With over 130 film credits and 16 César Award nominations to her name, Isabelle Huppert is probably one of the most accomplished actresses of all time. Regularly cited as “the Meryl Streep of France,” the 65-year-old is constantly exploring the darkest corners of the human psyche through the roles she pursues. Whether she is portraying a widow who engages in a cat-and-mouse game with her rapist (Elle) or a piano teacher who starts a relationship with a student (La Pianiste), Huppert’s understated cool is her calling card.
But in Greta, out this weekend, Huppert lets loose for what might be the most delightfully deranged performance of her career so far. Chloë Grace Moretz stars as Frances, a young woman coping with the recent death of her mother who befriends a lonely widow named Greta (Huppert) whom she bonds with through their shared grief. As they grow closer, Frances discovers that Greta isn’t who she appears to be and unearths some horrifying secrets along the way. To reveal anything else would spoil the B-movie thrills that make Greta such a twisted, fun ride.
Huppert is also currently starring Off-Broadway, in a production of acclaimed French writer Florian Zeller’s play The Mother. With four additional films slated for release in 2019 and only more to come, it’s no wonder Huppert (often noted for her tireless work ethic and incredible stamina) barely has any time for herself these days. But thankfully Huppert had no problem sitting down on a chilly New York morning recently to chat about Greta, why she doesn’t prep for roles before filming, and bingeing Big Little Lies in her Culture Diet, here.
I had a blast watching Greta and adored your performance. How did you get involved with the project?
I just received the script from my agent.
As simple as that!
As simple as that! Sometimes nice things happen like that just by chance. I read it and I knew from the beginning that Neil Jordan was going to direct, so I read it with this certain idea and perspective.
Were you a fan of his?
Well he’s a great director and I’ve seen many of his movies, so from the beginning when I read the script I could tell that he was going to make it special with something unexpected. But I never really figured out how special it was going to be will all of this humor.
What about playing a character as unhinged as Greta appealed to you?
I liked it. I thought she was a monster, a really horrible person. There was no point trying to make her nicer than she is or make her legitimate. She’s just a very strange, mysterious figure. And I like the fact that she’s really an almost invisible person in the beginning in the sense that she comes off as more of a sad, kind of grave person. And then she turns out to be… Well, you know. These things happen most of the time when you read the newspapers, some horrible event happens and you always wonder what kind of mystery of human nature was the driving force and how the evil can really hide in someone’s soul. I found that interesting.
In your recent New York Times interview, you were talking about working with the theater director Robert Wilson and said “I require restraint—I don’t suffer from it at all. I welcome it with great pleasure.” On the flip side, a role like Greta almost feels like it gives you the chance to sort of go ballistic and embrace your wild side. Did playing Greta require constraint?
No, I just had fun! What I said in relation to Bob Wilson is probably more relevant to working in theater, where the restraints are objectively there because being on stage is essentially a reconstruction of reality. It’s a little different in movies because you go through elements of reality more than onstage, of course. The designing of the film was very inspiring. We shot in Dublin in a studio, but a lot of areas in the film were real, including my apartment. It created a very inspiring atmosphere, and of course with the costumes and everything we tried to recreate the characters as someone who could come from the past. There’s something quite timeless about the movie, which I think is interesting and is reflected in the sense of design. And also, for instance, when you get to this horrible little room where Greta keeps her victims, I was really struck by the room with all of the dolls and teddy bears and this little world of childhood. It’s something really disturbing and tragic, and almost touching in a way. If there is a kind of emotion, the word might be too strong to describe this type of person but there was a kind of questioning about her psyche and her past. It certainly came a lot from these sorts of elements that the film itself creates.
You talk about the sets and how certain physical elements informed your performance. Do you build your characters from the outside in taking in their surroundings, or is your process more internal?
I don’t really build it but I know intuitively that in a movie, everything counts in a way. Everything participates to the perception of the audience, so I know that. That’s obvious.
Elle was seen as a breakthrough for you to American audiences, given that you received your first Oscar nomination. Did that encourage you to pursue more English-language work?
Maybe it didn’t pursue me, but it pursued many people to offer me roles like Greta and The Romanoffs, which I did right after Elle because I met Matthew Weiner around that time. And I really enjoyed the work I did, I liked my episode very much. And then what I’m doing now, I’m playing The Mother at the Atlantic Theater Company.
