Joséphine de La Baume on playing Delphine, ‘Top Boy’’s new girl next door
Everyone’s favourite gritty crime drama returns to Netflix this Friday. Here, we talk to its newest star about season two, fame, and confronting cliches
Tuesday 15 March 2022 By Rosalind Jana Photography by Alice Rosati Styling by Elvis Osawe Makeup by Andreea Ali Hair styling by Ciara Constenoble
Joséphine de La Baume is currently trying to find the right words. Sat in 180 House with a view of the Australian Embassy and its statues of crowned gods and rearing horses, she pauses for a second and thinks. The dilemma is this: we’re here, in part, to discuss her upcoming appearance in the second series of the smash hit Netflix series, Top Boy. However, such is the fervour around the show that I haven’t been allowed to pre-watch any episodes, and she’s not allowed to give much away.
Technically, it’s the show’s fourth series, the gripping account of the rivalries, loyalties and consequences of the drugs trade in a fictional Summerhouse estate in Hackney, first taking to the screen over a decade ago in 2011. However, Channel 4 cancelled it after two series. With the unexpected help of Drake, who came on board as a producer, it was revived in 2017 on Netflix. Revolving around an uneasy alliance between Dushane (Ashley Walters) and Sully (Kane ‘Kano’ Robinson), and their relationship with a younger generation of drug dealers trying to usurp their place at the top of the hierarchy, it’s a chilling examination of power and violence that places human connection and consequences at the heart of its storytelling.
This, de La Baume can tell me. She plays Delphine: a new neighbour of Sully’s. ‘She’s someone who’s faced real challenges. In order to make sense of them, she tries to help other people who have gone through similar stuff – which in her case is grief,’ she explains carefully. ‘Through that, she accidentally bonds with certain people in the show.’ That’s about as much as de La Baume is allowed to reveal.
Top: shirt, Daily Paper; sunglasses, Filling Pieces
Above: jacket and top, both Filling Pieces
What she can say with certainty, though, is that she was a fan of Top Boy beforehand. ‘I thought it was extremely well written and the cast was incredible,’ she adds. ‘It’s not trying to romanticise anything. It’s trying to depict something real.’ Top Boy has also been praised for its unflinching approach to depicting a gritty London life: deftly pulling apart the many layers and tensions that make up the capital. ‘It’s such an English show. I live in London, and to be able to work in the city that I live in, in the country that I love so much – well, there are things I love about this country, others not so much – but in the country that has adopted me, or maybe I have adopted it… It’s super exciting.’
The French actor, musician and former model has been a familiar face for some time. She has appeared in movies ranging from The Hitman’s Bodyguard and Rush to One Day and Listen Up Philip, as well as a number of French films including Confession Of A Child Of The Century and Madame Claude. Previously working with her brother under the name Singtank, she now produces music with her five-piece band, Film Noir. She is also known more ambiently for her personal style and striking appearance. First entering the public eye during the late 2000s when a new wave of ‘French Girl’ fever was in full swing, it’s hard to find an interview with de La Baume that doesn’t focus on her Gallic charm or particularly Parisian form of sex appeal: all black eyeliner and unfussy, glam-rock clothes. Now, though, she’s happy to be moving beyond the archetype.
‘In Top Boy, my character is French – but it doesn’t really matter that she is. She just happens to be.’ It’s a contrast with a number of previous roles she’s taken on. ‘In a lot of projects that were in English, there was a tendency to cast me as “The French Girl”. I played that girl. I know her inside and out. Every time, I tried to do a different version to make her a bit more exciting, but it’s nice this time that it’s just not really a factor.’ She stops, then drolly adds, ‘I had to smoke like a million packs of cigarettes on set.’
She’s not entirely unswayed by the power of the image. ‘I think some cliches are cliches, and some cliches, you know, maybe there’s no smoke without fire.’ It’s something she feels aware of when returning to her own country. ‘Even myself, when I go back to Paris, I’m so seduced and can’t believe how lucky I was to grow up in a city like that. It’s so f**king romantic. I understand why people fantasise about it.’
