PARIS — France may have gone back into lockdown last month, but it still has an international ambassador on small screens everywhere thanks to the actress Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu, a.k.a. Sylvie Grateau in the love-to-hate-it Netflix series “Emily in Paris.” As the head of a luxury marketing agency who overdresses, smokes, mocks political correctness and oozes meanness, she is the extreme version of the “Parisienne,” disseminating style and scorn in equal measure.
And though she inhabits the role so completely that it has made her into a star at 57, Ms. Leroy-Beaulieu has some very definite feelings about the myth of what she calls “the French bitch”: what is fact, what is fiction and what is worth considering. It’s a useful reminder that, while stereotypes are easy to sell — the French have described the series as a ragout of ridiculous clichés — the more complicated reality is often better.
“It’s funny, because the series is not meant to be real,” she said, over lunch at Cyril Lignac’s Le Bar des Prés, one of her favorite neighborhood bistros. “It’s what Americans expect of Paris. The French are good at mocking other people but don’t have a sense of humor about themselves.”
In real life, for example, Ms. Leroy-Beaulieu’s wardrobe does not resemble that of Sylvie, who wears stilettos, pencil skirts and cleavage-revealing outfits even in the office, and rails against tourists in “cargo pants.”
“I loved being overdressed in ‘Emily,’ because I don’t do it in real life,” Ms. Leroy-Beaulieu said, ordering raw fish, tapioca pudding and green tea, and offering her white American Vintage long-sleeved V-necked knit shirt, Uniqlo jeans, Rick Owens black blazer and Tod’s rubber-bottomed lace-up boots as a case in point. She carried a suede Avril Gau maxi bag and a tailored chocolate brown Rick Owens coat and arrived on a vintage Gitane bicycle (she also rides a Vespa scooter).
“I wouldn’t wear those heels on Paris sidewalks,” she said, laughing, of Sylvie’s strappy open-toed stilettos. “But it doesn’t matter. The idea was to push all the fashion higher than real.”
Ms. Leroy-Beaulieu, who grew up in Rome, moved to Paris as a teenager when her parents divorced. She drew inspiration for Sylvie from her mother, who had been a designer of jewelry, handbags, scarves and knitwear for Dior and who died earlier this year. (Ms. Leroy-Beaulieu’s father was a well-known French actor who made his career in Italy).
In the series, Sylvie sways as she walks, bending her elbows and dropping her hands. “My mother was nonchalant, incredibly elegant, provocative, a little mean on the side,” Ms. Leroy-Beaulieu said. “She was always holding a cigarette. The hand thing — I got it from my her.”
In one scene, Sylvie throws a trench coat over an Alexandre Vauthier emerald green evening gown with a peekaboo slit when retrieving a two million euro watch from an American actress and star Instagrammer who had gone AWOL.
“It was totally over the top, but I loved wearing that dress,” Ms. Leroy-Beaulieu said. “There is nothing you can put over a dress like that other than a trench coat. That’s what my mother would have done.”
Ms. Leroy-Beaulieu also wore some of the jewelry her mother designed: cuff bracelets; a necklace with a long silver chain and an amethyst pendant; and a large gold brooch in the shape of an angel. “They are my good luck charms,” she said. “They say, ‘Mom is here to protect me.’”
As a teenager, however, they did not protect her from ridicule when she moved to Paris. Her high school classmates and teachers mocked her because she made mistakes in formal written French dictations, sometimes calling her ethnic slurs.
“It was public, it was humiliating, it was horrible,” Ms. Leroy-Beaulieu said. “I hated the French. I hated Parisians.” In “Emily in Paris,” Sylvie calls Emily “la plouc” — “the hick” — to her face. Ms. Leroy-Beaulieu said, “I was like ‘la plouc.’ Yes, there really are Parisians as mean as Sylvie.”
She worked in a few commercials to earn pocket money as a teenager, spent two years in acting school and got bit parts in film in her early 20s. Her role as the single mother in the 1985 comedy “Trois Hommes et un Couffin,” a runaway hit in France, earned her a César nomination for most promising actress. The film was panned by American critics but was successfully remade by Disney in English as “Three Men and a Cradle.”
