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Léa Seydoux on a new era for Bond: ‘The women aren’t objectified. They’re powerful. They’re not just waiting to be saved’

From the most daring art-house films to the biggest Hollywood blockbusters, the French star can do it all. So why exactly does she feel ‘life is tragic’? As she nears the end of her busiest year yet, the actor talks to Tom Ellen about 007, parenthood and the difficulty of being understood

‘I need more frivolity in my life,’ declares Léa Seydoux. ‘I feel very insecure right now.’

This statement is delivered roughly two minutes after we first meet, in the hangar-sized lobby of an Athens hotel and about 30 seconds after the French actor — and Louis Vuitton ambassador — has suggested sacking off said lobby to find a more interesting interview location. Seydoux, it seems, is not one for small talk.

So, as we step out on to the sun-baked Greek seafront, why the insecurity? ‘Maybe “insecure” is the wrong word,’ she shrugs. ‘I feel... vulnerable. I was fearless when I was younger — maybe because I had to struggle. Now I struggle less but bizarrely I’m more scared than I used to be. Maybe unconsciously I need to struggle. I don’t know. It’s exhausting.’ She pauses outside a quaint taverna a stone’s throw from the gently lapping Mediterranean. ‘Here is good, no?’

We settle at the corner table, two glasses of fresh watermelon juice plonked before us. Spend an hour in Seydoux’s company and you’ll learn that this kind of straight-off-the-bat existentialist soul-searching is very much the 36-year-old’s default setting. During the course of our chat, she will throw out comments such as, ‘Life is a game which in the end you always lose,’ as casually as others might remark on M25 tailbacks. On paper, this may come across as slightly pretentious (or at the very least, exceedingly French) but in person, nothing could be further from the truth. Seydoux is thoughtful, passionate and serious, but she’s also engagingly — disarmingly — hilarious. ‘For me,’ she announces at one point, ‘life is tragic. To exist is a difficult thing.’ And then she collapses into giggles, eyes twinkling below her cropped, honey-coloured hair. You get the sense she means it, but that she also recognises the absurdity of meaning it, particularly as one of the planet’s most in-demand movie stars.

Seydoux shot to fame in 2013 with the coming-of-age drama Blue Is The Warmest Colour, a film as critically adored as it is legendary for its stars’ pre-#MeToo accusations of misconduct. Since that breakthrough, Seydoux hasn’t looked back, becoming one of those rare actors able to toggle between experimental, intellectual fare in her homeland and box office-melting Hollywood juggernauts such as the James Bond films and Mission: Impossible.

She is here in Greece shooting Crimes Of The Future, a David Cronenberg thriller co-starring Viggo Mortensen and the culmination of an intense period of non-stop work. With the addition of the Covid-delayed Bond outing No Time To Die (more on which later), she has five films out in 2021. Hot on the heels of 007 is The French Dispatch — Wes Anderson’s excellent latest — in which Seydoux plays a prison guard turned artistic muse for Benicio del Toro’s unhinged painter. Anderson wrote the part specifically for her (‘He’s one of those directors where you say yes before you even know what it is’), and even among an ensemble cast that includes Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton and Timothée Chalamet, Seydoux is arguably the standout. Communicating mainly in finger snaps and sharp glances, her buttoned-up jail warden goes from bossing Del Toro about to posing nude for him. ‘I was a bit embarrassed because I was fully naked,’ she says. ‘It’s always something to do that [in a film] — there’s no way to hide! You can’t really cheat. But at least that part is in black and white...’

The film had its premiere at the Cannes Festival in July, an event in which Seydoux had three other films in competition but was unable to attend after catching Covid-19. ‘I was so sad to miss it,’ she says. ‘I had to isolate at home in Paris. I was [asymptomatic], but very tired and melancholy. I wasn’t bored, though. I’m never bored.’ How did she keep boredom at bay? Box sets? Batch cooking? ‘I contemplated,’ she replies. ‘I asked myself questions. I love to contemplate. You understand what I mean?’

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Er… Not really, no. She rocks back in her seat, laughing. ‘It’s normal. I am hard to understand.’ It reminds her of a story: ‘I was in London in 2009 and I met up with this actor who has gone on to be very famous. He was in Game Of Thrones…’ Kit Harington? ‘Yes! We shared an agent and she said: “You should meet him, he’s nice.” I spent the evening with him, talking for hours and hours. Then at the end of the night he told me: “You know, I didn’t really get anything you said tonight…”’ She dissolves into giggles again, but right now it’s easy to see Harington’s point. I’m not sure I ‘get’ Seydoux either. After all, here is an actor who enjoys both critical acclaim and commercial success, seemingly able to hop between the art house and the multiplex whenever she fancies. That’s the dream, isn’t it — so why the vulnerability? Why the ‘life-is-tragic’ routine?

‘It’s true, I’m very lucky,’ she admits, flashing what is probably — behind Bardot and Macron — France’s third-most memorable gap-toothed grin. ‘But it’s not easy for me, to act. It’s something painful. I feel that more and more as I get older. You constantly give something of yourself, you offer yourself up. And what you say about [my career] being in a good place at the moment — I think that’s why I feel so vulnerable. Because now, I have something to lose.’

