Spoilers ahead for the season-two finale of Emily in Paris.
With no disrespect to Lily Collins’s eyebrows, the most captivating presence in Emily in Paris goes to Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu, who portrays boss Sylvie with so much fear and respect, you almost want to liquidate your savings account to re-create her haute couture wardrobe. While season one established Sylvie as Savoir’s no-bullshit, cigarette-chic marketing maven, season two ushered in her own French revolution: We learn she left a charmed life full of bikinis — and a husband — in Saint-Tropez to move to Paris and seek professional fulfillment, a decision she replicates in the season finale when she quits Savoir to create her own firm. And, like Ron Swanson, Sylvie executed it while maintaining a post-sex office tradition: morning pastries.
Vulture recently hopped on a Zoom with Leroy-Beaulieu to learn the art of portraying Sylvie, whose advice to Emily this season ranged from “it’s never too late to start” smoking to “leave a disastrous trail in your wake” while living in Paris. (Both are quite true.) And, of course, we had to discuss Peloton culture and her stunning dip into the Mediterranean Sea.
There are a significant number of people in my life who think Emily in Paris should change to Sylvie in Paris at this point.
That’s nice, but I don’t agree. [Laughs] The interesting thing is the opposition of these two cultures. If there’s only Sylvie, it wouldn’t be as interesting. This little girl from America comes to Paris and thinks she knows it all and is confronted with these people who are smug and aren’t nice to her. Now that is fun. I’m not making her life easy.
Have you found that American and French audiences respond to your “la Parisienne” character differently?
It’s interesting. The Americans think Sylvie has that “French bitch” attribute that people love. The French are more intrigued and disappointed because they thought the whole show was a bit of a cliché and they didn’t understand it. They didn’t have the sense of humor to see that we’re making fun of both the French and the Americans, so the French felt a bit hurt.
We’re making fun of everybody, basically. That’s the charm of the show: Darren Star is rooting for Emily, but he’s not at the same time. He’s putting her in situations that are huge trials, and now the same is happening with Sylvie, too. It’s going to crescendo. That’s the whole point of their relationship. It’s a “mature feminine who’s teaching a younger feminine something.” I like that aspect of their dynamic a lot.
How else would you define their dynamic?
The essence of their relationship is about that mature versus immature feminine inner battle. It becomes almost an inner battle a woman has with herself. That’s the aspect of the story I find interesting. Sometimes there are clichés, sure, but I love to play with those. The essence of Emily and Sylvie is profound.
Is there anything about French culture you feel has been improperly labeled as a cliché by viewers?
The laid-back style is something that’s really French. We’re not as obsessed with work. We’re not as profit-driven. We’re not as competitive. There’s wine at lunch and cigarettes in the office and lovers in the workplace, which is all a bit of a cliché from Darren. We don’t all drink at every lunch; you wouldn’t be able to work. It’s more about enjoying life. So you have someone like Emily, who’s super-obsessed with work; it makes her pathetic to us, the French, but very endearing, too. She’s trying to make everything right. She’s always in a good mood, which makes her even more weird.
The idea of respect intertwines this duo. Sylvie seems to strongly dislike Emily most of the time, and Emily is constantly seeking Sylvie’s approval, but the season ends with Sylvie offering her a spot at the new firm and admitting Emily is a “very good” worker.
I’ve always thought that Sylvie, even at the start of season one, admired Emily. She admired her boldness and her drive — things I could also criticize as a French person. There was always an admiration, even though it was covered up with a lot of fear. This girl could come and take her job, her man, her everything. Now, though, it’s more about tough love. Sylvie wants to see if Emily is who she thinks she is. Did you catch that Sylvie was a bit disappointed when she discovered what was going on between Emily and Gabriel? She thought it was vulgar to betray a friend like that. But Emily is going through hell and she’s learning. It’s making her more mature. There’s good material there that could turn [her] French. [Laughs] They’re bridging their cultures and it could make a beautiful mix.
I giggled a lot when Sylvie said “good content.” That’s a perfect bridging of the culture.
