Acting in films since her teens, Isabelle Huppert is one of France’s most established talents, and shows no signs of slowing down. Almost unbelievably, for the muse of Michael Haneke and the late Claude Chabrol, this is the first time she has been nominated for an Oscar. From the moment it premiered in Cannes in May, Paul Verhoeven’s provocative Elle seemed destined to set Huppert on the awards circuit—she now sports a Golden Globe and myriad Best Actress prizes from major critics bodies.
Huppert plays an emotionally complex businesswoman who is raped in her home by a masked assailant and then tracks him down, both drawn into a curious and thrilling game. I caught up with her recently to talk about the whirlwind of the last nine months, the freedom of working with Verhoeven, and why there ultimately was no controversy for what might have been a controversial film.
When I last saw you a few weeks ago in Paris you were about to start shooting Eva with Benoît Jacquot. You’ve always been a busy actress, but since Cannes this year, with all the traveling for different awards, did that have an impact on your work schedule?
It didn’t impact this film because the shoot came at the last minute. Everything is normal. But since the Golden Globe and the Oscar nomination, it’s certainly true that a lot of things are going on for me. It’s not at all usual, not for anyone—whoever you are, it’s never usual. Maybe a bit less for a French actress, because it’s the Golden Globes and the Oscars too. So for a French actress it’s a bit less common than for an American actress.
Has anything shocked you during this whole experience?
Actually, there’s not a lot that has shocked me because we were so happily surprised at the reaction to the film. Even if people continued telling us that the film was disturbing and provocative, that apparently didn’t stop it getting over all the obstacles that we might have feared. Because if not, we wouldn’t have had two Golden Globes for the film and countless other prizes. I’ve never received as many prizes for a film. What’s happened around this film is absolutely incredible.
Was the fact that the film did not make the Oscars Best Foreign Language shortlist a big disappointment?
Yes, it was a big disappointment but it was very quickly erased by the Golden Globes, which honored not only me but also the film. That’s how it is. You can’t comment on the subjectivity of a decision.
After working so closely and frequently with directors like Claude Chabrol and Michael Haneke, were you surprised that this kind of reaction came for your first film with Verhoeven?
We never had any doubt about the depth of the subject matter; if we had, I wouldn’t have done it. But of course we’re not naïve and knew that a film that talks about the relationship a woman begins with her rapist… The film had all the predictable elements to have it confronted by controversy, which would have excluded it. But rather than excluding it, it made it included in the acceptance of the film which is surprising. That proves the depth and integrity of the film, and I’d almost say something at the base of it which touches people—something I never doubted—that there’s enough there to reach people.
At Cannes, there was a moment where it seemed like a movement was afoot to render the film controversial. But at the end of the day, it was embraced.
Yes absolutely. There were maybe suggestions of that but I didn’t see them. What I mean is in the press, if there were all these critics associations that gave me prizes as Best Actress, most of the time it’s still the film that they were deeply touched by.
Did it provoke conversation around you?
Yes, but very little, really. I’ve had innumerable meetings with audiences and I almost never had an embarrassing question that consisted of saying to me, “How could you do this film?” Now that doesn’t stop people bringing up the provocative and disturbing aspect of the film, but really not because it bothers them. It’s almost like there is a pleasure in liking the film despite what happens that is profoundly disturbing and provocative.
In Paris, someone asked if you find it difficult to shed a character at the end of a shooting day and you said no. Is that something that you’ve learned over the years or were you always that way?
When people ask me that question I don’t even understand it—the idea that we can be encumbered. Rather, I’d say I make no difference between the fact of being encumbered by a character or not. It’s not something I feel like a burden.
What was it that you found with Verhoeven that made you two work so well together?
Firstly, it was the absolute freedom that he gave me. It was a wonderful feeling because I felt made for this role and this material. I got to do absolutely what I wanted to do. He never intervened in my work. He left me in peace for 12 weeks. He never said a word about the character and that was wonderful. He made his film and I did mine and everyone was happy with what I was doing and it clearly became a method. He quickly said “Voilà, she’s doing it maybe better than me.” Maybe not better, but I only reacted to different situations every day that were proposed and if he had come into it, it would have created a fiction: “No the character would do this, not that.” I did it like it happened in all of these situations, so there was a documentary aspect because I don’t at all feel like I acted in this film. Of course there is a fiction and there is the film, and it’s the story that imposes its own force and logic on the viewer, but I didn’t feel like I was acting. I felt like I was being myself the whole time.
Thanks to this freedom that he gave you?
Yes, but also because of his intelligence, because it was clear it had to be done that way. It couldn’t be done otherwise and I wasn’t surprised. He is a great director and the great directors know that you have to leave actors very free while giving them a frame. Directing an actor is not to restrain an actor, it’s to leave them the freest possible.
So you’d be happy to work together again?
Oh, yes, immediately. He’s really a wonderful director. I have always adored his films and how he likes to be on the razor’s edge.
Given what is happening now in the U.S., do you think politics has its place in awards season? Particularly with the situation of Asghar Farhadi and other people who may not be able to travel to the Oscars?
Everyone has the right to express themselves. It’s not because you’re an actor or a director that you can’t say what you think. Everyone has the right to react as a citizen and say what they think. What is politics? It’s life together, so it’s completely normal that people express themselves on the subject.
At the end of this whole story, after February 26, do you think this is an experience you’d like to have again?
It’s a little early to say. Your question is very sweet. I’m right in the middle of it so I’m enjoying every second. I’m really happy for everything that’s happening to me. It’s really extraordinary and it’s too early to want to live it again; I haven’t even finished the first time.
Is it like being a bride—you have to remember to concentrate on everything so you remember the wedding?
Well, we know that everything that’s happening is ephemeral and goes very fast. I think it changes everything and changes nothing in the sense that what I want to do is continue to make movies, to be curious of a lot of things. It’s not going to change the way I want to do films.