The Paradox of Lea Seydoux
The unofficial queen of Cannes on David Cronenberg’s twisted ‘Crimes of the Future’ (her 17th premiere at the fest), the terror and joy of working with auteurs while starring in top-grossing flicks, and the unreal expectations Hollywood puts on actresses: “You have to be desirable all the time.”
“Do you drink?” asks Léa Seydoux, five minutes into a conversation, upon learning that her interviewer is about to attend her first Cannes Film Festival.
The risk, explains the French actress, is that at Cannes you drink, and then the rush of people, fashion and films is a stimulant in itself, keeping you awake longer and leaving you with more time on your hands. That time and those hands can be — and often are — filled with more drinks. On top of that, there’s the ostensible reason for the partying: the films. Sitting in a dark and crowded theater, watching something that has yet to be seen by an audience, in a venue that is meant to celebrate the best of what the medium has to offer, is also, she says, an acute high. But on the other end of it all, there is always the comedown.
“To warn you, you’ll have a bit of a depression,” says Seydoux. “Every time I go to Cannes, before I’m always excited. And then after, I’m like … ” All of the air leaves Seydoux’s body like she is one of those waving inflatable tube men at the end of the day on the car lot. “Even when I was part of the jury and I didn’t have any films [premiering] — so no pressure — it felt the same.” She advises to prepare for an emotional hangover. Also, a literal one. In all regards, hydration is key.
The actress is certainly in a position to give such advice. She can trace much of her decade-and-a-half career through Cannes, having screened a film on the Croisette almost every year since 2009 (save for 2017 and 2018, the latter when she served as part of the jury). Her first time walking the Palais red carpet was for Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood in 2010, and she and her Blue Is the Warmest Colour co-star Adèle Exarchopoulos made history in 2013 as the first actresses to win the Palme d’Or alongside helmer Abdellatif Kechiche; before then, the award was traditionally given to only the film’s director. She has also premiered titles from Yorgos Lanthimos, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson there.
A global pandemic kept her and everyone else away in 2020, and, as if making up for that lost time, she was set to debut an astounding four films at the 2021 festival. But right before arriving, she tested positive for COVID-19 and had to cancel her trip, instead staying home and beaming in via video for the occasional premiere or interview. She was disappointed, but being double-vaccinated and asymptomatic, she figured that the best explanation was fate. “That’s my destiny,” she thought at the time. “I’m quite fatalist.” As the fates would have it, she is set to return this year with two films: One Fine Morning, from director Mia Hansen-Love, about a woman juggling a romantic affair and raising her daughter while securing care for her ailing father; and David Cronenberg’s dystopian body horror Crimes of the Future, his first film following an eight-year hiatus and one of the festival’s most anticipated premieres. After a three-year absence from the Riviera, Seydoux finds herself anxious to get back: “I’ve never been this happy to go to Cannes.”
The festival has remained a bastion of film, the kind you actually see in theaters. Now in its 75th iteration, it also has been criticized as bloated and stuck in its ways — heels are a semi-unspoken necessity and black tie is never optional — not to mention its practically pathological inability to program a meager half-dozen films by female directors (this year’s competition lineup boasts a record-breaking five).
In this sense, Seydoux is the ideal unofficial spokeswoman for the best parts of the fest: a glamorous but hardly traditional descendant of French film royalty who has appeared in both art house and commercial hits. She talks about film — or “cinema,” as she often refers to it — the way others talk about finding religion: “I have a feeling that I was made to be a part of cinema, that cinema was shaped for me.”
Since the beginning of her career, critics and press have described Seydoux as mysterious. With a front-tooth gap reminiscent of Brigitte Bardot and a sometimes pixie that suggests Jean Seberg, she looks the part of a French New Wave heroine batting away ennui. But she doesn’t fully understand the label. “When I hear, ‘This person is mysterious,’ it’s actually [that] she’s just boring. She doesn’t talk and she doesn’t have anything to say,” Seydoux says. She chalks up much of this apparent air of mystery to her performance instincts. “[In] my acting, I hold back certain things,” she explains. “I think that acting is not only about what you give, but it’s also about what you retain.”
