The tourists who crowd Paris often mistake Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu, 60 years old, for Sylvie Grateau, the character the Parisian actress plays on the TV show Emily in Paris. Whether she’s having lunch in a quiet bistro on the Rive Gauche or checking out Schiaparelli’s latest haute couture collection across the Seine, someone always approaches her, wanting to talk and take a selfie with Emily Cooper’s (Lily Collins) sexy, irreverent boss. “Of course, I say hello and I’m attentive. Then they realize I’m not like Sylvie and say, ‘You’re much nicer,’” Leroy-Beaulieu admits as she chats with us in a small café near her home in Paris’s Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood. “I can no longer go down to the street in my pajamas to buy a baguette. The French don’t care because they are blasé, indifferent. But the tourists are very enthusiastic,” she continues, lowering her gaze a little so as not to be recognized by two young girls who have just entered the restaurant.
Darren Star, the creator of Emily in Paris and other TV hits such as Beverly Hills, 90210; Melrose Place; and Sex and the City, did not have Leroy-Beaulieu in mind when he sought an actress to play Sylvie Grateau. In fact, the producer and the sitcom’s writers were seeking a woman in the 35-to-40 age range. “But the casting director knew me well and told me to try out. I auditioned and didn’t hear back from them for two months. I thought, ‘They must have found someone younger. It’s okay.’ [But] they finally called me back,” the actress recalls. She recognizes that she got the role in large part because streaming platforms like Netflix are now giving more opportunities to performers of all ages from all over the world. “It’s true that when you’re over 50 you get offered fewer jobs. But I don’t want to complain too much about this issue. I think we actresses should stop complaining about being women and just act. If one insists on saying that she is a victim of injustice, then she may end up becoming one for the rest of her life. The world is full of injustices, and you have to fight for what you want. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but that’s how I feel,” she says.
Leroy-Beaulieu is an integral part of the Emily in Paris phenomenon, which has been a global hit since it premiered. Nearly 60 million households worldwide watched the series during its first month on screen in 2020. The third season, released in December 2022, became the most-watched show on Netflix in just a few weeks. But the actress has experienced success like this before. She has been a celebrity in France since film director Roger Vadim gave Leroy-Beaulieu her first role in the movie Surprise Party in 1983. Two years later, she starred in Three Men and a Cradle, for which she was nominated for Best New Actress at the Cesar Awards. The film won the French Film Academy Award for Best Film in 1986 and was nominated for an Oscar in the Best International Feature Film category. “It is very dangerous to achieve success when you are very young. I was just starting out in this profession, and I was afraid… As a child, I had seen how my father had had to deal with fame. It wasn’t always easy,” she recalls.
Her father is Philippe Leroy-Beaulieu, a renowned French actor who worked with leading directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Deray, Dario Argento and Luc Besson in the 1960s and 1970s. Philippine was born in 1963, the same year her father became famous through his role in 55 Days at Peking, the Hollywood classic starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and David Niven. The following year, Philippe Leroy-Beaulieu filmed Carlos Saura’s Weeping for a Bandit and Godard’s A Married Woman and became a star in Italy. “I grew up living the dolce vita,” says the actress. During her childhood, Leroy-Beaulieu was surrounded by paparazzi and celebrities, as well as intrusive stares and uncomfortable interruptions. “When I was a child I couldn’t go out to lunch with my father because people would come up to him all the time to ask for autographs. It was complicated for me,” she admits, as she adjusts the wool cap she has decided to keep on during the interview. But the recognition she is experiencing now is different. “I’m older now and I’ve lived a lot. I’m not as naïve as [I was] when I was young. I take everything much easier now.”
Her dream of becoming an actress began when she was 12 years old and saw ballet dancer Carla Fracci in the role of Odette in Swan Lake. Shortly thereafter, she was fascinated by Liza Minnelli in Cabaret and figured out what she wanted to do with her life. At the age of 16, she began to study drama in Paris. Her father was delighted. But her mother, Françoise Laurent—a former model who worked as a stylist and advisor to designer Marc Bohan at the fashion house Christian Dior—tried to dissuade her. “She lived with an actor and knew how difficult it was. She was right,” Leroy-Beaulieu says. Throughout her 40-year career, she has had both highs and lows; that’s why she takes her current success in her stride: “I know that tomorrow I may be forgotten about again.”
