'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Isabelle Huppert ('Elle')

The "Meryl Streep of France," finally an Oscar nominee at the age of 63, discusses her close collaborations with Claude Chabrol and Michael Haneke, her attraction to "perverse, manipulative, icy" characters and the controversial new film for which she's received the best notices of her career.
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"On the one hand they are extremely close to me, and on the other hand they have nothing to do with me," the actress Isabelle Huppert says of the many characters that she's played, as we sit down at the San Ysidro Ranch near Santa Barbara to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. The Frenchwoman — an Oscar nominee for the first time, at the age of 63, for her portrayal of a rape survivor in Paul Verhoeven's 2016 French-language drama Elle — continues, "I have nothing to do with this woman from Elle who runs a video game company — I don't even know myself how to work my computer — so I'm completely far from the character. I'm not a philosophy teacher [as in Things to Come, her other 2016 film], I never killed my father or my mother [as in 1978's Violette], so I have nothing to do with my characters. But yet, I'm completely my characters, emotionally."

Often described as 'the French Meryl Streep,' Huppert has appeared in more films that were part of the Cannes Film Festival's lineup than any other performer in history, and twice has won the fest's best actress award. She has received 16 nominations for France's Cesar Award, more than any other actress in its history, and won once. And this year, en route to the Oscars, she was awarded — for her performance in Elle and, in several cases, also her performance in Things to Come — the best actress Gotham, New York Film Critics Circle, Los Angeles Film Critics Association and Golden Globe awards and nominated for best actress Critics' Choice, European Film and Cesar awards. That's quite a year.

(Click above to listen to this episode or here to access all of our 125+ episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Robert De Niro, Amy Schumer, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Sally Field, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, Lin-Manuel MirandaKate Winslet, Michael Moore, Helen Mirren, J.J. Abrams, Taraji P. Henson, Warren Beatty, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Eisner, Brie Larson, Sting, Natalie Portman, RuPaul, Sheila Nevins, Justin Timberlake, Lily Collins, Ryan Reynolds, Jessica Chastain, Tracy Morgan, Alicia Vikander, James Corden, Lily Tomlin, Eddie Redmayne, Sarah Silverman, Michael Keaton, Charlotte Rampling, Tyler Perry, Isabelle Huppert, Vince Vaughn, Nicole Kidman, Dev Patel, Emma Stone and Denzel Washington.)

Born near Paris, Huppert's interest in acting was encouraged by her mother, who enrolled her, at the age of 14, in an acting conservatory in Versailles. Her first year there she was named the best actress in her class, and after graduating she began making her name in the theater (traveling the world with a touring troupe), TV (she appeared in her first TV movie in 1971) and film (making her big-screen debut in 1972). Before long, having impressed a top French casting director, she was cast in her first Hollywood film, Otto Preminger's Rosebud (1975), which, conveniently enough, was shot in France. The films that put her on the international map as an actress of great range and ability, however, were Claude Goretta's literary adaptation The Lacemaker (1977), in which she plays a hairdresser devastated by the end of her first romance, and the first of her six collaborations with Claude Chabrol, Violette (1978), in which she plays a teen who murders her father, which screened at the New York Film Festival in back-to-back years.

Over the ensuing years, Huppert has starred in movies big and small, successful and not, French and American. In Michael Cimino's ambitious Heaven's Gate (1980), she played a French immigrant who becomes a madam in 1890s Wyoming. "It was like going to summer camp," she says of the experience of making it. Its poor reception, however, greatly disappointed Cimino and her. "It was a combination of several things," she says. "The movie was very unusual." She's mostly stuck to art house films since then, including two, Every Man for Himself (1980) and Passion (1982), with Jean-Luc Godard. "When he won't be there anymore, we'll all be like orphans," she says. "He really invented a new language." Other acclaimed performances came in Diane Kurys' Entre Nous (1983); Chabrol's La Ceremonie (1995), which she says was "one of the strongest films I did" and certainly "the most political"; and especially Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher, the first of her three collaborations with Haneke (the others being 2011's Amour and the forthcoming 2017 film The Happy End), which she acknowledges "is certainly a film that changed people's view of me."

Many describe Huppert's characters, in films from The Piano Teacher to Elle, as "perverse, manipulative, icy." She, however, feels they are more nuanced than that. "As with everybody, they have certain obsessions, fantasies and things that you don't usually confess." However, one of the things that makes her interpretations of them so interesting, she points out, is that "they appear as completely normal." In the case of collaborations with Haneke and Verhoeven, such as these, she says that's because she and her director "have complete trust in one other ... total freedom and easiness between the two of us." As for getting an Oscar nomination for this sort of work, she makes no bones about how she feels: "Of course it's nice. Of course I care about it. Of course I take it for what it is, which is kind of the crowning achievement of my journey as an actress." She adds with a smile, "The whole thing has been just extraordinary."