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Eva Green rose to fame as the Bond girl who won the heart of 007 in Casino Royale. Now she’s back in more familiar territory as the elemental, mysterious Morgan in Camelot, she tells Elizabeth Day – dabbling in witchcraft and reinventing nudity.
It is a sunny, blue-sky day when I meet the actress Eva Green. The London streets are peppered with cherry blossom and the heady scent of fake tan hangs thickly above the city like ozone. It is a day for white linen and flowing dresses and flip-flops. But when Green arrives, it is clear that she is not embracing the joys of spring time. Her tiny frame is swathed in black and dark grey and she is wearing a heavy coat over a lace blouse, jeans and boots. The pale flawlessness of her face is accentuated by jet-black hair and smudged eye-shadow the colour of coal dust. The overall effect is rather striking: a cross between Miss Havisham and an astonishingly beautiful extra from Twilight.
“I have a dark side in the way I think everybody has,” Green says, taking off her sunglasses. She orders a disappointingly tame berry smoothie rather than a cup of virgin’s blood. Yet she acknowledges that, professionally speaking, she is drawn to roles that are “evil but damaged. It’s fun to play evil”. She looks at me calmly with blue eyes. “I like characters that have secrets. It’s nice not to know it all. Complex is interesting.”
Her first film role was as Isabelle, the semi-incestuous twin in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, in 2003. Since then, Green has carved out a niche for herself playing mysterious types with a hint of danger: she was a witch-queen in The Golden Compass (2007), a schizophrenic in the independent film Franklyn (2008) and a murderous lesbian schoolteacher in Cracks (2009).
Even her big-budget box-office roles have been riddled with nuance: in Ridley Scott’s crusading 2005 epic, Kingdom of Heaven, Green was cast as Sibylla, the unhappily married Queen of Jerusalem who poisons her own son, and, in 2006, she famously played Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, the Bond girl interesting enough to make 007 fall in love with her. The following year, she was given the Rising Star Award at the Baftas.
Raised in Paris by a French-Algerian mother and a Swedish father, Green, who is now 30, had little idea of the cultural significance of James Bond for the British until she found herself on set and being asked to give interviews in the middle of filming. “For the English, it’s like royalty!” she says. “Now I know it’s a big deal.” She has recently been cast as a witch in Tim Burton’s new film, Dark Shadows, an adaptation of the 1960s American TV series that gained a cult following, slated for release next year.
After all this time playing tortured females, does she ever yearn for something frothy and light? “Yes,” she laughs. “I’d like to play a silly role, like comedy, like something in Catherine Tate’s show.”
But Green’s latest role remains true to type: she plays Morgan, the feisty, power-hungry half-sister of King Arthur in Channel 4’s forthcoming mini-series Camelot. As it is produced by the same team behind The Tudors, viewers can look forward to the Arthurian legends being glossily re-worked with lots of heaving bosoms, macho sword-play and fetchingly designed velvet robes. Green herself gets an energetic sex scene with James Purefoy in the first episode.
“We filmed that sex scene in the morning. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’d like to have a drink. Could we not do it at the end of the day?’ But the sex scene is for a reason. It’s a fight for power.
“Actually it’s very interesting,” she continues, “because the Pagan women were strong, empowered and not afraid to be sexual. They used to celebrate nature and sexuality. When Christianity arrived, it became a bit taboo.”
She threw herself into research for the part, dabbling in Wiccan magic – “It’s not like Walt Disney” – and consulting a shaman, who told her the animal she most resembled was a crane. “I said: ‘What – I’m not a tiger?'” she laughs. “Actually I’m probably most like a black poodle.”
She was attracted to Morgan because, unlike the majority of mainstream female movie roles on offer, “it’s not a girlfriend role… she’s strong, she has more courage than most men. She’s not afraid at all.”
Does Green think we are too hung up about sex, that we are not used to seeing women on screen explore their sexuality so openly? She contemplates the question for a few seconds, her brow crinkling prettily as she sucks her smoothie through a long straw.
“When I did The Dreamers I was not aware when I was filming it that all the questions from journalists afterwards would only be about the nudity,” she says. “I was asked all these questions about the sex scenes. I don’t know why people make such a fuss. Sometimes I feel like I’m a porn actress.”
Perhaps her relaxed attitude towards on-screen nudity comes from a broad-minded European sensibility that is at odds with our buttoned-up Anglo-Saxon ways. Although Green has lived in Primrose Hill, north London, for the past six years, she remains triumphantly French, both in her effortlessly chic appearance – her delicate bone structure and languid gaze have been the undoing of many a male interviewer – but also in the way she speaks, with her vowels breathily accented in the manner of a 1960s Parisian chanteuse.
“I love the musicality of English,” she says. “French sounds flat. In English, you can play with pitch.” Still, she had to “work like hell” to achieve the cut-glass tones of Vesper Lynd and is currently having sessions with a dialect coach to perfect an American accent for Dark Shadows.
