Many of us have been itching to dip our toes into the water of real life ever since the vaccine rollout hinted at an end to the pandemic lockdown. For Léa Seydoux, the next 11 days will be a plunge: with four films in Cannes’ Official Selection, three of them in Competition, her festival itinerary will be relentless. Bouncing between premieres and press, she will be reunited with directors Wes Anderson and Arnaud Desplechin, with whom she’s worked before, for The French Dispatch and Deception, respectively. France marks her first collaboration with Bruno Dumont, while Ildikó Enyedi directs Seydoux in The Story of My Wife.
“It’s crazy,” Seydoux says of the flurry of activity. And she’s excited about what the work represents. “I’ve done one American film, a European film and two French films, and they are all so different. It’s exciting they’ve all been chosen by Cannes.”
She credits the pandemic. She had shot three of the films before the world shut down in the Spring of 2020, and she was able to shoot the fourth—the Desplechin—in the Fall, squeezing it in between waves of the virus. But it is true, also, that Cannes is a second home to Seydoux. She has missed only one edition of the festival since 2013, the year she shared in the Palme d’Or win for Blue is the Warmest Color. And she remains one of only two actors—the other her co-star, Adèle Exarchopoulos—ever awarded the prize for their performance. “I have many strong memories in Cannes,” she says. “Of course, it feels like home a little bit.”
It is certainly fitting that Seydoux will own the Croisette, more than two years on from the festival’s last real edition. She made her first visit in 2007, not long after her career began, and in the 14 years since, she has established herself as one of France’s most beloved exports. Blue is the Warmest Color was a defining film—on which, more later—but she had already been nominated for three César awards by then, and her career in Hollywood had taken root with films like Inglourious Basterds and Robin Hood—which both got Cannes premieres—as well as Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.
A cynic might attribute her swift rise to nepotism—Seydoux’s grandfather is the chairman of Pathé, her granduncle is the chairman of Gaumont, and there are other industry connections in the family—but there were no easy rides as she set about becoming an actress, and her family didn’t create any opportunities for her. “I was not raised in that world at all,” she insists. “I come from this cultured family, but at the same time I was completely left alone as a kid. I was a misfit. I was very bad at school, and I’ve always felt a little bit like I was an orphan; that I didn’t fit into any box.”
So, what changed? “I fell in love with an actor,” she says. “A very arrogant actor.” She would follow him around the streets of Paris, engineering excuses to run into him, but he showed little interest in her. “I thought, OK, I’m going to become more famous than he is. I want to prove to him I exist and that I can be a great actress.”
She never got the boy, though she is more famous than him now. (“I won,” she laughs. “Except not really, because he never loved me.”) In any case, it was inconsequential, because what she found, as she took her first steps into acting, was purpose. “I was completely lost, and then when I was around 18 or 19 and I was meeting some actors, I started to think it would be a great job to do. It felt like acting was made for me.”
Suddenly, she was able to apply that sense of not belonging to create new characters. “I always felt transparent, like I could become whoever; I could be anyone. It’s a strange feeling, but I’m like a blank page, and people can project things onto me.”
Her parents divorced when she was three, and Seydoux spent time in Africa with her mother, as well as making an annual trip to summer camps in America because her father wanted her to learn English. She felt lost again there, struggling to communicate, but it taught her to be adaptable. “And I think as an actress, that’s a force, because I can adapt to any genre. I can play bourgeois, or I can play a girl like in Sister or Roubaix, une lumiere.”
In a funny sort of way, she says, she could relate to her character in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. Seydoux plays Simone, a buttoned-up prison guard who becomes the muse to Benicio del Toro’s incarcerated artist Moses Rosenthaler. As stern as she is as a guard, Simone revels in the freedom she feels when she poses nude for the artist’s abstract paintings.
“It’s not a big part,” she says, and she’s right, though the very nature of The French Dispatch, with its patchwork of stories featuring one of the most impressive ensemble casts ever gathered, ensures that no part is. “But I feel like [Simone] is a concentrate of everything. It’s funny; very funny. It’s deep. She’s very cold, but she’s very emotional as well. There are many layers there, you know. And it’s true, I think, for me as a person. I feel that way.”
Anderson first encountered Seydoux in 2013, as the star of a series of Prada commercials he directed with Roman Coppola, and he later gave her a small part in The Grand Budapest Hotel. He wasn’t present for the Prada shoot. “We shot in Budapest,” he says. “I had scouted the locations, but I wasn’t there for the actual shooting; I was watching over a live feed.”
He recalls passing notes to Coppola, who would relate them to Seydoux. “It was a really unusual thing, because I saw how quickly she was adapting to the things I was saying, and just making them her own so easily and so quickly,” Anderson says. “I was caught off-guard. The big thing was she was just so good, right there live on the spot, with me watching like an audience member from a thousand miles away.”
