'Overlord' Star on Performing Her Own Stunts and Being Discovered by J.J. Abrams

French actor Mathilde Ollivier also details the show-stopping scene that saw her wield a flamethrower.
Paramount Pictures/Photofest
Mathilde Ollivier in 'Overlord' (2018)

Overlord has the makings of a B-movie cult classic.

While it didn’t catch on at the box office, grossing just $41 million on a $38 million budget, critics and audiences responded favorably to the film as evident by its 80 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and B CinemaScore. With Overlord’s impending Blu-ray release on Tuesday, the pic is in prime position to enjoy a rebirth via home entertainment.

J.J. Abrams and Julius Avery’s Overlord tracks an American paratrooper unit in World War II as they embark on a mission to destroy a German radio tower in an old church. The mission quickly goes awry, and the surviving soldiers are provided temporary refuge by a French civilian named Chloe who opens the soldiers’ eyes to the horrific conditions of her Nazi-occupied village.

Chloe is played by French actor Mathilde Ollivier, who was discovered via an open casting call in France, even though she was living in New York at the time. Once producer Abrams saw her audition tape, Ollivier quickly landed the role.

“I did the second round, and within 24 hours, I received this wonderful news that J.J. watched my tape and wanted me for the part,” Ollivier tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I screamed!”

While Ollivier was the only woman in the ensemble cast of actors, she made her presence felt by performing all of her own stunts, including a showstopping scene involving a flamethrower and a zombie.

“The stunt guy said, ‘All the materials are flammable, but don’t worry, they won’t hurt me, so go for it.’ So, I went for it. He didn’t have to tell me twice,” adds the actress while laughing.

Ollivier recently spoke to THR about her experience on the set of Overlord, as well as the French actors she admires most and why she’s more comfortable acting in English.

There was an open casting call in France for the role of Chloe. What happened from there until you got the role?

Actually, I was living in New York at that time; I always dreamed of living in New York. I came to New York with my ESTA visa, which was expiring, so I had to go back to France. My agent said, “There was this casting for J.J. Abrams. Are you free? Are you available to do it?” I said, “Yeah, of course.” So, I did the audition, and it went extremely quick. Two days later, they asked me to come back for the second round and to meet the producers, director [Julius Avery] and the casting director. So, I did the second round, and within 24 hours, I received this wonderful news that J.J. watched my tape and wanted me for the part. I screamed! (Laughs.)

Abrams certainly has an eye for casting. He has turned relative unknowns into stars, including Jennifer Garner, Keri Russell, Daisy Ridley and Evangeline Lilly. Did he provide you with any advice that has stuck with you?

Yes, he said to maintain who you are, be natural and don’t try to overdo it.

What French actors do you admire in terms of their career path to Hollywood?

Juliette Binoche is definitely one of my idols. Diane Kruger is actually German, but her career in France, Germany and the United States is such a great example of a career path that I really want to follow.

You’ve stated previously how you’re more comfortable acting in English. Can you elaborate on that a bit more?

It’s very strange. When I act in English, there’s more freedom to it. I’m more instinctive. I can try different things, and I don’t overthink it. Children are often incredible actors because they don’t overthink or worry about what’s going on. When I act in English, it’s kind of like that.

It’s been said that French actors have to work harder than most actors to learn other accents, as well as to control their French accent. The aforementioned Juliette Binoche does a great job of this as her French accent is barely recognizable now. Are you actively working on controlling your accent so you can play more characters that aren’t French?

Yes, very much. I’m working on it at the moment. During Overlord, I started to work with a dialect coach. I’ve never had a dialect coach before, and the method she taught me was fascinating. My goal is to be able to play anyone. I want to mold into a British or American accent. I also want to sound neutral to where nobody knows where I’m from. With accents, it’s fascinating to learn how your mouth and tongue move differently from country to country, even New York to Los Angeles.

Speaking of dialect coaches, is it true that you helped your co-star Jovan Adepo with his French dialogue in the movie?

