Isabelle Huppert is petite. She practically tiptoes into a salon of the Hotel de la Ville in Rome, wearing grey pants, a beige pullover and a red scarf around her neck. Her hair hangs long and loose. It is a reddish brown, and her eyes are large and brown. She seems more like a student just starting out than an international star. We talk a bit about her day in the Italian capital, spent with her companion and children. They had lunch with Mauro Bolognini, a friend who directed her in the film Lady of the Camelias, which she shot alongside Gian Maria Volontè. Isabelle Huppert truly enjoys spending time in Rome, but says she couldn’t always live there.
Isabelle Huppert, have you just come back from shooting a film in Russia?
I was there for almost three months, and I enjoyed the privileged life of a tourist so I can’t say I really know it well. But Russia is a fascinating country with a big soul. It has great strength.
And now you are in Italy to promote another film?
Yes, Après l’Amour directed by Diane Kurys. I had already shot Entre Nous with her. It is like a sociological look at the life of couples in the mid-20th Century in a large city. It could take place anywhere. Diane Kurys wanted to focus on what happens when love ends. When, after having lived for many years with a partner, a woman feels the need for different passions.
What role do you play in the film?
The role of a writer trying to live two lives. She has lived with a man for many years, but she is trying to be free and not deny herself anything. It’s a film that doesn’t set out to resolve anything. It has a bit of the truth of a documentary and shows reality as it is lived by many. Today’s women don’t want to deny themselves anything. They want to experience everything.
Do you often play the part of ambiguous women who are a bit negative?
I play characters in the midst of negative situations, but their cruelty is a reflection of the situation in which they find themselves. My characters face challenges and suffering. And they aren’t ever people that have anything handed to them by life.
Are you like these characters?
No. I play the roles.
How do you choose which films to act in?
I choose a character when it suits my imagination. But the most important thing is the director.
Is Chabrol your favourite director?
I have a unique relationship with him. We have done three films together. I have had the opportunity to portray all the facets of certain kinds of sentiment and to bring characters to life that are often regular people. I am not attracted to big heroes.
Who has been your favourite acting partner?
I had a wonderful experience with Gian Maria Volontè in Mauro Bolognini’s Lady of the Camelias and with Marcello Mastroianni in Marco Ferreri’s Story of Piera, but I’ve always worked with good actors like Depardieu or Trintignant. I love actors that don’t cause conflict. To tell you the truth, I prefer actresses to actors. I think men have a negative way of relating to their profession. They want to dictate, to take control. Mastroianni and Volontè are great actors because they have not given in to the temptation to try to be in power, unlike many of their French colleagues who argue constantly with the director.
In your opinion, who are the great actresses?
Vanessa Redgrave in certain films and Meryl Streep. Perhaps there are some less famous actresses…
Do you think French cinema is good?
It exists. It is better than nothing. But it is always a bit limited, small, bourgeois and inward looking. Of course, at times it promotes amazing things, but that happens quite rarely.
Do you like the theatre?
Yes, very much. I rediscovered it four years ago. I hadn’t done theatre for a long time, and it was greatly satisfying. I worked in a Shakespeare comedy directed by Peter Zadek last year at the Odéon Theatre in Paris. Now I’m working on a show with Bob Wilson in Switzerland that will then move on to Paris.
Was it easy for you to find success?
Yes. I found success slowly, starting young and playing small roles. Success doesn’t bother me in its outward manifestations. I have always lived a normal life. I can go entire days without thinking about being an actress.
How do you live your daily life?
Shooting my films. My life is very tied to my work and very dependent on my work. But I have a companion, two children and a family life as well. Playing roles and having children are similar things. In both cases, there is always something taking place in your core. Actresses often have a strong relationship with maternity.
Are you a good mother?
I don’t know. I am a mother. I am very present. I always bring my children with me.
Do you feel like a fulfilled woman?
Yes. I am becoming one, though there’s always a bit of frustration in order to keep moving ahead. But the frustration is part of my self-realisation. When you start out in life, you suffer a lot and then, little by little, you let yourself go and you suffer less.
Are you afraid of aging?
Yes. I am afraid. I doubt there are many actresses that aren’t afraid, but I see some advantages because age is perhaps one way of getting more respect and perhaps finding certain types of affirmation. I am scared of aging, but I don’t know if I fear being old. It’s like when you dive into water. You are a bit scared because you think the water will be cold, but then you feel fine.
Do you feel beautiful?
It depends on the moment. I find beauty to be a funny thing. Yesterday, I was having some photographs taken and I felt gorgeous, but today I was looking in the mirror and I didn’t feel beautiful. I found these differences strange, and I thought to myself that this is the power of illusion. I can be beautiful if I want, but a part of beauty must be fabricated.
What things in life do you find to be most difficult?
Dealing with breakups, all kinds of breakups. And then I find it difficult to get ahead. Becoming an adult and forgetting you were once a child.
What more would you like to do?
It is difficult to answer that question. Right now, I feel like my aspirations correspond to reality quite well. I don’t have many dreams that are out of reach.
Can you paint me a portrait of Isabelle Huppert?
I never stop interpreting self-portraits. All one needs to do is see my films.
Alain Elkann is an author, intellectual and journalist who was born in New York,23rd March 1950. Internationally well-known, his books have been translated into languages including French, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Hebrew, Turkish and Japanese. Interview work in English includes dialogue with Prince Hassan Bin Talal of Jordan, To Be A Muslim, and The Voice of Pistoletto with the artist Michelangelo Pistoletto, published autumn 2014 by Rizzoli Ex Libris.
Alain has maintained a weekly interview column for the Italian national daily newspaper La Stampa since 1989. His archive encompasses an impressive range of celebrated subjects, including award-winning writers and editors; film stars and directors; fashion designers and businessmen; artists, collectors and museum curators; politicians and diplomats; economists and historians; thinkers and human rights activists. Two books of classic interviews have been published by Bompiani.
Alain teaches Jewish 20th century writers – from Franz Kafka to Primo Levi, from Philip Roth to Aharon Appelfeld – at Penn University in Philadelphia. He has lectured on art, Italian literature and Jewish studies at the Universities of Oxford, Columbia, Jerusalem and Milan’s IULM. He is President of The Foundation for Italian Art & Culture (FIAC) in New York and in 2009 Alain was awarded the prestigious Legion d’Honneur by the French Republic.