The part in Budapest Hotel was in the script before Anderson considered Seydoux for the role. With The French Dispatch, he says, “I wanted to do a bigger part with Léa. I wrote it with her specifically in mind.” The film makes extensive use of what Anderson calls “non-accommodative bilingualism” in which its characters continually switch between speaking French and English at will; another great fit for an actress who had grown up immersed in both worlds. But Simone barely speaks. “I think I have like three phrases [in the entire film],” laughs Seydoux.
She finds working with Anderson very special. “He’s such a unique director. You can recognize his films by their aesthetic form. It’s very galvanizing, working with him.”
She likens the experience to working with Quentin Tarantino. “It’s really like a theater troupe they both assemble,” she says. “For them, cinema is like a stage play. With Wes, you don’t have any trailers or a green room. You share everything, with the other actors and the technicians. We all sleep in the same hotel, and every night we have dinners together. He knows the names of all the extras. There’s no hierarchy.”
The Anderson experience will continue in Cannes, she says. “He wants us all to stay together at the same hotel outside Cannes. He really sees us as a family. And Quentin is the same.”
She remembers her time on Inglourious Basterds fondly, even though her role was as brief as a blink. “Quentin was the first big director I had worked for,” she says. At Cannes in 2019, when Tarantino was presenting Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and Seydoux had Roubaix, une lumiere, they ran into each other. “He said, ‘I’m so proud of you, and proud of how you’ve grown as an actress,’” she remembers. “I was so touched. Can you imagine how crazy it was for a young actress, 22 or 23, to work with him?”
It was a milestone in her early career and helped define the path she had hoped to build. “I don’t want to be a French actress,” she says. “I want to be an actress. I want to travel abroad and not have any limits. Even with men and women; I don’t like the gender thing. Femininity and masculinity. I love actors who are at the same time masculine and feminine. I don’t like to be stuck in a particular way.”
Her character in Blue is the Warmest Color, she says, allowed her the latitude to bring more masculinity into her performance. “It really was more than a film for me,” she now recalls. “It was a real-life experience, and it changed my life. When we shot the film, I knew it was going to be special, but I didn’t think it would be that special.”
The release of Blue is the Warmest Color was eventually shrouded in controversy when Seydoux and Exarchopoulos spoke out about director Abdellatif Kechiche’s approach to shooting the film’s sex scenes, which Seydoux said made her feel “like a prostitute”. The planned two-month shoot ballooned to five months, sometimes involving 18-hour days, and demanded everything of its stars, who often found Kechiche’s lens trained on them even in private moments, when they hadn’t been aware they were shooting. “It was very difficult to make,” she says now. “And it was difficult because Kechiche is crazy. He is crazy. He was manipulating us, and that was extremely difficult on a psychological level.”
She recalls Kechiche banning her from screening the film ahead of its Cannes premiere—an act she calls “violent”—and the panic attack that ensued when she feared what the film might show. It screened towards the end of the 2013 festival, and Seydoux pleaded with festival chief Thierry Frémaux to let her preview the film, which he did.
In her mounting anxiety, she hated it. “I thought, oh god, this is crap. He had cut almost half of the film. We shot so many scenes that aren’t in the film. I thought it would be the end of everything for me.” Instead, the film received rapturous plaudits from the moment of its first press screening, and Seydoux, Exarchopoulos and Kechiche were “on a cloud” all the way through to the prizegiving ceremony at festival’s end.
Seydoux had not been underhanded in sharing her discomfort with the shoot. She had made her first comments at the Cannes press conference for the film, with Kechiche present, and the story only snowballed when the film went on to Telluride later in the year. Kechiche then went on the attack, at one point apparently threatening to sue Seydoux for slander, and it is fair to say the two remain estranged.
Still, Seydoux says she wouldn’t change a thing about the experience of making the movie. “I’m proud of the film, and proud of having gone through that process,” she says. “Cinema is a way to learn things and grow, and while it was uncomfortable to have experienced that, I now feel I can do anything.” Besides, she says, “Acting should not be comfortable. You have to put your flesh and blood on the table.”
In fact, Seydoux’s approach to the work has always been director-led, and Kechiche praised her for it in that same press conference. It is no coincidence that she has repeated collaborations with Anderson and Desplechin at this year’s festival, and she has made multiple movies with Benoît Jacquot, Rebecca Zlotowski and Bertrand Bonello. Actors frequently talk about how important that collaboration with a director is, but Seydoux lives and breathes it.
