The gorgeous and talented Dutch actress Carice van Houten, best known for her acclaimed lead turn in “Black Book” from bad boy auteur Paul Verhoeven (“Basic Instinct”), turns in another searing dramatic performance as doomed real life South African poet Ingrid Jonker, in “Black Butterlies” (opening this Friday and currently available on VOD). The difference this time around? She speaks in English, with a South African accent no less.
Since garnering widespread acclaim in 2006 for her work in “Black Book” as a Jew who becomes a spy for the resistance during World War II, van Houten transitioned to Hollywood fare, but found herself relegated to playing ‘the wife’ in films like “Repo Men,” “Valkyrie” and the upcoming “Intruders” opposite Clive Owen. She’s found greater success overseas in her home country, where she played a number of meatier roles in Dutch productions following “Black Book,” including leads “All is Love” and “The Happy Housewife.”
In “Black Butterflies,” van Houten is handed her biggest English-speaking part yet. The irony? It’s a Dutch production. The drama, directed by Paula van der Oest (“Tiramisu”), depicts the troubled life of the South African icon who used her opposition to the apartheid regime to fuel her art, despite her father’s opposition.
Indiewire caught up with van Houten to discuss her Hollywood aspirations, what it was like playing a real life figure and how “Black Book” changed her career.
Had you heard of Ingrid before you were approached to play her?
I have to say, I was not aware of her. But now, knowing her, I feel like everybody should know her. Especially if you’re into poetry.
I had never heard of her either. Why do you think she’s remained largely unknown outside of South Africa?
Well, there are a lot of things I’m not aware of. Now I know her, I feel her name should be synonymous with South Africa.
Did the fact that you weren’t familiar with her prior to taking on the role, give you the confidence to play her? The flipside of, say, Michelle Williams playing Marilyn Monroe.
That’s true. It would have been more difficult had I known her well. At the same time, when I went to South Africa to shoot the film – she’s such an icon there – it felt the same as if I were to be an American actress coming to Amsterdam, saying, “Here I am, to play the part of Anne Frank.”
At the same time, people were so happy that the story was finally being told.
What kind of push back from South Africans did you experience, if any?
Of course, I felt this great responsibility, especially to the people that knew her. Even her daughter who was on set sometimes, I felt like, “Oh, oh..I can never become her real mother.” It has been quite tricky. But the great feedback has made me really happy.
What kind of prep work goes into portraying the life of a real life person?
I read everything that’s been written by her and I read all of her poetry. I spoke to her friends and her daughter. Also, I got close to the character by practicing the accent and practicing English with an accent. I basically felt like I had to learn two languages at the same time. It’s a very tricky accent. You want to do it right and you also don’t want to make it too technical because that’s boring. In the end it’s about the performance, about the core of her character. But you have to do it right.
Part of getting to know her, was also getting to know the language a little bit better. But I believe in research and I believe in preparing yourself until a certain point. Then I think there’s a certain moment when you just have to let it all go – all the stuff that you’ve assembled in your head. At one point it’s just me that has to do it in the end when the camera starts rolling. You just have to go and do it.
It would have been different playing Marilyn Monroe, because everyone knows how she moved and how she talked. With Ingrid it’s different. That was not my main goal – to be exactly like her.
I can imagine Ingrid wasn’t an easy character to brush off after wrapping. Do characters typically live on with you after shooting? If so, how did Ingrid compare?
I try to make it into a round period of time. But of course, it’s only after a while that I go, “There is something I picked up. She’s still living with me.” For example, when I audition in English now, I still hear the South African accent sometimes. I think, “Wow, it’s been two years and it’s still in me.” Ingrid had such a big impact on me, personally as well.
So yeah, she’s in there. But it’s only afterward that you feel that you’ve lived through something. I’d like to think that I gave it all when I had to and that it’s all there in the film. You need to let it go after a certain period of time. But there are certain characters that you love. With this character, I struggled quite a bit with her at the beginning. I fought with her as well. In the beginning, I was like, “Why are you saying this, why are you doing this…what the fuck?” But after thinking about it and talking about and reading her poetry, it all made me see another side. It made me realize that she was a damaged child. Not that it’s an excuse for everything she does – but if you approach it in that way, you can embrace her.
Are you typically more drawn to flawed characters, whose actions you can’t fully rationalize before stepping into their shoes?
I wouldn’t say that I’m drawn characters that I don’t immediately like, but I do like meaty parts. I like the struggle, I like the work. Although, there’s some points where I feel like, why, why, why? But I think every actor has that moment.
Of course I do this job to entertain people in the broadest way and to give hope, but at the same time, I’m also just doing this to make my life interesting and challenge myself. I challenge myself with roles like this, more than by playing somebody’s wife in a blockbuster, with all respect. I’ve done that as well. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had great experiences. But in the end I just want to fight!
You got to do just that in “Black Book,” you’re most celebrated performance to date. How bad did you want that role before being cast by Paul Verhoeven?
Oh man, it was a page-turner that script. Before I had that feeling of really wanting it and really feeling, “This is my part.” That film gave me the possibility to play parts like that, especially in my own country. It’s a shame that the things I’ve done after “Black Book” in my own country, haven’t traveled.
Paul Verhoeven helps in that regard.