De La Baume has a thoughtful, looping way of speaking, circling around a particular idea until she feels she’s fully explained it – especially given that she’s talking in her second language. This observation is followed by a brief history of French New Wave cinema and the various actors and directors along the way who helped to crystallise the image of the ‘French Girl’ as it now stands (she holds special regard for Agnès Varda, who moved beyond convention: ‘her women characters are very strong, very reckless’). Now though, she thinks it’s outdated. ‘This idea of fantasy, I think it’s broken… It’s getting a little more progressive.’
‘I thought it was extremely well written and the cast was incredible. It’s not trying to romanticise anything. It’s trying to depict something real’
Above: shirt, Daily Paper. Left: as before
De La Baume grew up in Paris, and always knew she wanted to perform. Her mother put her into ballet and acting lessons as a child. Her aspiration was distilled to a single image she’d seen on TV in the 1980s: ‘this woman being super sassy, surrounded by dancers.’ Her desire for grand theatrics had other consequences. ‘I was the kid that got kicked out of every school… I was very good, very studious. Then when teenage-hood kicked in, that was the end of being studious,’ she says. ‘I was always turning the whole classroom into a musical, pulling people on the tables, dancing on them… That was the first stage I was on: a table in the classroom.’
These days she gets to enjoy plenty of actual stages. She’s been working on a new album with Film Noir, to be released this summer after it’s finished being mixed by ‘this little prodigy who’s 17 years old.’ It’s a very personal work. ‘All of my songs are open diaries,’ she explains. She describes it as an album of short stories, each song amplifying a different feeling or facet of herself. ‘One might be an antihero, or a character who’s going through some kind of crisis, or a life or death situation: sometimes in a mythological way, sometimes in a cinematic way.’
Dress, Daily Paper; shoes, Filling Pieces
It seems that the self de La Baume has currently settled into is a comfortable one. Like many of us, the pandemic prompted a rethink for her of where her life was going, and what she wanted from it. ‘I wasn’t the woman I thought I was. I thought I was super-independent; I didn’t need anyone. And actually, not at all. I’m completely the opposite.’ It also yielded some deeper realisations. ‘You’re like, s**t, I really have to look at myself in the mirror and grow without being able to hide or lull myself with any distractions,’ she says. ‘I definitely healed from a lot of stuff that I had residues of: heartbreak, well, heartbreaks plural.’ It’s left her more grounded, more certain of who she is. ‘I feel much calmer, less panicked and manic… I think for the last few years I was kind of agitated. This has given me perspective. I guess that’s getting closer to being a grown-up – if I ever get there.’
We talk, too, about the strange tightrope act of navigating the public eye. She says it’s something she doesn’t give much thought to, beyond knowing exactly how much she likes her own privacy. Something she struggled to protect when she was married to English-American DJ and producer, Mark Ronson, who she divorced in 2017. When it comes to people’s personal lives, she’s more interested in the fundamental question of how they got to where they are.
‘I had a friend who gave me some good advice when I was really down. He said to me, just Google six people that you really respect. Look at what they’ve done with their life. Look at their choices.’ Admittedly, she was slightly perturbed by some of the challenging moments this exercise revealed, learning more about the complex layers that made up the lives of her own heroes, including Romy Schneider and Monica Vitti, but the sentiment has stuck. Everything is a choice that leads to something else. Anything could lie ahead. It’s the reason why she’s relatively unfussed about whether this could be considered a ‘breakout’ year for her (soon she appears in ITV’s Grace alongside John Simm and Richie Campbell). ‘I do feel that you can never sit on something. It’s like, “OK, that’s great. What’s happening next?”’
Ultimately, what she cares about is the strength of her work, whether it’s a song she’s written or a character she’s trying to get to the bottom of. ‘I guess there is a need for discipline in both professions. The only thing that’s a similar process for both is the necessity of honesty. I think when I try to hide something, I can feel it. I can feel that I’m not delivering the right performance,’ she reflects. ‘Even exploring certain facets of yourself that you didn’t really know or you’re uncomfortable with – you have to put it all out in the open.
Top Boy season two will be streaming on Netflix on Friday 18 March.