Hobo #18 – Paris, November 2015. In a large photo studio which makes Oberkampf look like Brooklyn, a baby Lynx patiently waits for her new playmate. “The new Bond girl” she was promised while given a bowl of milk. A few minutes later, her muzzle perks up to see a young woman with pulled back hair, bundled up in a thick coat and with a nose just as cute as hers. Unshrinking, the girl slips on a pyjama to go play with the already large cat under the loft’s vast windows. Léa Seydoux has never met an actor so furry and agitated. Afterwards, Léa tries to recharge by sucking at a red energy drink through a straw, but it does not, that instant, warm her up. “It’s like when I do sports” she says with surprise, “I’m always very cold after”. The juice begins to take effect and Léa reflects out loud on her profession and rapport with directors of all ilks. She has played young, fragile girls whom boys fall in love with in the new French cinema embodied by Christophe Honoré, Rebecca Zlotowski or even Louis Garrel, been carefree in a Woody Allen film, and fatally sexy in Mission Impossible.
In 2013, Léa cut her long, blond hair and dyed it blue for Blue Is the Warmest Color. Her role as a lesbian in love won her the Palme d’Or which she shared with her co-star Adèle Exarchopoulos and the filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche. In the fall of 2015, she interpreted a consummate bachelor girl in the dystopian woods of Greek director Yórgos Lánthinos’ sci-fi comedy drama, The Lobster. Only days later, she appeared on Daniel Craig’s arm on billboards everywhere publicizing the latest James Bond, Sam Mendes’ Spectre. Quite the stretch from personal, intimate film to Hollywood blockbusters, from fear to the desire to act, and from travelling to being back home.
Maroussia Dubreuil. — You’ve said that acting is akin to a rendez-vous with death. What does that mean for you exactly?
Léa Seydoux. — It’s really the moment just before acting. I feel like I’m at the edge of a cliff. But I can’t say when I have been closest to that precipice. For it’s the idea of death. I’m simply scared. And it never goes away, even after several films. The more scared we are, the closer we are to death, no? We, as human beings, are conscious of our existence so we’re scared of it ending. And at the same time this fear rouses my animality. Before performing I feel like an animal. And I think it’s a positive state for an actor. Of course there are stage frights so intense they paralyse you on a set. And they become phobias that prevent you from acting. The fear I’m talking about, the one which propels me, has nothing to do with this other form of fear, which, for example, is evoked by the Front National party here in France, which is the principal argument of its leader Marine Le Pen. Now that’s terrible.
— You’ve worked twice with Bertrand Bonello (De la guerre and Saint Laurent) and twice with Rebecca Zlotowski (Belle Épine and Grand Central) and also on two occasions with Benoît Jacquot (Farewell my Queen and Journal d’une femme de chambre). What brought you to work with them a second time around?
— The first shootings went well, that much is clear. But complicity remains something quite myterious. It’s what I call the “dialogue of human connection”. And it’s different with everyone. I believe we met at a time when we had some problems or preoccupations in common. Why can we fall in love with someone who, five years earlier, did not have the same effect on us? Why do we suddenly see one friend more than another? I think we’re conditioned by our own questions to gravitate towards a person whom we can share them with. It’s a question of wave length. And that’s what happened with these three directors: we felt an urge to continue the dialogue.
— How has the way in which you work with Rebecca Zlotowski evolved over two films?
— Before the filming of Belle Épine, it so happened that Rebecca asked me to write about my character, Prudence, who stays alone in her parent’s apartment before discovering the bikers from Rungis. It was her first film and I think she might have needed to feel I was her ally and that I was “writing the film with her”. With Grand Central, she didn’t ask me to do that. Before playing Karole, the mistress of a nuclear plant worker who is confronted by radioactive contamination, we researched the subject together. Very rarely do you jump into a film without some prior knowledge. Rebecca gave me documentaries and I met with people that work in a plant. I remember Claude Dubout, who was a worker in nuclear energy and who had written a book: I Am a Nuclear Decontaminator. A few years prior, he had exeeded the radiation dose at the bottom of a pool. It was at once informative and moving.
— Rebecca picked you at the beginning of your career. Do you get the impression that directors today choose you because you are “Léa Seydoux”?
— I think a good director chooses an actor because he or she recognizes in them the incarnation of their character. End of story. And there are also directors who didn’t choose me. It has hapenned that I’ve auditoned and… “Well it’s not gonna be you, it’s gonna be her.” So at times you tell yourself “Shit, I’ve missed this film… I was perfect for the role… I really wanted to do it…” But I think you become a character only once you’re chosen. I don’t even believe in the desire of actors to play a role. That’s not going to change anything. A film gets made mostly with the director. If he or she pictures you in the role, you are the role. I’ve also been very surprised at having been chosen. On James Bond, Spectre for example. For even if I played in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, I really do come from auteur cinema. So different! And the opposite is also true wherein so-called indy filmmakers can turn towards more mainstream actors. Why then do they choose an actor who, for all intensive purposes, does not stem from the same family? It can be quite strange.
— Which frame of mind were you in when you showed up at the James Bond casting?
— I kind of screwed up my audition before meeting Sam Mendes. In his mind though, I was the character right away. At first I was very flatered and thought I should show him to which extent I was the character of Madeleine Swann. But in reality, there’s nothing to show! The filmmaker sees if you have the physical or artistic attributes to play a role.
