The admired, award-winning French actress Isabelle Huppert has graced our cinema screens for more than four decades. Here, the Mandarin Oriental fan talks to Alex Gorton about picking the right roles, judging at Cannes and travel
Speaking on the phone from Paris, Isabelle Huppert is every bit as entrancing as she is on screen. One of France's greatest actresses, she has starred in more than 100 films since the early Seventies, including the Oscar-winning Best Foreign Language Film Amour, as well as The Piano Teacher and 8 Women. She has had 14 nominations for the César Award (the French national film awards) – the most times for any actress – for her compelling performances in often demanding roles. She is also accomplished on the stage, having acted in productions in her native Paris, New York and London, where she returns this year in Phaedra(s) at the Barbican. An engaging interviewee whose passion for her career is as strong as ever, she discusses films, travelling, and the joys of staying in a legendary hotel.
Acting and performing are about harnessing something within you
This year is a busy one for you. What do you have lined up?
I am coming to London in June to work on Phaedra(s) at the Barbican. It's a play by the great Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski, who I previously worked with in Paris a few years ago on Un Tramway – an adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire. I like to follow my collaborators, so it is good to be working with him again. The play incorporates several texts, including Sarah Kane's Phaedra's Love and extracts from JM Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello. This will be my first time at the Barbican, although I once played Mary, Queen of Scots in Mary Stuart at the National [Theatre].
And what do you have coming out film-wise?
I've just finished four films, which are all due to be released this year. I worked with the Dutch director Paul Verhoeven on Elle, an adaptation of the book by Philippe Djian; Tout de Suite Maintenant, directed by Pascal Bonitzer; Things to Come, directed by Mia Hansen-Løve; and Souvenir, a Spanish film, in which I play a singer.
Do you prefer acting on stage or screen?
I like both, but theatre is more the exception for me, and film is the routine. Theatre is a lot more demanding: it feels as if you are climbing a mountain, as opposed to the cinema which is a nice little hike.
So does it have to be a very special role to tempt you on stage?
I am very proud of what I've done on stage – and screen, too; but I think it's harder for a movie actress to have a prestigious part in theatre. I've always looked for adventurous roles in ambitious productions, which can be possible in the theatre as there is an audience for them.
Does the way an audience reacts to a play change from country to country?
Phaedra(s) will be performed in French, and I've found that when I've taken part in a French production in a foreign country, the audience's understanding is obviously not the same as it would be in their own language. People's attention is generally devoted to reading the subtitles, and so their reactions during the performance are quite quiet. But then things can really explode in a wonderful, warm and enthusiastic way at the end. Usually, the people viewing these kinds of productions are great theatre-lovers, so I don't really have to complain about any reactions!
How do you set about choosing a role?
For both film and the theatre, the most important thing for me is the director. If you make a good choice, you've done 80 per cent of the work. I always try to make the most sophisticated choices.
An all-star French cast in the dark comedy film '8 Women' (2002), with Isabelle Huppert (third from right), directed by François Ozon
Have you ever been tempted to move behind the camera and direct?
Sometimes I think about it – so many actors do it – but it requires a lot of courage, dedication and time. You have to be very brave, and perhaps I'm not brave enough. I'm lucky to feel completely fulfilled in my role as an actress, so I'm not looking to explore other fields. But maybe one day… never say never!
In 2015, two of your films were in competition at Cannes and you have previously been President of the Jury. How special is the film festival to you?
So many of my movies have been selected for Cannes, I really embrace it. I've been a jury member, the head of the jury, and have won awards there.
Do you enjoy the red carpet?
It's part of the job. You spend such a short amount of time on the red carpet, but the resonance, especially now with social media, is huge. You have to turn it into something funny. It's still kind of work, though, and you have to be at ease and be yourself as much as possible.
You've made so many fantastic films. Do you have a favourite production or project that you've worked on?
I'm really proud of Elle, the most recent film I worked on with Paul Verhoeven. He has always been one of my favourite directors. I remember watching Turkish Delight, a Dutch film he made before he worked in America, when I was still at school. If you'd told me then, that years later I'd be working with him, I wouldn't have believed you.
Are there any directors you'd like to work with in the future?
In England I would love to work with Stephen Frears. He is wonderful.
Do you like watching films to relax, or do you associate it with work?
I do watch movies for pleasure. Making and watching a film are two separate experiences and there is no real connection. My experience as an actress is mainly about imagination. I always think of the Brontë sisters, who were such amazing writers and had such vivid imaginations, even though they lived this very quiet life in the English countryside. Acting and performing are also about harnessing something within yourself, and you don't need to watch movies to be able to do this.
How else do you like to unwind?
I like doing things that I don't usually have time for when I am working, like tidying my house. When you're on a movie set, it's such a different rhythm and way of facing life, so it feels like a holiday to do things at home. Apart from that, I like to make the most of my free time, because when you do movies you don't do anything else and the time is so controlled. When the shoot finishes, you just want to escape the structure. It's great to have some free time, to not be obliged to do anything and just do things like going to museums when you want to.
What do you enjoy about being at home in Paris?
It is a wonderful city and I like to walk a lot. I live on the Left Bank, but sometimes I walk across to the Right Bank, and while crossing one of those bridges, especially when the light is amazing, I am always struck by what a beautiful city Paris is. Like all great cities, you find such different atmospheres according to which neighbourhood you are in, and I like to experience that. Of course, there are also so many opportunities to see art and go to the theatre or the movies in Paris.
For both film and theatre the most important thing for me is the director
Do you have any other favourite cities in the world?
I like London. I spent a year in London when I was in Mary Stuart. London is very exotic for the French and it is so close. There is a sense of life that we lack a little bit in Paris. I also enjoy New York and cities in general.
Do you travel a lot for pleasure?
Of course. My next destination will be Vietnam. I've been to Cambodia before and I'm looking forward to visiting more of Asia. Unfortunately, there's no Mandarin Oriental in Vietnam, although I wish there was! I love travelling. I don't like planes particularly but I like to go far, so I can discover a different way of life from where I live.
Do have any essentials that you always take with you?
Unfortunately I have so many travel essentials that I can't take them all! That's something I need to work on, as I find it hard to travel light. I like to have all possibilities covered – warm weather, cold weather, rain.
When working, do you like to make the hotel or apartment that you're staying in feel like home?
I like to be comfortable and stay in good hotels, as you have to create your own little world for weeks on end. I spend a lot of time in my room when I'm working. I'm never particularly social on set, as I like to be alone and work. Therefore, it's really important for me to have a nice atmosphere to go back to after a long day. I also appreciate good lighting – that's probably the most important thing.
As a Parisian, do you know Mandarin Oriental, Paris well?
I've been there many times. Thierry Marx's restaurant is fantastic. I've never stayed at the hotel, but I've had meetings there and dined there. It's wonderful. I know Mandarin Oriental, Boston the best. I stayed there while I was shooting. The service was fantastic and the rooms were amazing. I had a huge suite in which I could lose myself. Boston is a small town and the hotel is very central, so I could easily walk everywhere.
Are there any other Mandarin Oriental hotels that you'd particularly like to visit?
I would love to visit Mandarin Oriental hotels in Miami, Hong Kong and London, too. And there's the one in Sanya, China, which is meant to be amazing; and the new resort in Marrakech, of course. The French just love Marrakech.