Definitely (laughs). But I mean, he doesn’t make movies every year. Somebody like Marion Cottliard, she’s very lucky to be in a film like “La Vie en Rose,” which was well distributed. That’s a career I could be envious of. Something like that makes me feel like, “Was I born in the wrong country?” Sometimes I can get frustrated.
Despite all the worldwide acclaim and being Denmark’s official Oscar bid, “Black Book” wound up with no Oscar nominations. Do you think it was the controversial subject matter and Verhoeven’s racy take on the material that scared some people — namely voters — off?
I mean maybe. But at the same time, we were on the shortlist for the Oscars! Of course we were just not lucky, without great distributors. You know, the Dutch cinema industry is not that strong. I need a stronger hand to push me somewhere and I can’t do that just by myself.
It might have been too Verhoeven like for a bigger audience. But I don’t know… I don’t know.
Leading up to the film’s release, the press kept harboring on your full frontal nudity in their interviews with you.
Oh, I loved it. There’s a small rebel in me. I like to provoke a little bit. I completely share that with Paul. Even though they’re quite specific these scenes and not subtle, I think it’s definitely his autograph – his way to provoke. At the same time, the whole naked thing, in “Black Book” I just thought it was a great idea to have the pubic hair scene – where I dye my pubic hair blonde – was so Verhoeven like. It’s almost with a wink. I never felt like he was a pervert or something. He’s an intellectual with a dirty mind. He has this boyish way of looking at women and this admiring way of looking at women at the same time. Most of his films have heroines in them.
I enjoyed it so much. We were like two little boys. At the same time, it helps to be a woman around him. He basically walked me around with his hand. I felt so safe. I could say anything to him. Whatever I did or said, he always trusted me. Even when I was cranky in the morning sometimes, he would just stand in the door smiling. I was a great, great experience.
How did the experience playing a supporting role in another WWII film, “Valkerie” opposite Tom Cruise, after “Black Book,” compare?
I mean it was great to be on a set like that. I had never experienced anything like it and haven’t since. Apart from working with Bryan Singer and Tom Cruise, which was great, everything around it was insane. I had a trailer that I could live in for the rest of my life! Before I could even say, “Pow,” there’d be a Coke in my hand. I was pampered in a crazy way and I enjoyed it like hell, of course.
It was nice to see a difference and to experience a difference. But American productions have so much more hierarchy on the world field, so much more than from where I come from. It’s so different to work in.
But it was so cool to tell people back home that I was doing scenes with Tom Cruise (laughs). I had a great time.
What was it like having to reconcile with the fact that in American fare, you were relegated to playing a supporting part, rather than the lead?
That’s something that’s in my head all the time. In the beginning, of course I was overwhelmed that Tom Cruise asked for availability, without making me do a screen test or anything. I was just overwhelmed by that glamour. I followed that up with “Repo Man” and all these small parts. I had never thought strategically with regards to my career. For the first time, I thought, I’ll do these small parts, they’ll get to know me a little better and maybe the part will get better. But it’s like as they always say: You have to pick your momentum. After “Black Book,” I did those small parts, but I also did all these huge parts in Holland where I got to pick my own directors and my own co-stars. You know I have a Hollywood status in my own little country, if you know what I mean. I of course couldn’t give that up, because that’s what I love to do. I need stuff that challenges me. After playing wives a couple of times, I felt like, meh, it’s just not satisfying enough for me.
I never really moved anywhere. Maybe it has something to do with my age, but it has been frustrating. Once, I remember – this is me name dropping – my friend Bill Murray had dinner with me. Of course, everybody always goes up to him. I was talking to him about what we’re talking about right now. He would introduce me to others, saying what a big actress I was in Holland. And they’d all be like, “Whatever.” That’s where the ego of course comes into the story. It’s weird that once I cross the border, I’m back to basics. It makes me humble as well and it’s nice to go around on the streets and have no one recognize me. But it is frustrating, when I go to parties and people who are not extremely clever to put it mildly, would be talking to me about acting, looking at me like, “You’re not tall enough to be a model and I’ve never seen you’re face, so you’re probably a nobody.” I did have moments where I felt like, “Should I just speak up?” But at the same time, it’s just ego. I’m always confused about whether it’s ego or it’s me just being proud of my work.
As a fan of yours that’s infuriating, but none too surprising, to hear.
(Laughs) Thanks. It is quite weird. I hope that a film like this – although small – finds an audience. I’m in a country that doesn’t have publicity monsters. I hope maybe this film will just get viewed. It’s not that I just want to win an Oscar – not that I would say no – I just wish that American producers would take more risks and just hire me!
I think this is a step in the right direction.
I hope so. But at the same time, it’s opening in only some small theaters. I’m still waiting for that one breakthrough moment – something I’d never I’d say. ‘Breakthrough moment’ sounds so ‘ugh.’
How important to you is it to break out in America? You already have to an international audience.
I was in Paris the other day doing press for “Black Butterflies” and people were saying, “I’ve missed you. Where were you?” And I’m like, “I’ve done fucking huge films in Holland which nobody knows about.” I don’t want to play wives – not that wives cannot be interesting – but parts that aren’t complex or challenging enough. It just doesn’t feel right.
I’m not a Bond girl, let’s just put it that way. I’m a nerd man!