Nominee Q&A

Oscars: Isabelle Huppert on How She Knew 'Elle' Was for Her and Why It's Not a "Rape Comedy"

Guy Ferrandis/SBS Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The nominee talks about vying for her first Academy Award, why she thought the book 'Elle' would make a great movie and reteaming with 'Amour' director Michael Haneke.

French actress Isabelle Huppert is no stranger to the awards circuit — at least outside the U.S. She has won countless prizes, including two Cannes acting awards and a Cesar award, in a career that has spanned five decades and hundreds of movies and plays, including collaborations with such masters as Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Michael Cimino, Maurice Pialat and Michael Haneke. Thanks to her jarring turn in Paul Verhoeven's controversial Elle, Huppert finally is getting the stateside recognition she deserves, including a Golden Globes win. On the way back from yet another film shoot, her 12th project in the past two years, Huppert spoke to THR about vying for her first Oscar.

You've received dozens of awards over the years, but this is your first Academy Award nomination. How are you living the experience?

For an American actress, it's already a big deal to be nominated, so you can imagine what it's like for a foreign actress — especially a French actress for whom English isn't even their mother tongue! It's an exceptional event, especially as there have been very few foreign actresses nominated over the years. So I'm trying to live it exceptionally.

Nowadays actors go on Oscar campaigns, giving lots of interviews and press prior to the awards. It's not something that one does regularly in France, and it can almost feel like the equivalent of a political campaign.

Except that for a political campaign, you have to convince people of what you're going to do in the future, whereas for the Oscars you have to convince people of something that you've already done. And you have to imagine that they're already a bit convinced if they decided to nominate you in the first place. In my case I'm doing as much campaigning as I can while shooting a film in France at the same time, though I've been going back and forth to America since last September. For me it's the same kind of promotion that I'd be doing for a new movie that was being released.

From what I understand, Paul Verhoeven wanted to make Elle in the U.S. at one point but was unable to find an actress willing to play the lead, so he made it in France instead. What attracted you to such a difficult role?

I was actually attached to the project from the very beginning, because I'm the one who first read Philippe Djian's book and decided to bring it to the producer Said Ben Said, who then had the brilliant idea of bringing it to Verhoeven. It's true that for a certain time they tried to make it in the U.S., but then it ended up back in France, which makes sense: It's a French book that's set in a very specific French milieu. So it's a good thing that the film wound up here. And, of course, it's a good thing for me.

What made you think that Djian's book was the right project for you?

Right away I saw there was an extraordinary character in it and lots of unprecedented situations in the story. It was like watching the birth of a new and exceptional kind of woman — a woman you don't regularly encounter in fiction. So I had the possibility to play the character in an extremely natural way that didn't feel like acting at all, and that didn't require any imagination or psychology, because in both the book and the script there's a complete absence of psychology. It was about depicting someone purely through their actions, and I think that's why people respond so strongly to the very honest, very troubling nature of the material.

Elle received strong reviews in Cannes, though some detractors deemed it a misogynistic "rape comedy." What do you think of those critiques?

I don't think it's a rape comedy at all, and I think deep down you can see that the movie has a real integrity to it — that beyond all the manipulation and games the character gets entangled in, Elle is ultimately the portrait of a survivor. It definitely takes the audience to some dangerous places involving rape, violence and sexuality, but at the end of the day, there is something extremely profound and human about the movie that touches you. I believe that outside what a film is trying to say, it has something internal to it that speaks to people without them knowing how or why.

Last year, you played the lead in Mia Hansen-Love's Things to Come, which also was about a woman dealing with a major crisis. It's not the same character as the one in Elle, but there are some similarities.

They are completely different women, though they both refuse to be victims and fight in their own way to survive. And they both have a real sense of humor about what they're going through. It's not that either movie is a comedy, but humor functions as a powerful tool in both of them. For the characters in each film, humor is almost an ethical posture they can use to save themselves, so that instead of falling to pieces about what's happening to them, they can laugh about it. It's almost a philosophical stance — a sort of stoicism in the face of events that's manifested through humor.

You've made a handful of U.S. movies over the years, including films by Michael Cimino, Curtis Hanson, Hal Hartley and David O. Russell. Do you want to continue working in America?

Of course, though what really interests me is to make good films with good directors, whether they're American, British, Filipino, Korean, Polish, Swiss or whatever. I'm very happy with all the foreign directors I've shot with because they come from the same filmmaking tradition as many of the French auteurs I've worked with. Actually, the first Hollywood film I ever made was the movie Rosebud, which was directed by the great Otto Preminger. It's with him that I kicked off my American career.

Recently you wrapped Haneke's upcoming Happy End, which deals with refugees, a topic that's on people's mind these days.

Everyone has been saying that, because the movie was shot in Calais, where there has been a serious and unfortunate immigrant crisis. But the film actually deals with the crisis from the opposite angle: It's about a French family who's completely blind and deaf to the immigrant problems occurring around them. There are indeed some immigrant characters who intervene in the story at one point, but the film is really about people who are more or less unconcerned with their plight.

A version of this story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.