Hansen-Love says there is a simplicity and unsophistication to Seydoux’s style. “That has always been what I was looking for with the actors. Not to add intentions, but to get rid of them, and in that way they would be the character,” notes the director. “She holds back, and that is maybe why some people find her cold.”
Seydoux has read the interviews in which performers wax poetic about getting into character, filling journals with complicated backstories, inhabiting the character nonstop for the entirety of the shoot. That’s not for her. “For me, [analyzing the character] is the most boring thing,” she says. When an actor is like, ‘My character is like that. He thinks like that. I think he has been through that.’ For me, it’s just not interesting.”
When Seydoux is weighing a potential project, the director is the main — and sometimes only — consideration. She has worked with Jessica Hausner (Lourdes), Scott (Robin Hood), Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris), Thomas Vinterberg (The Command), Xavier Dolan (It’s Only the End of the World), Sam Mendes (Spectre) and Cary Fukunaga (No Time to Die). But putting herself at the whims of auteurs has not been without unpleasantness, the most salient example being with Kechiche on Blue Is the Warmest Colour.
After the film’s Cannes debut, with much of its press coverage revolving around its 7-minute lesbian sex scene, the actresses, most notably the older Seydoux, spoke up about working conditions on set. Seydoux said that Kechiche required a tremendous number of takes — upward of 100 for a single shot. The much-dissected scene took 10 days to film. Shortly after the premiere, members of the film’s French crew released a statement via their union outlining brutally long working days and describing conditions as “anarchic.”
What followed was a public spat between Seydoux and her director that played out in the press. Kechiche hurled insults and at one point penned an open letter on a French news website threatening legal action against Seydoux for her “slanderous” interviews. During a Los Angeles press conference at the Beverly Wilshire hotel that September, a tearful Seydoux told the media that her critiques had always been focused on Kechiche’s technique, adding, “It was my dream to work with him.”
In the decade since Blue Is the Warmest Colour was in production, the #MeToo movement was born, shedding light on sexual, gendered power dynamics in the industry. In 2017, Seydoux gave a personal account of a time when Harvey Weinstein, under the pretense of considering her for a role, forcefully attempted to kiss her in a hotel room. She fought him off, and recounted, “I left his room, thoroughly disgusted. I wasn’t afraid of him, though. Because I knew what kind of man he was all along.”
Her account was meant to be anonymous, but while speaking with the journalist who took down her story, she decided to put her name on it. “I was strong enough to defend myself,” explains Seydoux, and she wanted those who read it to know that, as a woman and as an actress, “you have to fight. You have to defend yourself all the time.” By adding her name, Seydoux was taking ownership of her own power, as much as she was calling out Weinstein for an abuse of his.
In the wake of the movement, the use of intimacy coordinators — on-set choreographers for scenes that involve nudity and simulated sex — have become more common. Asked whether Blue Is the Warmest Colour would have benefited from such a position, Seydoux lets out an almost shocking burst of laughter. “No. Not really,” she finally says. She cocks her head, taking another beat to contemplate the possibility, at which point she starts to laugh again: “It was beyond. It was the whole film, not only the sex scenes. The way we shot this film was just insane. The guy is just nuts.”
When asked about her favorite Cannes moment, Seydoux does not hesitate in giving an answer: “My greatest experience was Blue Is the Warmest Colour.” She remembers that festival as being particularly overcast and rainy, a contrast to the elation she felt being awarded the Palme d’Or along with her co-star. To her, it was an acknowledgment that they were the co-authors of the film, along with the director. “It took a year of my life and I gave everything for that film,” she says. “It really changed my life on many different levels.”
Born in Paris to actress turned philanthropist Valérie Schlumberger and Henri Seydoux, co-founder of French tech company Parrot, Seydoux describes her young self as a misfit. Her parents divorced when she was 3, and Seydoux was raised by her mother, who, besides Seydoux’s sister Camille (five years older and now a stylist), had three older children from a previous marriage. (Seydoux also has two siblings from her father’s second marriage.) “I can adapt myself easily,” says Seydoux of a bustling but itinerant childhood she has called lonely. “I think that it’s something that stays with you forever,” she explains. “I carry this loneliness.”
