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Isabelle Huppert: ‘I don’t bother with character. I try to be myself on stage’

Isabelle Huppert. Photo: Carole Bellaiche Isabelle Huppert. Photo: Carole Bellaiche

As the Oscar-nominated French actor takes to the London stage to read the works of the Marquis de Sade, she talks to Nick Clark about gender-swapped roles, her ambition to do Chekhov and plans to work with Ivo van Hove

How’s this for fantasy theatre casting: Isabelle Huppert in an Ivo van Hove take on Tennessee Williams? Or what about seeing the imperious French actor directed by Simon McBurney? Remarkably, both projects are in the pipeline. The seven-time Moliere award nominee – the French equivalent of the Oliviers – lets the tantalising information slip as we talk about her imminent return to London for the show Isabelle Huppert Reads Marquis de Sade at the Southbank Centre.

She is one of France’s great actors of stage and screen, and her Oscar-nominated turn in Elle last year means she is hot property in the US and Britain too, making the show something of a coup for the Southbank.

The 65-year-old actor’s return to the London stage this month is, however, for one night only. It is a performance of the infamous Sade’s Justine and Juliette, in what she describes as “halfway between reading and theatre”. It is about two sisters – one lost in virtue, the other triumphant in vice.

“We chose this because of the chance to have two characters on stage. There’s a chance to create a situation, tension. That’s what happens when I read Sade: it’s the opposition,” she says.

“I think it resonates with the world today, just like all great texts resonate,” Huppert continues. “This is very philosophical too, and brings everyone to their own questioning, even if you aren’t religious. It questions what it means to be a human being. What it means to be good, and what it means to be bad.”

Isabelle Huppert. Photo: Sony Pictures Classics
Isabelle Huppert in Elle. Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Her enthusiasm for the project is clear. There is none of the famous hauteur that has left interviewers reduced to jelly, or the curt answers like one that went viral last month when she was asked about the best kiss of her life (“You dare ask this question of someone you meet for the first time?”).

When it comes to talking about her work in theatre, she is forthcoming and frank. “I have only worked with very prestigious people on very ambitious productions,” she says, naming Robert Wilson, with whom she did Orlando and Quartett, and Van Hove, “whom I will be working with soon”. Other directors include Jacques Lassalle, Claude Regy and Eric Lacascade.

“Theatre can still be a kind of utopia, and that’s an idea I like to explore. Working with these kinds of people brings a certain ambition and quality that you don’t find in movies right now,” she says.

I can’t disassociate a role from whom I do it with – for me, it is always connected

“Like the movies, I’m only interested in working with certain people, with a certain aesthetic. I can’t disassociate a role from who I do it with – for me, it is always connected.”

Last year, Huppert was named joint winner of the 16th Europe Theatre Prize alongside Jeremy Irons for her contribution to the art form. There is “no difference” in her process for working on stage or in film – she has appeared in more than 120 – though she says technically they are very different.

“On stage, I don’t bother with the notion of characters in the same way I don’t with movies. If I do Phaedra, I do Phaedra, but I try to be myself as much as possible when I’m on stage.”

The production of Phaedra(s) at the Barbican in 2016, directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski, was her last appearance in London. One critic described it as the “most sexually unhinged piece of French drama to hit London in years”.

Isabelle Huppert in Phaedra(s) at Barbican Theatre. Photo: Pascal Victor
Isabelle Huppert in Phaedra(s) at Barbican Theatre. Photo: Pascal Victor

“It was a really wonderful experience,” Huppert says now. “Warlikowski is a very unusual director [they previously worked together on an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire in 2010]. What he does is so personal, he brings his own view.” The production received mixed reviews, but the Telegraph said Huppert “delivers the deep emotional punch”.

Before that, she had not been on the UK stage for 20 years, when she played the title role in Howard Davies’ production of Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart at the National Theatre. “That was a memorable experience for me,” she says.

In his review at the time, the Independent’s Paul Taylor said Huppert “devours the stage with the animal vigour of a refined thoroughbred”.

Huppert grew up in Paris, and her mother encouraged her to act. She studied Russian at the Faculte de Clichy, before accepting a place to study drama at the Conservatoire National.

After graduating, she started with small roles in films, “though I did a little theatre in the beginning”, and broke out in France with Les Valseuses in 1974. She received international recognition three years later with La Dentelliere, for which she won a BAFTA and did not return to the stage properly until 1989. Since then, she has worked regularly in theatre.

Memorable performances include the title role of a 2001 production of Medea, and then the lead in Hedda Gabler four years later, as well as a French touring production of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis and God of Carnage in Paris.

“Theatre involves fewer people, so in a way you can make very ambitious work in the theatre now rather than in movies. It is fulfilling,” she says, adding: “There are so many classics I haven’t done, but I would love to do Chekhov.”

Huppert is intrigued by gender-swapped roles. “It is very, very tempting. I know that Glenda Jackson did King Lear, I wish I could have seen that. That would interest me,” she says, adding that she did gender-swapping in Orlando.

Next up is Mary Said What She Said at Theatre de la Ville, directed by Wilson, and an English-language adaptation of Florian Zeller’s The Mother in the US.

“I would love to perform on the UK stage again,” she says, adding that Mary Said What She Said will “hopefully” transfer. “I’m doing The Glass Menagerie with Ivo van Hove, but it’s not going to be a long time from now. I will probably work with Simon McBurney in the long future.”

Just a touch of that famed froideur creeps in as she says: “But I’m not going to tell you everyone I’m going to work with,” before breaking the tension with a chuckle. “Of course, there are others.”

Isabelle Huppert Reads Marquis de Sade will be at the Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on June 9

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