For Isabelle Huppert, American fame has never been in the cards. At 56, the European superstar is fast approaching 100 career films, and her Streep-size trophy case loudly broadcasts her priorities: two Cannes Best Actress awards, a Cesar, a BAFTA, two European Film Awards, two Volpi cups (from Venice), a Silver Bear (Berlin), and a Crystal Globe (Czech Republic)—and not one Tony, Emmy, or Oscar. She once guest-edited Cahiers du Cinéma, for heaven’s sake. Yet her best-known Hollywood credit is probably I Heart Huckabees. That’s if you’re not counting the film that was supposed to make her a star here, the 1980 bomb-to-end-all-bombs Heaven’s Gate (which she insists was a fine movie, unfairly maligned for political reasons). Reached by phone in Paris, where she’s been blasting Queen’s “Fat-Bottomed Girls” (it’s connected with a forthcoming film, White Material), Huppert seems content with her pattern of making one American movie every seven years or so. Does that mean something for 2011? “If I find a good one, or if they want me,” she says with a shrug audible across the Atlantic.
Like all self-respecting indie darlings, however, she has done time in Brooklyn. Four years ago, she starred in an acclaimed French version of Sarah Kane’s brutal, spare 4.48 Psychosis at BAM, and next week she returns for Robert Wilson’s twice-removed take on Les Liaisons Dangereuses. It’s typical Wilson: a hyperstylized free adaptation of Heiner Müller’s avant-garde play Quartett, which has two scheming, sexy French aristocrats exchanging declarative barbs (“Je voudrais le pouvoir!”) and swapping sexes for part of the evening. (It will be performed in French, with English supertitles.) “To me the experience of an actress is to go through layers of states of mind,” says Huppert, famously a fount of discursive musings on her craft. “I’m more interested in that than in pretending to look like a character, which is by definition arbitrary and fictional, and which does not exist.”
Having played a sadomasochist (The Piano Teacher) and a heap of murderous prostitutes and adulterers, Huppert could ace the part of the manipulative Marquise de Merteuil in any version of Liaisons, but she prefers the “salaciously humorous and very sardonic” tone that Müller and Wilson add to the story. “What Bob Wilson brings in his work is to portray the two characters like they were animals,” she says. “I like it because I think it’s the most unconscious part of human nature to express animality, savagery, and ferocity.”
Huppert’s pickiness in directors (she’d happily choose another go with Claude Chabrol over a script by a hot newbie) is rooted in that very French reverence for the auteur. And Wilson, for her, is such a specimen. “Once you’ve worked with Bob,” says Huppert, who starred in his earlier staging of Orlando, “he can take you anywhere he wants.”
Theater occupies a surprisingly large chunk of Huppert’s résumé, considering that the actress is often lauded (and occasionally criticized) for acting, Garbo-style, entirely through her impassive, mysterious face, which shouldn’t translate to the stage. But Huppert considers Wilson to be as cinematic as a theater director can get. “He reinvents the idea of close-ups through sound and through light,” she says, noting his use of spotlights and microphones to focus the audience on faces and monologues. “He manages to re-create exactly the same feeling as you would have in a film.”
He’s also famous for his visual tics and wild costumes, and Huppert’s hair in Quartett is a striking sideways cone—picture Gary Oldman’s updo in Dracula, cut in half. How do they do it? “It’s a wig,” she says. “Everything is fake in the theater, but everything is true.”