In the window seat of a restaurant in SoHo, New York, Léa Seydoux is figuring out how to tame a gargantuan burger, which she needs to eat as fast as possible so that she can think. She is extremely hungry. She is also extremely tired. Seydoux has a three-year-old son who likes to climb into her bed at night (“I have no authority,”she concedes mildly) and a brutal schedule simultaneously promoting the forthcoming James Bond movie, No Time to Die, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, and shooting a French film by Bruno Dumont in Munich. But the world’s attention, inevitably, is on the former—a project that seems to have been beset by challenges, most recently having its release date pushed back to November in response to an open letter calling for public health to be prioritised above marketing schedules.
In the last instalment, Spectre, released in 2015 and directed by Sam Mendes, Seydoux played Madeleine Swann, a psychiatrist with whom Daniel Craig’s 007 wanders hand-in-hand into the night in the closing scene. It’s a classic shot: The pair a little dishevelled after a bruising action sequence, walking across Westminster Bridge against a sky turned blue by the flashing lights of assembled police cars. Craig’s portrayal might have a little more edge compared with those gone by, but he’s still inescapably Bond. After all, the spy is as much a brand as a character—a carousel of images that cohere into a vision of supreme manliness. Bond firing guns; Bond driving a fast car round a precipitous corner; Bond disappearing under white sheets with a hot blonde. Whoever’s been in the role, he has always been brave, strong, white, straight. So how do you make a Bond film now, when a number of those things seem a little out of keeping with the times? “Yeah,” says Seydoux with a half smile. “We had to adapt.”
Despite the various controversies surrounding the release of No Time to Die, Seydoux has no regrets about reprising her role as Swann—only the second time a “Bond girl” has been given such a chance at survival (the first to appear in successive films was Eunice Gayson, as Sylvia Trench in Dr. No and From Russia with Love). Usually, the women are involved in a final-scene clinch and then never seen again, or, if revealed to be conspiring against Bond, deftly killed off. But Seydoux’s Swann is a different beast. “My character is not a stereotype,” she says proudly. “It’s not clichéd. She’s a real woman, and an interesting woman. That’s what we needed.”
In her hands, Swann is also enigmatic and weighed down by a melancholy that seems to seep into every scene. Seydoux in person is not dissimilar. Even when engaged in the pragmatic task of biting off a chunk of burger, she is somehow mysterious, as though one step removed from the situation in which she finds herself. When we meet, she’s in a black jacket, a Louis Vuitton handkerchief blooming from a breast pocket. The tailoring is sharp, but she still has the air of a cat in the sun: those wide-set, half-closed eyes, a wave of golden-blonde hair and a private, invisible energy that you might mistake for sleepiness, or disengagement, yet is the kind of introversion that contains profound sensibility. People often describe Seydoux as embodying ennui, a very French concept denoting not just boredom, but a certain coolness, too detached to care. But this isn’t quite right: She’s someone who feels things so acutely, she struggles to express them, whose shyness can be mistaken for rudeness. “Hypersensitivity,” she explains. Every time she slips into silence and you think she has closed down, you realise when she next speaks that she has actually been on some internal self-questioning journey, and will talk only when she’s ready and has something to offer.
The result is that Seydoux doesn’t always say what you might expect her to say, nor, possibly, what she should say. “I’m not politically correct,” she says—more a casual statement of fact than a profession of defiance. For example, when we talk about the film’s addition of the first female 00 agent with equal status—played by British actress Lashana Lynch—she pauses, and says on behalf of all the women featured: “We are not here to please Bond’s sexuality.” (This has also been helped by the influence of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who worked on the script.) But Seydoux doesn’t stop there. She thinks for a minute, then adds: “What we forget is that James Bond is also a sexual object. He’s totally a sexual object. He’s one of the few, maybe one of the only, male characters to be sexualised. I think that women, they love to see Bond, no? To see his body. No? Don’t you think?” Seydoux likes to talk in questions, to wind you into her train of thought. Sometimes, she answers them herself: “I love to see sexy men in bathing suits.”
Seydoux is only 34, but has the career of an actor twice her age—a long trail of movies made with leading directors from Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds) to Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel and the upcoming The French Dispatch). Her success is often explained away by her heritage: Her grandfather, Jérôme Seydoux, is the chairman of Pathé, her great-uncles are both well-known producers and her father is the CEO of French wireless company Parrot. But in fact, no one in her family had much interest in acting, or particularly supported hers. Her upbringing, she says now, was full of “contre-exemples”—in other words, people whose ways of living she has decided not to follow. As a child, she was, she says, “very, very shy. Almost autistic. Almost. I was completely, completely in my own world. I was not connected to people. I was in my own bubble. But at the same time, I was always very aware and conscious of the world. Which is a little of a contradiction.”
