their stress on other people,” she told Refinery29 during a phone interview.
It’s an attitude that Boutella was pleasantly surprised to encounter, given the famously controversial nature of Noé’s films. (His last movie, Love, is without a doubt the most NSFW movie on Netflix, and features a full-frontal threesome, and a 3D cum shot.)
“I was wondering how he get all these people to do all these things,” she said. “He gets magic out of people — [almost] all the other guys out there [are dancers, not actors]. I'm baffled by how he directed them and what he got out of them, because I think they're all pretty fantastic.”
The French-Algerian actress was one of the only professional actors cast in this unconventional film. She didn’t audition — an admirer of her past work in films like Hotel Artemis and Atomic Blonde, Noé reached out to her over Instagram DMs, asking if she’d be interested in playing Selva, a choreographer and dancer who progressively goes through a drug-induced psychosis over the course of the film, culminating in a truly horrifying full-body freak out towards the end.
To prepare for the role, she watched films like 1983’s Possession, starring Isabelle Adjani, which gets a substantial nod during Climax’s, well, climax. She also spent a lot of time with YouTube videos about flakka, the synthetic “zombie drug” that causes violent behavior and paranoia among users.
No matter how chill the set, there’s no getting around the fact that this is a physically and psychologically demanding project. In many ways, Boutella says the experience was just as challenging for her as it was for the dancers acting for the first time. For one thing, the entire film was shot over 15 days, and a five-page script meant that most of the dialogue be improvised and nailed down right before shooting a scene. As a result, she would show up in the morning with no idea what the day would hold.
“[Gaspar] would just put music on and sort of have a warm up, and all the dancers bonded quite quickly. We would rehearse for about four to five hours, and we would then have lunch and then shoot between 14 and 17 takes of sequence shots that were between eight to ten minutes long.”
It’s a technique that was both exciting and scary to the 36-year-old, who says she usually over prepares. “[It] taught me that to leave space for spontaneity is really important. Sometimes you sort of set your mind into a certain direction, and that's not necessarily the right thing to do.”
As an experienced dancer herself — until a few years ago, she was a professional dancer who worked with the likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna — Boutella was ready to tackle demanding physical expectations of a film with exacting choreography, and long, intense dance sequences.
Playing someone hopped up on drugs, however, was a whole other story. While filming Selva’s loss of control, Boutella said she could only manage seven takes, so draining was the experience.
“It took the life out of me,” she said. “I don't think I've experienced anything as intense as an actor before. [But] at the same time I was grateful to know that I could go there, and that Gaspar gave me that opportunity to take my character as far as I did.”
Because Climax was shot in sequence (so as to avoid continuity issues in case someone got hurt), Boutella had to remain in Selva’s headspace for the majority of the two-week shoot, so as to build up to that moment. She shared an apartment with the film’s choreographer, Nina McNeely, and was careful not to let herself lose track of her character while she was off set, lest she lose her momentum.
“I had a lot of anxiety thinking whether I could do this or not without having a script. So, I stayed in it the whole time,” she said. “I would just go back home and would talk about what we just did, stay connected to Gaspar. I didn’t want to ever wind down.”
Like I said, it’s intense.
But Boutella’s next project promises to be a little more feel-good. She’s been cast in Modern Love, Amazon’s upcoming rom-com anthology series based on the weekly New York Times column. Or will it? There (probably) won’t be anyone spiking the sangria, but Brian Ferry did warn us: Love is the drug.

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