“It’s good to be scared sometimes” actress Clémence Poésy talks facing her fears

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With a penchant for dark, serious roles, Clémence Poésy is no stranger to fear. Here she shows Stylist her light side

Words: Helen Bownass
Photography: Thierry Lebraly

It’s a wet miserable Saturday in London, the type that makes you want to stay in bed all day while falling into a Netflix spiral. But I resist, because I’m interviewing Clémence Poésy this afternoon and I have a suspicion such behaviour is not very her.

“I’m sorry, I’m just waking up,” the 33-year-old actress apologises when we speak at 4pm. I realise she must have been having a nap, proving my suspicions wrong. “It’s so grey outside. I went out this morning and it was like, Oh my god, this is not… [good]!” she explains, as justification for her daytime snooze.

If such lightness is not what I expected, it’s because I’ve fallen foul of her pensive on-screen demeanour, as seen in Birdsong, In Bruges and 127 Hours. She has several roles coming up that probably won’t dispel this perception. First is The Ones Below, a slick thriller set in London where she plays Kate who is expecting her first child, just like Teresa, her new downstairs neighbour. After a tragic accident, the audience is left questioning whether Kate’s sanity is at stake or if, à la Rosemary’s Baby, her neighbours are more sinister than they appear. Then in early April, the second series of The Tunnel will return with Poésy resuming her role of French policewoman Elise Wassermann. Based on Scandi noir hit The Bridge and set between France and the UK, the new series will focus on a plane crash in the Channel.

Poésy is seamlessly bilingual, which has allowed her career to flourish in many countries – she’s just finished filming 7 Minuti, her first movie in Italian. The only time you’d realise she grew up in the suburbs of Paris with her teacher mother and actor/playwright father rather than in Chelsea is the odd occasion she checks her choice of words. Expressing opinions on everything from book lending to motherhood, a chat with Poésy is the ideal way to make a grey Saturday far more appealing.

Your new film The Ones Below covers themes of pregnancy, isolation and paranoia. What fascinated you about the script?
For me it was about the storytelling. I was really interested in the way this story was constructed, the way you never really know if what you think is real actually is. Especially with a moment of someone’s life [post childbirth] that can be quite blurry. I like thrillers when nothing gets bloody, when it’s about what’s happening in the mind.

Did it teach you anything unexpected about motherhood?
You don’t learn anything until you experience it, which is probably the scariest thing about it [laughs]. There’s not going to be a lesson you can take on motherhood or a manual you can read. You become a different person and your place in the circle of life becomes totally different. I wish someone could teach me about it!

You’ve been acting for more than 15 years – what motivates you?
The older I get the more I’m interested in the part of my work that happens before I get into filming, so trying to work out where this character is coming from and creating a bit of her. It can be quite sad when you leave her behind but traits of what makes a good character sometimes stay with you and you call them to mind for other characters to help you with a new one. They’re part of the treasure chest I keep for my work, but they don’t come into my life and interfere.

Last time you spoke to Stylist in 2013, you said you were scared you’d get fired every day while appearing in Cyrano De Bergerac on Broadway. Are you motivated by fear?
I don’t need it to work hard, but it’s good to be scared sometimes. Although it’s also good not to always be scared; it’s nice sometimes to do something because it’s light and it makes you happy and why not? But if it’s only that then I don’t think you make any progress.

Now you’re in your 30s are the roles you get offered – and accept – changing?
It’s more that you’re offered less ingénue roles, because it wouldn’t be massively believable any more. I now understand a bit better what I enjoy; what nourishes me and what doesn’t. There’s less of, ‘Let’s just see what this is like’. I know a bit more why I’m doing things now.

The Tunnel is back soon, why do you think a dark complex drama like this still speaks to us?
I’m not sure, because I don’t watch it. I’m happy just doing it. I don’t watch a lot of very dark things. I’m not sure why.

Interesting. Why don’t you watch yourself?
I’d just be thinking of all my mistakes and how I hadn’t done it the way I wish I had. I’d like to watch The Bridge too, but I’m quite careful, I don’t want to be conscious of the things I need to change. I never look at the monitor when I’m filming because of the self-awareness.

You live between Paris and London, will you ever settle in one city?
I’m really between the two. I do spend quite a lot of time on the Eurostar. I feel lucky that I get to be between both – so long as I can do that, I will.

Do you feel Paris has changed since the terrorist attacks?
It’s tricky to say, because [France] also had an election that was quite scary. Paris itself is still quite shaken, but people are finding a resilience even though what happened is still a big part of everyone’s heart and mind.

As well as acting, what really matters to you?
I support W4, a crowdfunding platform for women around the world. It’s very much centred on empowerment and providing the right tools for people to be completely independent and create their own future. It’s women’s rights, but really it’s human rights. It’s making sure that everyone has the same protection and freedom. As long as there’s an imbalance, it seems quite important to do whatever I can to make that change.

You’re also a huge book fan. What’s the last thing you read that you didn’t want to end?
A beautiful book called The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal. It’s just been translated from French. It’s about the story of a heart transplant, starting with someone dying and ending with someone getting the heart. It’s just amazing.

Do you ever lend your books to people?
I’m quite happy when books have lived and been in pockets and in grass and are no longer the way they were when I bought them. I’m happy to lend them to the few people I know will return them. When there’s something I really love I buy it for everyone for six months and then move on to the next one. I’m a bit of a book pusher.

Would you like to write a book yourself?
[Laughs a lot] Probably not. I don’t think I’ve got the talent to write a novel.

Have you embraced podcasts yet?
Not really, but a lot of my friends have been telling me I should. I’m still quite old-fashioned; I listen to two radios – an English and a French one. I love Jarvis Cocker’s show on BBC 6 Music. It’s the best Sunday thing in England.

What’s your most visited website or app?
There’s a site I love called Brainpickings about art, science, philosophy, history… They select exactly what you want to read when you want to read it. That’s the clever answer but in reality it’s probably something like Citymapper – if I go to a new city that’s not on the app, I’m like, ‘I don’t know what to do’ – or the timetable for my local swimming pool.

The Ones Below is in cinemas 11 March; The Tunnel: Sabotage will air on Sky Atlantic from 5 April

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