This story, all clothing by Haider Ackermann.
- Lily Kwong
- Photography by
- Johan Sandberg
Styling by Lotta Volkova Adam. Makeup by Hélène Vasnier at ArtList. Hair by Hugo Ferrozzi at ArtList using Bumble and bumble.
“Combat, combat, et plus de combat!” director Patrick Alessandrin exclaims of his 2009 shoot-‘em-up action film, District 13; in doing so, he has simultaneously summed up the career of one of the film’s up-and-coming stars, Elodie Yung. The thirty-year-old French actress has been fighting since her days in Paris’s rough suburbs, and all her hard work is finally paying off. In District 13, the tattoo-adorned Yung plays the part of Tao, a sword-wielding goddess of the underworld who must defend society’s downtrodden from the corrupt political elite. In real life, the French-Cambodian beauty shares more with her on-screen alter ego than first meets the naked eye.
“I grew up in the suburbs of Paris, which is not a very nice area. When I was very young, my dad asked me if I wanted to take karate lessons and I said yes. I think he thought I might need it one day,” Yung explains. Originally intended as self-defense prescribed by a protective father, Yung has instead parlayed her martial arts background into a burgeoning career as an action heroine. It is a role that neither Yung nor her father envisaged; when asked if she felt destined for the silver screen, she giggles, “God, no! I studied law at university. When I was nineteen, I thought it would be great if I could be a lawyer or a judge.” In fact, she almost turned down her début role in the French series La Vie devant nous because of a summer job with her university.
This is precisely what is so whimsical about Yung. In our media-frenzied climate, where young talent frantically grasps at the spotlight, the French actress seems to have gracefully slipped into her new position, poised to become the next major action star. When I caught up with her, she was two weeks away from shipping off to New Orleans to begin filming G.I. Joe 2: Cobra Strikes. When coupled with her role as the kickboxing sometime-girlfriend (Miriam Wu) of Lisbeth Salander in the upcoming The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the opportunity has Yung set to hit American audiences with a one-two punch in 2012.
The only obstacle left between Yung and New Orleans? Training. Brutal training. Only a couple weeks into preparing for her role as Jinx, the ninja member of the G.I. Joe team, the actress confesses, “The training is horrible! But there’s a goal, and to be honest I love training really hard. For this film I have some really great choreography with swords and I’m so excited. I’ve never fought with weapons!” The longer we speak, the more hilarious our conversation becomes—Yung has one of those sing-song voices tinged with just enough of a French accent to leave all in her wake utterly charmed, and to hear her going on about swords and weapons like an excited schoolgirl is not without its comedy. She is a combination of hard and light-hearted, East and West, serenity and intensity. This is no wonder—after all, Yung grew up with people from Africa and Asia, and she was influenced by both Buddhist tradition and French culture (“All the while eating amazing Cambodian food!” she adds with a laugh). By the time our conversation reaches its conclusion, her sweet demeanor and easy humor have me believing this girl wouldn’t harm a fly. But just to be sure, I re-watch her major action sequence in District 13, in which she ruthlessly cuts down five cops using only a knife hidden in her ponytail.
When pushed to explain how she’s able to play characters like Tao, Jinx, and Miriam Wu, Yung struggles at first. After a moment, she offers, “Because of my martial arts background, I have competed so much. It makes you very strong. And to be honest, I grew up in a very rough area, so I think that my environment might have influenced me somehow.” She adds, “Though this is a character of course, and you have to dig within and look inside yourself to find pieces you can use. But I am not only like this.”
No, she is not. And someone like Yung’s friend director Paul Mignot celebrates the actress’s softer side in his “Mood Collection” series, in which a tear-stained Yung, clad often only in a white bedsheet, tells a whole love story in a short three minutes. Mignot deftly captures Yung in all her beauty, this time without swords. That enchanting voice of hers floats over a montage of sulky images: Let me tell you about the past—the past is filled with silent joys and broken toys. Laughing girls and teasing boys…was I ever in love? I called it love. As arresting as the short film is, her immediate future holds more “teasing boys” than anything. The current landscape only shows a dearth of well-armed action heroines; even Angelina Jolie, a.k.a. Tomb Raider, swapped her machine guns in for binkies long ago, and the oft-indecently clothed Milla Jovovich sometimes appears more preoccupied with looking sexy than destroying the baddies in Resident Evil.
The fresh-faced Yung seems to be the remedy—imported from Paris to simultaneously give fanboys a new dominatrix to worship and save the world from evil, though the actress does admit that the action genre can sometimes feel like a boy’s club. “Even if it wasn’t a man’s world, it would be challenging. You really have to push your body and your mind,” she says. Even if a set is pumped with testosterone, she admits the advantage of working on a movie like G.I. Joe is that “the success of an action film relies on teamwork, and that’s the part of my job that I really love.”
So who will Miss Yung be working with in New Orleans? Perhaps most notably Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, fresh off the surprisingly well-received Fast Five. And with the international mega-hit The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo set to hit theaters just before she débuts as Jinx, Yung will go from having a largely French audience to the worldwide stage. She jokes, “It’s like wine—it’s a great year for me!”
Originally published in the Fall 2011 issue.