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Isabelle Huppert’s Approach to Playing Complex Characters Is Surprisingly Simple

Huppert spoke with IndieWire about how she collaborates with great directors and how her character in Serge Bozon's "Mrs. Hyde" is neither weak, nor a monster.

Isabelle Huppert

Daniel Bergeron

Isabelle Huppert may the world’s best actress for playing strong, complex characters. From her star-making roles with directors Claude Chabrol (“La Cérémonie”) and Michael Haneke (“The Piano Teacher”) to last year’s Oscar nomination for “Elle,” she brings an enigmatic quality and psychological depth. Her incredible breadth is less measured by the variety of roles she’s played, but by the emotional range she brings to each.

“At one end you have the extreme of her suffering, and then you have her icy intellectualism,” said Haneke of Huppert in a 2001 interview. “No other actor can combine the two.” It sounds breathtakingly complex — unless, of course, you’re Isabelle Huppert. For her most recent film, “Mrs. Hyde” — a loose interpretation of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” directed by French critic-turned-director Serge Bozon — she downplayed the duality of the role and said she hardly noticed that she was playing a monster.

“I had very little to do with it as an actress because it is more of a [filmmaking] technique and the way Serge shots those scenes,” said Huppert. “I knew doing those scenes I was going to be polarized and there was going to be special effect work. The Mrs. Hyde part was more technical, based in cinema. As an actress, I was much more [the school teacher].”

mrs hyde isabelle huppert

“Mrs. Hyde”

In “Mrs. Hyde,” which received its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival this week, Huppert is a dedicated school teacher of 35 years who is bad her job, until a monster-like plot device turns things around. While Huppert acknowledged that after a string of strong, high-powered roles like “Elle,” playing a failed school teacher whose students strive to humiliate her looks like a change of pace.
She doesn’t see it that way. She latched on to what drives the character: fighting inequality in French society, which she knows is tied to the education system. That she isn’t good at teaching, but is just as determined to reach less privileged students after 35 years, speaks volumes to Huppert.

“She’s not weak or fragile, she has more of a sadness,” said Huppert. “Of course she is not satisfied. She knows she’s missing something crucial [as a teacher] and this is why she’s sad because she has this mission and vision of what a teacher should be, what education should be, what enjoying knowledge can mean to these students. There is no bitterness; there’s poetry to the film and she’s a poetic figure.”

Huppert dismissed the implication that she chose the role because she wanted to try something different. In fact, in choosing projects the role itself is of secondary importance.

Isabelle Huppert in "Mrs. Hyde"

Isabelle Huppert in “Mrs. Hyde”

“I pick directors, not roles,” said Huppert. “Just to do work and choose a role without being completely aware of who you do it with doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s more about how you do the film, which obviously comes from the director.”

Huppert said brushes with “bad direction” early in her career did more to define her process than anything else. Trusting a director and being on the same page in regards to the character is what allows Huppert to enjoy acting, and to do it well. She likes Bozon for the strong social commentary in his films, but also for an element of unreality — a cinematic poetry that heightens emotions. She admitted that on “Tip Top,” her first Bozon collaboration, it took time to adjust to him as a director.

“I was sometimes [conflicted] with his direction,” she said. “He has — I wouldn’t say abstract, but a whole design pattern in his mind that he would not necessarily get away from. And sometimes it didn’t really come across in necessarily in words, so I had to figure out what he wanted. It wasn’t really about acting — more body language, movement, rhythm.”

The unique musicality to Bozon’s cinematic world drew Huppert to the director, so taking time to get “in tune” was acceptable because she quickly understood how he saw her character.

Isabelle Huppert and director Paul Verhoeven at Cannes ‘Elle’ premiere.

Photo by VILLARD/NIVIERE/SIPA/REX/Shutterstock

“It took us a little bit at the beginning of the first film for us to get in tune,” said Huppert. “When the director ends up repeating something a number of times, you end up very quickly understanding what aspect of the character he wants the character to be,” said Huppert. “It’s very easy to fit his vision from the beginning once he’s said 10 times in a conversation, ‘Just be shy.’ OK, it’s clear. Knowing to approach the teacher [in “Mrs. Hyde”] as shy, or sort of shadowy, the image grows in your mind and it’s like watching a painting.”

Watching a character emerge is a perfect metaphor for Huppert’s approach to acting: She doesn’t need to understand every aspect of a character to play her.

“It’s not that I don’t want to understand everything,” said Huppert. “It’s just, by definition, you don’t understand all that you are doing when you making a movie because you are not in the director’s brain. He isn’t even aware of what he is doing himself. I believe in this idea that the films have a life of their own. You have to allow yourself to be driven by this. You go [in] blind, but you go in with trust and that’s essential.”

Isabelle Huppert at Berlin “Things to Come” premiere

GUILLAUME COLLET/SIPA/REX/Shutterstock

For Huppert, part of that trust is working with a director who doesn’t clearly spell out each beat of emotion with his or her filmic language, but instead allows the film to breathe and let her embody the character.

“Most good actors give you a strong sense of their character’s background,” said Bozon. “I put the camera on a man and women who are [playing a married couple] and you get the feeling, the smell, the quality that they know each other, that this is their home. Good actors can give you that familiarity. The characters are built block by block. That’s not how it is with Isabelle. It’s more”  he paused, searching for the English word — “strident, there’s these bursts [snaps fingers], that are so deeply felt by the camera. It’s almost abstract, but so emotional. It’s more cinematic than grounded in reality, which is what we both love in movies.”

Huppert puts it another way, quoting another of her directing collaborators.

“Michael Haneke always says, ‘Let us be surprised,'” she said. “You must approach filmmaking with the capacity to allow yourself to be surprised. That’s a quality that great directors have and that moviemaking requires.”

“Mrs. Hyde” played at the 2017 New York Film Festival and is seeking U.S. distribution. 

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