At the close of the Cannes Film Festival this May, Steven Spielberg, the head of the jury, phoned Léa Seydoux, one of the stars of Blue Is the Warmest Color, and told her to attend the awards ceremony. At 28, Seydoux is one of the most versatile young actresses in her native France. She has played a loyal courtier to Marie Antoinette in last year’s Farewell, My Queen, a reckless young mother in Sister, and the object of desire in the upcoming Beauty and the Beast, opposite Vincent Cassel. Spielberg did not tell the actress what category she had won, but Seydoux assumed that she and her costar Adèle Exarchopoulos would receive the best actress prize. “Instead, we won the Palme d’Or!” Seydoux told me in June. It was a rare but meaningful decision on the part of the jury: a chance to applaud what many festivalgoers and critics found to be a controversial but fascinating work. It was also timely: In May, when crowds were protesting the recently passed gay-marriage law in France, an enthusiastic endorsement of an explicit lesbian love story was both an artistic and political statement. “I got the Palme d’Or!” Seydoux repeated, still clearly ecstatic. “Woo hoo hoo!”
Seydoux was dressed in black leggings, a striped T-shirt, and a black motorcycle jacket. She was in New York for less than 24 hours—her second trip that week to Manhattan from her home in Paris. Blue Is the Warmest Color, out in the U.S. in October, had ignited her career in America. The film, based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, tells the story of a young girl (Exarchopoulos) who falls in love with a punky blue-haired artist, played by Seydoux, has been divisive in more ways than one. The onscreen sexual encounters are very long (one male critic said he was so bored that he checked his watch—a first for him during a sex scene), intense, and, according to some, more in keeping with a male heterosexual perspective than a homosexual point of view. Maroh, who is openly gay, has decried them as “uninformed, unconvincing, and pornographic.” In fact, the sex scenes were, at least for me, the least interesting part of the film. More compelling was the relationship between the two women: In the movie, Seydoux is elusive, attractive, and captivating.
Taking on Blue Is the Warmest Color was a typically bold move for Seydoux, who was born into Gallic cinema royalty. Her grandfather Jérôme Seydoux is the CEO of Pathé, the French TV and movie giant; her great-uncle Nicolas Seydoux is the president of Gaumont, one of France’s largest film companies. Léa, who has been in more than 20 films and on the cover of nearly every French magazine, recently became the face of Prada’s Candy fragrance. When we met, she was anxious to fly back to Paris for a luncheon at the Elysée Palace with the French president, François Hollande. In the United States, if she is known at all, it is for a small part in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, or as the foreign killer out to assassinate Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible–Ghost Protocol in 2011. But her profile is about to change dramatically—sex has a way of drawing a crowd.
Your English is excellent. Where did you learn the language?
When I was 7, I went to summer camp in, I think, Maryland. My father wanted me to speak English. At first it was very difficult for me. The food was strange—in France, we’re not used to having potatoes with ketchup in the morning. And the French are not famous for sports. But I learned.
What made you decide to become an actress?
I met a guy who was an actor, and I found his life amazing. I was 18. He was able to do whatever he liked. I wanted his life more than I wanted to be an actress. In the beginning, I auditioned for television and quickly understood that I wanted to work with great directors. That’s how I pick projects now.
In Sister you played a woman who is constantly abandoning her son, whom, to make matters worse, she has asked to pretend to be her little brother. Did you find it difficult to portray someone who is so unlikable?
I didn’t like the character in Sister, but it’s interesting to play someone who’s far from who you are. I spent a lot of time thinking about what her clothes would be like—when you approach a character, you first have to decide how she would dress.
In that film, I noticed that you were at ease with your body. Still, does it make you uncomfortable to do nude scenes? Or sex scenes?
I like the difficulty of nudity sometimes. In love scenes, there is usually no dialogue—it’s almost like choreography. And sex is a universal language; everyone understands sex.
You recently said that the sex scenes in Blue Is the Warmest Color were “simulated” but that the “protection” was “small” and that it didn’t really alter the intimacy of the scenes. What did you mean?
We had fake pussies. The scenes are very sexual, but you don’t see our intimate parts. You do see a lot [she laughs], but only the other actress’s pussy shows, and it’s only for a moment.
Even so, the scenes are quite graphic.
Abdellatif Kechiche, the director, wanted them to be very sexual. When we met to discuss the movie, he asked me to spend one year with him. I had to tell him everything about my life, and we shot seven days a week for six months. One scene could last three days—he doesn’t want you to “act”: He’s looking for real feelings.
Are you a fan of American films? Do you have a cinematic crush?
Johnny Depp! In Cry-Baby, directed by John Waters. And Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Not Brando in Last Tango in Paris?
No! No butter in the ass—it’s too much!