“Oh my God, why am I not speaking properly today?” says Cara Delevingne, clicking her fingers to fire her brain towards a word she’s looking for. The British model, social media sensation and rising Hollywood star is a bundle of energy when we meet in New York’s funky Crosby Street Hotel. When she’s not twisting a gold bracelet between her fingers, she’s illustrating her points with wild gesticulations.
It’s hardly a surprise. With a diary as everchanging as her hairstyles (today it’s a platinum bob, next week it’ll be buzz-shaved, soon after a blonde crop), this 24-year-old is rarely in the same place for long. If she’s not partying in Cannes with Kendall Jenner, she’s arm-in-arm with Margot Robbie at Glastonbury or being photographed with Natalie Portman and Karl Lagerfeld at Paris Fashion Week.
Which perhaps explains why director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element) cast her in his new sci-fi extravaganza Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (in cinemas Wednesday 2 August) – a title that seems to sum up the out-of-this-world nature of Delevingne’s lifestyle. Even mid-afternoon she looks ready to party: skinny white jeans, a black-and-gold striped blouse and towering heels – soon to be kicked off as she goes barefoot on the plush hotel carpet.
Based on the 1960s French comic, Besson’s blockbuster sees Delevingne play Laureline, a sort of Barbarella with attitude, who joins forces with Valerian (Dane DeHaan) to patrol the galaxy. “I definitely feel like I go into things headfirst without really thinking about it or knowing what I’m doing,” she laughs.
That may suggest Delevingne isn’t taking her opportunities seriously, but underestimate her at your peril. Like the proverbial sponge, she soaks up experience, watching others, asking questions. “Dane is an unbelievable actor and I literally got to sit with him and pick his brain for six months,” she says. “Laureline and Valerian are partners who spend all their time together in the spaceship alone. So we had to build this amazing relationship pretty quickly.”
The result is a colourful slice of sci-fi pop art, an intoxicating blend of humour, romance, action and CGI aliens. “With this movie, I feel like you get so much of everything,” she says. “It’s not just about the sci-fi element.” For the record, Delevingne isn’t a sci-fi geek but does love video games. “I’m a huge Call of Duty fan!”
Such is the rush of her career, it’s easy to forget she’s been acting since Joe Wright cast her in his 2012 adaptation of Anna Karenina. “I was so nervous,” she recalls. “I was a massive fan of Joe and Keira Knightley, and all the people in this movie. I was so scared and Joe was like, ‘You’re not trying to look pretty.’ I was like, ‘Oh yes, I forgot!’ That was the point! I took that on.”
Since then, she’s featured in Michael Winterbottom’s film inspired by the Amanda Knox trial, The Face of an Angel, teen romance Paper Towns and last year’s DC Comics ensemble Suicide Squad, alongside Will Smith. “To be honest, acting is something I’ve wanted to do my entire life,” she says. “It really teaches me so much about myself and about life, and that’s what I’ve always wanted to do. It makes me very happy.”
Born in London, the daughter of a high-society property developer (her godparents are Condé Nast executive Nicholas Coleridge and Joan Collins), Delevingne traces her desire to act back to her years at Francis Holland School for Girls. “I suffered a lot with depression as a teenager and I found it very difficult at school. Acting was my only real escape. I was in every play. I definitely wanted to go to drama school so badly. I loved theatre.”
Life took her in another direction. She studied drama and music at Bedales School but dropped out after a year to follow her older sister Poppy into modelling. Signing with the elite agency Storm, her rise was stratospheric – twice winning Model of the Year, as the likes of Stella McCartney and Dolce & Gabbana scrambled to hire her. Success has its downside, though. “I didn’t like myself as a model,” she says. “I didn’t like what I stood for. I didn’t like what it was turning me into. Not that I was focused about how I looked all the time, but it is kind of about that. That is not me at all – you speak to all my oldest best friends and they know I’m not a model. I do not give a s**t about what I look like.”
Delevingne has since taken a step back from the catwalk bubble. “It’s a nice little weight off my shoulders, to be honest. It’s nice. I’m not out of it. I will definitely still do it.” But, like any professional, she wants more artistic control. “Now when I model, I get to style my own shoots and decide who I work with. Now it’s become a creative outlet, instead of me being used as a pawn.”
She credits her time working with Burberry fashion designer Christopher Bailey for giving her this ambition. “The first time I did a Burberry campaign, he said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I was like, ‘What? Did someone just ask me that?’” She’s since designed fashion collections, recorded two albums and travelled to Uganda to highlight the plight of refugees with a mini-series of documentaries.
Friendly, warm and charmingly scatty in person, Delevingne has managed to keep a level head amid the celebrity maelstrom. With over 40 million Instagram followers hanging on her every post, and the paparazzi cataloguing her every wardrobe change, the noise around her must be deafening. “I don’t hear noise,” she shrugs. “I know that’s a stupid thing to say, but otherwise you’d drive yourself crazy.”
Delevingne is open about her sexuality; last year, she was head over heels for singer Annie Clark, aka St Vincent. Being open and true to herself is crucial, it seems. “That is my dream, to let any kid know that if they don’t feel like they did the best at school or aren’t the coolest, it doesn’t matter. Be who you are. Do what you want. Whatever your dream is, follow it. You’ll get there – I did. And I really didn’t think I would.”
She’s just wrapped her next film, Life in a Year, alongside Jaden Smith, who plays a 17-year-old diagnosed with cancer. “It’s going to be a good movie,” she promises, revealing that she spent time in hospices as research. It was also the reason why she shaved her hair – despite protests from her managers. “They were all like, ‘You’re not going to do it!’ And I was like, ‘Yes, I bloody well am!’” Just you try and stop her.
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news