That’s what happens to Sylvie now! She’s picking up those Americanisms. She’s learning and changing. She has the guts to go and start her own agency. It’s changing Sylvie, not just Emily.
How else has their relationship changed Sylvie?
That’s something about her unconscious I’ll have to look through a bit more. I imagine with her love story with the younger photographer, she wouldn’t have gone there a year ago. But now she feels freer. Emily brings a lot of trouble to the agency, but also comfort for Sylvie. Everybody is modified.
A line of dialogue about Sylvie that piqued my interest came from her husband, when he told Emily that she “reminds me a bit of you.” I wonder if you agree with that, and if so, how.
I’d say it’s the drive. The fact that Sylvie was a wild animal in Saint-Tropez during her younger years, but she suddenly developed a drive and decided to go to Paris and make a career for herself. I imagine this man isn’t only her husband, but also her friend and brother: someone she’s spent most of her life with since childhood. She had the same ambitions that Emily has. That’s what Sylvie recognized when she walked in the office in season one, which made her scared. She didn’t know what Emily was capable of.
The Saint-Tropez episode provided a deeper understanding about how Sylvie transformed into the woman she is at Savoir. Have you given much thought about her younger years?
I have, but it’s something I don’t want to dig too deep into, because I hope season three will reveal more about her. But also, I want to keep it to myself as an actress. It’s my comfort food. There’s a lot of love between Sylvie and her husband, which is a very strong thing for me. She really loves this man, beyond being a husband, so much. He’s her rock. I like the scene where he gives Sylvie the papers when she sells her shares of the café, and he talks about divorce. No, no, no, enough papers for today. She’s scared to get a divorce from him.
Seeing her vulnerabilities was a nice surprise this season, both in her personal and professional lives.
When I was a kid, my mother worked in fashion and I was surrounded by those types of women. I know them well. As a teenager, when I looked at these women, before I saw their snobbism, I saw their vulnerability. They attained a place of power, but they were always scared to lose it. They were scared to get old. They were scared that they couldn’t be anything other than a narcissist. Narcissism had to be fed every day or else they would be scared of not existing. Sylvie has a bit of that.
I like her vulnerability when she’s a bit lost and loses control. But she comes back at the end going all in on herself. I like the cracks because that’s exactly what I’ve seen in real life. Even though sometimes I hated those women, because they could be horrible, I had this empathy for them. I saw how desperate they were. [Laughs] I wanted to show that, because it’s always important to know that the people who want to scare you are usually more scared than you think.
How many times did you film that gorgeous emerging-from-the-sea scene?
Oh my God, way too many. It was super, super cold. It was the beginning of May in the south of France and about eight o’clock at night. They kept insisting the light would be much more beautiful at that time. After a while I had to go, “All right, stop it, I’m freezing! Basta, basta!”
Do you recall how that moment was described in the script?
What I remember was thinking, Oh shit, I have to wear a bathing suit. We were just out of lockdown. Like everybody, I had a lot of chocolate and wine. Time to work out. I don’t remember how it was written on the page, but Darren told me at the last minute, which wasn’t nice. But at the end of the day, it was fun doing it. I was scared at the beginning, really. I’m not 20. But then I thought, Okay, who cares? I am who I am. I think it’s important to address that. We don’t have to have the body of a 20-year-old when we’re over 50. Everything’s fine. It’s nice to address this ageism thing, but not in a heavy way.
Had you used a Peloton prior to filming this season?
I didn’t, but I know people in France that do. I don’t know if it’s the same brand, though. I do yoga and dance. People do have those bicycles, but it’s mostly older people who want to exercise indoors. [Laughs] The French are not as fitness-crazy as the Americans. By sneaking away for the bike, that’s Sylvie’s way of saying she’s taking in American culture. We like to complain, but at the end of the day, we like some of that stuff.
Do you think Emily accepted Sylvie’s offer in the final scene?
I think she will say yes, ultimately. I hope so. Otherwise, I’m out of the show.