"Emily In Paris" star Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu: "It's so much fun to play a villain"

Leroy-Beaulieu reveals the secret to Sylvie's bad temper and what the French really think about the show

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 21, 2022 12:00PM (EST)

Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu (Edward Berthelot / NETFLIX)
Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu (Edward Berthelot / NETFLIX)

Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu had been an accomplished actress in Europe for decades before her international breakthrough role as the chic, cigarette-smoking Sylvie Grateau on "Emily In Paris." But to nail down her steely character, she got a little boost from an unlikely source — the show's shoe department. "I needed her feet to hurt," she explained to me during our recent "Salon Talks" conversation. "We never say it, but I needed it as an actor."

In its brand new third season, "Emily" takes its fish out of water title character — and her acerbic nemesis-mentor Sylvie — in directions that create surprising twists to their professional and personal dynamic. But don't worry, nobody's getting too comfortable yet.

Leroy-Beaulieu spoke to us about how she wasn't what the showrunners initially had in mind for Sylvie, what it took for the skeptical French to eventually warm up to "Emily," and why, on the cusp of turning 60, she says that "getting older is not a problem."

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I don't want to give anything away about this eventful season, but there are, as always, a lot of changes and surprises along the way. For those who have forgotten from last season, where did we leave off with Sylvie and what do you think some of her challenges are going to be ?

She was doing her French Revolution, leaving Savoir with that white scarf. She was leaving the Savoir office with the whole staff and leaving Madeline alone, poor thing, with Emily. Well, not really with Emily. She was hoping for Emily to come with her. 

The challenge at the beginning of the season is building my own company and getting Emily to work with me. We don't know if she's going to come or not, and I don't want to give away too much. Basically, the first three episodes, there's a feud between Madeline and Sylvie. That's the big thing at the beginning of the season.

You have said that Sylvie is your favorite character you've ever played because she's so different. She's not quite a villain, but she's complicated. What drew you to this darker kind of a character? 

"It's a fairytale. Everything's supposed to be incredible and beautiful and non-realistic."

First of all, I love Darren's writing because his characters are very complex. When you play the villain, obviously you're not only a villain, you're just letting your demons out and trying to keep them on a leash. It's a super nice way of exploring that for an actor. It's so much fun to play a villain. To be able to say what you think, to take no BS, to just be who you want to be without being scared of people judging you. It's a freedom that I really love. Darren is having a lot of fun with this character, and I'm so grateful to him. 

You are not necessarily what the original vision of Sylvie was. Talk to me about how this came about, and how that changed now that they're writing for you and the way that you've played her?

Sylvie was meant to be for a much younger person. They did make me read. Actually, the casting director said, "OK, you're not the part, you're too old, but read it because there's something about Sylvie that you could totally play." So I read the part and when I read the scenes that they gave me, I thought, "I know this person so well. It's ridiculous that I can't play her." But it was written for a 35, 40-year-old woman. 

I read and then I didn't hear about them for a month and a half. I thought, "OK, they went for somebody younger." Then there was a callback, and I was super surprised. I realized that they did have to change a lot of things because a relationship between Emily and somebody a little older than her, but not much older than her, was totally different than Emily and me. 

"I need her American way of working. She needs my expertise as a French European person who knows how to deal with mystery a lot more than she does."

I don't know how they went from a 35-year-old to a 50-plus-plus-year-old. The rivalry between me and her is totally a different rivalry. It has to do with generations. It has to do with the fact that I'm scared that she's going to steal my job because obviously she's younger. It has to do also with a motherly thing. It also has to do with the witches in the fairy tales, especially in Snow White. There's a little bit of that "Is she more beautiful than me?" kind of thing. That was really present at the beginning of the show. Now it's morphed into something different. It's becoming a relationship where we respect each other a lot, but I'm still very wary of her because of what she does in Season 3, especially at the beginning.

I do need her talent. I need her youth. I need her American way of working. And she needs my expertise as a French European person who knows how to deal with mystery a lot more than she does. There's something that I say in Season 3 about the fact that there's no more mystery in her generation that I think is very important too. There's a lot of things that Darren puts in there that I absolutely love because it's also a message to the world. I sometimes feel that he uses my voice, or Sylvie's voice I should say, to say these little things here and there, and that's a lot of fun. I'm really happy to be given that responsibility.

You've been acting since you were very young. What does it mean to you to have this level of international recognition now, and this breakthrough role of a lifetime at this stage in life? 

It's obviously a lot of fun. I'm super happy. But it's also a responsibility in a way because of my age and my experience. I feel that if I'm given this platform or this visibility, I have a responsibility in some way to carry the message that getting older is not a problem. You can achieve anything you want. You're never dead until you're really dead, so just keep on doing what you like and have faith in what you like. 

This is something that I've always had. I was very stubborn because many times I thought, "OK, I'm going to stop this." But that was only talk because I wasn't ready to stop. Never. There were moments that were really difficult and I thought, "I'm just going to go into the country and just start planting whatever, eggplant, and just do nothing else." But of course not. I love my job. Being stubborn was my strength, and having faith in the fact that life is really incredibly surprising.