“As an actress, when you work with a director, you have to understand your director in a very deep way,” she says. “You have to understand their culture and where they come from. Cinema is a form of language, and you must adapt to the director’s language, in a way. With Wes, even though he’s American, he loves French culture, and lives half in Paris and half in England. This I know, and when I’m on set with him, there’s something I’m able to understand even beyond words.”
It is the same with Arnaud Desplechin, her director on Deception. “To work with him, it opens doors to new meaning,” she says. “You understand things in a larger way. His cinema comes from literature, so working with him is like reading a book.” Deception is based on a Philip Roth novel. The Story of My Wife, too, is a literary adaptation, from a work by Hungarian author Milán Füst. “With Ildikó Enyedi, who directs The Story of My Wife, she’s Hungarian, and I feel I’ve been able to reach her, and her culture, through working with her. The language you speak has nothing to do with it; cinema is really a language of art.”
For Seydoux, a deep collaboration like this is not as simple as becoming a conduit for what a director wants to say to the world. Her different collaborators have allowed her to channel a range of characters—to imprint upon her blank page—but she has found her own expression beyond the simple act of choosing roles. “Isabelle Huppert used to say that when she was working with a director, she was making her own film inside the film, and I think it’s quite true,” she says. “As an actor, you have your subjectivity. A director becomes an interlocutor with whom you can question the world. Because cinema is also about asking questions, and different directors have different perspectives.”
She arrives to set without pretensions, ready to find her character in the collaboration. Mia Hansen-Løve is currently shooting her new film, Un beau matin, with Seydoux. “It’s early, because we just started, but I’m impressed by her simplicity,” the director says. “Simplicity is always what I’ve been looking for ever since I started working with actors, whether they would be unknown actors, children, adults, or more famous actors. I’m always looking for simplicity in acting, and Léa has that quality on a level that’s really impressive. And she carries an emotion that’s quite unique, I find.”
Seydoux rejects any notion that the worth of cinema exists on a spectrum; she is as much at home on the set of a James Bond film as she is working in independent cinema. She played Dr. Madeleine Swann in Spectre and reprised the role in the much-delayed upcoming Bond adventure No Time to Die. She is the first ‘Bond Girl’ to do so—Maud Adams played different roles in subsequent films—and jumped at the chance to come back. She was surprised by how unique each film felt. “Sam Mendes, who did Spectre, and Cary Fukunaga, who did No Time to Die, are very different,” she says. “And when you act, it is always informed by who you are as a person. So, I was very different, because Spectre was five years before.”
“Léa’s portrayal of Dr. Madeleine Swann explores the complexity of what it is like to be in a relationship with James Bond,” say Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson. “Given the background of her character being the daughter of a Spectre assassin, she understands Bond’s world, the dark forces that he is up against, and his psyche. We wanted to challenge Bond emotionally and Léa’s character does this in No Time to Die.”
They also simply wanted the chance to work with her again. “Léa is very committed to her profession and gives 100%,” they say. “She always illuminates the characters she plays and makes you feel the connection with them because she makes them feel real.”
Seydoux has spoken about how ‘Bond girls’ have become ‘Bond women’ during Daniel Craig’s run as Bond. What he has done with the role, she says, has evolved the franchise into the modern era. “Because he comes from the theater, I think he wanted to create a more interesting character,” she says. “He’s made him vulnerable and let him show his flaws. By seeing the character’s imperfections, the audience can relate to him.”
The franchise, she thinks, is also in safe hands, even after Amazon shelled out $8.45 billion to buy MGM, and Bond screenwriter John Logan suggested that hearing about the deal gave him “chills”. “Barbara and Michael are really the ones who decide everything,” she says. “And I don’t think that will change. I’m not afraid of what the future holds.”
Broccoli and Wilson describe tracking Seydoux’s career through The Beautiful Person, Farewell, My Queen and Blue is the Warmest Color before casting her in Spectre. “What struck us is her authenticity—she is an extremely versatile actress—she plays each role with great truth, never a false moment in her work.”
It is a sentiment Seydoux echoes. “The thing I’m always looking for when I’m acting is truth,” she insists. “I’m obsessed about it. And it’s what I mean when I say you must put your flesh and blood and everything into it. I love it when it’s true. And I hate when I feel it isn’t.”
With our time together approaching an end, Seydoux turns the tables on me. Who are my favorite directors? I rattle off a list, leaving out far too many names, and then put the question back to her. Perhaps coincidentally, she almost exclusively lists departed directors she can never work with: Kubrick, Bergman, Bresson, Rohmer. Only one name she cites, Pedro Almodóvar, might yet cast her. She may have become an actress to impress a crush, but what she found in cinema has become the great passion of her life. “For me, cinema is something that helped me to live, as simple as that,” she says. “Really, I think if I didn’t have cinema in my life, I would be desperate, very desperate.”