Intimidating, icy cool, irrepressibly chic… PHILIPPINE LEROY-BEAULIEU plays In the TV hit series Emily in Paris, she is the boss and the perfect woman. She tells Laura Craik explains how her inspiration came so close to home

Jacket and dress: Renaissance. Jewellery: Marie-Helene de Taillac.

Dress and jacket: Renaissance Jewellery: Marie-Helene de Taillac.

 Even if she wasn’t starring in Netflix’s smash-hit Emily in Paris playing the formidable Sylvie ‒ boss and nemesis to Lily Collins’s Emily ‒ with such froideur, I’d still feel terrified about interviewing Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu. While it’s never polite to generalise, 20 years of working in the French capital have led me to conclude that while Parisian women are many wonderful things ‒ intelligent, passionate, focused, droll ‒ lighthearted chit-chat isn’t their thing. Banter? They’d sooner wear Crocs.

It isn’t surprising that Philippine chose to meet at a chic London hotel. It’s not hard to see that she looks radiant in softly tailored, semi-transparent jacket and blouse. That she looks radiantly beautiful in a natural ‘it’s just my genes’ Jane Birkin way is so far, so very French. And then she orders in impeccable English: ‘Earl Grey tea, please. And a little piece of cake.’

Philippine, I discover as we chat, is warm, quick to laugh and deliciously candid, even if she’s unable to give away details about the second season of Emily in Paris, the show created by Darren ‘Sex and the City’ Star that was viewed by 58 million households in its first month of release. ‘I’m not supposed to say anything,’ she demurs. ‘Let’s just say that we’ll get to see a totally different side of Sylvie.’

French viewers will be hoping that this side includes fewer clichés, for it’s fair to say that in France, the first season of Emily in Paris went down like a lead baguette. ‘The berets. The croissants. The hostile waiters.

They are the inveterate philanderers. They are the lovers and their mistresses. Name a cliché about France and the French, and you’ll find it,’ sniffed the French news outlet 20 Minutes. The cast may be largely composed of cartoons. Emily, a stereotypical representation of the American-American millennial self-conscious and confident, is just as common as Sylvie, her chain-smoking, intimidating French boss. How does Philippine feel about the negative criticisms the show is getting? ‘My answer is that Parisians have no sense of humour,’ she retorts. ‘A lot of the stuff that is said is true.’

To Philippine, Sylvie is a far more nuanced character: ‘She’s strong and vulnerable. She is strong. She doesn’t appreciate a little American telling her what to do or say.’

According to her, the casting process was easy. ‘Although they were looking for a much-younger woman,’ she says slyly, with a throaty laugh. ‘But I read for them, and then it happened.’ You could say Philippine was born into the role: ‘My mother worked in fashion with Dior for 20 years. I’ve known women like Sylvie since I was a kid. They’re basically scared: scared of losing their beauty, scared of ageing.’

Philippine playing Sylvie with Lily Collins as Emily in the second series of Emily in Paris

Philippine plays Sylvie, with Lily Collins playing Emily in the second series.

When Philippine says her mother, Françoise ‘worked with Dior’ she isn’t exaggerating: as head of accessories, she oversaw the jewellery and handbags for each collection. ‘It was a big thing,’ she concedes. ‘The people she worked with were full of sh*t, but fun. They’re superficial, but at the same time, they’re creative geniuses.’

Philippine, a Filipino who was raised in such an idyllic world is extremely down to Earth. ‘I wasn’t sitting in the front row. I was backstage with the models, thinking they’re goddesses, and how I’m never going to look like that. It was quite complex for me, but I had a lot fun doing it. Because I already knew what it was like to act in a movie, the thing that really intrigued me about the production was how the models presented themselves. The girls used to smile, play around and do little dances.’

Was she ever a dreamer of becoming one? ‘No, never.’ Perhaps because she saw the drawbacks that beauty can bring? ‘My mother was very beautiful. Her beauty made older women jealous. It was quite shocking to see how jealous they were. This was a result of being afraid to lose your job, place or territory. And that was very inspiring when it came to playing Sylvie.’

If Sylvie’s character was familiar to Philippine, so too was her look, which she worked on with costume designer Patricia Field. Sylvie’s pencil skirts with high heels remind me of Carine Roitfeld who, as the editor of French Vogue, wore the same uniform daily, even in snow, thanks to her vertiginous shoes and pencil skirts. ‘Maybe it was subconscious, but when we designed the costumes we focused more on classical Hollywood actresses like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Ava Gardner.’

British women love French style, as do Filipinos. ‘I admire how British women dress, because they’re so free.’ She doesn’t think we’re scruffy? ‘That’s the charm! French women have a natural talent. You can have everything. It’s a bit boring.’

It is also something she admires: British warmth. ‘Paris is not a very easy city,’ she notes. ‘People are like closed shells. It makes it hard for people to integrate when they’re new.’ She speaks from experience: after her actor father, Philippe, and her mother divorced when she was 11, she and her mother moved to Paris from Rome. ‘I’m French with a French name, and I was still treated like a foreigner. And because I had a little accent at that time I was hated by my peers at school ‒ even by the teachers. “You’re not one of us!” Parisians, they’re not welcoming.’

It doesn’t matter if Philippine is outspoken from the beginning or if she feels that she is entitled to it now at age 58. Her candor is refreshing. She clearly doesn’t suffer fools, and speaks with the pragmatism of a person who has been in the business for a long time. ‘It’s simple,’ she says of her decision to become an actor. ‘My father’s an actor. It’s in the genes.’

As a teenager she worked in TV commercials. She then enrolled at drama school. She continued her education and landed small parts on films in her 20s. Her breakout role was playing a single mother in the 1985 comedy Trois Hommes et un Couffin, a runaway hit in France that earned her a César nomination for Most Promising Actress (the movie was remade by Disney in 1987 as Three Men and a Baby). There were many smaller roles over the years, and finally Dix Pour Cent was born (now known as Call My Agent in the UK). She was cast as Catherine Barneville, the powerful but long-suffering husband of Mattias Barneville. It was a huge success, first shown on Netflix in 2015. ‘I was at that moment in an actor’s life when you’re thinking, “Am I going to have to stop?” when the director Cédric Klapisch cast me for that part. I told him he was bringing me out of the tomb,’ she laughs.

Do older French actors have the same problem as British actresses? ‘Yes, it is true,’ she concedes. ‘That’s why I’m so happy to have Sylvie because I can play something other than a mother or a grandmother. Thanks to Meryl Streep, who has been fighting for more roles, it is gradually changing. We’ve never written films about all the adventurers, painters and musicians that were women. We’ve been writing roles for men.’

She has strong feelings on the MeToo movement, but has avoided the victim role herself, saying the threat of rejecting a man’s advances never caused her to acquiesce. ‘F*** it – just take the risk [of saying no]. I took it many times, and I didn’t do the movie. When you’re in the business, you see it coming. This is how you know it. I don’t go to certain parties. You don’t put yourself in that position. It is important to exercise caution. You know that hell exists: you just don’t walk in it.’

It’s time to see Emily again in Paris, and we look forward to what the future brings. ‘Stuff is happening. There’s going to be more Emily, unless this is a disaster. But I don’t think so.’ I don’t think so either. No matter that she’s in high heels and a pencil skirt: Sylvie will run and run. 

Netflix offers Seasons 1 and 2 of Emily in Paris. 

Location: Academie des beaux-arts, Institut de France.

 Hair and Make-up: L’Oreal Paris.