Two years ago, Souheila Yacoub took a call from an unknown number – and on the other end of line was Denis Villeneuve.
“I was so blacked out thinking how unreal it all was that I didn’t really understand everything that happened,” the actor tells Variety. “All I know is he asked me to read for ‘Dune: Part Two’ and shortly thereafter he offered me the part – and I was trying to stay professional, but on the inside I was crying, ‘This is so surreal!’”
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One question the Swiss-born, Paris-based gymnast-turned-actor thought best not to ask was how she found her way onto Villeneuve’s radar to begin with.
“I was so nervous that he’d made mistake – that he was actually thinking of someone else – that I never dared to ask,” she laughs. “So I just signed the contract and showed up on set.”
With a pedigree that includes stage-work with “Incendies” playwright Wajdi Mouawad ahead of eye-popping turns in Gaspar Noé’s “Climax” and Philippe Garrel’s “The Salt of Tears,” Yacoub should have had little cause for concern.
And with a 2024 filmography that boasts “Dune: Part Two,” ahead of star turns in Noemie Merlant’s genre-bender “The Balconettes” and Aude Léa Rapin sci-fi thriller “Planet B,” Yacoub will have little reason to ask such questions again.
Once the actor stepped onto the biggest set of her career, and found herself opposite Zendaya and Timothée Chalamet, Yacoub rather quickly overcame initial nerves, taking to the role of Fremen warrior Shishakli with a greater degree of ease than ever before.
“I learned so much just by watching Javier Bardem,” she says. “Bardem would burst out with this freedom, this tremendous sense of play. And I said to myself, ‘Okay, he’s got my back, and he’s offering me the right to play around and make mistakes as well.’ After all, we’re not in the theater, we’re not live in front of an audience, so let’s try, let’s suggest, and let’s allow ourselves to surprise.”
Yacoub brought that creative spark back to France, where she quickly signed on to a pair of homegrown fantasy projects.
In the Merlant-directed, Celine Sciamma co-written horror-comedy “The Balconettes,” Yacoub will star as Ruby – a free-spirited camgirl pulled into a bloodcurdling plot amidst a Marseille heatwave. The actor loved the camaraderie and sense of improvisation that Merlant brought to set, and was proud to embody a sex-positive sex-worker who owns her physicality.
“I’ve often played roles that were a little more 2D,” says Yacoub. “But Noemie brought me this explosive 3D part that spins off in all directions. [My character] loves her freedom, loves her work, and loves her relationship with her own body – and as we see this ongoing revolution in women’s sexuality, I think it’s important to put forward such figures.”
Yacoub will next star opposite Adèle Exarchopoulos in Rapin’s “Planet B,” a “Children of Men”-tinged sci-fi drama about two women revolting against a dystopian police state that dispatches rabble-rousers to a far off planet. While Exarchopoulos plays a French botanist who finds herself off-worlded, Yacoub stars as an Iraqi refugee who leads the fight back on Earth.
Born to a Tunisian father and Flemish mother, the multilingual, multicultural actor has often found herself cast into such a parts – a fact that she relishes and sometimes bristles against.
“I love to work in different languages,” says Yacoub, whose mother tongue is Flemish, who spoke German on the Swiss national gymnast team, and who performed in Kurdish for her role in the TV series “No Man’s Land.”
“But at the same time, my biggest dream is to make a Victorian costume drama, and that’s been complicated because of my background. Every time I’ve gone out for such a part I’ve been labeled ‘too modern.’ Of course, with series like ‘Bridgerton’ we’re beginning to see that change, so I do hope that one of these days I can make that dream come true.”
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