Bond girl, interrupted

How Monica Bellucci, Naomie Harris and Léa Seydoux, the three sirens of Spectre, are flipping the script on what it means to be a woman in a Bond film

(First published in Rhapsody magazine, November 2015. Photography by Jason Bell)

The day before Skyfall opened in 2012, Naomie Harris took to the stage at the BAFTAs to present an award. Dressed in a black strapless Miu Miu gown with her hair in delicate waves, she looked every bit the Hollywood starlet, but she quickly proved to be much more. Reading the teleprompter copy, she made one subtle change to the script: She wasn’t a Bond girl—she was a Bond woman.

The women in Bond films have certainly evolved since 1963’s From Russia With Love, when Sean Connery’s Bond told Tatiana Romanova to “just do as I say, will you?” before dismissively slapping her backside. (Connery’s Bond was also wont to slap women’s faces, and worse.) Ever since Dame Judi Dench’s M called Pierce Brosnan’s Bond a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” in GoldenEye (1995)—echoing a complaint that’s never quite gone away—Bond women have become more complex. They’re still impossibly glamorous, but they’ve become less like purring playthings and more like human beings. And now Sam Mendes’ new Bond film, Spectre, out November 6, might be the franchise’s most forward-thinking yet: 007 finally mans up and stops fooling around with girls.

On a drizzly summer afternoon in an empty corner of the Northall restaurant in London’s lavish Corinthia Hotel, the film’s trio of Bond women—Naomie Harris, Monica Bellucci and Léa Seydoux—meet for lunch. They arrive one by one, having just been introduced to each other for the first time at a photo shoot for Rhapsody. (All their scenes for Spectre were shot separately.) Bellucci is different from the character you often see on screen—less temptress, more earth mother. She’s warm, funny, self-deprecating, reassuring. Harris is intimidatingly put together, her all-black outfit as crisp as her BBC English. Seydoux, who turns up in sandals and a thrift store–chic fur coat, radiates intrigue; over the course of lunch, she is by turns bored, shy, vulnerable and utterly magnetic.

Spectre is Mendes’ second Bond film. His first, Skyfall, was widely lauded as among the franchise’s best. It was still unmistakably Bond—gadgets, cars, foreign-tongued villains and Bérénice Marlohe in a plunging dress festooned with Swarovski crystals—but the characters were darker, more intense, more real, particularly Dench’s doomed M.

It also introduced Harris’ Eve as a Miss Moneypenny remodeled for the 21st century—a former field agent who’s capable of verbally sparring with her colleague and tactfully turning down his advances.

Eve is back for Spectre, and she’s joined by Seydoux’s Dr. Madeleine Swann, a psychologist at a clinic in the Austrian Alps who is the daughter of an assassin, and Bellucci’s Lucia Sciarra, the widow of another assassin killed by Bond. If Bellucci’s character seems the most classic—a mysterious beauty who sleeps with Bond and possibly dies—the twist is that at 50 she plays a paramour who is, for once, older than 007.

“We’re diverse as women are diverse,” says Harris, tucking into a cut of lamb. “More women than ever will see themselves represented onscreen in a Bond film, and it helps that we all play strong women. Bond films have always kept certain elements—people still cheer when the car appears in the premiere—but they’ve survived because they’ve moved with the times.”

Longtime producer Barbara Broccoli noted this change upon the release of Skyfall. “I think the women in the film have evolved like women have evolved in society,” she said. “And about time, too.”

Though the three new Bond women all subscribe to the need for strong female counterparts to 007, each has a different take on gender politics in film. “We’re still struggling with equality,” says Bellucci, “especially where I’m from, in Italy. There’s a mentality where it’s difficult for women to get free—even when you open the cage, they find it difficult to get out.”

Seydoux, the star of 2013’s transgressive lesbian coming-of-age drama Blue Is the Warmest Color, seems nonplussed that her gender is even a talking point. “It’s never been an issue for me,” she says. “I’ve always felt as strong as a man. I feel free. This belongs to me, and I’m the boss of it.”

Seydoux, whose gap-toothed smile makes her look younger than her 30 years, calls herself “a product of my generation.” Twenty years her senior, Bellucci is the oldest woman ever cast as a “Bond girl,” but she doesn’t blanche at a reference to her age. “When the agent called me, the first thing I asked was, ‘Will I be Judi Dench?’” she deadpans. “Sadly, I wasn’t, but I loved the concept of Bond having an affair with an older woman. It seemed quietly revolutionary.”

Bellucci, who has two daughters with her ex-husband, French actor Vincent Cassel, has acted in more than 50 films in her 25-year career, and despite dipping into Hollywood with The Matrix Reloaded, The Brothers Grimm and The Passion of the Christ, she continues to take roles in ambitious art-house films, from the Fellini-esque Malèna, in 2000, to the powerful Iranian love story Rhino Season, in 2012. Actresses from Meryl Streep to Kristin Scott Thomas have complained about the limited roles for older women, but Bellucci seems unconcerned. “In Europe, I think we’re lucky,” she says. “Look at Isabelle Huppert, Catherine Deneuve, Charlotte Rampling, Juliette Binoche. There are a lot of women getting beautiful roles as they get older, and I think it’s right. There’s a certain beauty with youth, but there’s another one that comes with age. Your soul grows, and that’s sexy.”

If there’s a trait that links these three disparate women, it’s per-haps that they all identify as outsiders. Bellucci says she grew up a lonesome only child in a small city in the Apennine mountains. Harris, who was raised by a single mother in north London, claims she didn’t fit in at Cambridge, and she recently revealed that she saw a therapist after first meeting her Trinidadian father, in 2009. Seydoux, a one-time aspiring opera singer who turned to acting because she envied the lifestyle of a former boyfriend, says of herself, “I love to be lonely. I’m French, and we find suffering poetic.”

“I don’t quite know where I belong, except with acting,” says Bellucci, who left a modeling career to pursue the big screen in her mid-20s. “Modeling left me lonely so many times, but acting feels like being part of a family. Apart from spending time with my daughters, it’s the only way I know how to be fully in the present. I need it.”

There’s no question that all three of these women are more artist than celebrity. Harris, who received rave reviews for her portrayal of Winnie Mandela opposite Idris Elba in 2013’s A Long Walk to Freedom, speaks about an actor’s capacity for empathy. “It’s something you’ll find with most actors,” she says. “That sensitivity to life. When I come into a room, I can sense the mood acutely. Has there been a fight? Is there something in the air? It can be hard to live with, but it’s also essential if you want to inhabit someone else.” At one point while Harris is talking, Bellucci reaches out to hold Seydoux’s hand in a slightly maternal gesture. It feels inescapably actorly, yet somehow not affected.

As much as the progression of Bond films has created a more mature home for female actors, Bellucci argues that the role of a Bond woman has always been a great opportunity. “There have been so many wonderful actors who’ve done this over the years, and it’s become this worldwide tradition that creates iconic moments,” she says. “Ursula Andress coming out of the sea is a moment that will last.”

Bellucci, Seydoux and Harris agree that simply being a part of such a storied franchise is an incomparable opportunity. Seydoux, who spent 60 days shooting, much of it in the Austrian Alps, calls it “my best experience in a film. You’re with the crème de la crème—everything is the best—and that actually makes it easier.” Harris agrees: “Not many films are made like Bond films.”

And not many films have the power to change how we see women’s roles in action films. With Bellucci, Harris and Seydoux, Spectre is rewriting the Bond story—and Bond himself—for the better. As supervillian Blofeld famously tells 007 upon their first encounter, “You only live twice.” Forty-five years later, the Bond girl is getting a second chance at life. It’s about time.

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