Acting wasn’t always the plan for Seydoux. Born in Paris to a telecommunications CEO father and philanthropist mother, she has French cinematic royalty in her blood (her grandfather and great uncle are chairmen of the film companies Pathé and Gaumont). But as a ‘shy, not very happy’ child, opera singing was her passion. Everything changed at 18 when she fell for an actor — ‘very arrogant, a bit pretentious’ — who wouldn’t give her the time of day. ‘I thought: “I’m gonna show him that I exist! Then he will love me!”’ Seydoux enrolled in drama school and hey, presto: ‘I existed for him. I was not transparent any more.’

Unfortunately for our arrogant friend, she existed for everyone else now, too. By 22, she’d had her first film at Cannes. By 26, she had worked with Ridley Scott, Quentin Tarantino and Tom Cruise. But it wasn’t until 2013, aged 28, that lesbian love story Blue Is the Warmest Colour sent her stratospheric. Seydoux and her co-star, Adèle Exarchopoulos, wowed the Cannes jury to such an extent that they became the first-ever actors to be awarded the Palme d’Or, along with the film’s director, Abdellatif Kechiche. Much has been written about Kechiche’s dubious working methods: filming actors without their knowledge, an explicit 10-minute sex scene that required multiple takes. Seydoux claimed at the time that the experience made her feel like ‘a prostitute’. In the wake of #MeToo, does she think a film could still be made like that today?

‘Maybe not,’ she says. ‘That’s how [Kechiche] worked; I had to accept his rules. If you didn’t accept the director’s rules, you were out. In France it was like that for a long time, and it was really problematic. The director had all the power: they were on a pedestal. That has changed now. In America, it’s different — cinema is less about the director, more about the studio. It’s a business. It’s a machine.’

Her role as Madeleine Swann in the 2015 Bond film Spectre provided arguably her closest look at that machine. It’s a part she’ll reprise in No Time To Die, 007’s long-delayed latest adventure in which Swann has been upgraded from ‘Bond girl’ to ‘Bond girlfriend’. ‘James is faithful now!’ she chuckles.

The film represents the superspy’s first post-#MeToo outing, and Seydoux insists it feels different as a result: ‘The women are not objectified. They’re powerful. They’re not just waiting to be saved. It’s the same with Bond: Daniel has built this character with real depth, who is not perfect.’ The tone, she stresses, ‘is very different [from previous Bond films]. They [the producers] try to bring something new every time, and I think No Time To Die is the sum of all the previous [Daniel Craig] Bond films. It’s changed a lot with Daniel — the films are deeper, more emotional. What I find absolutely brilliant with Daniel is that he’s created this character with real flaws. He’s not perfect. Before, Bond was something else, more superficial.’

Part of this added depth can be credited to Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who contributed to the screenplay at Craig’s request. ‘She did add a more [feminist outlook],’ Seydoux says, ‘but mostly she added her wit. She’s hilarious. I loved Fleabag. I still haven’t seen the second season, which people say is even better than the first.’

It’s hardly surprising that Seydoux is behind on her binge watching. Alongside her intense recent filming schedule, she has spent this year fronting a huge Louis Vuitton campaign and two days after we speak she will jet back to Paris for our ES Magazine photo shoot. Does she enjoy the sartorial side of the job?

‘I love fashion as a way to express my femininity,’ she says. ‘I’m coquette. You don’t have this word in English — “girly” is closest, but it’s too pejorative. I like to wear beautiful clothes. Sometimes. And sometimes not…’ She grins, raising a foot clad in a chunky brown sandal. ‘I mean, these shoes were made by the nuns!’ Excuse me? ‘There’s a shop in Paris, in the 14th arrondissement, which sells candies and pillows and shoes, all made in an abbey by monks and nuns.’ She hooks a finger through her plain cotton vest. ‘And this is a “grandma shirt”, and underneath is my bra for running. So maybe write that I’m at least carrying a Vuitton bag, or something…’ More laughter. It’s yet another example of Seydoux as a walking contradiction-in-terms: the high-spirited pessimist, the art-house megastar, the fashion icon in nuns’ sandals.

But nowhere is she more contradictory than in her home life. For all her Sartrean talk of existence being ‘tragic’, Seydoux is clearly besotted with her quiet vie quotidienne in Paris’s Montparnasse district, where she lives with her partner, banking scion André Meyer, and their four-year-old son, George. After months of back-to-back shoots, she’s looking forward to some much-needed time off with both of them. At no point during our chat does she seem happier than when she is leaning across the table to show me photos of a beaming George on his first day back at school: ‘It’s the thing I love most, spending time with my child. It’s exhausting being a parent, but it’s the greatest joy there is. It gave me purpose. It would have been a tragedy if I hadn’t had kids. It’s something I wanted even when I was a kid.’

This from a woman who just minutes ago was describing her own childhood as ‘unhappy’? ‘But maybe that’s why!’ she says, laughing. ‘Because I was not happy as a child, I wanted to have a happy child. And George is a happy child. So I’m a happy adult.’ She drains her watermelon juice and shrugs. ‘I said that life is a game which we all lose in the end, but it’s still worth playing. Even though I will lose, I want to play. You know what I mean?’

Er… sort of. I’m coming over all Kit Harington again, to be honest. But that’s okay. It’s normal. Léa Seydoux is hard to understand.

‘No Time To Die’ is in cinemas now. ‘The French Dispatch’ is released nationwide on 22 Oct

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