“A difficult role is never difficult to do,” says Isabelle Huppert. “It’s difficult to watch but not to do.” Of all actresses, she should know. The imperious Huppert has been making the toughest, most torturous of roles look easy for than four decades now. If the obvious example would be her self-destructive title role in Michael Haneke’s 2001 drama The Piano Teacher, Huppert’s characters are always complex, contrarian and raw. Rarely has an actor’s body of work felt more like an emotional assault course.

It’s barely credible that this elegantly attired redhead bears no scars from her roles. “It’s two different jobs, being a viewer and an actor,” she continues, when we meet in a Berlin hotel. “I know it because I’m a viewer as well, so when I see a difficult role on screen, I say, ‘Oh my God!’, but it’s never difficult; a great role, for an actress, it’s always easy, as it’s full of richness and full of depth. A bad role is much more difficult to do.”

As she’s proven again and again, Huppert doesn’t do “bad” roles. Recently seen in Joachim Trier’s Louder than Bombs, playing a war photographer more devoted to her career than her family, she’s just received triumphant reviews at Cannes for Paul Verhoeven’s Elle.

Cannes is something of a spiritual home for her – she’s had a record 22 films presented there over the years, and has twice won Best Actress – for The Piano Teacher and for 1978’s Violette Nozière, playing a 1930s murderess in her first role for the late Claude Chabrol, the director with whom she’s most closely associated.

Now she’s about to begin a live run at the Barbican, starring in the Greek myth-inspired Phaedra(s). Performing in French with English subtitles, it’s her first time on the London stage in more than 20 years since she played Mary Stuart at the National.

A Woman Under Many Influences

“I really love theatre,” she says.  In fact, Huppert’s affection for the stage stretches back much further than her love for cinema. After studying at the Paris Conservatoire, an early engagement saw her work on a low-key production of her sister Elisabeth’s play The True Story of Jack the Ripper, directed by her other sibling, Caroline. While she made her film debut in 1971 and broke through six years later in The Lacemaker, which won her a Bafta for Most Promising Newcomer, Huppert never let her theatrical career slip. Heavyweight roles – Orlando, Medea, Hedda Gabler – compel her.

In her first stage role since her 2014 turn opposite Cate Blanchett in the Sydney Theatre Company’s version of The Maids, Phaedra(s) reunites her with Krzysztof Warlikowski, the acclaimed artistic director of Warsaw’s Nowy Teatr, who previously directed her in a 2010 production of A Streetcar Named Desire panned by critics (Le Monde dubbed it a “futile stylistic exercise”). Phaedra(s), on the other hand, has been wildly successful in Paris and will travel to New York in September.

Taking on the Greek myth of the queen who falls in love with her stepson, this version relocated to the modern world is a melting pot of influences. “It’s very strange,” says Huppert. “Warlikowski is Polish, the text will be inspired by Euripides and Seneca, and there is Sarah Kane [whose play Phaedra’s Love serves as inspiration], and JM Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello [from which extracts are taken].”

Huppert will appear on the London stage at the same time as the capital’s Ciné Lumière is hosting an ongoing two-month retrospective of her film work, a mixture of classics and rarities. Still to come are Loulou and Valley of Love, the two films she made with Gérard Depardieu some 35 years apart. In addition, Huppert will appear on stage in conversation with British director Stephen Frears. It’s an intriguing pairing; they’ve never worked together but both are utterly uncompromising in their views on cinema.

A Great Enigma

In person, Huppert plays down her fearsome reputation, built on more than 100 movies and TV productions. If she’s up there with Depardieu as a giant of French cinema, she refuses to believe the hype. “Really, that’s the most stupid thing in the world,” she sighs. “I respect it but I hope the greatest icon in the world, they don’t really believe that otherwise they’re in bad shape. I respect it because it’s a respect to the way I work, but it’s so far from my reality.”

Married for almost 25 years to the film-maker Ronald Chammah, who directed her in 1988’s Milan Noir, Huppert’s “reality” is as a mother to three grown-up children, Lolita, Lorenzo, and Angelo. She has shared screen time with Lolita several times, notably on 2010’s little-seen Copacabana. “For the first two hours, it was very funny,” she recalls of their work together. “We couldn’t take ourselves seriously.”

Isabelle Huppert and Kris Kristofferson in notorious 1980s flop Heaven’s Gate

The daughter of an English teacher and safe manufacturer, born and raised in Paris, Huppert had great encouragement from her parents when she wanted to act. But when it comes to her own offspring, she claims Lolita never once said to her that she wanted to be an actress when she was growing up. “Whatever they do, you’re always scared. If she were a pilot, I’d be scared as well.”

Huppert can be enigmatic when she wants, not least when it comes to her process of selecting parts. Her American outings have been limited, deliberately, and remain as eclectic as her European career. From Michael Cimino’s epic western flop Heaven’s Gate, another forthcoming film in the Ciné Lumière retrospective, and indie darling Hal Hartley’s Amateur, to David O Russell’s oddball I Heart Huckabees, you suspect she’s viewed as something of an exotic eccentric over the pond.

Still, Huppert agrees with the increasing cry in America for equal pay, a shout made loud by Patricia Arquette when she collected her Oscar in 2015. “I think Patricia Arquette was very brave to say it, where she said it. Maybe I don’t have to face exactly the same [thing]… but in general, of course, it’s the same for every woman in the world. Yes, of course, you should get equality. Worldwide!”

Admittedly, equality is less of a problem for Huppert, who has the cherry-pick of European projects. This year alone, she’s played a crisis-suffering philosophy professor in Mia Hansen-Løve’s acclaimed Things to Come and a CEO who avenges herself on a rapist in Verhoeven’s Elle. Huppert denies that Verhoeven, the director of Basic Instinct and Showgirls, is as crazy as his legendary reputation has it. “I think that’s a fake reputation. Maybe in America [he’s like that], with mad people, but not here.”

In July, Huppert is returning to work with Haneke again, her fourth outing with the Austrian. The film, a familial drama set in Calais to the backdrop of the refugee crisis, has what might be the most ironic title this year, Happy End. “There is always something a bit political in Michael’s inspiration,” she reflects. “Through his characters, he speaks about the conflicts of the world, in general, and even more so in this case, because he chose to set up this big, wealthy family right next to where the migrants are.”

Now 63, Huppert has admitted in the past that she could call time on her acting career. “When you do something that you really like, as I do, you are also dependent on what you do, because it’s a pleasure, but it’s a need. Sometimes you flirt with the idea of not being…” Really? “Yes, sure,” she smiles. “Not for long. For five minutes!”

Phaedra(s) is at the Barbican, London EC2 (barbican.org.uk/theatre), from 9-18 June. An Isabelle Huppert retrospective runs to 12 June at Ciné Lumière, London SW7 (institut-francais.org.uk), where she will be in conversation with Stephen Frears on 11 June

This post originally appeared on iNews on June 2, 2016, and has been reposted with permission.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.