“You Either Are an Actor or You Aren’t an Actor:” An Interview with Isabelle Huppert

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Good fortune and strategic diligence. Those, says Isabelle Huppert, are the key ingredients to a long, enviable career. The iconic French actress speaks simply and plainly about her process, making it all sound effortless.

Her brilliance can be found in the characters she’s played on American screens this year: the middle-aged philosophy professor whose life is crumbling (in Things to Come), a mother meeting her ex-husband to honor her late son’s wishes (Valley of Love), a photographer whose death haunts her dysfunctional family (Louder Than Bombs), and a rape victim who fearlessly navigates an ambiguous line between violence and desire (Elle).

The latter portrayals is the gravitational force in Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s latest psychosexual thriller, a film that against all odds revels in the grim comedic undertones and genre-bending ambiguities of its protagonist, Michèle. A bleak past, a plethora of relationships with incompetent men, and a coat of guarded cynicism about people’s intentions populate her psyche, which gives Huppert an excess of intricate behavioral traits to mold into a believable individual. Michèle is unafraid to confront the demons, both tangible and psychological, that taunt her, and so is Huppert unafraid to embody her, whether Michèle becomes Isabelle or the other way around. [Read our interview with Verhoeven here.]

Elegantly nonchalant, the actress has carved herself a path to enduring greatness by the sheer quality of her work, which inspires fresh-faced filmmaker and revered auterus alike. Recent tributes at New York Film Festival and AFI Fest thanked her for a lifetime of devotion to films that question, intrigue and inspire. To see her earn a nomination for an Academy Award, an honor she has never received, would reward both the actress and the fans of her dazzling legacy.

Huppert met with MovieMaker to discuss her preference for Verhoeven’s hands-off directing approach, the question of whether anyone can be trained as a thespian, and why a biopic might never be in the horizon for her.

Huppert plays Michèle, an video game executive, in Elle. Photograph by Guy Ferrandis/ SBS Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Huppert plays Michèle, an video game executive, in Elle. Photograph by Guy Ferrandis/ SBS Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Like with all of your performances, your role in Elle is that of an incredibly human and emotionally layered woman, but in this case the tone and the stakes take on greater moral complexity. How did you perceive Michèle?

Isabelle Huppert (IH): I perceive her as a very free-spirited character. She is fearless. She is everything that I am not, in a way. And she’s also kind of a prototype character, in the sense that she doesn’t really exist anywhere. It’s not really someone that resembles anybody that you’d meet on the subway or anywhere else. What’s interesting about her is that there is something completely unreal about her. She doesn’t exist, and yet, whatever happens in the whole film is very realistic in the way it explores a woman’s psyche, a woman’s failure, a woman’s desire, a woman’s attraction to violence, or whatever. All of these ambiguities and obscurities in her behavior are so truthful, so it’s interesting that the movie is equally stretched between these two extremes. On one hand you can take it as a kind of fairy tale or fantasy, but on the other hand you can take it as something so realistic about people.

MM: In your experience as an actress, what makes a good director?

IH: For me, a good director is exactly what Paul Verhoeven is: someone who really relates deeply to what you do. That’s what he did. We never discussed the character; we never said a word about how I should play it or what I should do. First of all, I never take what I do as playing a character. I think the idea of “character” is very arbitrary, and it gives you limitations, so I don’t consider what I do as playing a character. “Character” tends to be too fictional for me, it takes the reality out from it, but that’s another story. With Paul’s mise-en-scene, his camera movements, he let me deliver the best performance as possible, and let me occupy the whole space. It almost becomes a documentary of what I was doing. Instead of saying, “What do you think? Should we do this?”—no, none of this bullshit, he just did it.

He’s a major director for me, because he’s so smart, and so much in tune with the complexity and the depth of the story. He has such amazing insight into people’s behaviors. You have to be very smart to make a film like this, and that’s exactly what he is. He’s a great, great director. I also like how he blends several types of movies, jumping from a Hitchcock thriller to a psychological portrait of a woman, and even to comedy, because the movie is also very funny. The way he plays with all these different types of movies and different types of styles is so bright, and so truthful too, because, as he says, “It’s like life.” You can start your day as a comedy and end up as a tragedy, so it doesn’t privilege one type of movie more than the other.

MM: So if you don’t have conversations with him, how do you create the performance?

IH: I don’t even think about it, actually. It’s hard for me to give a satisfying answer to that question because it doesn’t go through preparation. It’s pure intuition and instinct, and it’s really something that I do when I do it. I don’t even think about what I’ll do a minute before, even a second before. I just do it. Of course, I’ve thought about it in general before I’ve started—not even before shooting the film, but when I first decided to do the film. When you decide to do a film, all of a sudden, gradually and unconsciously, something is growing within yourself, to be delivered day by day, frame by frame, scene by scene, and that’s all.

MM: Would you say that someone is born an actor, or you learn to be an actor?

