Lea Seydoux Seduces Hollywood

The stunning French actress opens up about her turn as Bond woman Madeleine Swann in Spectre—a role that will propel her to global stardom.

Jonathan Olley/Columbia Pictures

Two years after putting her Blue Is the Warmest Color director on blast for the “horrible” nine-month ordeal that yielded her breakout performance and a historic Palme d’Or win, Léa Seydoux sounds relaxed. “It’s been a great experience,” she says, phoning from Mexico City, where her Bond debut Spectre made its Americas premiere. “I felt… taken care of.”

Spectre isn’t just the biggest film of Seydoux’s career to date; with a $250 million price tag it’s also one of the most expensive movies ever made. Despite lukewarm reviews, global audiences have already pushed it to $296 million in box office receipts. And while she bravely laid bare her body and soul in the critically acclaimed Blue, many moviegoers are seeing more of Seydoux in her mainstream Bond debut than they ever have before.

Bookending the Daniel Craig cycle that began with 2006’s Casino Royale, the 24th James Bond film picks up on the heels of franchise peak Skyfall as Bond pieces together a puzzle involving the ghosts of his past and his own uncertain future. On the way he speeds along in expensive cars and expensive suits, races airplanes down snowy Austrian mountainsides, seduces a few femme fatales. And for the first time since Vesper Lynd, the blond Bond falls in love—with Seydoux’s steely, vulnerable Madeleine Swann.

Seydoux plays Swann with a deceptive allure, playing to the actress’s uniquely captivating qualities: childlike yet deadly tough, soft-spoken but self-possessed, a cruel pout punctuating her delicate features. She is the estranged daughter of Bond’s former Quantum nemesis Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), which ties Spectre to the films that have come before. And as the daughter of a villain, the film argues, she’s most equipped to see Bond for who he is.

When she got the call to audition for Spectre, Seydoux had no script to read and just a hint of the character’s significance. She tried out for the role by reading sides from a previous Bond flick knowing only broad strokes and themes from director Sam Mendes, and said yes to the part based on his description.

“When I first met Sam I was a huge fan of his work and very impressed. He told me about the character and that she was different,” she explained. “But I was not able to read the script because it was not ready yet. And also it was very secret, the whole thing.”

Seydoux, one of seven siblings whose grandfather runs French film giant Pathé, grew up between France and Senegal. She’s spoken often of an overwhelming shyness suffered since childhood, one cured in part when she began acting. “I think that the problems that we have in life have something to do with your education and the relationship that you have with your father and mother,” she laughed. “It all comes from the childhood.”

American audiences have seen Seydoux’s raw sulking beauty before, but unless they’ve pored over acclaimed imports like Blue Is the Warmest Color, most haven’t seen this much of the 30-year-old actress in roles outside of her native France.

Back home, Seydoux is a superstar who regularly graces the covers of magazines and has been lauded with accolades throughout her nearly decade-long career, including four César nominations—France’s Oscar. In France she’s worked with directors from Catherine Breillat (The Last Mistress) to Christophe Honoré (The Beautiful Person) to Benoît Jacquot (Farewell, My Queen).

Thanks to her early work back home. Seydoux started to get Hollywood’s attention a few years ago, appearing briefly in films for Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris), Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds), Wes Anderson (Grand Budapest Hotel), and Ridley Scott (Robin Hood), and landing her first action blockbuster role opposite Tom Cruise as a Beretta-toting French assassin in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

It was Tarantino who cast Seydoux in her first English-language role, albeit ironically one with no dialogue—a small part in Basterds as a daughter of a family of farmers caught harboring Jews when Col. Hans Landa comes calling. In the film’s opening sequence she shares a memorably tense moment with Christoph Waltz—and that dynamic is mirrored in their scenes together in Spectre, as Waltz’s manic super villain Franz Oberhauser welcomes Bond and Madeleine into his lair and subjects each to various rounds of emotional torture.

Criticisms of Spectre have called out the film’s retrograde treatment of the women in Bond’s life, including Monica Bellucci’s grieving Italian widow and Seydoux’s Swann, whom he saves several times before they ride off into the moonlight. Even the memory of Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd, glimpsed in photographs alongside his dearly departed M (Judi Dench), is dismissed by Bond in one scene as a way of showing that he’s over the former flame who betrayed him.

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But Swann is no typical Bond “girl,” Seydoux argues. For one, she chooses to join Bond on his quest for answers, driven by her own motives. For another, one might argue, she actually survives her romance with 007—a fate most of his paramours don’t enjoy. Common threads unite Bond, Madeleine, and Christoph Waltz’s antagonist Franz Oberhauser: daddy issues and a shared history.

“What was very important was the relationship that she has with her father, and I think Bond has the same problem in a way. He has to search his past,” Seydoux said. “I remember Sam told me that Spectre was about the father and Skyfall was about the mother… It’s a big part of the way that [Bond] ends up with Madeleine.”

It’s Madeleine who challenges Bond to confront his own identity not as a suave secret agent, but as an assassin whose hands are dirty just like the bad guys he’s sent after. “I kill people,” he offers. She doesn’t flinch. He offers her his protection, which she summarily rejects. She surprises him with hidden talents and, echoing the remarks of his MI6 boss, points the way to a life not built around his license to kill.

Of course, 007 does end up saving Madeleine from kidnapping thugs—twice. And she’s employed often by Spectre’s screenwriters to prompt Bond for exposition. “What’s that?” she ponders as they sift through her father’s secret surveillance hideaway. “What do we do now?” she asks after the two have dispatched a killer, leading to the most breathlessly tongue-in-cheek love scene in recent Bond history. But Seydoux sees reciprocity in their relationship: “Bond saves her in a way, and she saves him.”

“I think I contributed to the character; I tried to make her truthful,” said Seydoux. “I wanted her to be in this action world... at the same time it’s a strong character, but she also has feelings like James Bond, and she has her own issues.”

“Me, I love cinema and I want to make good films, also. So it was hard to say no,” said Seydoux, who says that “for the moment, no,” she’s not signed on for further Bond sequels. “I think it’s more than just entertainment. It’s a high-quality film.”