When Isabelle Huppert laughs politely it literally sounds like this: “Ha. Ha. Ha.” When Isabelle Huppert really means something, she will emphasize it by repeating several variations of it. (“Not particularly. Absolutely not. No.”) When Isabelle Huppert smiles—something I wasn’t sure she’d ever do during our sit-down interview this week, given the steely exterior she wears like couture—it is a great relief. It means that maybe, just maybe you have said something that didn’t register as completely idiotic to this master actor, a cinematic legend about whom Susan Sontag once remarked that she’d never met “an actor more intelligent, or a person more intelligent among actors.”
The French Huppert was in New York to promote Serge Bozon’s genre-bending Madame Hyde, which played this year’s New York Film Festival. A tale of transformation about a teacher who finally breaks through to her resistant students that’s heaping with broad comedy, Madame Hyde is Robert Louis Stevenson meets Dangerous Minds meets Teen Witch (there’s a “Top That”-esque scene in which a group of young people break out into a rap number). Huppert is Marie Géquil, a veteran science teacher at a vocational school who is routinely ridiculed to her face by her students before she’s struck by lightening and physically and mentally revitalized. I’m doing no justice to how actually strange this tonally amorphous film truly is. Huppert herself told me the script was “really...unusual.”
I interviewed Huppert last year alongside Paul Verhoeven while they were promoting Elle, but in the interview below, I had a much better opportunity to focus on Huppert—her methods, her perception of her fame and meme-ification over the past year, and her mission to shut down noise-making at the movies. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
JEZEBEL: You’ve played teachers multiple times now.
ISABELLE HUPPERT: Yes, I never realized that but someone told me yesterday, “Do you realize that you’ve been playing numerous teachers?” A piano teacher [in Michael Haneke’s 2001 film The Piano Teacher], a philosophy teacher [in Mia Hansen-Løve’s 2016 film Things To Come], and now a science teacher. It never occurred to me. That means they’re all so different, nothing to be compared with. It’s all about what it means to transmit, what it means to educate, what it means to learn.
Do you have any particular affinity for that profession?
Not particularly. Absolutely not. No.
There’s a full-on physics lesson in the middle of this movie. What was your grasp on the physics you were teaching to the character of your student?
I’m not a science person, so I didn’t really understand, I just tried to learn my lines as good as possible and that gave me a real hard time. Not only did I have to learn the lines, but in order to learn the lines, I had to make a big effort to understand what I was saying, which I did more or less by the time I learned the lines. But it was not won*—how we say in French, I don’t know if you say the same thing in English—from the beginning because I had no idea what I was saying. Of course I was able to understand the strength of the scene. The scene is unusual in the sense that most of the time when you make movies and you have scenes about education, it’s more like a caricature. You have the teacher, you have the pupils, and I think what Serge Bozon tried to experience is the truthfulness of what it means to learn, what it means to teach, what it means to get someone to understand something that he does not understand at the beginning and then finally after a long, good explanation, you get him to understand. It takes time.
It’s such a contrast to watch a character who’s known as a failure for 35 years played by a woman who has been anything but.
(Laughs politely: “Ha. Ha. Ha.”) Well, that’s really a very exterior perception, which I can perfectly understand from the spectator, but it’s certainly something that never came across my mind because I don’t have this same perception about myself. But I can understand how when people know an actress like me for so many years, so many films that this kind of a paradox perception comes across. But it doesn’t concern me.
You don’t have the perception that you’re successful?
Not in that sense. It doesn’t affect my self-possession of the character I’m playing.
What did you think about the social issues brought up by the movie, specifically the school system and the commentary about racial segregation?
I think it makes the movie very contemporary. It makes the movie a tale, but something completely real and very much aware of how important education is. It makes the movie very responsible, I would say, which is nice. On one side it’s a pure fantasy, but on the other it’s a very serious and sensitive and concerned and responsible statement about a certain reality of our world.
Is that social consciousness important to you when you decide to make a movie?
