Léa Seydoux: ‘I am very shy. But shy people can be very daring’

Léa Seydoux: 'I always felt as a kid that I didn’t have the words to express my emotions'. Photograph: Jingyu Lin/New York Times
As Seydoux strengthens her grip on the title of most unavoidable French actor, she talks about, shyness, the Bondverse, working with Kechiche and Godard’s influence on The French Dispatch
 

Hello, Léa Seydoux. The last time I saw you was in Mexico City.

“Was that six years ago?” she nearly mumbles.

It was. We had gathered in that buzzing city to watch bits of the latest James Bond film being shot. An enormous amount has happened in the interim. Spectre emerged. In 2017 she had a son with her partner André Meyer. The world shut down. It really did take six years for Madeleine Swann, Seydoux’s character in the Bondverse, to reappear in the recently released No Time to Die. This July, clocking up three films at the Cannes film festival, she strengthened her grip on the title of most unavoidable French actor. Unfortunately, after testing positive for Covid, she could not attend the event, but that status seems cemented for the foreseeable future.

She is wearing a neat corduroy jacket. Her hair is cut in a less rollered version of a pageboy. The spirit of the Nouvelle Vague is, in short, surging its way about our ears. I don’t suppose she has consciously dressed thus in honour of Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. But that film – one of the Cannes premieres mentioned above – plays like a tribute to French cinema of the early 1960s. Structured around an American publication’s treatment of mid-20th century European life, the anthology film veritably reeks of Disque Bleu and decent coffee. I wonder what a French actor makes of Anderson’s breathlessly adoring celebration of her own culture. It feels a little like an outsider’s romantic reimagining.

Léa Seydoux: ‘I think there are many actors who are shy.’ Photograph: Jingyu Lin/New York Times
Léa Seydoux: ‘I think there are many actors who are shy.’ Photograph: Jingyu Lin/New York Times

“Wes is the most . . . How can I put this? The most French of the American directors,” she says. “He is more French than the French. He has those very strong inspirations from François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. For French Dispatch, those were his main inspirations. I share that passion. I love the cinema from the Nouvelle Vague. And French cinema has really changed from this time.”

She fights just a little with her English. She questions her own conclusions. She speaks quietly. Give her time, however, and it becomes clear that she is trying hard to connect. I have read her say that – like more actors than you would suspect – she has always been troubled by shyness. Should we be surprised by that? Are we wrong to feel that the business of acting is inherently an extrovert’s activity?

It’s just that it was really hard to handle Kechiche’s personality. He was very manipulative. It was more on a psychological level. That was hard.

“I think there are many actors who are shy,” she says. “Extremely shy and extremely sensitive. I think that cinema helped me to overcome . . . Well not shyness. I am still very shy. But sometimes people don’t see that about me. And you never really heal from that. It is something that will always be with me. But shy people can often be very daring. The only reason I wanted to do this job was because it was a way of expressing myself. I always felt as a kid that I didn’t have the words to express my emotions. That is why I need to act. I need that to relate to the world.”

We will return to her undoubted “daring” in a moment.

Now 36, Seydoux was brought up in comfortable parts of Paris by parents of Alsatian descent. Like Godard, she is one of the few avatars of French culture to have been raised as a Protestant (yes, Godard is actually Swiss). It seem as if the Seydoux family are quite a dynasty. Her grandfather is the chairman of the Pathé entertainment empire. A granduncle is a prominent producer. Mum is an actor and philanthropist.

Léa Seydoux in The French Dispatch: Wes Anderson is the ‘most French of the American directors’.
Léa Seydoux in The French Dispatch: Wes Anderson is the ‘most French of the American directors’.

Léa toyed with becoming an opera singer, but that shyness held her back and she eventually drifted towards her current profession. She hit the ground at speed. Seydoux may only have properly registered in the last eight years or so, but you can spot her in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Inglourious Basterds and Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. What changed everything was, however, her breath-taking turn opposite Adèle Exarchopoulos in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour.

That film’s reputation is complicated. The story of a lesbian romance, it was a hugely celebrated winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2013. Steven Spielberg’s jury took the literally unprecedented decision to also award Palmes d’Or to both lead actors. Yet, when the decadal critics’ polls emerged at the end of 2019, the film had all but vanished. There were complaints about the director’s attitude while shooting the explicit sex scenes. “Sometimes there was a kind of manipulation, which was hard to handle,” Exarchopoulos said. When asked if she would again work with Kechiche, Seydoux replied: “Never.”

