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'Amour' Star Emmanuelle Riva, on Brink of Making Oscar History, Looks Back at Career

"Since I am really in the last stage of my life, this was a tremendous gift that was given to me," says Riva, 85, who would be the oldest-ever acting Oscar winner.

Emmanuelle Riva
Emmanuelle Riva

Last month, the veteran French actress Emmanuelle Riva, who is 85, became the oldest person ever to be nominated for the best actress Oscar when the actors branch of the Academy recognized her performance as an elderly woman who wishes to die in Michael Haneke's Amour. On Feb. 24, a week from today, she will turn 86 -- and could become the oldest person ever to win an acting Oscar, breaking the record that was set last year by Christopher Plummer, who was 82 when he won best supporting actor for Beginners.

PHOTOS: The Making of Michael Haneke's 'Amour'

For a long time, it looked certain that this year's best actress race would be won by either Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) or Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook). Both women, who have been on most people's radar for only the last two or three years, were awarded Golden Globe Awards; Chastain won the BFCA's Critics' Choice Award, and Lawrence won the SAG Award.

But then, last weekend, BAFTA threw everyone for a loop by awarding its prize to Riva. BAFTA has predicted the two best actress Oscar upset winners in recent years, Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose) five years ago and Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) last year, both of which the BFCA and SAG missed.

Unlike her competitors, Riva hasn't really campaigned for the Oscar at all. She doesn't speak English, which is one obstacle. She lives in France, which is another. And she is too physically frail to travel much, which is yet another. But, just as pertinently, she also doesn't seem to crave attention and recognition in the way that most people in show business do. She never really has. Therefore, I was so grateful when she agreed to speak with me last week by phone from her home, with the assistance of a translator, for half an hour -- which ended up being an unforgettable full hour.

Riva grew up "a country girl" in a rural, mountainous part of eastern France. In her community, an outdoor fair would come to town each year, and performers would put on plays. "I was very much attracted to the actors and actresses right away," she recalls. Her own introduction to acting came in school, where "we did little theater productions" at the end of each school year, wearing costumes made out of paper. She would perform at home in little plays with two classmates, as well. "I enjoyed the idea of transforming myself into someone else," she says. "Also, I really liked it as a way of communicating with others."

After completing high school, she began to act in serious productions for the first time. "I was around 18 or 19 years old," she remembers, "and in the small town where I lived, there was a theater troupe, and I began to do some acting for them. Just some small roles at first. And it was when I was doing that that I really realized that I liked doing it and that perhaps I actually had a gift for doing it." That realization presented her with a dilemma: "I knew that I was going to have to go to Paris, but it was such a far way off that I wasn't really quite sure how."

A few years later, while reading one of the French film magazines to which she subscribed, she came across an ad for a state-run theater school in Paris that was offering an entrance examination, and she realized what she had to do. "I went to Paris. I was by myself, all alone. I was very provincial, you know, a country girl going to the big city. And I arrived there, and I showed up at the school -- a nice little country girl in a little skirt -- and they gave us something to perform from a play by Alfred Musset called On ne badine pas avec l'amour. And I did well enough on this entrance-examination audition that I was accepted into the school."

A year later, in 1954, she completed her instruction, turned 27 and made her professional debut in the George Bernard Shaw play Arms and the Man. She soon began getting work in French theater, radio, television and, eventually, film. One of her early, small roles was Jean Gabin's secretary in The Possessors (1958). Among the people whose attention she caught while acting on the stage was the fast-rising French filmmaker Alain Resnais, whose documentaries -- including, most famously, Night and Fog (1955) -- she knew and admired. For his next project, a narrative feature from a script by Marguerite Duras entitled Hiroshima, Mon Amour, "Resnais was looking for somebody who really wasn't known in cinema, and that," she says, "was very, very fortunate for me."

"He contacted me, and we did some screen tests," Riva remembers. He had her read scenes from Arms and the Man while recording her with a handheld camera, and also took photos of her, both at her residence and his. "After that whole process, he said, 'I'm hiring you. You're the person that I want.'" Hiroshima, Mon Amour, which tells the story of a French movie star (Riva's great beauty certainly made her plausible in that role) and Japanese architect (played by the late Eiji Okada, whom Riva describes as "a wonderful Japanese actor") with haunted pasts who experience a brief love affair when she visits Hiroshima, was internationally embraced upon its release in 1959 as one of the finest examples of what we now refer to as the French New Wave. "For me, it was really like a fairy tale," she says with a chuckle, "because here I had started in the theater in 1954 and, four years later, I was starring in this movie."

