The French actress Léa Seydoux is busy having her cake and eating it too. With credits in Hollywood blockbusters (Robin Hood, Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, Inglorious Basterds) and leading roles in European festival-films (see Bernard Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen), the 27-year-old has built an enviable career on both sides of the Atlantic. She can play both the French seductress to an American audience and the homegrown ingenue in France. As anyone will tell you—and she herself recognizes but tends to shrug it off—this is no easy feat.
When I meet Seydoux, she has just arrived in Manhattan from Paris. Jet-lag lends her features a sensual fatigue not unlike that of her characters: a mysterious, sad-eyed beauty that holds innocence, weariness, and sex-appeal in balance. She’s in town to promote her new film, Sister, an atmospheric drama that puts this emotional cocktail to fantastic use. Seydoux’s role as a prematurely fallen woman and self-destructive older-sister is surely her most chilling performance to date. In an East-River apartment, the actress is curled up in a grandfather chair, wrapped in a green gabardine coat. We talked about getting into showbusiness, the real Woody Allen, and the time she listened to Quentin Tarantino take a leak.
When did you first know you wanted to be an actress?
I think it was quite late. I was 18 or 19. At that time I had a friend and she was obsessed with cinema and actors. Through her I met an actor and we became friends. I was really impressed by his life. I met his agent and I started to do castings and go to auditions.
What was it about his life that you liked?
Everything. He traveled. He worked on different projects. I’m a very free person. I think when you are an actor you can be free. That’s what I wanted—at least at first. Then it became a passion.
What were you like as a teenager?
Growing up I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I never got into too much trouble but I was still rebellious.
You come from an important family for French cinema. Did your parents ever push you to pursue film or take you to the movies when you were young?
No, never. It was my decision. I have a very big family so it was not a natural choice.
You’ve been working a lot recently. How would you describe the last few years?
Intense. I work a lot now—which I like. But I didn’t know what to expect. When I made the decision to be an actress I didn’t know what that meant. You know it was strange because I was sure I was made for acting. But it wasn’t easy. It took time. I had to work, learn … get beyond my fears.
Did you want to work in America? How did that happen?
It started almost at the same time as everything else. One day my agent calls me and told me Ridley Scott was looking for a young girl to play a French queen. I don’t know, I felt this energy, like I was completely transported by this idea of playing the role. So I auditioned and I got it.
How did Quentin Tarantino get in touch?
I was on vacation when my agent called me to say Tarantino was in Paris looking for a French actress. I rushed back to do the casting with him. He asked me what I thought about the script and I didn’t know what to say—I was really shy. I was more and more embarrassed. Then he asked if he could go to the bathroom and went just behind me. And I could hear him pissing for like ten minutes. I was so nervous! There I was trying to remember pages of dialogue and all I could hear was Tarantino pissing in the bathroom!
Are you a shy person in general?
I’m very shy but when I start to perform I get so focused on what I’m doing I lose that. When I did the scenes with Owen for Midnight in Paris, I was blushing.
Because you thought Owen was cute?
No—well, yeah, I mean he is cute. But it was because of Woody.
Did you have to audition for Woody?
No. I was auditioning for a Fincher film in LA when my agent called me and said Woody added a role after he saw my photo. So he called me and he picked me up. Then Woody called the day after and we spoke. He wanted to know how long my hair was and then was like “OK, come to Paris tomorrow and we can shoot.”
What’s Woody like in person?
Woody doesn’t speak to people on the set. He’s in his own world. But when he saw me there was something strong between us—I don’t know what. We spoke a lot. When we did the last scene we were talking so much the crew had to interrupt us to shoot the scene.
What’s the difference between French and American films?
It’s not that different. I really like both. I guess the difference is maybe the budget. Maybe in France it’s more intimate. In America it’s more of a business. What I like about American films is you have to be professional. In France people can go on and on like a family reunion. Sometimes you just want to do your work.
Are there any actresses you admire?
I love Catherine Deneuve. In America I love Marilyn Monroe. She incarnates what an actress has to be—feminine, sensitive, touching, fragile, poetic also.
Other than acting, what are the two or three important things in your life?
Love! L’amour! La champagne!
Alcoholic? No! (Laughs.) I love life, travel, trees, literature.
Are you a romantic? Are you looking for love?
Yes, I’m a total romantic but I’m not looking for love. I don’t think you can look for love. It comes, it goes, it comes again.
What are you listening to right now?
The classics—Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Billie Holiday.
(Laughs) Her first album wasn’t bad.
What about modeling?
I don’t know why people say I look like a model, I’m not. Look—I’m short! I’m not a model—I’m just an actress.