I wonder what her feelings about the project are now?

Léa Seydoux:'I think there are many actors who are shy,” she says. “Extremely shy and extremely sensitive.'
Léa Seydoux:'I think there are many actors who are shy,” she says. “Extremely shy and extremely sensitive.'

“I loved making the film, Blue is the Warmest Colour,” she says. “It’s just that it was really hard to handle Kechiche’s personality. He was very manipulative. It was more on a psychological level. That was hard. When you are in a film that is your work. You go back home and it’s done. The thing with Kechiche is that when you make a film with him it is your entire life. There is a control on your life and that is hard. The process was interesting. I learned many things with him. But that aspect was hard.”

I get the sense Wes Anderson, a famously buttoned-up individual, could hardly be more different in his attitude.

“Yes, Kechiche has a more realistic approach. Wes is more fantastic.”

James Bond is huge all around the world. He is an iconic cinematic character. So no, no, it is it is huge

What an impressive breadth there is between the exhausting, thrashing Blue is the Warmest Colour and the neat, formal The French Dispatch. Always a sober, grounding presence, Seydoux has been at all places in between. She travelled to Ireland for a memorable role in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster. She joined a breathtakingly starry cast in Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World. She will shortly appear in David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future (“It’s going to be very Cronenberg,” she tells me.)

And there is James Bond.

At time of writing, No Time to Die has done a decent job of reopening cinemas. In this country, despite restrictions and continuing nervousness, the picture clocked up the biggest opening weekend ever for a 007 release. It has been 60 year since Dr No and still the phenomenon continues. I wonder what surprised Seydoux about the experience. When Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson, the series’ custodians, brought her on board, she might not have guessed her character would still be cosying up to Bond two years into the following decade.

Léa Seydoux in The French Dispatch: Her grandfather is the chairman of the Pathé entertainment empire. A granduncle is a prominent producer and her mother is an actor and philanthropist.
Léa Seydoux in The French Dispatch: Her grandfather is the chairman of the Pathé entertainment empire. A granduncle is a prominent producer and her mother is an actor and philanthropist.

“The Bond experience? It is quite fun,” she ponders. “I feel very lucky first. I have worked with great people. I worked with great actors. Some of them are now my friends. It feels like a family. The way the films are made comes from a family history. Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, the two producers, are brother and sister. So it felt very comforting.”

We have some idea what Bond means to the British – a lament for Empire – and, after all the usual adjustments, what the series means to the Irish. But does he resonate with the French? The two nations either side of La Manche have always had a healthy (is that the word?) scepticism about each other’s popular culture. Do they care?

“Oh, yes. It is huge,” she says. “Huge. James Bond is huge all around the world. He is an iconic cinematic character. So no, no, it is it is huge.”

Why would they not love the recent Bond films? Her character is – unless I have been reading things wrongly for the last six years – named in tribute to Marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Swann’s Way, the first volume, begins with the narrator enjoying a madeleine. Madeleine Swann? Get it?

“Oh yes,” she says. “You know the madeleine? He has the cake and then he has this reminiscence of all that past. You know?”

Because I am an idiot, I reach behind me, grab my copy of the third volume (significant that) and show it to the camera. I trust the folk at Pseud’s Corner in Private Eye are paying attention. I am waving The Guermantes Way at Léa Seydoux. Is this what the Zoom era has come to?

I can’t tell if she’s rolling her eyes. But she is genuinely chortling.

“Ha, ha, ha! Ah you have it. Have you read it?”

I have read exactly half the full set. In English. Like a middle-brow.

“I have tried to read it in lockdown. I really have to finish it. Even in French the writing is very . . . Um?”

Dense?

“Yes, dense.”

Léa Seydoux is good fun. Running the press gauntlet must be soul-destroying, but she is ready to perk up when some pretentious half-wit brandishes a modernist doorstop in her direction.

Allow me one more facetious question. Where does she keep her Palme d’Or? She and Adèle Exarchopoulos are the only two people to possess the award for acting. That is worth showing off.

“It is in my . . . What’s the word? My living room. It is on a shelf. But it is not displayed in way that is obvious. It is kind of hidden.”

I won’t hear a word against her.

The French Dispatch opens on October 22nd