In the ensuing years, Riva would be part of several other important films. The most notable among them: Gillo Pontecorvo's Kapo (1960), a film about the Holocaust that was nominated for the best foreign language film Oscar, in which she plays a prisoner in a concentration camp; Jean-Pierre Melville's Leon Morin, Priest (1961), in which she plays a tormented widow seeking God; Georges Franju's Therese (1962), in which she plays an unhappy wife who attempts to poison her husband; and Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors: Blue (1993), in which she plays the mother of the character portrayed by Juliette Binoche. She could have had a longer, and perhaps even more impressive, filmography -- but, as she puts it, "Because I was very absolute in wanting to be only in things that I thought were good, I had some dry periods. But during that time, I continued to do a lot of theater." She emphasizes, "I never really stopped."

It is a rather remarkable coincidence that the play from which Riva had to read to get into theater school, the film in which she made her big-screen debut and the film for which she has now received the first Oscar nomination of her career all contain the word "amour." The most recent of the three came as a most unexpected and pleasant surprise to her, courtesy of the noted Austrian writer-director Haneke. "I'm sure you know," she says, "that roles for older women in cinema are not that numerous. And when you're 84 years old? It's not very often that you find a role that matches you." She adds, "I felt that since I am really in the last stage of my life, this was a tremendous gift that was given to me."

When Riva was contacted by Haneke -- "someone who is very, very precise and knows exactly what he wants," she says -- he was looking to cast someone to play Anne, wife of Georges, the co-leading part for which he had already cast the great French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant. She was sent the script because Haneke remembered her from her first film all those years ago. "Fortunately for me, my own age corresponded exactly to the age of the character that was going to be portrayed in the film. It was really a very miraculous kind of thing that this role should come to me when it did." She says, "I thought that the script was very, very strong. The writing was very powerful, and it was very authentic, and it was the authenticity that touched me very much."

For this reason, Riva was willing to read for the part, even though she knew that she was not alone in doing so. She explains, "There were other actresses that he looked at and that he considered. But what he wanted to do with me was to film a scene, because he only knew me as this 30-year-old actress from Hiroshima, Mon Amour, and he really wanted to see me as the person I am now -- or was when we started the film, an 84-year-old woman." She continues, "We filmed the scene that is at the very beginning of the film, the scene that takes place in the kitchen, where Anne has the first attack, the mental lapse from reality. We did it in full makeup with the right lighting, and it was Michael Haneke himself who gave me the lines."

Afterwards, Haneke told her that he was "very, very happy" with the way things had gone and that, of all of the actresses he had seen, "my performance in that scene was the one that had touched him the most, that was the most moving for him." Still, there was one more test that had to be passed before the part was hers. "It was very important that the woman, the actress who played his wife, should be somebody that not only got on with [Trintignant], but that they formed a believable couple. You had to look at this couple and believe in them immediately, that these were people who had been married for years, and they belonged together, and their lives are together. And, very fortunately, that's what happened with the two of us."

For two months, the trio worked closely together, and Riva remembers the time as "some of the greatest months of my life." She says, "I had 100 percent total trust and confidence in [Haneke] as a director." She adds, "[He] is somebody that is very demanding, but I am, too. And so we're kind of matched in that respect."

Haneke has said of the making of the film, "There were moments where nobody was able to speak afterward. We had tears in our eyes, and that's rare, but with great actors it happens sometimes."

Riva hastens to clarify, though, that the mood on the set "wasn't sad." Her take: "The atmosphere on the set was very warm. It was very supportive. It was kind of a fraternal feeling. And we all became one." She also wants it known that she did not remain in character between scenes. "When I was finished with a scene, that was the end of the scene. We would go for a walk outside."

STORY: 'Amour' Named Best Film at France’s Lumiere Awards

Riva accepts compliments about the film's power with great humility and credit to Haneke and Trintignant. "Basically, what we are trying to do is show the interior lives of these characters, but in a way that's not sentimental," she says, "to show the interior lives of these people in a much more dignified way. And you see with Anne that as the dignity becomes harder and harder for her to combat as she loses her strength and faculties, we understand her suffering and ultimately why it is that she's ready to die." On a personal level, she says, "Like the first one [Hiroshima, Mon Amour] was a fairy tale, this [Amour] was like a fairy tale, too."

And what of the Oscar nomination and potential to make history with a win at the Oscars, for which she will soon be flying to Los Angeles? When the nomination was announced, she says, "Everybody around me was so excited, and they were dancing and yelling, and I am just calm about this. I think that it's a wonderful thing to be nominated, and if it happens, that will be great. It will be a great surprise for me. But if I don't win, then that's the way it's going to be." After a brief pause, she adds with a giggle, "But now, if I do win, it would be a very nice thing, and I'll be just like a little girl, completely surprised and completely thrilled!"