You have a huge following on Instagram and so much support from people of different ages, nationalities and genders. What does being an empowered woman look like for you at this point in your life?

It's being true to yourself. You have to know yourself just as much as possible. I think knowing yourself makes you feel much better in life. It makes you be less judgmental, more confident, more compassionate. All these things that are so important to live in society, to live with each other. If the feminine means something, it also means that. It means being able to be confident, compassionate, strong and courageous. Women are very courageous.

This show is such a breakout hit, and people are excited to have it come back. But especially in the beginning, some of the French did not like it. As a French person, what was your reaction to this? What you were hearing from your friends when the show debuted? 

"I have a responsibility to carry the message that getting older is not a problem."

The French didn't see how much Darren was making fun of the Americans too. They were only offended about the fact that he was seeing with Emily's eyes, which is somebody who doesn't know Paris, comes to Paris for the first time and sees all the things that we as Parisians don't see anymore. We don't see how rude we can be. There's a word in French called râler that means we kind of complain all the time — the French don't see that anymore. The Parisians don't see that. They were only offended and thinking it was all stereotypical. That's a caricature. I was like, "It isn't. When you're a foreigner, you come to Paris the first time, that's what you see." It's the bigger picture. Once you start knowing the French, then you see other things.

Obviously, it's much deeper than that and it's much more subtle than that, but I thought that they didn't have a sense of humor. That's what I told them. I said, "You're not seeing that Emily embodies this Miss Perfect American girl that Darren is also making fun of." Lily is playing fantastically because she has that intelligence. They didn't get it.

Now they absolutely adore the show. It just went from totally black to white, and they love it. Even when they didn't like it, they were all watching it, and they loved to hate it. You notice that they were all watching and saying, "No, I hate it." Then why did you watch it? You watched the whole season. Just watch one and say, "OK, I don't like it." No, you watched the whole season.

You have been doing comedies since you were young. You were in the original "Three Men and a Baby," you've been doing physical comedy for a really long time. That's an unusual thing for particularly a beautiful French actress. Who were your role models in comedy? 

I was raised in Rome, and the Italians have a huge sense of humor. They laugh at themselves very easily. Also, the Italian culture is all about embodying stuff. They're very present with their bodies. When I came to Paris it was weird because I found the French kind of stiff. I think that's what happened. I was in comedies because I needed to go back to my Italian roots, in a way. The Italian comedies of the '60s, '70s, '80s are fantastic. If you think of all these directors, Dino Risi, Ettore Scola, all these people that were doing fantastic comedies, That's what I was raised with, that culture. And basically, making people happy is great. It's a great feeling to make people laugh. I love that. You give happiness, you give a lot.

You get to be physical, you get to be acerbic, you get to wear amazing clothes. You are a sartorial role model to so many of us.

"I think knowing yourself makes you feel much better in life. It makes you be less judgmental, more confident, more compassionate."

I work with the costume designer very closely. We really agree on everything all the time. We try on a lot of stuff. We're looking for the characters, also looking for clothes. I always needed Sylvie, especially in Season 1 and 2, to be in sort of a corset. I needed her feet to hurt. We never say it, but I needed it as an actor to have feet that hurt. One of the directors, when I come on set every time he says, "OK, do they hurt?" "Yeah." "Great." Because it's part of Sylvie.

She was a beach girl living in the south of France and she had to go to Paris and become Sylvie Grateau, which is a totally different character. She had to have contrived herself. That's the main thing that we work on. But then there's fantasy and there's craziness. We're overdressing her all the time, which I adore because it's not realistic at all, and we can do it and Darren loves it. We're having so much fun with that. Because it's a fairy tale, it's nothing realistic. Everything's supposed to be incredible and beautiful and non-realistic.

As a semi-ambassador for France, what is something that is actually realistic about Paris that you wish that we clueless Americans understood?

It's something that Sylvie says, I think in Season 2, that I really like. She tells Madeline, "It's not all about the money." And it's true. The French are very relaxed with that.

You are also an ambassador for aging beautifully. You have a big birthday coming up in 2023. What do you want for this next phase of your life, this next decade of your life that you're entering into?

I never think of my life like that. I never think about decades or I never think of my age as it is. A lot of times I don't even do anything for my birthday. Not that I refuse it, I say my age with no problem. I just don't know why. It doesn't really matter to me. It doesn't matter to me. I don't think about that at all. So what I wish is to be working with fantastic roles like I'm getting, and more and more, which is great. That's all. 

I've been really enjoying this dynamic that has been developing over the seasons between Sylvie and Emily. Have you ever had someone like that in your own life who took you under their wing in a way that challenged, but also taught you?

A lot of different people did that. Not only one person. I always take challenges for an opportunity for growth. There's that line, "Your enemy is your master," and I look at life like that.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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