Over decades of work in film and theatre, French-born Isabelle Huppert has built international reputation for the wide range of her roles and the fearlessness of her performances. The iconic actor will soon star Off-Broadway in the Atlantic Theater Company’s production of Florian Zeller’s The Mother (Feb 22-April 7), marking Huppert’s first foray into American theatre, complete with American actors and director (her previous appearances onstage in New York, including a 2014 role opposite Cate Blanchett in The Maids, were imports, in that case to the Lincoln Center Festival from Sydney Theatre Company).
Zeller’s work has previously been seen in New York in The Father; as with that play, this one is translated by Christopher Hampton. The director this time is Trip Cullman and Huppert’s co-star is Chris Noth, who plays—depending on how you see it—her beleaguered and/or abusive husband. The quasi-surreal drama depicts, over an indecipherable period of time, the disintegration of an empty nester who feels devoid of purpose, and who is obsessed with her adult son and contemptuous toward her husband, who may or may not be a philanderer. Subtle comedy is interspersed amid the heady intensity, reflecting precisely the kind of contradictory, complex role for which the much awarded Huppert is known, from the lead in a Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Pyschosis to the rape victim in Paul Verhoeven’s controversial film Elle. The latter earned her a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination, among other honors. Huppert has appeared in dozens of films and plays since she launched her career in the early 70s.
Speaking to me on the phone from Paris last month before rehearsals got under way, her enthusiasm was palpable.
SIMI HORWITZ: What usually draws you to a project?
ISABELLE HUPPERT: That depends on whether it’s a play or a movie. In theatre you appreciate the language, the text. In film you’re not that concerned with the literary quality, though dialogue is important. But there’s other criterion, like the visual. Generally it’s my connection to a director—and I’ve worked with some great ones, like Bob Wilson—that draws me to a project.
When I read The Mother I felt it was meant for me. And Christopher Hampton’s adaptation is so good. The play has a sophisticated, non-linear construction that I like. I’ve done Blanche in Streetcar, and The Mother echoed her—a touching, moving character with deep loneliness, a woman in turmoil. Also she’s a bright woman with a sharp sense of humor.
Some might view her as a bit of a throwback, a stereotype—the clinging, desperate “smother.” How would you respond to that?
I haven’t thought about this. The play isn’t suggesting all women are like this, and even as described we don’t know that much about her either. She may have a profession, a life outside the home. We don’t know. Still, I think there is something universal about her: a mother obsessed with her son. Stereotypes have an element of truth. Medea is a stereotype and an iconic female character.
Should such concerns be irrelevant to an actor if the role is juicy?
Yes, as long as the character is the center of the story.
Have you ever turned down a role because it was offensive to you as a woman, or for some other political reason?
No. The only thing I don’t like is “the woman behind the man.” I’ve been lucky enough over a life time to have central roles in stories.
In Elle, you played a woman with a complicated relationship to her rapist. Many actors would not have come near that part. You described the character as “post-feminist.” What did you mean?
She’s a very individual character. She takes revenge on her own, without the help of other women or the police.
But on some level she’s very drawn to her rapist.
Yes, of course. Otherwise there’d be no movie.
In light of the #MeToo movement, do you see that film differently
No, I see it exactly the same way.
What do you think about the #MeToo movement?
The world has become aware of things that needed to be said. But then you have to be careful and view each situation on a case-by-case basis, and make space for nuance.
Does performing in English change your approach to your work, and if so, how?
I don’t think it does. I don’t lose my identity in another language, though performing in English is a little challenging. I’ve never done the same role in French and then English. That might be interesting.
When you performed work by Tennessee Williams, a writer deeply rooted in the American South, what were the challenges you faced as a French actor? And conversely, what do you think you brought to the role precisely because you aren’t American?
The strength of Williams’s writing, Shakespeare’s too, goes beyond culture. The character and story are universal. When I did Streetcar the director was Polish, Krzysztof Warlikowski. When I return home I will be working on The Glass Menagerie with Dutch director Ivo van Hove. So far it’s been a cross between many cultures and it’s never been an issue.
What do you look for in a director?
A great director has a vision, but also gives you space and allows you to exist as a person onstage. I don’t believe in the notion of “characters.” I believe in persons onstage.
Was there ever a moment when you saw the approach to acting in a new light?
No, from the beginning it’s remained the same. It’s a cross between you—-just be yourself—and something imaginary.
Which do you prefer, acting on film or onstage?
The enjoyment is different. In a play you feel more naked, it’s more difficult. I use this metaphor: In cinema it’s a nice walk. Onstage it’s climbing a high mountain, but when you get there the landscape is beautiful.
If you were not an actor, what would you be?
[Gasps] Nothing. I’m only good for being an actress. It really has allowed me to exist in the best way. If I wasn’t acting…I can’t imagine it.
What advice would you give a young actor starting out?
I don’t like to give advice. But I guess I’d say: Be curious.