Both in Greta and The Mother, you’re working alongside some fabulous up-and-coming actors like Chloe Grace Moretz and Justice Smith. Do you prefer working alongside seasoned professionals or more emerging talent?
I mean for me experience, age, and therefore, supposedly, consequences of age that would make one less experienced or more experienced, doesn’t really matter to me. When it comes to a project, everybody does it for the first time. And plus I have to say, the young actors have sometimes such confidence and they’re so… Sometimes I feel less experienced than them, I have to say. Really! For me, I mean I can play with a chair, a young actor, an old actor, a baby, a cat, it doesn’t really make a difference!
Are there any young actors who’ve caught your attention lately?
Chloe certainly is very very talented. We share the whole movie together and she’s very skillful, that’s for sure. She’s been an actress for such a long time and she certainly knows how to do it. She knows how to create a character and technically she’s very much there. For me, acting is not only about doing it but doing it with someone, you know? That’s what’s most important: how you relate to someone because you don’t play on your own. I mean in a way, yes, but in another way, no. You have to play with someone, and she certainly knows how to create that bond with a partner.
I’m also very in love with your Instagram account, and you post fairly frequently.
Not so frequently.
Okay, maybe not that frequently, but enough to where you have a presence!
Yes, at least! Well, I don’t exactly, I mean all these kinds of things are you know, it’s very…
No, not silly, but it’s this kind of thing where you become quite, I wouldn’t say addicted to, because I’m not addicted to it and I don’t have Twitter or Facebook or these kind of things. And all of a sudden you say, “So how was it before?,” you know? It’s a new way of being.
Do you have any favorite accounts that you follow or that you’ve stumbled across?
No, I haven’t stumbled across any, I have to say.
You’ve appeared in over 130 films, so what’s making you excited about working in 2019?
Well I just like making movies. I mean, it’s a lot of fun. For me it’s not very demanding, I have to say. I don’t want to sound, I don’t know…
Oui, or disengaged! Because it’s just my method, I have a way of… I don’t work a lot. I just do it very instinctively. So for me it’s very easy, and it’s nothing that creates questioning or problems. I know actors who say they work a lot before they begin filming but I don’t. I’m not saying that out of indifference, I say that more conceptually. For me, doing movies is the art of doing something for the first time and it’s really about doing it when you do it. Of course you can think about it a lot and surely I’m completely in thought before immersed in what I’m going to do, but in terms of preparing something precisely? No, no… [Laughs.]
It would take the fun out of it, for sure.
Yes, and again you have to welcome anything. It’s really the art of the unexpected for me doing movies, nothing else. And theater, too, in a way, because it’s living material and of course it’s also about technique but that’s not, that’s not the actor’s preoccupation.
I remember reading an interview with you where you mentioned how you binge-watched Big Little Lies...
That’s a really good series. I don’t watch many series, I have to say, I’m not a series watcher. I’d be happy to do more of course, because I understand it offers a different perception in time, but Big Little Lies I watched and watched as I was doing Greta in Toronto because we shot most of the exteriors there, so it was easy for me to watch because all I had to do was press the button on HBO! You know, I’m not very good with technology. But I watched it, and I loved it.
Are there any other series or movies that you’ve become obsessed with recently?
Recently, I saw Wildlife by Paul Dano, and I loved it.
I really loved that film, Carey Mulligan was so fabulous in it.
Oh my god, she’s so unbelievable in the film.
I wish it had gotten more awards attention at the Oscars last night.
But it didn’t?
It wasn’t nominated for anything.
I can’t believe it, it’s a really great movie. And I just saw it not long ago.
Now that you’re in New York doing The Mother, what have been some of your favorite things to do in the city?
Well, I’ve been working so hard because we just recently started previews, but I’ve seen a number of shows recently that I really liked. I saw Network, True West, and Mockingbird because I like to see theater when I’m in New York. It’s good for me to hear a lot of English. And I like to see actors onstage, it’s a great pleasure for me. But apart from this, if I can say so, I had to concentrate more on learning my lines but I’m going to go out more now!
Who’s a director you’re interested in working with?
What are the books currently sitting on your bedside table?
Unfortunately, not so many books have been sitting on my bedside table recently, which is upsetting because believe me I like to read a lot! What did I read last time… It was in Paris, it might have been an Italian book.
And what’s the last thing you do before bed?
Before bed? Well, I’m dreaming about my next day!