Isabelle Huppert was hours into a series of back-to-back interviews when we met in New York’s Regency Hotel earlier this month, yet there was no hint of exhaustion in her intelligent, lively gaze, or the precise, often detailed answers she offered up between sips of coffee and bites of food. Like most of the characters she plays, she was magnetic in part because she appeared to be so self-possessed, forming opinions about other people without much caring what they may think of her. At the same time, she was kinder and warmer than her characters usually are, and her sly sense of humor hinted at an ironic perspective that may keep her from taking anything—including the hype that’s been heaped on her over the years—all that seriously.
The hype has been piled high for good reason. One of her generation’s greatest female actors, Huppert is also one of the most awarded in her native France, where she has been nominated more than any other for the César, the country’s national film award. In a career that spans well over 100 films, she’s played a wide range of characters, but nearly all share the quiet, near-feral intensity and steely resolve that have led many of the best directors of her time to cast her in their films—and often, as she pointed out on the day we met, to make her character the center around which the entire plot turns.
Huppert was at the center of two films featured in this year’s New York Film Festival: as Nathalie, a philosophy teacher who experiences an unexpected freedom after losing nearly everything she thought she loved in writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come, and as Michèle, a rape victim who refuses to be victimized in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle.
With only her accent and, at times, the way she structured her sentences betraying the fact that her fluent English isn’t her native language, Huppert talked about why she’s been lucky in her career, the pleasure she found in playing an intellectual with a rich personal life in Things to Come, and why it was important to her not to think too much about Michèle before playing her.
It’s difficult for an actress to create a body of work that reflects her values and standards of quality because actors are so dependent on other people to create a character that’s right for them, hire them to play the part, direct the film well, etc. Yet you recently told The Guardian, after having made more than 100 movies: “I’ve never blushed at any of the films I’ve made. I’ve been very lucky.” Why do you think you’ve been so lucky?
I think I was lucky enough to get roles which were central. In most of the films I’ve been doing, my characters were the pivotal center of the story, and that really helps. You have such a large space to express the little nuances. You can act as you would as a writer in literature, which is to go in one direction and then to contradict the next move with a different one.
But I wonder how you got those parts to begin with. I’m sure luck played a part, as it does with all of us. But there were other factors, starting with your talent, obviously. You seem to be good at evaluating scripts and directors.
Evaluating directors more than scripts, actually. Because this remains my main theory of choice: directors. If it wasn’t for Paul Verhoeven, I wouldn’t have done Elle. If it wasn’t for Mia Hansen-Løve, I wouldn’t have done Things to Come. If it wasn’t for Michael Haneke, I wouldn’t have done The Piano Teacher. That’s my belief in cinema: It really comes from one individual in particular, and it’s a very personal statement. And only with that very personal statement in front of me am I able to come up with my own personal statement, which hides somewhere within this director’s statement.
These type of authors, directors—I was looking at them, but they came to me. And whether it’s Claude Chabrol or Michael Haneke or French filmmaker Benoît Jacquot, with whom I’m going to make another film soon, they really put me at the center of their films. And no matter what I was doing was good [Laughs], because that’s the way the character was infusing the main story.
Your daughter, Lolita Chammah, is also an actress. First, I’m wondering how you felt about that when she started exploring the profession: Were you happy or worried or some of each?
She’s a fantastic young actress, and because she’s a very good actress I’m happy that she’s an actress. We did a movie together called Copacabana. She was really wonderful in it.
Have you given her any advice about how to build a satisfying career as an actress, or do you just count on her learning by watching you?
No, I can’t say I really give her concrete or precise advice, but maybe she’s seen what I do and the way I do it over the years. I think you transmit to your children by example, but not by exact advice, you know? It’s more about trust and encouragement and example, I guess, most of the time.
You’ve served on the jury at Cannes a few times, and you’ve worked with directors from all over the world—which is another way that you’ve chosen your directors, I think? By looking at the whole world, not just France?
Yes, I like to make the potential wider. I did that from the very beginning. Ever since I started being an actress, I made movies in Italy—well, that’s not so far away, but I made movies in Hungary, in Poland, everywhere. And more recently I went to Korea to work with the great Korean director Hong Sang-soo, and with Brillante Mendoza in the Philippines. Soon, I think, I may go to Argentina to work with an Argentinian director, but it’s too soon to say. But I have this curiosity, I would say, to go abroad and make things everywhere. It pleases me.
You’ve worked with some very interesting American directors too.
I’m pretty proud of all the American directors I’ve been working with, because I always follow the same line as I would follow in France—meaning that I work with authors, you know, in the sense of the word that we praise in France. That means Michael Cimino and Curtis Hanson, two great directors who, unfortunately, passed away recently, and David O. Russell and Ned Benson and, back to earlier times, even Otto Preminger. That was an improbable film [Rosebud], but still, working with Otto Preminger! And that includes also Joseph Losey. At the time I did a film with him, it was a French film, and he had left America a long time ago, so I’m remembering him last. But still, he was American, as everybody knows.