Living between London, Paris and New York, French actress Clémence Poésy has learned a thing or two about style. But who’s going to break it to her about that hat?
Fashion: Andrew Holden Photography: Brian Bowen Smith Words: Lyndsey Gilmour
Main image, above: Jumper, £175, Whistles; hat, £15, Marks & Spencer
For someone dubbed “une femme sérieuse” by one publication, while another questioned whether she had a funny bone in her entire body, Clémence Poésy is doing a fabulous job of burying the serious tag during our cover shoot in New York. In a West Village studio, not a million miles from her Lower Eastside apartment, the 30-year-old actress who, only moments ago was dancing with a handbag to the guitar riffs of Los Angeles rock band Dead Sara, is now happily standing in a giant bin – struggling to keep a straight face as several pairs of heels come hurtling towards her. So, have her previous commentators got her all wrong? Poésy certainly seems to want to give that impression.
Above: Coat, £200, French Connection; top, £79, NW3 by Hobbs; skirt, £40, Oasis; bag, £27, Accessorize; silver rings, £50 each, and gold rings, £75 each, Thomas Sabo; shoes, £54.99, Clarks
“I was like, ‘Let’s do one more!’” recalls Poésy about our “bonkers” photoshoot when we meet up at Bafta headquarters in Piccadilly, London a month later. “I didn’t want to leave. It was a summer day in New York. We [turned the music] up loud and everyone was in a really good mood. I like it when shoots allow me to be a bit silly. I’d just finished one that was way more composed so it’s good to get that balance.”
In town to promote The Tunnel – a dual-nationality crime drama based on the original 2011 Scandinavian series The Bridge starring Sofia Helinand Kim Bodnia – Poésy removes her black Panama hat and momentarily panics as she realises that the empty screening room we’re sharing an espresso in has no windows. “I hate rooms without windows,” she confides under her breath. Sensing her discomfort, I turn the chat back to fashion and compliment her outfit – a white shirt, skinny black tie and black skinny jeans – that’s been slung together in that hard to nail effortlessly cool-without-the-polish way.
Above: Jacket, £350, Karen Millen; jumper, £168, and skirt, £110, both J Crew
Karl Largerfeld obviously sees it too; Clémence is one of his many ultra-hip muses (Alexa Chung and Leigh Lezark rank among his others) and she’s regularly spotted ringside at his shows. Indeed, fashion is something of a specialist subject for Poésy who, since making a name for herself as Fleur Delacour in three Harry Potter films, has fronted campaigns for the likes of G-Star and Gap and counts Erdem as a “good friend”. Impressive style credentials, whether they are intended as a sideline or not.
Scrunching her blonde bed hair awkwardly – she’s still distracted by her claustrophobia – Poésy accepts my compliment modestly, telling me she prefers to dress with her instincts rather than take inspiration from blogging sites or the more directional fashion tomes, some of whose covers she has graced. She is, she reveals, a woman who values individuality. “I just try to see the poetry in an outfit. I like to see how it makes me feel, who it reminds me of, which character I want to be. The last thing I bought was a vintage Forties dress in Brooklyn. I’m rehearsing a play set in the Forties so maybe I am looking more at those things, but it just felt very timeless. The pattern, the detail of the buttons – it’s those things that I try to look at and whether something tells a story. [Something] which is always easier in vintage.”
Above: Pinafore dress, £60, Miss Selfridge; T-shirt, £45, Ted Baker; hat, Clémence’s own
The eldest daughter (she has a sister Maëlle Poésy-Guichard, aged 29) of a French teacher mother and an actor, director and playwright father, Poésy – brought up in suburban Paris with a bilingual education – is one of the few French actresses to go 'international', although her fame is still of the walk-down-the-street-without-getting-mobbed variety. In the best possible way, I hope she never gets there; it wouldn’t suit her. (Like her former co-star Robert Pattinson, she seems to find the promotional side of film-making a little awkward and isn’t by any stretch an over-sharer.)