Eva Green grew up bilingual, with a non-identical twin (her sister, Joy, lives in Normandy and is expecting her first child with her husband, an Italian count) and then attended the American School in Paris before going on to drama school. Her father, Walter, was a dentist, and her mother, Marlène Jobert, had been a successful actress in the 1970s, appearing in films directed by Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol. Did Green ever consider following in her father’s footsteps and becoming a dentist rather than an actress? She curls her lip. “Oh God no, that would be so bad. I’d find it so intimate, like a gynaecologist. In fact, this is how he met my mother.” Her mother was a patient of his? “Yes, and it was: ‘Oh hi, shall we go out?'” Green herself is currently single after splitting from New Zealand actor Marton Csokas in 2009.
As a child, she watched all her mother’s films – “She’s very spontaneous on screen, instinctive, fragile, very like Shirley MacLaine. She’s like a little bird, very different from me.” – but insists she was more influenced by Isabelle Adjani, another French actress who specialises in complex and strong female roles. “She has lots of guts, she’s very brave,” Green says dreamily.
Does she ask her mother for work advice? “No, she’s kind of appalled [by what I do]. Sometimes I get so worried [about a part] she’ll say, ‘Don’t stress,’ but there was less competition in her day. She’ll discuss a role and we run through lines. She thinks acting is a terrible business and it’s true that it’s hard to depend on the judgment of other people all the time. You have to not take it personally, to be strong.”
But, naturally guarded as she is, Green admits to finding the auditioning process a challenge. On more than one occasion she has been turned away on sight by directors who find her “too dark”. “They have no imagination most of the time,” she says, dismissively.
Her worst experience was with “a very famous American director” for whom she prepared a monologue from Arthur Schnitzler’s 1924 novella, Fräulein Else. Less than halfway through, the director stopped her. “He said ‘You know what? No.’ He was very rude, a terrible man.” She pauses, then grins. “But he’s on my blacklist now.”
Her dealings with Bertolucci were very different. “He was so nice… He looks at you as if he can see through you. He’s extraordinarily charismatic and makes you do things without knowing you’re doing them. He gives you a lot of freedom and happiness, invites you to his home and talks about music and cinema. He’s like the ideal father.”
And yet the late Maria Schneider, who starred in Bertolucci’s 1972 film Last Tango in Paris, blamed the director for triggering her nervous breakdown because of the graphic sex scenes she was asked to film. Was Green aware of this when she accepted the role in The Dreamers? “I couldn’t listen to any of that,” she says. “It was a beautiful story but I was very scared… I’ve never been comfortable with myself naked.”
She still feels physically awkward and ill at ease. “It’s hard to speak about. I think I like my body more when I’m exercising… I’ve never been comfortable with it [but] I know I’m not terrible looking either.” At the moment, she feels guilty about eating too much because her character in Dark Shadows has to wear a bone-crushing corset.
“I’m like ‘Oh my God, I have to lose weight!’ Tonight, I’ll eat salad, no wine, that’s it,” she sighs. But it is hard to see where she could possibly lose weight from. Although, on screen, Green can exude a sense of strength and power, in person she is doll-like. “I know, I’m a dwarf,” she says, smiling. “For me, working out is nothing to do with looks. It’s to let it all out – the stress, the self-consciousness – you think less, it makes you more centred.”
And yet, for all her insecurities, there is no doubt how others see her. Bertolucci once described her as “so beautiful it’s indecent” and she has modelled for Lancôme, Emporio Armani and Christian Dior. In March, John Galliano was fired from his post as Dior’s creative director after being caught on camera-phone praising Hitler and making anti-semitic remarks in a Parisian bar. Given that her mother is Jewish, how does Green feel about the incident?
“I haven’t spoken to him [Galliano]. It’s difficult to talk about this subject because I don’t really know what happened. He is extremely fragile, a very sensitive, creative person with a great sense of humour and he’s always been so kind to me. He’s very shy. I adore him.
“It has been very brutal and I really… I just wish he could go back in time and for it not to happen. I’m sure he’s going to get back [into fashion] because he’s so talented. Sometimes, you can make mistakes. I don’t think he’s anti-semitic. I’m Jewish. I don’t think he has anything against the Jews. I think it’s more that he was probably a bit drunk.”
In fact she questions whether the people who filmed him in the first place were responsible in some way: “Something might have happened [to trigger the outburst]. I’m very sad. He has to get better. He’s very vulnerable.”
Although I am surprised by the frankness of Green’s response (most major-league actresses are practised in the art of politely saying nothing) the sentiment behind it seems to derive from the fact that in life, as in art, she is drawn to complex characters who act in questionable and enigmatic ways. She has, in the past, described herself as “a geek”, a woman who does not quite fit in, too off-beat in her tastes ever to slip easily into the mould of a polished Hollywood superstar. On set, she says she retreats to her trailer to listen to Max Richter while “all the other actors are listening to techno” and although she turned 30 last year, she says: “I feel like I’m 1,000. I don’t feel I’m young enough a lot of the time.”
The sun is still shining when we finish talking, but Green puts her heavy coat back on to go outside as if it is a suit of armour. She has a day of screen tests ahead of her and says, rolling her eyes, that she’s dreading it. She gives a lopsided smile and leans forward to kiss me on both cheeks. Then she walks out of the café and into the street: an exotic black moth, beating her wings against a tide of everyday cabbage whites.