There was a short phase when I was 15 that I wanted to be a nun. I went to a school in Paris run by nuns and I loved their appearance of sanctity. But in fact, I discovered their lives were quite narrow and I realised it would be a small life. So after that I wanted to be a classical ballet dancer. I had already started training when I was 10, which is not so young. My mother had been a ballet dancer. She did not think it mattered for women to be educated; she was born in 1900, after all. So after my family were ruined during the war she said I must have a profession, because I wouldn’t have a dowry. I suppose she thought it would be a good idea if I became a ballet dancer, and then a movie star. I never dreamt of all that.
But I was obsessed with Anna Pavlova. I would comb my hair like she did and try to be as dramatic as possible. I even decided to call myself Caronova.
I started at the Paris conservatoire, but very quickly became unhappy. At that time in the Forties women wore the bun at a high place which was absolutely not romantic. They also wore the short tutus, which I thought made people look like bunny rabbits.
I left the school just before the exams and when the headmistress said it was a shame because she thought I could have become someone, I went home crying that I’d ruined my life. My mother said “don’t worry, you can go to Roland Petit’s school”. It was there that I was picked out by him to join his company. I was so lucky because I wasn’t one to thrust myself into the limelight.
It was the same with Gene Kelly when he picked me for An American in Paris. It was such a huge break, it was frightening. I never could have imagined all the names I would work with in Hollywood. As a child we went to the movies every week. My mother was mad about Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. I never thought I would be part of that world. It took years for me to realise I was “legit”. I thought people would find out I wasn’t a true movie star. It’s only lately that I’ve accepted my own success. Cinemas kept doing retrospectives of my work and I thought “maybe I am a professional”.
I don’t think my younger self would approve of my relationships [Caron has been married three times and had an affair with Warren Beatty]. Having been raised by the nuns, I thought just one marriage was what was right. I still consider my real marriage to be with Peter Hall [founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company], the father of my children [Jennifer Caron Hall and Christopher Hall]. I still reproach myself for not having the guts to insist on working things out. The problem between us was that Peter wanted me not to work but I loved work, without it I would suffocate.
I’m most proud, though, of my children. With them I think I succeeded.
There was a point when I felt very low, but I did a clever thing and moved back to England to be close to my children and grandchildren. I’m really satisfied here now; I could almost say I am happy.
Leslie Caron is in The Durrells, Sundays at 8pm on ITV
Interview by Boudicca Fox-Leonard