She currently splits most of her time between New York (“the most vibrant city in the world”) and London depending on where the work is – something which seems to be fittingly aligned with her bohemian sensibilities. “I wear lots of hats because there is something very poetic about wearing a hat,” she begins slowly in a cut-glass English accent. “In Paris people look at you a bit funny – as if wondering what you are trying to do, but no-one cares in London. There is a freedom. French style is more about being careful that everything goes. I like the expression and the fun that the English have with style – it’s inventive. I am a big fan of Marianne Faithful in the Seventies – The Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger, David Bowie. I mean, they were f***ing telling stories big time. It’s about not being afraid to make a statement.”
Above: Coat, £285, Comptoir des Cotonniers; shirt, £46, Warehouse; shoes (used as props): red flats, £59, Dune; leopard print heels, £99, Autograph by Marks & Spencer; burgundy brogues, £69.99, Clarks; red boots, £40, Asos; red kitten heels, £195, Kurt Geiger
In London she’s lived in Notting Hill, Camden, Dalston and is now close to Bethnal Green – “There is a laid-back thing and I love how happy everyone is when the sun comes out” – and can name those specific places that only a local would know: the Sunday flower market on Columbia Road, East London; Camden Passage in Islington (look for a shop called Fat Faced Cat, she tells me. “It’s brilliant.”). Some of our Anglo-habits have even started to rub off on her: with a thick layer of sarcasm she declares that she’s finally mastered the art of queuing and takes great delight in telling me the story of how, after waiting patiently by the Portaloos at a festival in Dorset this summer – for some considerable time – she realised she’d acquired the “skill” when she didn’t get frustrated or “push anyone”. “There were probably about five or six [cubicles] free but nobody dared to check and everyone stuck to their queue,” she says, tittering at her own observation. “I admired that.”
I laugh; a role in EastEnders, some weather talk and a Sunday roast habit and we could all but claim her as an honorary Brit. Ironic then that in The Tunnel – a nine-parter – she should find herself playing a cold, almost robotic French detective with a boyish dress sense and little affection for her British comrades – who she is working with to try and solve the murder of a French politician who’s discovered in the Channel Tunnel lying over the borderline – legs in England, torso in France. The concept, which has also been copied in America with a body found straddling the Mexican border, provides a neat way to explore neighbourly tensions.
Above: Coat, £65, Next; top, £79, Hobbs; skirt, £199, Autograph by Marks & Spencer; rings, £10 for set of four, bangles, £12, and bag, £69, all Accessorize; shoes, £179, Reiss
“The French team does not want the English team to get involved,” says Poésy, who gives a convincing performance as Elise Wassermann. “They just stare at each other! But because the English policeman [played by Stephen Dillane] is charming and funny, he lets my character have her way and he goes off with a twinkle in his eye. Then those two people who could not be further apart on so many levels have to work together. What I had most fun with was telling the story of this strange relationship that turns into a friendship but never becomes romantic.”
While rivalry between the two nations is hardly a new concept – Poésy tells me that many interviews persistently focus on her French heritage only, something she finds puzzling. Later, she goes on to deny she’s experienced any teasing about French customs and traditions living in London. In fact, she says, in a remark that fuels the stereotype further, Paris is a lot less friendly in that respect. “Parisians are very careful about who they choose to trust, so you have to go to lots of one-to-one coffees and talk about important things before you get to bigger dinners with more people. I find London very welcoming actually,” she says, “London is a bit more casual about that, even if you are French – even if you are the enemy!”
Now visibly more relaxed, I turn to the topic of others’ impressions of her and ask whether she thinks the aforementioned serious tag is a justified one. Is it a fair description of her character? Does she feel insulted? She sighs. “I suppose I do notice the French tend to be a bit more serious, but I don’t really think I am,” she says, looking genuinely hurt that this might be the wider perception of her. “Humour is the one thing that I value the most, it’s the biggest treasure anyone can have. There is nothing I love more than meeting someone who you can have fun with and be silly with, so it’s very weird.”
