Ukrainian actress Olga Kurylenko is best known as Camille, the ‘Bond girl’, in the most recent James Bond film Quantum of Solace. She is determined to use her growing celebrity to help improve life for the deprived and underprivileged and, as Caroline Hartnell finds out, she is not waiting for established wealth and fame before she begins. Unusually, she is building her philanthropic career at the same time as her film career and she has adopted a very thoughtful approach to it.
You’re quite near to the beginning of your career. How did you get started on philanthropy?
It was always something in my mind. If I really go back, it starts with my mum, who raised me to be compassionate. I think if you see people suffering and you’re touched by it, that’s the start. I started now because I thought the earlier I started, the better I could do it. And I’m learning from Olga [Alexeeva] and CAF [Charities Aid Foundation].
You’ve actually sought professional advice, which suggests quite a serious approach?
Exactly. I thought that it might be another ten years before I get a result (though hopefully it won’t be that long), so I’d better start now. That’s why I’ve looked for help and advice now because everything takes time. The thing is, we can carry thoughts for years and then we realize, ‘Oh, my god, it’s been that many years and I’m still thinking about it.’
How did you find Olga and CAF?
Olga! I was introduced to her by one of my agents, CAA. They have a philanthropy office, which helps actors and directors that want to be involved in philanthropy to set up events and charities and so forth. Someone there knew Olga and introduced us by email and then once I got to London, I arranged to meet her. She was lovely and she gave me the contact details of many people whom I got in touch with here in Kiev.
I understand you’re supporting a hospital. Is it one you are setting up or an existing one?
An existing one. It’s in the town where I used to live. I remember I had an accident once and was there with a broken leg! And I remember the state of the hospital and how dilapidated it was. I’m not even talking about the equipment that was lacking, but the messiness and the half-broken bedside tables. It was very depressing, especially after an accident. I was scared and thought I wasn’t going to get well in this environment. But that’s a common problem with hospitals all over Ukraine, they need refurbishment.
Have you donated money to this hospital?
I don’t want to give money, because of corruption. I want to buy the equipment. So I spoke to the doctors and they gave me a list of all the equipment they needed, so I have that and all the names of the suppliers and approximate prices. But it’s a huge list, so I have to work down it little by little. Also, 90 per cent of the medical equipment comes from abroad because they don’t manufacture it here. It’s crazy! For example, the only machine they have for dialysis dates from 1956! They found it in the garbage!
My first idea was just to make the hospital look nicer, then someone who was helping me said, ‘actually, they don’t have this equipment. What is more vital, the walls or the equipment?’ And it was obvious he was right. If you have nice furnishings, but don’t have the machines, then you know you’re still going to die.
How did Olga help?
She gave me the contacts. Olga knows everybody, so I can speak to her about a problem or what I want to do, and she knows who to send me to. ‘This person can help you with strategy, this person can help you organize an event, etc.’ She’s experienced. I haven’t done anything yet and when you want to learn, you have to ask, and that’s what I’m doing. I’m just asking and trying and hopefully I’m going to get something done, but I’m at the very beginning.
Apart from the hospital, are there any other charities you’re helping?
Yes. In August I came here to learn about the work of Hope and Homes for Children. They are based in London, and they are trying to place children from institutions into families. Not all of them are orphans. Some of them are children whose parents handed them over to the state because they couldn’t afford to keep them. The idea of Hope and Homes is to close the orphanages and to open family-based homes, with a maximum of 8-10 children, where the kids can grow up with families.
I visited a few orphanages and family-based homes and the difference was incredible. Some of the kids in orphanages couldn’t even speak. They were very shy and they were afraid of us. I asked one little boy to show me where he slept. All he had was a bed and a bedside table. I looked inside and there was almost nothing. There was a small bible and I said ‘Do you read this?’ and he said no, and then there was a little piece of paper with three coloured pencils and I said, ‘Do you draw?’ and he said he wasn’t really sure. There was nothing of his, nothing. Most of these children can’t read or write and don’t go to school, and no one checks, yet everyone believes they are well taken care of. Hope and Homes wanted me to see what the truth was and to spread the word. I have been giving interviews, saying we have to close the orphanages down.
Did they approach you because of your celebrity?
They asked me to an anniversary event last year, because they were starting a project in Ukraine, following work they’ve done in Romania. They have managed to close all the institutions there and persuaded the government to take on the financing of the work. Anyway, I couldn’t go to the event because I was promoting The Quantum of Solace but they sent a prospectus about the Ukrainian work and asked me to contact them if I was interested. When I was in London in December, I contacted them and they organized my trip to Ukraine and showed me the family homes and orphanages. I realized that if I didn’t know about these, others wouldn’t either.
It sounds as if, in a charity sense, your biggest asset at the moment is your name rather than the money you could actually give – though that could change later.
Well, that’s why I’m throwing myself into it right now. Obviously, I don’t have even a little part of what the oligarchs have, but because of the film, I have this fame now, I have to use it. If you can at least spread the word it’s already good. One has to use what one has.
But you’ll have a lot of approaches and you won’t be able to take up all of them. How will you decide?
I guess where my heart lies.
It sounds like you always assumed that if you started earning a reasonable amount of money, it would be a natural thing to do something philanthropic. Do you think most people in Ukraine would think like that?
Well maybe not, but that’s why I’m doing all this. I want to bring people to do it more and more. I was from a family that was quite modest and we did struggle. Then I got all this and I feel like it’s just normal to give a little part of it back.
People think giving only makes sense if it’s something huge. What I want to say is that it’s not about huge amounts of money, and sometimes it’s not even about money, it’s about the attention. It’s about everyone doing what they can, even getting interested, or spreading the word, or giving a small amount of money. Sometimes I think people are ashamed that they only have a little to give and it’s not worth it. It’s not true, because if everyone puts in a brick, it’s going to make a castle.
I’m not a millionaire, I’m not saying I’m going to move mountains, I’m not even sure about what I’m doing yet, but I’m starting. I’m going to do my thing, little by little, and I believe something can be done. Recently I worked with Campari on a calendar and I got them to make a donation to Hope and Homes for Children. I am often asked to endorse corporate programmes or campaigns and I am well placed to ask those companies to make a donation to charity.
Olga Kurylenko grew up in a poor household in the Ukrainian town of Berdyansk. Her modelling career started at the age of 13 when she was spotted by a model scout at a metro station while on holiday in Moscow. She subsequently moved to Paris and by the age of 18 had appeared on the covers of both Elle and Vogue. She started acting in 2005, and found worldwide fame in 2008 with her role as Camille Montes in the James Bond film Quantum of Solace alongside Daniel Craig.