In Isabelle Huppert‘s new film, Mrs. Hyde, very loosely based on Robert Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the legendary actress plays an awkward physics teacher who is transformed into a dynamic but dangerous instructor by a bolt of lightning. Meanwhile, the diverse students she teaches in the Paris suburbs are played by first-time actors. But as director Serge Bozon has said, “They’re not actors. Isabelle is the only actress in the movie. But she is not an actress perhaps, also.”
That mysterious though alluring statement was echoed by Huppert herself in a talk she gave with Bozon at the New York Film Festival, where the film had its North American debut last week. Later, she had a private chat with W and, like the many teachers she has played, gave us a very clear lesson on acting. She also shed light on her fashion designer relatives, the importance of hair and clothes to her performances, and her feelings about red carpets, here.
Is it true your grandmother was a fashion designer?
Yes! Not my grandmother, but my great-grandmother. Yes, there were four sisters, very famous clothing designers called the Callot sisters. They are quoted in In Search of Lost Time by Proust. And they have some of their dresses at the Metropolitan.
Ah, are they displayed?
Sometimes. Yes, I remember the first time I went to the Met Ball, there were some Callot dresses exhibited.
You mentioned that for you, clothes and costume and hair is very important for the role. Can you tell me how this was for this character? The hair, the red blouse, all very important.
Yes, it’s always very important but in this case, it was even more important because we had to create a character, a very unusual person. The movie’s not very realistic, so in one way it required a lot of imagination and insight from the costume designer, Serge, and myself. But in another way it also gave us a lot of freedom because in fact she could have been dressed any way. But she had to be this very strange person, she could have come from a previous century. All of her clothes are unlikely, with these long dresses and long coats, and it gives her this very strange and quite poetic aspect.
Like she’s from the 19th century?
Nah, I wouldn’t be so straight-forward, because she’s from another planet, because all characters in Serge’s movies are from a special planet. But combined with the fact that they’re also from our planet, because that’s what I Iike about Serge’s movies. Because he has the ability to combine this completely crazy world, complete world of fantasy, but at the same time rooted in a very contemporary social and political context.
This is the second film you’ve done with Serge Bozon. In the last film, there’s a sense that the role you played [a violent cop into S&M] seemed to be based on previous roles you have played. But this role was based on Bozon getting to know you personally. And what’s surprising about it is even though it’s a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story, instead of extremes from good to bad, there’s a spectrum of growth. Do you think with this he found something closer to you?
I never have this kind of thinking about what I do. Any character is close and not close to me. But certainly yes, I heard him say that he liked the idea of having me be shy and almost shadowy after having seen me in such controlled, powerful, stronger roles. I can do anything, so it doesn’t bother me. He sees me as shy? Okay, I can do shy. If he sees me as strong, I can be strong.
Are you shy?
Like everybody, I guess. [Looks at me very directly.] Are you?
I think everybody is a little everything. That’s what an actor is about, you know. To pull a string that’s stronger than another in every role you take: the string of shyness, the string of power… It’s like an instrument. Like on a piano board you have all these notes, and you can use all these notes. It’s the same for an actor.
You’re very good at using your body in all your films, yet Serge Bozon has very precise frames.
Oui. Very precise frames.
Did you feel constrained at all within those frames?
No, I felt I was completely free. I really believe the body language is so important. But it’s not something that I think about in advance. It’s all connected to a very inner feeling about the character. Usually when I do a character, if the feeling is very free, as it should be, and as it is most of the time, I know exactly… It’s hard to explain. It’s like a music note that resonates within me, and if I find it, then the body language follows most of the time. So having found the inner color, the tone, then the body language immediately fits the feeling.
You said yesterday in a talk here at the New York Film Festival that you don’t consider yourself an actor, don’t consider yourself playing a role.
Of course I play a role. It’s more a theoretical statement, to make people understand what it means to be an actor, and to go against the ideas that people have about actors. I like to press that button of provocation. But I think to provoke in English is not the same as to provoque in French. [NB: The French provoque means to prompt or ignite, very appropriate when referring to the role of a teacher.]
So I like to think of myself as not being an actress, but rather being a non-actress. And I think by just saying that it might make people think about what it is to be an actress.
You’re often shooting and promoting a film at the same time. When you’re promoting a film, like on the red carpet, is that in a way acting?
Yeah, it might be, you know. That’s a really interesting question, because when I said that yesterday I thought in my mind, if I was going to develop more of what I was thinking… In fact when I act in a movie, I feel non-acting. But if I am on the red carpet, even if it’s supposed to be myself, I feel more acting. And, in fact, acting bad. Because precisely, I “act” and so it has to be bad. Because usually I don’t act, so it’s good. But in this case [on the red carpet], yes, I act. You know what I mean?
Totally [Nods.] And then I feel so bad. I feel so terrible.
No, you’re perfect! I love the black nail polish by the way.
Well this is for the film I’m doing currently, with Neil Jordan in Ireland, called The Widow.
Are there American directors you’d like to work with?
Oh, a lot. Well it’s always a bit vain to say names. But of course I feel I would fit completely in Woody Allen’s universe, for instance, this kind of dry humor. And Kelly Reichardt, we like her a lot in France.
RETROspective: How the red carpet became the runway: