I learned from the streets,” says actress Léa Seydoux, perched on a plush sofa in the bar of New York’s Bowery Hotel. “I mean, I’m not, like, Jay Z,” she adds, laughing through the gap in her front teeth. “But in a way, I really did my own education.”
The “streets,” in Seydoux’s case, were the boulevards of Paris’ Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood, historically the city’s cultural center, where, thanks to her parents’ bohemian tendencies, she was often left to her own devices. “I’ve always felt like an orphan,” says the actress, who was one of seven kids. “I didn’t have any structure.”
It was “the life of freedom, being your own boss” that drew Seydoux, 30, to acting. She had her breakout performance in the 2013 French film Blue Is the Warmest Color, which featured a now-legendary seven-minute lesbian sex scene and won her a Palme d’Or at Cannes. Right now you can catch her as the newest Bond girl in Spectre, opposite Daniel Craig. It’s by far the most high-profile role yet for an actress with deep art-house roots. “I thought, ‘Oh, it’s never going to work, all the other girls will want [the part],'” she says.
In fact, Seydoux was used to being the misfit in a glittery world. Her father is CEO of the wireless company Parrot, and, in Seydoux’s words, a “genius” engineer; her mother a philanthropist whose work often took her to Africa. Her family had entertainment-world connections thanks to her grandfather, a film producer, and she remembers childhood encounters with Mick Jagger and Lou Reed. But Seydoux was also left to wander the streets “badly dressed and in too-small shoes. And I had lice,” she recalls. “I would ask girls to come to my house and play, and they were like, ‘No, my mother doesn’t want it, there’s no supervision.'”
Seydoux started acting when she was 18, taking up a profession no one in her family had envisioned for her. “When I said, ‘I want to be an actress,’ my parents were like, ‘Bullshit. Try if you want, but it’s never going to work.’ ” But after becoming a fixture of French cinema, she was cast in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and as a farm girl being questioned by Nazi soldiers in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Her upbringing helped prepare her for her character in Spectre, an assassin’s daughter who shares Seydoux’s “instinct de vie” – the scrappy survival skills of someone burying her past. “Acting, you play a role every time,” she says softly. “So it was made for me because, in a way, I can hide.”