In the new thriller “Greta,” Isabelle Huppert plays a widowed piano teacher named Greta who ensnares a naïve New York waitress (Chloë Grace Moretz) in an increasingly demented game of cat and mouse. What starts as a mild-mannered, intergenerational companionship ― Moretz’s character stays for tea after returning the purse Greta left on the subway ― becomes a tense, potentially lethal stalker situation.
Huppert finds the whole thing hilarious, which says as much about her twisted sense of humor as it does the film, directed with a campy wink by Neil Jordan (“Interview with the Vampire,” “The Crying Game”). When I met up with the 65-year-old French legend last week, she delighted in calling Greta a “psychopath” whose prim manners and tepid wardrobe hide a raging turbulence. It doesn’t get more Huppertian than that.
Perhaps because she’s known for such morally ambiguous characters ― “The Piano Teacher,” “Elle” and “Greta” would make a wild triple feature ― Huppert has garnered a reputation for being cold and steely. But this was my third time interviewing her, and I’ve always found her engaging. Whatever superiority she evinces is the mark of someone uninvested in the frills of celebrity. Ask Huppert, who munched on chocolate during our conversation, to discuss the ironies embedded in her screen work, and you’ll see a spark of her sly playfulness.
American audiences, for the most part, might only know you from “Elle,” “I Heart Huckabees” and now “Greta,” which is an interesting slate.
And a little bit of “Heaven’s Gate,” I hope. And “Amour,” too.
For those who only know you through “Elle” and will now see you in “Greta,” how do you think people would perceive you as an actress?
[Laughs.] Well, there will necessarily be a great misunderstanding. Yes, you always perceive an actress through her roles, especially someone like me. People know very little about me, and that’s not going to change. I was on television shows every other day [during the 2016-17 Oscar campaign for “Elle”] to explain who I am and things like this, so people either have a preconceived idea — or worse, a complete misunderstanding, which I don’t mind at all. I find it really funny because people view you through your roles and they cannot imagine how nice I am. It comes with the territory.
What is the role you think has most defined the average moviegoer’s perception of you as a person?
I’m talking about movies that I know were seen here, so “The Piano Teacher.” Way back a long time ago, it was “The Lacemaker,” which was a totally different character, but that’s the first of these kinds of roles, I guess. But “The Piano Teacher,” yes. I mean, so many people talk to me about it. I think it really, really marked something at the time it was released. And of course, “Elle.”
And here you are playing another piano teacher.
But that one, I like to say, is really different from the other one. Of course, with “The Piano Teacher” and “Elle,” I can understand how twisted people can perceive them as, but in fact, they are not twisted and I think that people more or less consciously know that. It’s what I always keep saying about certain characters: There’s a part of innocence no matter how twisted and [no matter how many] negative adjectives that can define them. At the end of the day, you still think this is part of innocence. Greta is a bit more difficult.
Greta’s a gray area.
It’s not the style of the film. The style of the film that Neil Jordan wanted to do is not about justifying or trying to enter the psyche of this woman. It’s more about showing facts. At the end, you can always say, yes, it’s out of loneliness, but it’s really the story of a real psychopath — nothing less, nothing more.
That’s exactly it. The character’s innocence in “The Piano Teacher” is the reason people are shocked by the movie. Do you think there’s something about piano teachers — or piano players in general — that lends itself to such explosive repression?
Well, in “Greta,” there is this kind of obsession with music. Of course, it creates a little off-camera perception. Music comes with a lot of emotion. Music is really a way of elevating the world, but in the case of “Greta,” what’s really funny about it is that when you find out halfway through the film — and I don’t want to reveal what it reveals — what the piano is hiding, it casts a different type of shadow upon the music. That’s very funny.
Because it’s demented.
Yeah, it’s completely demented. It’s so funny, you know? That’s one little twist, which I only realized when we were doing the movie because, in fact, Neil told me he was going to add all these things into the movie that were not in the original script.
So she wasn’t a piano player originally?
I don’t think so, or the music part was not so important in the story. That was Neil’s idea, to come up with this music. But then, of course, it’s really twisted because of what the piano hides and what the sound of music is also most of the time supposed to hide.
It’s the same with the dog. At the beginning, you say, “Oh, she’s so nice; she loves the dog,” and it’s horrible what she does to the dog. That was a really nice character. I really liked it because it’s also a horror film, a psychological thriller and it’s very funny.