Above: Coat, £60, Dorothy Perkins; top, £32, Miss Selfridge; skirt, £110, Karen Millen; bag, £225, Russell & Bromley; ring, £10, Accessorizes
Can she tell me a joke? (OK, I’m being unfair – I can’t think of one either) which unsurprisingly throws her of kilter; she’s stumped. “Um... er... um... I don’t really know any... I don’t think I’m very funny but I like to laugh,” she says a little desperately. Listing Zooey Deschanel’s New Girl, and a YouTube video of “cats with mittens” as the things to have made her laugh most, recently; Poésy explains that observational humour is more to her taste. “I prefer it when someone can make a play on words quickly rather than tell jokes,” she says wryly – she LOVES Lena Dunham’s Girls: “It’s more about the absurdity about things.” Using Dylan Moran’s Black Books – a sitcom about a miserable drunk bookshop owner with bad social skills – to describe the type of dry Irish humour she likes, she says it’s “his dark vision of life” that appeals. “It’s like how when you get emails from people who are from England or Ireland they are filled with little funny oddities, wit and self-depreciative fun. I love how essential it is.”
So what is at the bottom of her implied serious streak? “It’s the image that people just stick to,” she says, almost resigned to it, before openly wondering if the vibes she gives off in interviews could be to blame. “When I meet journalists I’m a bit scared and a bit nervous and there have been times that I’ve made jokes that have been taken too literally and I have been made to look like a complete idiot. I do think I try to answer seriously sometimes because I’m trying to give them what they want, but I don’t know...”
Although she attempts to mask her anguish by laughing about it, her worries are evidently a huge problem for her. During a Broadway production of Cyrano De Bergerac last autumn, she confesses that her paranoia got so out of hand that she panicked she might be sacked. “I thought I was going to get fired every day,” she says scooping brown sugar into her coffee. “No-one told me anything – it was apparently all going really well, but I thought they thought they had made a mistake.” In truth she gave a performance that one critic hailed “stunning”. “I do think that if I didn’t have that fear that made me work extra hard for a month in rehearsals, the joy on stage wouldn’t have been as great,” she adds.
Above: Jacket, £125, Banana Republic; skirt, £140, French Connection; rings, £50 each, Thomas Sabo
“I worry about most of the decisions I make. I worry I have spoken too much at a dinner, I worry that I said something to a journalist that wouldn’t be understood in the right way. I worry about everything – it is a bit annoying really.”
Confessing that it’s only things that she can personally influence that bother her – “I worry way more in a car that I am driving than in a car that someone else is driving,” – she tells me how the futile phrase “Coulda, woulda, shoulda!” was banned in her house. “My sister once told me I was never allowed to tell her anything that started with I could, I should and I would.” It’s a mantra which helps her keep it under control.
She even worries about being controversial. Haunted by a comment she once made about regretting her appearance in Gossip Girl (2010) – “I wondered why I was there,” is what she’s believed to have said – Poésy refuses to set the record straight for fear of her words being taken out of context again. On reflection, the role of Chuck Bass’ European girlfriend Eva Coupeau does sit rather awkwardly on a CV that lists a string of French films alongside Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours (2010) and the television adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong (2012). And not counting the Harry Potter films, it’s the most mainstream thing she’s ever done – but she is not going to rake up that ground again today. “It was one of those weird interviews – I said something, it got taken… I just don’t talk about it anymore because it keeps coming back,” she tuts. “I just got really mad at the person who wrote that down.”
But even if Poésy is an habitual worrier, she knows how to use it to her advantage. “That is where humour comes in, otherwise it’s unbearable,” she says philosophically. “If you balance it with humour you are sort of OK.” And coming from a girl who was absolutely fine to wear a Russell & Bromley bag as a helmet, I really think she will be.
Clémence’s High-Street Hitlist
Whistles: “They’ve got really good leather.”
Acne: “You have to have a pair of jeans that aren’t falling apart.”
Topshop: “I always spend a few hours there as they have a good vintage section.”
The Tunnel starts Wednesday 16 October, 9pm on Sky Atlantic HD. The first episode will be available exclusively to Sky Customers through On Demand from Thursday 10 October