But that doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon. In the summer, Leroy-Beaulieu will begin filming the fourth season of Emily in Paris. Recently, she has received a lot of offers to work in the United States, but she has turned them all down. She says she gets offered Hollywood roles that are a lot like Sylvie but worse versions than the original character. “That’s what happens when you have a hit character; they propose repeating it a hundred times,” she laments. “Besides, I love Europe too much. I’m very European. I grew up in Italy, I live in France, my daughter lives in England, I have friends in Portugal and Spain... Why would I move to the US? The cultural chasm between France and the US is enormous,” she observes. Emily in Paris features those same cultural differences between the French and Americans. Lily Collins plays Emily, a naïve American, who arrives in the City of Light to work for a marketing agency. Leroy-Beaulieu plays her Parisian boss: a seasoned, empowered, chic and sexually open-minded woman (her character is married, though that doesn’t stop her from having affairs with younger men).
The reviews of Emily in Paris confirm that the cultural differences to which the actress refers are real. American critics and audiences have loved the series. The French press and public have been more skeptical about it. “The berets. The croissants. The baguettes. The hostile waiters. The irascible concierges. The inveterate womanizers. The mistresses. Name a cliché about France and the French, and you’ll find it in Emily in Paris,” the newspaper 20 Minutes wrote when the comedy premiered. “Sometimes we French can be snobbish and arrogant,” the actress says, lowering her voice a bit so that the other café patrons don’t hear her. “There are people who tell me they’ve watched a whole season and hated it, and I ask them, ‘Why did you watch all 10 episodes, then?”
Leroy-Beaulieu doesn’t seem to care about the critics’ opinions, but she does care about what the young (and not-so-young) women who watch Emily in Paris around the world think. “My character tells them that they can feel confident without being arrogant like men. For a long time, women tried to break the glass ceiling by acting like men. Today, we can get what we want without having to imitate them, without pretending to be macho,” she explains. However, she refuses to talk about women as victims of machismo or patriarchy. “We are obsessed with the culture of victimhood. We are obsessed with feeling offended and [have] a reductionist concept of identity. If you’re a woman, that has to be your identity. If you are black, that has to be your identity. If you are gay, that has to be your identity. One word shouldn’t define everything we are,” she argues.
Many French female celebrities of her generation have been critical of the #MeToo movement, which started as a hashtag on social media in 2017. Following allegations of abuse against film producer Harvey Weinstein, American actresses denounced sexual assault and harassment in the entertainment industry online using the #MeToo hashtag. A few months after it went viral, a hundred actresses, singers and intellectuals in France—among them Catherine Denueve and Ingrid Caven—signed a manifesto in favor of men’s right to “insist” because, they claimed, it is “indispensable to sexual freedom.” They went on to say that “rape is a crime. But insistent or unwelcome flirting is not a crime, nor is gallantry a misogynist aggression.” Leroy-Beaulieu has mixed feelings about Hollywood activism. “I believe that #MeToo was cosmetic. I’m sorry to say that and I know that people are going to hate me [for it]. It was important to talk about it, but it became excessive. Part of the movement—not all of it—started to hate men and decided that they’re all rapists. And that’s ridiculous. Where does that get us?” she says, gesturing animatedly with her hands. “It did serve to raise awareness of a problem. But there are people who think that because #MeToo happened everything is fine now. That’s how bad things are. The overkill led to us being told that we should turn the page, that everything was fine. Well, no, there are still problems. Everyone used the hashtag and then forgot about it. This shouldn’t be a hashtag or a cosmetic thing. I hate Instagram activism.”
For a moment, Philippine looks just like Sylvie, the irreverent character that has made her famous. The actress will turn 60 in April. “But I’m not worried about aging. I’ve inherited my father’s genes. He’s 92 years old and he was skydiving until not too long ago,” she says with a laugh. She, too, seems ready to take a big leap.