Last year I was lucky enough to see Isabelle Huppert live on stage, in Robert Wilson’s take on Heiner Müller’s “Quartett.” The play was an uber-modernist and somewhat intolerable take on “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.” But it was all worth it to see the Ice Queen in person, as intimidating and terrifying as ever. When she came out for the post-play bow and looked in my general direction, it was all I could do not to run away screaming.
Many actresses can be deemed “brave” for things like uglifying themselves (Charlize Theron in “Monster”), getting naked for a monologue (Julianne Moore in “Short Cuts”) or being unlikable or actively despicable. For Huppert, those aren’t one-off stunts. Her whole career’s one long dare of formidable steeliness that makes Tilda Swinton looks downright cuddly. She’s fascinating and always technically perfect. She’s also someone you probably wouldn’t want to be in the same room with.
So it’s no surprise that she would give an absolutely terrific interview. Her tete-a-tete with Robert Chalmers in the Independent is a stand out in the frequent tepid world of Interviews With Actors. (Also recommended: Danny Trejo’s career overview at the AV Club.) Nothing of substance is uncovered: “my only vice is broccoli,” she announces towards the end, which pretty much sums her and the piece up.
Chalmers apparently read every single past session with her he could get his hands on to prepare for the interview, going back to early ’80s source material that directly contradicts what she’s saying now. They dispute the question of what’s public knowledge and what’s just chronology: Huppert refuses to say when her parents died (“That’s private”), but has no trouble saying that when she was a child, “because I had red hair, and a pale complexion, it felt like having no face at all.”
When you make a statement like that, you’re all but begging for people to confuse your private personality and your roles. That kind of background information could have fit into many of the parts she’s played (nor has she really done any of the blandly likable, or even just likable, roles to counter-balance her image — she just goes from gray to intensely dark).
This profile should serve as a “you go girl!” moment for the many actors who complain in their interviews about how their right to privacy has been stripped away from them, a common theme of late. Huppert, by contrast, is a sort of role model: like Jodie Foster (another steely actress who radiates self-contained strength on-screen and keeps very quiet about her life off-screen), she’s hardly cracked once in 30-plus years of interviews, giving no one anything to work with. The piece in the Independent is a compulsively readable document of a two-hour sparring session disguised as a mutually beneficial transaction. Rarely has any American thespian of recent times had the nerve to do anything quite like it.
Or maybe the lesson here is if you really want to be left alone, play the most frightening parts of all time, all the time. Here’s Huppert demonstrating that in “The Piano Teacher”:
[Photos: “Quartett” via Wikimedia Commons, taken by Pascal Victor, 2006; “La Ceremonie,” Home Vision Entertainment, 1995]