I think it’s very, very difficult; you need Neil’s talents to combine all these three elements. As the film goes, it’s always together. And we could tell the first time we watched the film with an audience at the premiere in Toronto. We were surprised to see how much people laughed. Especially in the most horrifying moments, people laugh. I like that, this ironical distance.
You seem unconcerned by the idea of people thinking your sense of humor is twisted.
Yes, it’s something I was happy to bring more and more over the past few years in roles in most of my movies if I can do so. I can’t do it without certain atmospheres, certain directors, of course, and certain dialogue. We’re talking about people like [“Elle” director] Paul Verhoeven. It’s the same in, let’s say, a Hitchcock movie. There was always this edge between something really dark and a great sense of humor. I think it’s also a mark of great, great directors, most of the time. There’s this razor-edge position where you’re always halfway between tragedy and I wouldn’t say comedy, but something funny. It’s really something I bring completely naturally. It’s very much me, I would say.
To what degree did the costumes in “Greta” and “The Piano Teacher” define those characters? They dress very conservatively. They’d seem unassuming if you passed them on the street.
Sure, absolutely. We spent a lot of time trying to define Greta. That was essential. Sometimes you feel like she comes from another period of time. She could have been a woman from the ’40s, with that kind of fashion. And later, when you see the room where she keeps her victims, that was really enthusiastic for me. It was this little room with all these little dolls and teddy bears and this baby atmosphere. It’s really someone who lives completely in a mental claustrophobia from the past and never really being able to cut the ties from childhood and when her own daughter was a little girl. It’s disturbing. But the way she’s dressed is really important.
You said last year that your guiltiest pleasure is imagining yourself as a “sadistic and manipulative murderer.” Does Greta scratch an itch?
Oh, she truly does, yes, and for that she gives me a lot of satisfaction.
But again, I think what’s interesting is that you quite rightly said you don’t pay attention to her. She’s as gray as the walls, at the beginning, so it’s also this kind of distortion between her being completely invisible and a monster that’s grown inside her over the years. Going through all those extremes is always interesting. Even the way Neil Jordan showed New York City, also. There was a sort of timelessness, which I think is really interesting. It creates a kind of mystery.
The movie makes you seem very accomplished as a pianist.
I don’t play a lot. I’m not Martha Argerich. I had to practice, of course, so I took lessons before I went to work and then as I was working, with this very nice man in Dublin. And I have a piano in my house. In fact, when I was in Dublin, the environment where I was was completely a mirror for the atmosphere [of “Greta”]. I’m not saying that I was killing little girls when I wasn’t working, but I was alone in this wonderful and beautiful house playing the piano, so there was this kind of exact connection between the life I had as I was doing the movie and the role I was playing.
Did you first pick up piano when you were young?
Oh yes, of course. My mother was teaching me piano. She was a very good pianist herself. I played a lot since I was 6 years old. But then I stopped. I really worked very hard for “The Piano Teacher” because [director] Michael Haneke really wanted us to perform, which was even worse — or not worse, but more admiring ― for my [scene] partner, Benoît Magimel, because Benoît had never played the piano before. I had played the piano before, and this Bach piece I had to play was, oh my God.
Very difficult. And at the end, it’s really me playing, and that was really difficult. I really studied, like, over a year for that because he didn’t want to cut [the scene together using a body double].
What’s the strangest or most interesting skill you’ve learned for a movie?
That’s a very good question. Maybe the piano. In cinema, you recreate the idea of naturalism and realism, and cinema in a way is a trick, you know? It’s more imaginary work, and the technical aspect is left to the film itself, to the cutting, to the editing.
I don’t drive. I know it might sound very, very surprising for an American audience, but it’s the case: I don’t drive. So whenever I have to drive a car, it’s better for me to rehearse a little bit because I could also run over people. Just to brush up a little bit my driving skills. Or I remember I did this movie with Benoît Jacquot, the French filmmaker, called “Villa Amalia.” I’m not sure the movie was ever released here. It’s a wonderful film. I had to swim a lot, and I had to be a good swimmer. But it’s fun to be forced to swim or to be forced to practice music and this kind of thing.
What was your favorite movie last year?
You know what, I wouldn’t say “favorite” because it’s not my type to be that emphatic, because there’s so many things to be enthusiastic about in general, but the last movie I saw was “Wildlife.” Paul Dano. I thought it was so bright. I just loved it. It was so sensitive, and the direction is so amazing because it’s very stylized. I thought Carey Mulligan was amazing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.