Over the years, she has played roles as varied as Charlotte Corday (Marat’s assassin during the French Revolution), a drug addict, a Russian aristocrat, a psychopathic doctor turned police officer, and a Polish-Jewish émigré in World War II France. As with many other actresses, the older Ms. Leroy-Beaulieu got, the fewer the roles.
“Let’s be honest,” she said. “I entered a tunnel in my career. I’ve never related to my age in a concrete way, but there’s a moment in life that for the outside world, things change.
A break came when the director and screenwriter Cédric Klapisch cast her in a small but key role in “Call My Agent!” a French television series about four top film industry agents struggling to keep their business afloat, and their star clients content. Ms. Leroy-Beaulieu plays the beautiful ambitious wife of Mathias Barneville, the most senior agent, who betrays her twice before she leaves him for good.
She landed the role of Sylvie in “Emily in Paris” by chance. Darren Star, the creator of “Emily in Paris,” asked Juliette Ménager, an international casting agent, to find an actress to play Sylvie — the most challenging part of all the French roles Ms. Ménager had to cast. “I told her, ‘Listen Philippine, you’re too old,” Ms. Ménager said. “But energy-wise you don’t look your age, so why don’t we try?’”
The role was intended for a woman between 35 and 45, but Ms. LeRoy-Beaulieu was undaunted. “I said to myself, ‘I know this woman so well. I can see her right away’,” she said.
To prepare for the part, she watched films with Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Barbra Streisand. “There was something wild, like a panther, in them that I liked for Sylvie,” she said.
She brought Sylvie’s discipline and character to the set, so she and Lily Collins, the “Emily” of the title and Sylvie’s younger nemesis, kept their distance. “We stayed in our roles,” Ms. Leroy-Beaulieu said. “She was with the youngsters having fun. I was the lone wolf, the French bitch-witch fueling my whole Sylvie mood.”
William Abadie, who plays a perfumer-client in the series who is also Sylvie’s married lover, described that distancing as difficult. “To stay in character means you have to be willing to suffer the consequences,” he said. “People who came onto the set who didn’t know her before — I’m not sure they warmed up to her so much.”
Bruno Gouery, who plays Luc, an ad agency co-worker, called Ms. Leroy-Beaulieu “a warrior.” The two bonded — and relaxed — in Italian. “We’d say, ‘Let’s be Italian for five minutes,’ and then would sing our heads off,” Ms. Leroy-Beaulieu said.
In her own life, Ms. Leroy-Beaulieu fell in love at 17 with Santiago Amigorena, a fellow student at her high school. Years later, after he became a director, screenwriter and author, he wrote a memoir about their love affair and the trauma of their breakup. (He married and had two children with actress Julie Gayet; they later divorced. She is the current partner of François Hollande, the former president of France.) Ms. Leroy-Beaulieu has a grown daughter, Taïs, an artist, although she and Richard Bean, the father and a French documentary filmmaker, never married.
Like Sylvie, Ms. Leroy-Beaulieu does not consider herself a feminist, which many Frenchwomen, according to polls over the years, equate with a negation of classic femininity.
“I’m not at war with men,” she said. “That’s the most ridiculous idea in the world. In that respect I cannot identify with feminism. I like it when men try to seduce. Some do it nicely, some don’t. At least you have a choice.”
Once filming was over, Ms. Leroy-Beaulieu dropped her haughty and haute character, and reverted to what she called her “true lover-of-life” self. “I danced until 4:30 in the morning,” she said, when the cast and crew celebrated with a private party at the Mona Bismarck American Center near the Seine.
“I met a completely different person, someone who was sweet, charming, engaging, warm, the life of the party,” said Mr. Abadie, her on-screen lover. “I realized the stunt she had pulled. That turns me on. I’m a little bit in love with her.”
Elaine Sciolino is the author, most recently, of “The Seine: The River That Made Paris.”