IH: I didn’t learn how to be an actor. I don’t think you can learn how to be an actor. I don’t think so, no. I think you either are an actor or you aren’t an actor. There isn’t anything that you can learn, actually. You can only be lucky enough to meet people like I’ve met, great directors like Michael Haneke, Claude Chabrol, Claire Denis or Catherine Breillat—people like them, who let you be. It’s not about doing; it’s about being.

You can learn what you don’t have to learn—that’s learning, in a way. You can learn how you feel, and how intuitive you have to be, and how free you can be, so that you come to the point that you don’t have to resemble anything else that existed before. You have to invent your own language, you have to invent your own self; that you can learn.

MM: In that sense, do you take from your own experiences when you create the character?

IH: No, I would say that’s very strange, no. You take from what you are and what you feel, but it has more to do with your own imagination. I like to say that, objectively, basically, I have very little in common with the characters that I play. I don’t know this woman, Michèle. She is far from me, but, of course, as I do the film, it’s more about how she becomes me, rather than I becoming her. She becomes me, in a way.

MM: In interviews, Verhoeven said that some actresses were afraid of taking on a role like this. Did you have any reservations or any anxieties about it?

IH: No, I never have any reservations about the complexity of a role. All the reservations I could have would be about the director, because the director makes all the difference. Of course, you have to trust the person you do it with, or it’s a wreck. And that was the case with Paul Verhoeven, I really trusted him, and I felt completely protected by him. I had no doubt that he was going to keep it completely unspoiled, and I completely trusted him all the way.

MM: What keeps you consistently interested in acting and reinvention after several decades working in film? 

IH: I don’t have to keep myself doing it. It’s my life. I think it’s normal. I think life would be a lot more boring if I couldn’t read books or go to museums or make films. It’s my favorite occupation, so I don’t have any satisfying explanation for that. I like doing it, and that’s all.

It’s easy for me to do it. It’s not a big deal for me. I like doing it. Of course, to meet the right people, that’s a different story, and that’s a privilege and dependent on chance. Sometimes you have to create the conditions to make those things happen, so you have to keep being curious. I think the pleasure of doing it is always bigger than any difficulties.

Huppert and co-star Roman Kolinka in Things to Come. Photograph by L. Bergery

Huppert and co-star Roman Kolinka in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come. Photograph by L. Bergery

MM: You’ve worked with some of the greatest filmmakers in cinema history, such as Jean-Luc Godard or Haneke. What are some of your most memorable experiences?

IH: I’ve done many, many films, and each one of them has been a special experience for me. Whether they’ve been really great, with well-known names and directors, or lesser-known names, and even first-time directors—it’s all been great, because I have a good instinct most of the time. I’ve worked with great people who turned out to be great directors, whether it is Joachim Lafosse, for example, who is a Belgian director, or Ursula Meier, the young French-Swiss director. Each film has a special place, and there is no film that I regret doing. Of course, some films are more telling than others for people, like The Piano Teacher. Even those films I did at the beginning like The Lacemaker, and all the films I did with Claude Chabrol.

MM: So with a first-time filmmaker, what does it take for you to say yes to the film?

IH: Well, that’s a good question. First of all, a film is always a collective endeavor, so if there’s a bunch of people who want to do the film, that helps to make a decision. It can also be more about the script and the role. You have to rely on more concrete signs on how the film can be good.

MM: In Elle, you are at the center of all of these complex people—in particular, men who are not great men. Tell me about your relationship with the other actors on set within this dynamic. 

IH: Yes, I was the pivotal part of it. Paul Verhoeven didn’t know any of these actors, because he’s Dutch and he doesn’t know French actors. He was really, really careful when he chose all the actors, and I have to say, the cast is just perfect. I knew most of them from before. I’ve done several films with Charles Berling, who plays my ex-husband. Laurent Lafitte, I didn’t know him, but he’s a great actor. I knew Virginie Efira, the Catholic wife at the end. I’ve done another film with her. And Anne Consigny, she happens to be a friend of mine in life. Paul has such a good insight and intuition, and the cast is just perfect, so the chemistry was really good between all of us.

MM: The characters in the film have lots of secrets, leaving the audience to question what is really happening underneath. Did you have to be willing to not understand your character fully?  

IH: Yeah, she has secrets, and you can only guess why she does what she does. I think at the end you don’t have any really fulfilling answer for what she does, but it is fulfilling in the sense that she has almost become a different person. I like how she says, “I stopped lying,” when the best friend’s husband asks, “What did you just do?” She says, “I stopped lying”—meaning “I’m killing you,” because he can’t believe what she is at that moment. On the other hand, by telling the truth, she kills him. There was always a double interpretation to whatever is being done and said in the film, and that’s really interesting.

MM: Michèle is in some ways a victim because of the event that sets the film in motion. How do you think she sees herself? 

IH: She doesn’t want to be a victim, but of course she is a victim. When you are raped, you are a victim. But she doesn’t want to acknowledge herself as a victim. She would rather take a different path. It’s not that she wants to be the classical avenger by taking a gun and shooting the guy—she doesn’t want to be that, either. She wants to invent her own way of being what she is.

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