February 28, 2000 12:00 PM

Many young women would like to kiss Leo DiCaprio. French actress Virginie Ledoyen, who costars with him in the thriller The Beach, has done it and has this to report: “As you can imagine,” says Ledoyen of the smooch, which, curiously, takes place underwater, “you can’t breathe. So you have to breathe before and then dive down. It’s really work. It’s hard to make people understand that you’re kissing Leo but that it’s a job.”

Lip-lock labor is nothing new to Ledoyen. Virtually unknown in the U.S., the 23-year-old actress, who speaks English with only a slight accent, has appeared in some 18 European films since age 9, though nothing with the tidal wave of attention that accompanied The Beach. Even before she met DiCaprio on the four-month shoot in Thailand, gossip was spreading that she was carrying his child. “One time I arrived on the set,” she says, “and someone told me, ‘Oh, you know you’re pregnant?’ What can you say? I didn’t want to waste my time.” Her boyfriend of four years (whom she identifies only as “in the film industry”), she adds, “never believed any of the rumors. He knew me better.”

And she knows better than to be bothered. “I had a great time,” she says of working with DiCaprio, 25, whose parents, George and Irmelin, and pals came to visit on location. “I was expecting someone more star. But Leo’s a very normal guy. He was very sweet to my family and friends.” His hotel room was littered with PlayStation games. “I played them with him just once,” she notes. “It’s not my thing.”

Acting is—and has been for a long time. Born in Paris to Olga, now 41, a restaurant manager, and Bernard Fernandez, 49, a businessman (she later took her paternal grandmother’s maiden name because she had been a stage actress), the photogenic toddler began posing for French TV and print ads at age 2—”selling everything from Air France to children’s clothes, yogurt to pasta.” After her parents divorced, Virginie and her brother Michael (now 19 and a production assistant) developed a love of film from Bernard, who took them to American movies whenever possible. Tuesday, recalls Ledoyen, “was my evening out with my father. I didn’t always understand the movies, and he’d try to explain them over ice cream. If ever once I’m even asked to do a Woody Allen movie, my father would. be so happy. Allen is his favorite living director.”

His favorite living actress landed her first film in 1986 and her first starring role three years later. (Her first onscreen kiss: legendary heartthrob Marcello Mastroianni, then 67, in 1991’s The Children Thief.) After graduating from the performing arts school L’Ecole des Enfants du Spectacle in Paris, she broke out—at least in France—in 1995’s A Single Girl. Ledoyen got her Beach pass after an interview and two auditions with director Danny Boyle. From the instant she arrived on the Thailand set, he says, “she was more than I hoped for. She has genuine mystique and allure.”

Still, she has no plans to trade in her new apartment, overlooking Paris’s Luxembourg Gardens, for Hollywood. For one thing she’d fit in terribly: She shuns parties and, notes Boyle, “I never saw her look in a mirror once.” She tends to spend free time gardening or playing basketball, and reading. During The Beach shoot, she says, she knocked off War and Peace “and a couple of Dostoyevskys.”

The bookworm just finished filming a French nonmusical miniseries of Les Misérables, in which she stars as Cosette opposite Gérard Depar-dieu and John Malkovich. “I’d like to do other Hollywood pictures,” she says, “but not to the exclusion of the rest. They have so many good actresses already in Hollywood, and they’re not just waiting for me.” Besides, she adds, “you need time between movies, just to live a little bit.” Or practice kissing.

Dan Jewel

Peter Mikelbank in Paris

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