Notes Hansen-Love: “She has melancholy about her. Maybe you cannot see it when you are talking with her, but you can definitely see it when you shoot with her.”
Seydoux spent her 9th birthday roughly 4,000 miles from her 6th arrondissement home, fishing and doing papier-mâché at a Maryland sleepaway camp, knowing no English. Her father thought that sending his daughter to camp on the East Coast was the best way for her to learn the language. Young Seydoux did have a lifeline there, a 7-year-old cousin who was born in the U.S. But her cousin reached her tipping point about halfway through the 6-week-long camp. “She was like, ‘I’m fed up! I don’t want to be translating all the time, Léa!’ ” remembers Seydoux. Still, several summers at camp had the desired effect, and she learned English and, in retrospect, is happy to have gone.
Outside of Maryland and Paris, a decent chunk of Seydoux’s upbringing was spent in Senegal, where Schlumberger once lived and where Léa would often vacation. Like at summer camp, in West Africa she would happily play with the local children but couldn’t shake the feeling of being an outsider. School in France wasn’t much better; Seydoux had trouble reading and found academics arduous. “I was very chaotic in a way. The world was, to me, scary. I didn’t know what to do,” she says.
She was having a hard time connecting in day-to-day life, but that empathy came easily in front of a screen. She didn’t go to the movies much growing up but had a steady diet of VHS tapes. Film, says Seydoux, is “a way to be connected to the world. To participate.” She describes her younger self as having “no distance when I was watching a film.”
The actress — who’s now mother to 5-year-old son George with longtime partner Andre Meyer, who does not work in film — comes from the type of old European ancestry that necessitates long names. (Hers is Léa Hélène Seydoux-Fornier de Clausonne.) Most pertinent to her profession, her paternal grandfather runs Pathé and her great-uncle is the chairman of Gaumont, two of France’s most storied film studios. From the start of her career, she has fielded questions about nepotism and denied that the connections were ever of any help. In past interviews, she has pointed out that she and her grandfather are not close.
As for how she got into acting, Seydoux sighs and says, “I fell in love, of course.”
At 19 and film-obsessed, she befriended a group of young actors and would tag along, admiring their ambition and freedom. She was taken by their conviction that they belonged somewhere and to something, an assuredness that Seydoux had rarely experienced. She fell in love with one of them, and that “crystallized” all of her desires, she says. “I was lost, and suddenly I met this actor, and I was like, ‘Wow, he’s exactly what I want to be.'” She sees now that she was projecting onto the actor what she wanted from her own life. “It’s magical when you feel that power,” says Seydoux of love, without a wink of cynicism. “My ambition needed to be driven by that love.”
The relationship didn’t work out, but the passion stuck, and she began taking classes in France and at the Actors Studio in New York. Her first feature role was in the early aughts teen movie Girlfriends as a girl whose main objective is to win an interschool hip-hop contest. This did not premiere at Cannes. Her true breakout came in 2008 with The Beautiful Person, a role that earned her a Chopard Award for up-and-coming young talent. That film was presented at Cannes — her first major brush with the festival.
In Inglourious Basterds, Seydoux’s first big Hollywood film, she is seen only in the opening scenes, occupying less than a couple of minutes of screen time with even fewer lines. Seydoux shot for five days but was on set for more than a month. “Quentin likes to have his actors with him” as part of the greater whole, she says, and she enjoyed being part of the film’s large surrogate family.
“I didn’t want to be an actor when I was young,” asserts Seydoux. “I think I wanted to have a family.”
Seydoux’s big-budget Hollywood credits include two James Bond films and a Mission: Impossible. “I would be sad to be only a French actress, only doing films in France,” she says. “And I would’ve been sad to be an actress in Hollywood.”