— Yet you’re still apprehensive before filming…
— Yes, of course. You’re always a bit nervous after you’re chosen. Will I be able to meet the expectations of this filmmaker whom I admire. Sometimes when reading a script, it all seems abstract to me. And I don’t know how I’m going to go about performing certain scenes. Even in Xavier Dolan’s film, Juste la fin du monde, which I played in not too long ago, I would say to myself: Shit, how am I going to do this? I’m going to try, but who knows how. It happens to me often. In fact, I don’t know what I did, I still haven’t seen any images… I have no idea how it came off. I play a character who is very angry. I had a long monologue. Will he have to cut, I don’t know. For James Bond I wondered how I could be a bit sexy with him in the scenes where we kiss. All the while thinking: It’s going to look ridiculous.
— Xavier Dolan has a habit of fashioning the costumes on his films himself. Were the fittings key moments for you?
— Very! I saw eye to eye with Xavier. A filmmaker’s taste can also be perceived through his costumes and it affords you a window into his world. It’s an important factor when taking on a role. In a sense I can say that I can “feel” Xavier’s world. What touches him. And like with other people I work with. For I’ve done films with very different flavours. I’ve gone from pillar to post and from post to pillar. You simply have to be able to feel the sphere you are in. The capacity to adapt. Occasionally, when you watch the films of a director you’ll be working with, it piques your interest. Then, when you meet the person, you understand. “I understand” is a phrase I’ve used a lot. With anyone, a director, a friend. And it doesn’t necessarity take a long time. It’s just a matter of seeing where a person is situated.
— In the making of film of Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, we see Delphine Seyrig not understand what Chantal is going for when asking her to comb her hair more slowly.
— Personally, I’ve never said to a director “I don’t understand” for in reality, there’s nothing to understand. You shouldn’t try to understand, you should endeavour to feel. Robert Bresson would say that.
— One of your favourite films is A Place in the Sun by George Stevens, filmed in 1951 and starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. What is it about this film that affects you?
— It’s love, till death do us part! In the beginning we see Liz Taylor as a young girl, a bit fickle and spoiled and all of a sudden, when she learns her lover’s a criminal, she loves him anyway. [Sings] “C’est aimer, c’est ce qu’il y a de plus beau…” I like this perseverance.
— It’s also the fist time we see the hairy mole on Liz’ right cheek.
— That’s funny. A mole I can understand. But she didn’t pluck her hairs?
— Apparently not. It also says a lot about cinema today which, with digital cameras, lays bare actors. Does it bother you?
— Even if now, with digital, they’re able to harness very subtle lighting, you can see that the grain on skin is not the same as it is with film. Especially in older black and white films where the grain was so thick women’s skin became completely smooth. It’s the same in photography. With digital, you see the slightest details of the dark circles under your eyes. Now in photomaton pictures we’re ugly. Before we loved to have them done. In black and white, and a slight blur, we were beautiful. Now there’s such a degree of realism. But I like to see details because in the end, what makes me dream, is the truth. A hairy mole is real and touching. I like things stripped of embellishments.
— And that’s clearly apparent in films you’ve played in especially Christophe Honoré’s The Beautiful Person and Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color. It’s a form of liberty to appear natural on screen. When have you felt most free on a film?
— When you feel loved by a filmmaker, you’re free. Freedom is a director’s gaze. When you sense a director doesn’t like what you’re putting forward, you don’t feel free. Both happen. While it’s true directors choose their actors, they have their preferences. Many times have I heard directors talk about actors they’re working with and say “He’s not a great actor, her, I love.” It’s about a feeling and connecting.
— Speaking of connections, from filming to promoting those very films, you travel often. Which countries do you feel most in sync with?
— I actually don’t like to travel all that much. I like to travel when it’s for work, when I have something to do. It gives you the opportunity to meet people and access to cultures. Obviously films travel primarily to wealthy nations. If I had to go to Japan, I would probably stay several days to wander. But to be pulled away from my home is something I have a hard time with. Often, when on holidays, I’m distraught. I don’t know what to do, I twiddle my thumbs. There’s so much time that, in actuality, it passes by too quickly. I can’t handle this time.
— in Yórgos Lánthimos’ The Lobster, which won the Jury Prize at the last Cannes Film Festival, you play Loner Leader in a hotel lost in Ireland. The settings are a bit scary no?
— They’re magnificent. One of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Beauty is disconcerting. Disarming. I found it reassuring. We were amid trees. What’s unsettling about being in nature? Other places that have had an effect on me like that are all from when I was a girl. Childhood is the place where you discover things for the first time. After, you get used to discovering. As a child, the first thing you eat is incredible, extraordinary really. Life is so full when you’re a kid. I spent a lot of time in Africa with my mother [Valerie Schlumberger] who used to go back regularly after having lived on Gorée Island with her first husband who was an ethnologist. I can still remember the smells, the ambience. When an African woman walks by me smelling of tchourai, it’s my version of Proust’s tea-soaked madeleine. The Senegalese use this incense. And it’s a beautiful scent. I’m transported and powerful memories reveal themselves because they were cultural shocks. I have stronger memories of me in Senegal than in the countryside.
— Working with Quentin Tarantino and Woody Allen is a dream come true. Did you learn anything from them?
— It bothers some actors to have small roles. I don’t really care. But you don’t learn anything. There’s nothing to learn, even less when you act. It’s more about meeting and getting to know directors whose films you adore. Woody Allen is not a typical man. I know that he can be hard with some of his actors and not fundamentally generous, but with me, he was very kind. He’s someone I was able to exchange things with. It’s impalpable.
— And at the Marché aux Puces nonetheless!
— The one and only. It was unimaginable to meet Woody Allen at the Puces… It couldn’t have happened by chance for I don’t think he ever goes! It was the idea of the Puces that interested him. He’s a bit romantic towards France.