(Laughs) Yeah, I was not his teacher, but I definitely helped him learn to pronounce some French words correctly. We were living in the same building, and we became very close friends. So, he asked me a lot of questions because he cared so much about his performance and wanting to sound like he’d been speaking French for a while. Jovan helped me a lot with English, too.

In Overlord, Chloe told Jovan’s character, Boyce, that his French sounded weird. Did Jovan’s French also sound weird?

Well, he sounds like any American or foreigner when they try to speak French. So, yeah, there’s this weird little accent that they do, but I actually find it to be extremely charming.

When Chloe found her brother Paul inside the laboratory, she insisted that Boyce leave with them, but he refused because he had to “finish this.” Chloe then conceded by saying, “Be careful.” Do you think Chloe and Boyce developed feelings for each other since they also bonded in Chloe’s kitchen over their loss of identity?

Jovan and I actually had this conversation. I don’t think so because the war had taken so much from their lives and their families. I don’t think they’re in the state of mind where they can love or be loved. They need each other, though. It’s the first time in a while, for both of them, where someone cared if they’re okay. They definitely had chemistry, which is beautiful, but I think it’s beyond that of love interests. I think it’s more interesting in that way.

You got to use a flamethrower, something most of us will never get to experience. How was the preparation for that, and did you actually set the stuntman on fire?

Yes, I did, and that was incredible! I really liked the stunt guy as a person; I didn’t want to hurt him, but it was wonderful to light him on fire. It was really impressive how the stunt guy pulled it off. I was extremely lucky to work with such a talented and supportive stunt crew. They taught me how to fight and how to be comfortable with holding and shooting guns. On the day with the flamethrower, the stunt guy said, “All the materials are flammable, but don’t worry, they won’t hurt me, so go for it.” So, I went for it. He didn’t have to tell me twice. (Laughs.)

You started shooting this film in the summer of 2017. Hollywood (and the rest of the world) was forever changed in October 2017 when the #MeToo movement took shape as survivors of sexual assault and harassment stepped forward to share their stories. You ended up having a very powerful scene in this movie where the villain, Wafner (Pilou Asbæk), assaulted Chloe next to a staircase. Did you expect this scene to take on a whole new meaning once you heard about the movement in Hollywood?

I did. Unfortunately, that happened to so many women during World War II, and they had to endure to preserve their lives. During the shoot, everyone was so careful and respectful; I felt so protected. When I heard about the movement, I just found it absolutely unbelievable. I hope the scene and the movie help people fight back like Chloe did.

In Overlord, you sprinted through the woods (in boots) to a bridge where you punched a soldier. You shot a soldier with a handgun. You fought and shot the same zombie before using a flamethrower on it. Then, you used a machine gun on some soldiers. Of course, you did all these stunts yourself. Do you want to keep doing your own stunts from now on, and which was your favorite?

Yeah, it puts you even more into the character, and it gives the filmmakers more footage and options such as close-ups. I just love doing it. My favorite scene was the fight just before the flamethrower scene, where the zombie tried to strangle me. It was actually at the end of the shoot, the day before my last day. I said I wanted to do the stunt, and I told the stunt guy to just go for it because I was gonna fight hard. We created sign language so that he’d know if I couldn’t handle it. So, we did the scene, and I’m very happy with the result because they could use the close-up and help the film in that way.

Now that you’ve been a lead character in a Bad Robot movie, how has your life changed?

It’s definitely changed. I put a lot into Chloe and the experience changed me and how I work. I’ve been producing a documentary called The Upright Woman, which is about the conditions women face in Burkina Faso [West Africa] and their struggle to survive. I’m really trying not to stick to one type of genre.

Did you enjoy your time on Joe Carnahan’s Boss Level for Netflix?

Yeah! It was really great. It was a supporting role, so I didn’t spend as much time on it as Overlord. I just finished postproduction on it a few weeks ago.

***

Overlord is out on digital now and will be released on Blu-ray on Tuesday.