She has some qualms with the stateside film industry. “I think that the system in America is really difficult because you have to be desirable all the time,” she says. “You’re not allowed to age, which is something that is quite scary. You have to stay young forever. It’s like [an] injunction. And it’s just a lie.” In France, she says, “they have more indulgence with women. I’m not thinking, ‘Fuck, this is going to stop.’ I want to age in front of the camera.”
Unlike many of her peers, Seydoux does not have an Instagram account or other social media, which she believes “kills the mystery.”
“I have nothing to sell, and I don’t want to sell myself,” she says, though she has a longtime affiliation with Louis Vuitton and has fronted several campaigns for the luxury brand. The possible contradiction does not seem to bother her. “Life is full of contradictions. And it’s what I want to see in a film,” notes Seydoux.
“I’m not going to be —” Seydoux begins before slapping a grating fake French accent on top of her delightful lilt, “a French woman crying about art.” This perhaps best encapsulates Seydoux on film, an idealist and a realist, with film itself being both a business and an art to her. Seydoux, who is worldly but never cynical, earnest but not naive, contains ever more contradictions. Says Cronenberg, “In a very gentle way and sweet way, she is really ferocious.”
Since starting in entertainment, she has averaged four feature film releases a year — a stat that surprises even her. “My nature is that I’m very lazy,” Seydoux insists, despite the IMDb page that argues otherwise. “It’s true, I work a lot. But even me, I’m amazed.” Before filming No Time to Die, in which she reprises her role as psychiatrist and Bond paramour Madeleine Swann, she was coming off of four back-to-back projects. “I was just so exhausted,” she recalls.
The prospect of working with interesting people, with interesting ways of seeing the world, helps stave off fatigue. “When a director has a vision for me,” she says, “I’m interested a lot in what’s underneath.” Not every vision is one she is willing to explore. Seydoux remembers being offered a role of a woman who falls in love with her biological brother. With that project, she felt, the director “was approving of this [relationship], in a way. She wanted to do a film where even you can fall in love with …” Seydoux trails off before forcibly recounting: “I was like, ‘No.’”
Seydoux describes watching film as “a way to survive.” Cinema, she says, “makes me want to be part of this world.”
She continues: “I have no problem with the tragic — with ugliness — but it needs to be true. For me, truth is beauty and beauty is something that links me to the world.” She admits to not being a fan of 2021 Palme d’Or winner Titane, which follows a car crash survivor turned serial killer who becomes impregnated by a car: “I felt very depressed after.”
Crimes of the Future is Cronenberg’s full-throated return to the body horror he explored in Videodrome and The Fly. It’s set in a near future where humans have adapted to their synthetic surroundings, making traditional food and sex obsolete. The story follows performance artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), who, thanks to a technologically advanced bed that anticipates his body’s every need, grows new organs at a rapid pace that then are removed in front of sold-out crowds with the help of Caprice (Seydoux), a surgeon turned Tenser’s creative partner.
“Some actors are afraid of certain things, and it’s very specific to them,” explains Cronenberg. “For a movie like this, you need an actor to be uninhibited in a very broad sense of the word, and Léa certainly brings that to [Caprice].”
Mortensen, who has done three previous films with Cronenberg and admits they are “not always everybody’s cup of tea,” calls Seydoux the most committed onscreen partner he has worked with: “[She]’s like, ‘I don’t care what it sounds like or looks like, if it’s right for the character and right for David, then I am going all the way.’ Which seems to be her attitude all of the time.” The movie’s extended trailer shows Seydoux making an incision into someone’s stomach before sucking on the wound.
It’s not that Seydoux wasn’t afraid, she says, it’s that she is used to it. “When I’m about to start working with a director, I never know what I’m going to do. And I’m scared; I’m fucking scared. But I’m up for it.”
It’s this feeling of fear, willfully throwing herself time and again into something new, that propels her forward. It’s a shark-like perpetual need for motion. “It’s something completely necessary to my life,” she says. “It becomes the most important thing in my life when I’m doing it.”
A version of this story first appeared in the May 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.