Directed by Luc Besson, 1994’s Leon (also known as The Professional) follows a lone hitman who unexpectedly finds himself looking after a young girl when her family are murdered by a corrupt DEA Agent. Based on this description, it may sound like a fairly conventional action thriller, but Leon breaks with convention in some very significant ways, which resulted both in widespread acclaim and enduring controversy.
Join us now as we revisit Leon, with some facts you might not have known about the film.
20. It was Natalie Portman’s first movie
Today, Leon is best remembered as the film that launched the career of Natalie Portman. Aged just 12 at the time the movie was shot, Portman had been a theatre school student and an understudy on Broadway before she auditioned for the key role of Mathilda in the first English language production from French writer-director Luc Besson.
Leon was Portman’s very first acting role, even though the film’s credits do not declare ‘introducing Natalie Portman’ as often occurs when an actor makes their first appearance in a main role. Portman’s performance astonished audiences, and the young actress soon found herself highly in demand. However, Portman was discerning in the roles she chose, allowing herself time to complete her education while taking on occasional acting jobs.
19. Supporting actor Keith A Glascoe later became a firefighter – and died on 9/11
One Leon actor whose name you might not remember off-hand is Keith A. Glascoe. Aged 31 at the time, Glascoe co-stars in Leon as Benny, a physically imposing member of Stansfield’s villainous crew. Leon proved to be the biggest movie Glascoe ever made; outside of his acting career and playing with the New York Jets football team, Glascoe was also a New York firefighter.
Serving with Ladder 21 of the New York City Fire Department, Glascoe was one among the many firefighters who were called out as part of the rescue efforts following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Tragically, Glascoe would be one of the 343 New York firefighters who lost their lives on that dark day in the city’s history.
18. Gary Oldman’s most memorable scenes as Stansfield were improvised
Gary Oldman gives a scene-stealing performance in Leon as the corrupt, deranged DEA Agent Norman Stansfield. The British actor was encouraged to improvise for his role, and remarkably many of Stansfield’s most memorable moments in the film were not actually in the script. Notably, Stansfield’s introductory scene, in which he discusses Beethoven with Mathilda’s father, was entirely ad-libbed by Oldman.
In that same scene, when Stansfield interrogates Mathilda’s father (played by Michael Badalucco), the moment where Stansfield leans in and sniffs is totally improvised – and you can see that Badalucco, who was not expecting it, is genuinely uncomfortable. In another famous moment, one of Stansfield’s cronies asks him who he wants summoned, to which Stansfield screams, “Everyone!” This startled the cast and crew, as Oldman had played the moment much quieter in other takes.
17. More than 20 minutes of the film was cut for fear of causing offence
Leon has always been a somewhat controversial film due to the implication of a possible sexual attraction between Jean Reno’s middle-aged man and Natalie Portman’s pre-pubescent girl. In director Luc Besson’s original, full length cut of the film, this attraction was hinted at even further, with a moment in which Portman’s Mathilda directly asks Reno’s Leon to go to bed with her.
After the original version of the film was shown to test audiences in Los Angeles, it became very clear that several of the more ‘adult’ scenes made viewers very uncomfortable. As a result some of those sexually-charged scenes were cut from the film’s theatrical release, along with more scenes exploring Mathilda’s assassin training, a scene in which Mathilda gets drunk, and a scene in which Mathilda threatens to shoot herself.
16. Jean Reno played up Leon’s naivety to make the relationship with Mathilda more innocent
Luc Besson’s script may have deliberately left it ambiguous as to whether or not Leon himself felt a romantic or sexual connection to Mathilda, but actor Jean Reno made a conscious effort to de-sexualise the relationship. It was primarily with this in mind that Reno played Leon as intellectually challenged and somewhat child-like in nature (when he isn’t killing people, at least).
If the character of Leon is viewed as someone with the mental and emotional maturity of a child, this might make his connection with Mathilda somewhat less sinister than it could otherwise appear. Reno has argued that as Leon is “somebody who’s lost his parents,” he directly relates to the recently orphaned Mathilda on this level as well.
15. Other actresses considered for Mathilda included Liv Tyler and Christina Ricci
With no credits to her name and no professional experience in acting, Natalie Portman’s casting as Mathilda in Leon was by no means a sure thing. She is reported to have been one of 2,000 girls whose names were put forward for the role, and Portman was by no means the only one among them to go on to enjoy a long and illustrious career.
One actress seriously considered for the part was Liv Tyler, soon to rise to stardom with Empire Records and Stealing Beauty; however, at 16, she was deemed a little too old for the part. Another serious contender was Christina Ricci, who had not long since risen to fame as Wednesday in The Addams Family movies. This would be one among many roles that Ricci and Portman went head-to-head for in the 90s.
