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Actress Isabelle Huppert On Navigating The Good And The Bad In 'Elle'


French actress Isabelle Huppert has been in over a hundred film and television productions in the 40 years she's been acting. In her latest films, "Things To Come" and "Elle," Huppert plays women suffering under very different circumstances. In "Things To Come," her character Nathalie has to redefine her identity after her mother's death and the crumbling of her decades-long marriage.

In "Elle," Huppert plays a successful businesswoman named Michele who is violently raped in her own home. From there, the story unfolds in strange and disturbing ways, as Michele plays a sort of cat and mouse game with her rapist. Isabelle Huppert spoke with our colleague Kelly McEvers.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: The film "Elle" is becoming one of the most talked about films of the year. I actually read that American actresses didn't want the role. Why did you want it?

ISABELLE HUPPERT: I wanted it because I thought it was a great role. And I had no doubt about the integrity to the role. Of course if you just circle the story to the rape and a woman being attracted by the man who raped her, I mean, that really makes the whole purpose very, very narrow and limited.


HUPPERT: I think it's a lot more than this. And she's really interesting character because she's always go against predictable definitions of what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a man. Obviously, the movie's about a woman. But it's also about men, you know, and the men are sort of fading figures, very weak, quite fragile. So it's really also about the empowerment of a woman.

MCEVERS: What are some of the things that you told yourself about this character, you know, what did you say, like, Michele is going to be this or this? I mean, what did you decide about her?

HUPPERT: I didn't decide anything and I didn't tell myself anything, nor did we tell each other anything, Paul Verhoeven and myself. I mean, I had no...

MCEVERS: The director?

HUPPERT: The director, Paul Verhoeven. I just did it as I did it. And every day, you know, I would come on set, I had no previous ideas. I had no constriction in my head. I just had the idea - I had an image of a non-emotional character. Every day I thought maybe at some point, you know, she's going to show some sign of compassion for herself, some sign of emotion some time. And, in fact, she never does, only maybe in two moments and this is when she understood that her mother is going to die and when she learns about her father's death, you know. That where the only moments where I thought, you know, she could have the sign of vulnerability.

MCEVERS: In some ways she's almost like a very - sort of an old-school heroine, you know, you imagine Bette Davis and women going through, you know, these sort of noir scenarios in the '40s. And, you know, they didn't have therapy. They didn't have...

HUPPERT: Yes, absolutely, yes.

MCEVERS: ...Any self-help groups, you know, she's just - how you have to steel yourself and move through life.

HUPPERT: Yeah, absolutely. I completely agree with you. But although the major difference between that time and now is that the border between the good and the bad was very much arbitrary, you know. And the good was the good and bad was the bad. Now what's interesting, especially in a film like this, is that the border is a lot more blurred...


HUPPERT: ...And, you know, you navigate between the good and the bad in a much more subtle way and also much more disturbing way because...


HUPPERT: ...No one is clearly a saint, nor clearly a monster, you know?

MCEVERS: You've played so many different kinds of roles. You've played a, you know, masochist woman who gives illegal abortions, a murderous woman in an incestuous relationship. Now in this role in "Elle," this complicated relationship with her rapist. Are you drawn to, you know, these complicated women, these women who are usually quite far from the norm?

HUPPERT: You know, I never see them as complicated characters. I just see them as normal persons, you know. I think that most of the people describe them as monsters because they don't have other names to name them. But if they really thought they are monsters, they wouldn't go to see the films, you know?


HUPPERT: And the fact that they see the films is the exact proof that they don't see them as monsters, but deep enough they relate to these people. I'm absolutely sure about that.

MCEVERS: The fact that we're fascinated characters...

HUPPERT: Well, of...

MCEVERS: ...Like this means that we recognize the humanity in them?

HUPPERT: Yeah, sure, absolutely. I think the way I approach them is just as very normal person. It's more the situation that usually is difficult.

MCEVERS: What kind of roles are you playing next? What kind of roles do you want to play? I mean, can you imagine yourself doing sort of a big Hollywood, you know, vehicle?

HUPPERT: Absolutely. You know what? I was thinking about that the other day. I think, you know, I'm an actress, I have no problems about being completely versatile to the risk of being in total contradiction (laughter) to what I just said, you know, doing one of those, you know, big films, you know, or, like, being in a Marvel, whatever it is, you know. So you create characters which are complete constructions, you know?

MCEVERS: A superhero?

HUPPERT: Oh, yes, absolutely. That would be a good change for me.

MCEVERS: Well, Isabelle Huppert, thank you so much.

HUPPERT: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: That's the French actress Isabelle Huppert speaking with our co-host Kelly McEvers. Huppert stars in the films "Elle" and "Things To Come," which are out now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.