Vanessa Paradis seems relaxed.
As I navigate the gated courtyard of a posh apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, I find the sprite-like beauty seated on the brick steps outside, legs crossed, casually puffing on a cigarette. She waves and smiles, exposing the signature gap in her teeth.
Moments later, we’re seated in a room upstairs. The singer-actress, who splits time between her native France and New York, is in town to shoot the John Turturro film Fading Gigolo, along with Woody Allen, Sofia Vergara, and Liev Schreiber. Paradis will play a Hasidic Jew opposite Allen. “I’m the lice lady to his children and that’s how we connect,” she says.
“I’m thrilled to be in New York because it was the city of my 20s—of freedom,” she continues, still smiling. “I was working since I was 14 in France, and coming here as an unknown, walking through the streets, there’s an amazing energy and light in the sky. I’m so happy to be here.”
Returning to New York, the city of her capricious youth—she was dating rocker Lenny Kravitz at the time—seems fitting, given the recent news of her split from her boyfriend of 14 years, Hollywood mega-star Johnny Depp, with whom she has two children. Tabloids have been rife with rumors about the breakup, but Paradis shrugs off the gossip.
“I don’t sell my private life, and nobody knows the truth or has done a proper journalist’s work on that situation,” she says emphatically. “Nowadays, people speculate, but nobody knows! I have my children to protect.” She pauses. “There are children involved, so it’s really no one’s business but the family.”
She’s here to discuss her recent film, Café de Flore, which opens Nov. 9 in limited release stateside.
The visually arresting drama, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria), jumps back and forth between two seemingly unrelated stories. Antoine (Kevin Parent) is a star DJ in present-day Montreal struggling to reconcile his desire for a considerably younger sexy new flame and his relationship with his ex-wife and two children. Jacqueline (Paradis), meanwhile, is a single mother in 1960s Paris who transforms into a green-eyed monster when her child, who has Down syndrome, falls in love with a young girl, also with Down syndrome.
It’s a spellbinding, troublingly realistic turn by Paradis, who captures Jacqueline’s slow descent into madness. The role won her the Genie Award, the Canadian Oscar, for best actress, and she says her real-life experience as a mother of two, and the anxiety she often feels, helped prepare her for the role.
“All parents are [overprotective],” says Paradis. “When somebody hurts your child, you become a war machine. You couldn’t kill, but you want to.”
She continues: “We have the gut feeling, you know? You love and you fear for them, and it’s all here [points to her belly]. I understand that. But Jacqueline is in a very different situation because she gave birth to a child with Down syndrome, and back then, the life expectancy of a child with Down syndrome was 25 years, so this woman is completely driven by love and fear, and she forgets who she is as a human being.”
While people in America may recognize her as the woman formerly known as Mrs. Johnny Depp, Paradis has been an international star since she was 14, when her coquettish ballad “Joe le Taxi” was the No. 1 song in France for 11 consecutive weeks in 1987. Two years later, she won the César Award, the French Oscar, for most promising actress for her performance as a 17-year-old girl who engages in a passionate affair with a married 47-year-old in Noce Blanche. She’d go on to record five music albums (one with Serge Gainsbourg) and star in a number of films, including the critically acclaimed Girl on the Bridge (1999), opposite Daniel Auteuil.
“It was crazy to grow up in front of the cameras and speak to people when you’re not ready to speak at all,” she says. “I loved singing, so it was amazing and cruel at the same time. When you’re 14 years old, you’re not a finished human being, so defending your ideas from critics is difficult.”
While Paradis didn’t appear in a film from 2000 to 2003—she was starting a family with Depp—she’s been acting much more in recent years, including 2010’s French romantic comedy Heartbreaker, which was a big box-office hit abroad, and her award-winning turn in Café de Flore.
“It just happened like that! With the age that I am, I guess there are more roles,” she says, with a laugh. “I didn’t decide to act more but a lot of interesting roles just came at once. Since I’m turning 40, I can play the love interest, the mom, or the friend. When you’re younger, it’s all about ingénue roles.”
In addition to modeling for various high-fashion brands—she’s been appearing in campaigns for Chanel since 1991—Paradis is almost finished recording an album with producer and rumored beau Benjamin Biolay, which she says will be released in the spring.
And, of course, she’s busy being a caring mother to her two young children, daughter Lily-Rose, 13, and son Jack, 10.
“What changes with motherhood is that you’re not No. 1 in your life anymore. Suddenly, someone counts more than yourself,” she says. “It makes you a better person, less selfish and more aware of others.” She pauses for a moment. “The biggest love of your life is born, and it’s the one love that never fades, but keeps growing stronger.”