Her self-belief can’t keep pace with her fast growing film profile, but for Léa Seydoux fear is a great asset, she tells Stephen Applebaum
FRESH-FACED, with cropped blonde hair, Léa Seydoux is the epitome of Gallic casual chic, when we’re introduced in a bijou hotel room in London.
The rising French star is in town to promote writer-director Ursula Meier’s Sister, an emotionally raw tale of familial dysfunction chosen as Switzerland’s entry in the foreign language Oscar race. It is a brief break in what appears to be a breathless filming schedule, Seydoux having only recently finished filming for the thriller Grand Central, in which she stars alongside A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim. She also has the controversial lesbian drama Blue Is A Hot Colour in the can (more of that later), and in February, she appeared in this year’s Berlin Film Festival curtain-raiser, Farewell, My Queen. The in-demand actress is now about to start work on Christophe Gans’ big-budget retelling of Beauty And The Beast, playing La Belle to Vincent Cassel’s La Bête.
Any French-language version of the classic fairy tale has Jean Cocteau’s shimmering 1946 version to contend with (“my favourite French film,” says Seydoux). The actress knows the movie is a risk; however, she isn’t someone who dodges challenges.
Indeed, the talented 27-year-old loves variety – her CV is an eclectic mix of European and Hollywood titles – and is always looking for roles that allow her to grow. “I am not one colour,” she says, in heavily accented, occasionally faltering English. “I like to do many different things.” It is an approach that has seen her work with the likes of Christophe Honoré (La Belle Personne), Woody Allen (Midnight In Paris), Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds), Ridley Scott (Robin Hood) and Brad Bird (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol).
Nevertheless, Seydoux wasn’t sure that the part of Louise in Sister was for her. She is a poor young woman who lives in a tower block with her 12-year-old brother, Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein), surviving on the money he makes stealing from punters at a nearby ski resort in the Swiss Alps. In the apparent absence of their parents, Louise has the job of guardian. But she is irresponsible, often cruel, preferring to party, drink and meet men. Seydoux, who was born in Paris and boasts the chairmen of French studios Pathé and Gaumont as relatives, could not connect.
“First of all, Louise is not from my social environment,” she says. “I like doing characters that are not like me, but I didn’t like her. So I spoke to Ursula because I had this resistance.” This extended to Meier herself. “I was like, ‘Why did you write such a difficult character? And why is she so tough on Simon?’ I had more empathy with the kid than her so I had to find her humanity.”
When Seydoux realised that Louise is still just a child herself, something clicked. “I think I am still a child. That was, maybe, my connection to her.” A child in what way, I ask? “In a way that I am close to my emotions. I feel that I love like a child. That I react, sometimes, like a child. I’m like Michael Jackson!” she cries, raising her arms triumphantly and giggling.
Louise’s behaviour wasn’t all that bothered Seydoux, though. Despite plaudits galore for her work, the actress was experiencing a deep crisis of confidence when Sister came along. “I was in a moment where I was really questioning myself,” she reveals. “I was really vulnerable in a way. I didn’t know if I was good enough to play in the film. I was doing re-shoots for Mission: Impossible and I don’t know why, but I was really like, ‘God, am I doing the right thing?’ I think it’s because for me, when I’m starting a film, it’s always the beginning, as if it were my first film. I’m never sure of myself. I’m never confident. I hope I will be able to do it.”
On set, fear forces her to focus. Seydoux says she could easily juggle the re-shoots with preparations for Sister because “when I do something, I am really into what I am doing. I think because I am very scared, I need to be very concentrated. And because I am very scared when I am playing, sometimes it’s like the rest of the world disappears.” She was very intimidated, she recalls, when she started acting with Tom Cruise. “If I did something wrong, I was like, ‘Oh sorry. Sorry. Sorry.’ ”
What was he like? Seydoux claims she had no expectations. “I really liked him. At the beginning I was very shy, very impressed, because he has this very intense look. And then when I played with him, he was so easy. He’s very open. He gives you time.”
Offered the role of an assassin at the last minute, she didn’t get to read a screenplay before diving into her first Hollywood action blockbuster. Even so, she found the experience far less nerve-racking than working in her native France, where she feels under greater scrutiny.
The Parisian seems very confident for someone who claims she is very shy. It is something that she has learned to live with, and it can be a useful tool as an actor, she explains. “I think shyness can also be sensitivity, you know? So it helps me as well. I don’t mind being shy. Sometimes I’m terribly shy. Sometimes I’m not shy. I’m fine with it. I know I’m like that and that I will always be like that.”
Asked if acting has allowed her to express sides of her personality that she felt uncomfortable expressing as herself, she pauses for a moment. “Yes, but it’s not therapy. I think it gives you a very interesting life. I mean it’s a job that I really enjoy,” she says.
Actually this doesn’t always appear to be true, as becomes apparent when the conversation turns to Blue Is A Hot Colour. Based on a graphic novel by Julie March, the erotic drama stars Seydoux as a woman who forms a lesbian relationship with a teenage girl. She expressed her worries about the film’s sapphic sex scenes in interviews before the cameras rolled, and now that she has done it describes the movie as “extremely difficult”.
The production was gruelling, with the director, Abdellatif Kechiche, insisting on take after take. “All the scenes you have, you can be sure I have done like hundreds of times. So that was difficult,” Seydoux sighs. Adding that for the sex scenes, “you have to be out of your body. It’s too difficult. Even humiliating.”
Humiliating afterwards? “No, I felt humiliated while I was shooting,” she says candidly. “It was… gross. But it’s fine. Life’s difficult.”
If she’s learned anything from the experience, it’s that she doesn’t want to do anything like it again. Perhaps it will all turn out to have been worthwhile in the end, I suggest optimistically.
“Yeah, I hope so,” Seydoux replies, doubtfully. “I’m looking forward to watching the film.”
Sister is on selected release from Friday.