I’m not saying it’s necessary to come with the territory. Each movie has its own identity. I’m just saying that it’s nice to be able to do a comedy and yet to be able root it in this way into a strong reality of our world. I’m just saying it’s very, very, very smart, as Serge Bozon is because he’s very smart, you know? I don’t want to make [over-the-top] comparisons, but if you take Charlie Chaplin, he made the best comedies in the world with bigger political statements about our world. It’s always satisfaction for the mind, instead of doing stupid comedies. It was nice to do a smart comedy.
You said something interesting to the Times about your craft: “I play a role but I don’t transform myself entirely.”
Well, I do, but I guess it’s even more convincing in the sense that it’s a subtle transformation. It’s not a spectacular transformation but it goes through something very, very little which I think makes it stronger.
As an actor becomes more of an icon, it becomes harder not to see them—you—on screen. Do you negotiate for that?
It doesn’t come across my mind. I can understand it intellectually, theoretically—I don’t really resent it, personally. Luckily, because that would mean I live with myself as who I am for the outside people and it would mean I would be in very bad shape.
I think a lot of people are.
Well, they are in very bad shape then [another polite laugh: “Ha. Ha. Ha.”].
The ego is just…
It’s not even a matter of the ego. I think it’s a matter of being sane or insane. I think I’m not insane to that point.
Before the ceremony, you also told the Times that it was your year to win the Oscar, but you didn’t end up winning. Were you disappointed by that?
Was I disappointed? I think I wasn’t expecting it. I was so happy already to get all the way, to get all the prizes I got before, until the very last, which was the Spirit Award, which is a beautiful award to get. I was not expecting to win, actually, so I wasn’t disappointed.
Are you aware of the memes that you’ve aspired in the past year? There was a video of you dancing at a wrap party that people passed around…
Oh yeah, that was so funny! I don’t know why!
Do you have any sense that Isabelle Huppert the celebrity is more of a character in pop culture than ever?
I’m not a big social media person myself, although I’m aware of it. I’m quite far from that. I know about it, but certainly not as much as other people do being more familiar with this kind of thing. Which I am not, even though I have an Instagram...whatever it is…thing.
Do you think the Oscar nomination has expanded your presence?
Oui. That’s for sure. That has a lot to do with this. I’ve been around in this country with all these critic awards. Elle was really important.
It’s been said so many times, but I can’t imagine anyone else playing that role. The Piano Teacher, too.
They were movies that allowed me to be so much myself. I hardly felt I was acting in these movies. Especially Elle, I felt like I was almost not acting. It’s a really nice feeling. It’s more or less something I feel in all my movies. In Elle, I never thought I was actually building a character, in my relationship with Paul Verhoeven, we spoke so little about the character. It gave me a feeling that it was almost a documentary. I hardly felt I was doing a movie or playing a character. It was very easy.
I got the sense I was watching you, and that’s what was interesting about your Golden Globes speech—you were so excited. The steely cool I associate with you just dropped.
Well, because I did not expect the movie to draw so much attention. That was a really wonderful surprise. The movie was supposed to be a bit controversial, and at the end of the day, it was very successful, a lot of people loved it. Plus, I never take these things for granted, I have to say. It’s always a little miracle when people give you such attention.
Another thing that circulated was your People interview when you were asked your favorite movie snack and replied: “No snack. No drink. No food. Just being focused on the movies. No noise.”
Really? When did I say that?
Earlier this year.
Ah, yeah, but that’s true. That was shown in many places?
People loved it. We loved it.
Ah, but don’t you think it’s unbearable when people…
Depends on the movie. At a horror movie, I like people yelling at the screen.
Not yelling, but eating popcorn and unfolding paper. I want to kill, you know? The other day I was watching this movie and the woman behind me, she was nicely and slowly unfolding the paper around. It was like, “Eat the fucking sweet!” Oh my god!
Did you yell at her?
Not like this, but I said, “Please! Eat the sweet!” It was unbearable. That’s why you end up sitting in your sitting room so nobody bothers you. I still want to watch movies with people around. It’s a collective experience.
Note: The original version of this post quoted Huppert as saying, “It was not one,” but as was pointed out to me on Twitter, “ce n’est pas gagné d’avance” is a French idiom, in which case “won” would make more sense in this context.