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Contradictions are Seydoux’s comfort zone: She likes to subvert expectation. Ever since she was a young child, so quiet she could be easily ignored, she has been secretly watching everyone. “As a kid, I was always observing,” she recalls. “I’m an observer, a very fine one, and that’s what helps me in my job today.” When she thinks about all the parts she has played in recent years—from a murderer in Oh Mercy! to Belle in a 2014 French film version of Beauty and the Beast—she maintains that though their range is vast, they are all fundamentally her. “I’m always playing the same character again and again,” she says. “The form is different, but the depth is always the same. Interesting, huh?” This also happens to be her theory of human nature. Seydoux believes that people don’t—can’t—change. “I feel that I’m the same as I was when I was a kid,” she says. “I think there is a mechanism, a way of thinking that will never change. You don’t feel that? I think you evolve, but you don’t change.”
Her own evolution has coincided with that of her industry’s, an upturning of the status quo that has taken place in the wake of the Me Too movement. Seydoux has played her part in this, an active presence and voice. In 2017, she wrote an article for The Guardian in which she recounted some of her experiences, alleging that once, when she was in Harvey Weinstein’s hotel room, he jumped on her and tried to kiss her. She also claimed that on several occasions, she saw him attempt to convince women to sleep with him (in March, Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years’ imprisonment for rape and
sexual assault, but cleared of predatory sexual assault). And it wasn’t just Weinstein: She mentioned, not by name, other directors who’d tried to kiss her, or told her they wanted to have sex with her.
She was also vocal about her experience with Abdellatif Kechiche, the director of Blue is the Warmest Colour. The film had a long sex scene with her fellow actress Adele Exarchopoulos, which to their growing discomfort, they were made to shoot repeatedly over several days; Seydoux has said in previous interviews that the process made her feel “like a prostitute”. Looking back on the Guardian piece now, Seydoux regrets the headline—“‘I had to defend myself ’: the night Harvey Weinstein jumped on me”. It was all wrong, she says. “I wanted to say that I don’t victimise myself, that I was aware… I’m not naive, that’s all.”
When she’s at home in Paris with her partner André Meyer, Seydoux likes to take her son to museums, just as her own father used to do with her when she was a child. They go to the Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre, where she has a favourite painting—Le Tricheur à l’as de Carreau by Georges de La Tour. It’s a 17th-century work depicting a man playing a game of cards at a table surrounded by three figures representing lust, gambling and greed. The man symbolises innocence, Seydoux explains to me, the others are the corrupting influences in his life. He is seemingly unaware of what might befall him at the hands of these characters. Who would she be, of all of them? “Not innocent, for sure,” says Seydoux, smiling. “I have never been. I was shy, but never innocent.”
Instead, Seydoux feels she has always been burdened by knowledge. She’s not the type of person who bumbles through life, who takes things lightly. When I ask her how she feels when she’s not working, a time when many actors seem lost or anxious, she says happily: “I feel great! I love it.”
And then she elaborates: “I’m never anxious about tangible things. My only fears are about what’s unseen. I have more anxiety about abstraction and chaos than work.” She worries about the world, about the environment, about society, about how disconnected we are, how isolated, how trapped in our own bubbles. Motherhood, she says, has been a helpful corrective. She’s rarely afraid when she’s with her son, mostly because he roots her in the minute-to-minute reality of a child’s existence, but also because she truly understands him. “I have a total empathy for him. It’s a symbiosis. I’m in his head, I know how he feels, I know what he likes, I understand everything about him,” she says. “When I’m with him, I feel like I’m three years old.”
Perhaps it’s simply a product of the kind of instinctive empathy you need as an actor, but Seydoux strikes me as someone who engages in everything in her life with a similar intensity. When she’s not working, one of her favourite pastimes is to renovate—she’s currently doing up an old house in Brittany that had been abandoned for 100 years. She loves it not because she likes mulling over tiles or picking out paint shades, but because the idea of “rehabilitation”, of bringing a building back to life, appeals to her.
In a way, that’s precisely her effect on Bond, a process of rehabilitation. In Seydoux’s performances, worth waiting an extra six months for, the old idea of the “Bond girl” dies and is born again. She has replaced a stereotype with a character who possesses everything she holds dear: a lack of regard for what other people think, a private complexity, a way of being that is both inscrutable and magnetic. She doesn’t give a damn about what might be expected of her. She’s free.
All clothes and accessories worn throughout the shoot are by Louis Vuitton.
Photographer: Alexi Lubomirski.
Stylist: Leith Clark
Makeup: Mary Wiles / Forward Artists
Hair: Teddy Charles / The Wall Group
Manicure: Honey / Exposure NY
Set design: Jack Flanagan / The Wall Group
Styling assistants: Tilly Wheating, Austen Turner
Shot at Veronica Studios, Brooklyn.