In a world where celebrity has become a little too much ‘look at me’ – an inelegant and brash clamouring for attention, devoured by the Instagram-obsessed who crave relentless ‘content’ – the French darling of cinema, born Léa Hélène Seydoux-Fornier de Clausonne, is a touch of class.
As an actress, she has moved gracefully across the spectrum of film and fashion. As a modern icon, she’s enigmatic but approachable: true movie star appeal but without the usual celeb bluster. She’s down-to-earth, despite flying almost impossibly high, professionally.
For her whirlwind double-header in Spectre and No Time to Die, Seydoux played a crucial part in the reinvention of ‘Bond girls’, bringing a deeper characterisation and genuine melodrama to the franchise – a lover, a mother, and a fighter. She captures and encapsulates Dr Madeleine Swann with emotional touchpoints alien to previous iterations, mixing vulnerability with a voracious, instinctive spirit for survival. The character is a sign of the times, the actress absolutely key in delivering her essence authentically.
You don’t get much more blockbuster than Bond, and although her best work is arguably found elsewhere, Seydoux understands its power.
“I think that for anyone to be involved in such a colossal franchise, such is Bond, it can never really be seen as a negative,” she says. “Yes, it’s true that it will be something that will always be attributed to me, as that person who is defined in many ways as starring as a Bond girl in two of the series of films, but what’s is the problem with that? In this industry, identifiers are important, providing the don’t define you in totally, and I will make sure that Madeleine Swann doesn’t!” The positive approach from Seydoux mirrors the tenacity with which she has always driven forward her acting aspirations. Not only is she cemented in her approach, she is always fiery and proud of her achievements, but never arrogant. “I will be named alongside the great women to have starred as Bond girls and many have gone on to do great work in the film industry,” she says. “To work with such great casts in the two movies over the last five or six years, and with directors who I love, that cannot be taken away from me. In everything in life you have to be proud of your achievements – it is an error not to be. Too much humility is not only false, it’s also not good for the soul!”
Seydoux’s rise to the A-list following her breakthrough performance in the erotically-charged French film Blue is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d'Adele) has been swift, if not entirely what she originally intended – her dream as a child was to be an opera singer. She wanted to study music, not acting, and although familial connections in her Bohemian upbringing could have opened doors (her grandfather is chairman of Pathé and her great uncle chairs the Gaumont Film Company, while her mother is a former actress), Seydoux just wasn’t interested
“When I was younger, I was always singing in front of my parents and acting wasn’t really a profession that I wanted to go into,” she shrugs. “In fact, it took me meeting an actor to realise that’s what kind of life I wanted to have. This actor introduced me to his agent and then we went from there. The only thing was that I only spoke French.”
That obstacle was overcome when her father sent her to summer camp in the US specifically to learn the language, “as it would open up so many more avenues for me in life”. And so it did. The shy, introspective Parisian ingénue was about to come out of her shell.
Acting classes began, and from Seydoux’s first starring role in 2006’s Girlfriends (Mes copines) she’s never looked back. French credits and awards are numerous, but it was Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds in 2009 that got her noticed in Hollywood. Then with the universal acclaim and awards from her daring role in Blue is the Warmest Colour, Bond beckoned.
The career trajectory, taking French arthouse and cliffside car chases in her stride; working with acclaimed and legendary directors such as Woody Allen, Wes Anderson and Yorgos Lanthimos; and even pushing the envelope with her appearance in videogame auteur Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding, is full of intrigue – and not without risk.
“I like taking risks in my work,” Seydoux nods. “I’m very shy in private. Acting is my way of escaping a lot of my fears and anxieties. I feel this incredible freedom when I am working because I approach my roles instinctively. I like to throw myself into the emotions of every character and find my way into the performance with my heart rather than with my head.
“Often when I am preparing to play in a film, I will try to write down a lot of my thoughts about the emotional journey of my character. I want to be able to understand the essence and spirit of whoever I’m playing and that for me is the real art of the performance.”
Despite her now bona fide international A-list credentials, Seydoux remains a French darling. She was born in Paris, lives there with her partner and young son, and continues to perform in her native language for smaller projects away from the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles, but is just as likely to win awards at Cannes. Having the best of both worlds is a great way to be, but Seydoux perhaps surprisingly finds herself compelled towards roles which demand more of her second language. “The main things are the same,” she says. “You have a director telling you what he wants from you. You’re acting and delivering lines in front of a camera, and you have a cast who will be acting with you, so in that respect the only real difference is the language that you are speaking.
“For me though, when acting in English I think I feel less stress and anxiety… if that’s the right way to put it, because I am speaking in a separate language to my own. Because French is my native tongue, English feels more unique – I am truly stepping outside of myself into being someone else. “When I’m acting, I enter another world. It’s like being in a trance. I forget all my fears and anxieties and I’m able to let myself enter this alternative reality while I’m on a set.”
It may be hard to comprehend this beautiful Parisian’s self-image – Seydoux’s modelling and brand ambassador work has seen her adorning campaigns for Prada, Louis Vuitton, Miu Miu, Rag & Bone and so on – but, she says, “In my normal, daily life, I’m a mess!”
Then there’s her refreshing sense of style, or rather lack of care for it. “I dress very casually,” she admits. “I wear jeans and rarely put on make-up. I’m the opposite of what people might expect from someone who is part of a glamorous world, but I only get very chic for film premieres or festivals where I love the atmosphere and spectacle of it.
“The rest of the time I prefer wearing clothes that are comfortable.”
And as beautiful as she may be in the eyes of beholders male, female and everything in between, Seydoux outright shuns the idea of being a sex symbol – “I don’t pay any attention to it because it’s not real,” she says – and admits to feeling more concerned about the constant attention that comes with being famous. This grounded nature permeates Seydoux’s attitude, as she says she doesn’t care what other people think of her. She has a tendency to be very self-critical, “but I don’t allow myself to be affected by what’s written or said about me.” Seydoux also claims to be constantly wondering what to do with herself. This nervous energy stems from her lifelong struggles with anxiety. She adds that she’s still very shy and often surprises herself with some of the more daring roles – she didn’t baulk at the nudity and sex scenes required for Blue is the Warmest Colour.
“It’s expression, it’s art,” she says. “When you are playing a character your own being goes completely out the window – why should I contend with how I feel about nudity… it is a character.”
Seydoux’s increasingly successful career has given her a cushion where she feels calmer than in her formative years. “I still feel anxious if I have don’t have something to do. That’s why film is an escape for me because it gives purpose and organisation to my life: I know what I have to do.
“There’s still a certain amount of fear when I start work on a film, but I have a strange addiction to fear. It’s exciting for me!”
How so? “I've learnt that the only way I can overcome my fears is to face them. It’s very exciting to be able to surpass yourself in terms of your own expectations of what you can achieve. Nothing makes me feel stronger and more secure than when I’m able to conquer my fears.”
Turning 37 this year, Seydoux remains hot property, growing in her professional and private lives. Her son, Georges, turned five in January and she’s living with the person she subtly titles “man of her life”.
While no one really knows what’s happening with the Bond franchise following the rather final despatch of the Daniel Craig era, it’s possible we’ll see Dr Swann again. In the meantime, we’ll soon see Seydoux in French-German drama One Fine Morning, as well as in the new star-studded horror from legendary writer and director David Cronenberg, named Crimes of the Future.
Vastly different prospects then, but exactly the stuff Seydoux craves to keep moving, keep working – and presumably keep reaping the awards and rewards. “Once I am committed to my work, I feel I can do almost anything,” she smiles.
By CHRIS RITCHIE