14. Portman’s parents wouldn’t consent to her casting until script changes were made
Young Natalie Portman herself was by all accounts determined to land the role of Mathilda as soon as she read Luc Besson’s script for Leon, but Portman’s parents (neither of whom worked in the entertainment industry) had some serious concerns. As originally written, the sexual undertones of Mathilda’s behaviour were made even more explicit.
Portman’s parents demanded Besson pare back on these more mature elements before they would agree to her casting in the film. They were also concerned with her character’s smoking scenes and made serious stipulations there, insisting Mathilda should never be shown inhaling or exhaling smoke, and that she would quit the unhealthy habit before the end of the film.
13. Luc Besson made the film as a stopgap while struggling to get The Fifth Element made
Luc Besson had risen to fame in the early 80s as the writer and director of a number of stylish, mainstream-friendly thrillers in his native France, some of which attracted international acclaim. Most notably, his 1990 film Nikita (aka La Femma Nikita) was a hit around the world, and was later remade in the US as The Assassin, starring Bridget Fonda.
After this success, Besson was anxious to make the epic sci-fi movie The Fifth Element, a passion project he’d been working on for decades. However, the sheer size of the film made it hard to secure financing, so in the meantime the director decided to make the relatively small-scale Leon. Besson penned the Leon script in barely a month, and was able to get the far cheaper project off the ground quickly. The Fifth Element would be Besson’s next film, going on release in 1997.
12. The original script ended with Mathilda killing Stansfield and herself
Leon ends on a cautiously optimistic note: as Leon sacrifices himself to kill Stansfield, Mathilda escapes and is seemingly accepted back at her old school. This was not what Luc Besson originally had in mind, however – and if Besson had stuck with his original ending, Leon would almost certainly have provoked even greater controversy.
In the movie, just as Leon dies at the hands of Stansfield, he detonates a belt of grenades around his waist, obliterating them both. The first draft of the script ended in a similar fashion, only Leon died first, and it wasn’t him but Mathilda who wore the grenade belt and blew everyone up. This was rewritten as it was considered too bleak an ending, not to mention out of character for the ultimately innocent Mathilda.
11. Natalie Portman says that “being sexualised” in the film left her “afraid”
While Leon is still held up as a cult classic today, it’s also considered a hugely problematic film, mainly due to the representation of the very young Portman. The matter is complicated further by the numerous accusations of sexual misconduct that have since been made against filmmaker Luc Besson, some of them from women who say they were underage at the time of his meeting them.
Leon proved a mixed blessing for Portman, for while it announced her as a formidable talent, it also typecast her in Lolita-esque roles. Portman remarked in 2020 that “being sexualised” as such a young actor “I think, took away from my own sexuality because it made me afraid.” For this reason, Portman consciously avoided roles with a sexual aspect in the years that followed; most famously, she came close to appearing alongside Leonard DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet, but ultimately turned the film down.
10. Besson’s 2011 film Colombiana was conceived as a Leon sequel about an adult Mathilda
For many years after Leon’s release, there were reports that Besson was keen to reunite with Natalie Portman for a sequel in which Mathilda would have followed in Leon’s footsteps and become a full-time ‘cleaner.’ For a time, the film looked likely to happen; Besson had written a script, and Portman was reportedly open to reprising the role as an adult.
However, in the years since Leon, Besson had severed ties with Leon’s studio Gaumont. As the studio retained the rights to that film’s characters, Besson was unable to make his proposed Mathilda movie. For this reason, Besson rewrote the script into an unrelated film about a female assassin, Colombiana. It was made in 2011 with Zoe Saldana in the lead; the film was a modest hit, but received poor reviews.
9. Natalie Portman didn’t know who Marilyn Monroe was when she did her impersonation
One of the more light-hearted moments in Leon comes when, after months of intensive ‘cleaner’ training, Mathilda persuades Leon to let them take a break and play a game in which they impersonate celebrities. The joke in the scene is that Leon fails to recognise almost everyone Mathilda impersonates – but in reality, Portman didn’t know all the people she impersonated either.
The scene sees Mathilda dress up as Marilyn Monroe in a white dress like that worn by the actress in The Seven Year Itch, and sing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” Portman confessed after shooting the scene that she had never seen any Monroe films, let alone the clip of Monroe singing to John F Kennedy. Instead, Portman modelled her performance on Mike Myers’ Monroe impression in Wayne’s World.
8. Besson built the film around Jean Reno’s character from Nikita
Leon was the fourth collaboration between writer-director Luc Besson and actor Jean Reno, the French thespian having appeared in Besson’s earlier films Subway, The Big Blue and Nikita. It was Reno’s small but memorable role in Nikita, which saw Reno portray another ‘cleaner’ named Viktor, that formed the basis for Leon.
Besson felt there was potential for an interesting film that followed the life of that sort of ruthlessly efficient assassin, but one which (in contrast to Reno’s Nikita role) also explored his humanity. As Besson remarks on the DVD commentary for Leon, his main idea was, “Now maybe Jean is playing the American cousin of Viktor. This time he’s more human.”
7. Robert De Niro, Mel Gibson and Keanu Reeves were all considered to play Leon
As the project had been conceived with Jean Reno in mind, Besson always wanted Reno to take the title role in Leon. However, as this was the filmmaker’s first transatlantic, English-language production, there was some external pressure on Besson to cast a bankable Hollywood star in the role, and reportedly a number of big names were interested.
As the character of Leon is Italian, it’s not too surprising that one of the most renowned Italian-American actors of them all, Robert De Niro, was once touted as a potential star. Two very different action stars were also said to have been under consideration: Mel Gibson (then at the height of his Lethal Weapon fame) and Keanu Reeves (who’d not long since made Point Break).
6. Éric Serra’s rejected theme song The Experience of Love wound up on the GoldenEye soundtrack
The music for Leon was composed by Éric Serra, a frequent collaborator of Besson’s who has provided the scores for every one of the director’s films, with the exception of 2005’s Angel-A. On top of composing Leon’s score, Serra came up with a theme song which he suggested be played over the end credits, entitled The Experience of Love.
However, Besson decided against using this song over Leon’s closing credits, instead choosing The Shape of My Heart by Sting. Serra would find a home for The Experience of Love on the end credits of his next major film, the 1995 James Bond movie GoldenEye; this would be the one and to date only Bond movie for which Serra provided the score.
5. Luc Besson’s much younger ex-wife says the film drew on their relationship
Leon has always been and doubtless will always be a controversial film due to the sexual undertones of Leon and Mathilda’s relationship. The controversy has only intensified in recent years after, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, Besson faced several accusations of rape and sexual misconduct. There is also the matter of Besson’s relationship with his second wife, Maïwenn Le Besco.
Known by the mononym Maïwenn, the actress (who makes brief appearances in Leon and The Fifth Element) began dating Besson when he was 31 and she was just 15 (the legal age of consent in France). They wed when she was 16, and the marriage lasted five years. Maïwenn has stated that their relationship directly influenced the dynamic between Leon and Matilda.
4. Much of the film was actually shot in France
Leon is often named among the many great films in which the city of New York could be called a featured character in its own right. Besson has declared that the film was inspired by his love for the city; the director once declared, “in New York, you can be invisible. You can see someone lying on the street and no one will stop.”
The apartment building where Leon and Mathilda live is New York’s historic Chelsea Hotel, once a mainstay of Beat poets and rock ‘n’ roll legends. These scenes and the bulk of the exteriors were shot in NYC, whilst the closing boarding school scene was shot at a Hoboken university. Otherwise, the bulk of this very New York film’s interior scenes were actually shot in Besson’s home town of Paris.
3. Mint oil was used to help Natalie Portman cry on cue
Natalie Portman may have blown away Besson and the film’s casting team with her wise-beyond-her-years performance, but the young actress still had an issue with something that often proves challenging to older actors as well: the ability to cry on command. When Portman shot her first scene which required her to produce tears, she found herself unable to weep on cue.
For this reason, the filmmakers used a common tactic and applied mint oil to the young actress’s eyes. This had the desired effect and got Portman’s tears flowing, but the actress recalls that the stinging sensation was also thoroughly unpleasant. Portman said that for her subsequent crying scenes she simply drew on the memory of the mint oil discomfort, and that was enough to make the tears come.
2. Gary Oldman portrayed Beethoven in a film that same year
It may at first seem astonishing that Gary Oldman came up with Stansfield’s lengthy oration about the music of Ludwig van Beethoven entirely off the top of his head. However, Oldman’s knowledge on the subject makes a bit more sense when you learn that, the very same year as Leon, he made another movie in which he portrayed Beethoven himself.
The film in question was Immortal Beloved, a biopic of the classical composer which opened in cinemas three months after Leon in December 1994. Oldman had studied Beethoven and his music at length for the role, learning to play several of his piano concertos for real. This no doubt informed the frenzied, drug-inspired ravings of Stansfield in that memorable sequence in Leon.
1. In the first draft of the script, Leon and Mathilda had a sex scene
As troubling as Leon and Matilda’s relationship may feel in either of the released cuts of the film, that’s nothing compared to how far Besson chose to take it in his first draft of the screenplay. Difficult as it may be to believe, in the earliest version of the Leon script, Leon actually accepts the advances of Mathilda, described as being 13 or 14 in that first draft.
It should come as no surprise that this was one of the first things in Besson’s early Leon script to be thrown out, along with a moment where Mathilda was to be seen naked when Leon accidentally walked in on her in the bathroom. Indeed, today it’s hard to believe that the film was able to get made at all considering such things were part of the filmmaker’s original vision.