BLACK BOOK Interview with Carice van Houten
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BLACK BOOK An Interview with Carice van Houten
April 2, 2007
The thing about foreign films that are fascinating to watch is that female roles are always powerful and stronger than the ones played by Americans. Whether is lead or supporting, the roles have plenty of depth. Pedro Almodovar is not the only director who can do wonders for foreign actresses. Enter Paul Verhoeven. Having being away from the spotlight for some time, after films like “Total Recall”, “Starship Troopers” and of course, “Basic Instinct”, which by the way launched the career of Sharon Stone, Verhoeven has returned home in Holland and has created a sensation of a role for Carice van Houten in his next film, Black Book. In the film, Carice van Houten plays Rachel Steinn, who during the war goes into hiding and assumes the name Ellis de Vries. When Rachel survives an ambush that killed our family, she joins the resistance group in Holland trying to free locals who have been captured by the German. While shooting the film, van Houten met and fell in love with her co-star, Sebastian Koch. In speaking with blackfilm.com, van Houten talks about doing a film for Paul Verhoeven, talks about her character, and falling in love with Koch.
Did Paul Verhoeven put you through the ringer? He’s known for being tough on his actresses.
Carice van Houten: He did, but he didn't do it the way I thought he was going to do it. I was really scared that he would....I just saw a documentary about him making films in the 70s, and he was screaming, and there were actresses who didn't eat for twenty-four hours and they were just like turning their heads for somebody to shove something in their mouths so they could just move on. So I was a little afraid of that, because I've done a lot of movies in my home country, but never so big. Of course it's a big, big responsibility, to sort of be the main part in this film, because if you don't like me, you have a problem for two and a half hours. So I felt that was a big thing. I know a lot of people want to hear something else, like crazy stories, but he was really, like, the sweetest director I could have had, because he knew what to do. Such a thing needs trust, and you need somebody who leads you through that, and he did it. Every morning when I came on the set, I thought 'maybe this is the day he's going to explode,' and 'maybe this is the day we're all sort of waiting for,' but it never happened.
He’s done so many big films, so did you get a sense that he was coming back home literally and figuratively with this film?
Carice van Houten: Well, of course, I wouldn’t know how he worked before or how he worked in America but I’m sure that he felt definitely home again. He will tell you this, that he wanted to make something more real. He was fed up with making (films) like “Hollow Man”. He would make jokes. He would tell you that he didn’t want to make hollow films like “Hollow Man” anymore. He wanted to make realistic pictures and of course, he’s a Dutchman and I think that works for him to be back.
What is your working process as an actress? Do you rehearse a lot?
Carice van Houten: I personally don't like to rehearse so much. I really sort of trust my instinct. I like to talk and talk and talk and talk, until we have to do it. As well in the theater -- I'd like to just sit around the table until the premiere, and then do it. But of course, that's not always possible. I'm not a method actor, I just....I can't even explain it so much, what I exactly do. I couldn't really put the finger on the way that I do it, but Paul is not so interested in character building. He says a character is just three close-ups at a good moment. He really sees it from a whole different perspective. I think I'm a very intuitive actress. With his knowledge and technical skills, this combination worked well, if you know what I mean.
Did he give you creative freedom?
Carice van Houten: Definitely yeah. Of course, he would give me advice to either make it a little bigger or smaller and in the end, he would say, “Do what you want.” I felt very trusted by him. He didn’t need to talk so much to me.
Did you work out a backstory on the character and fleshed it out in your head or was it more intuitive than instinctual?
Carice van Houten: More of that. In the beginning, I thought, “This is a WWII part and I have to know everything about this period. This is a big thing. I have to go into it and I was brought in Holland with these stories, but I read a lot of articles about young women in the resistance and about Jewish women; and then all of sudden I thought that if I go too much into this horror time then I won’t be able to start fresh, as a fresh character. There’s so much going on in this woman’s life that if I didn’t want to take every horror from the last scene into the next scene because after 10 ten minutes it’s too heavy and it’s what makes this character a survivor. She just swallows it and goes on.
At any time, did you think about your character differently?
Carice van Houten: Not so much.
What was really in the big pot of shit that came down on your character’s head?
Carice van Houten: It was a combination of, like, potato powder, peanut butter and some sort of greasy cookie...it was so horrible that I was screaming for real shit at the end of the day. I was really screaming, like 'give me real -- I can relate to that -- I know that smell -- this is something horrible.' And of course, it was not a funny day, because not only is it an unpleasant feeling to have 200 liters of 'whatever' on you, but it was as well very heavy. I couldn't even stand up anymore. I didn't know what to expect, so it costs a lot of energy because you're so nervous, you don't know what's going to happen.
How many takes did you do for that scene?
Carice van Houten: I think we did two or three [takes.] I remembered that I'm pretty tough on the set, not so much in person , but I couldn't even make jokes anymore. This thick stuff, just going with all this stuff in the shower, I felt horrible. It was humiliating to do, not only for me as an actress, but it was one of these days that I thought 'we are now reproducing history and doing things that still happen as well.
What about the singing? Was it easy for you to do or did it come naturally?
Carice van Houten: Well, I had some singing lessons, but I had singing in school. I went to a sort of drama school that was a little more oriented on singing and dancing and writing and music.
How much Dutch history did you know prior to doing this film and how did it help you out with the character?
Carice van Houten: In Holland, we learn that we were the victims, let's say, and the Germans were all bad. I was brought up with that as well. My father is a little milder, but the fact that I have a German boyfriend now....twenty years ago, he would have had bigger problems with it, let's say. So, it's still a big thing. You can see it even in football, they're fighting the war out still, there. It's still there. But as well, I knew always that Holland was a country that traded, the Dutch peopled traded the most Jews of all the countries. So that's what I knew as well. I knew already that we were not the heroes that were in the books. Of course, Anne Frank, I was brought up with that, I read it I don't know how many times. I don’t know if I used that background so much. I had to play with the fact that I had a big secret, so to trust nobody and to walk on eggs. I didn’t want too much of the knowledge that I had on this period into this character because otherwise she wouldn’t have this sort of innocence anymore.
Have you seen anyone of Verhoeven’s films?
Carice van Houten: “Showgirls” I didn’t see and that’s funny because it’s good that I didn’t see it because I would have made jokes the whole time, but he can take it anyway.
Do you have a favorite one?
Carice van Houten: My favorite is “Turkish Delights” which is very old movie. I thought it was a very romantic film, but “Basic Instinct” I saw a lot of times and I couldn’t figure out who did it. I hated it. I couldn’t figure it out and of course, Paul says “Sharon (Stone) did it. She did it all”. So, Turkish Deilights was my favorite.
What American directors would you like to work with?
Carice van Houten: When I saw Magnolia, I thought 'if this man (Paul Thomas Anderson) is going to call me, I'm on the plane as soon as possible.' I think this movie is....but I don't know where he went!
How interested are you in working in America?
Carice van Houten: I never really was because, first of all I thought, I don’t know how many actresses they have. They are not waiting for me I think. I never believe in going to America with my show reel and knock on every agent’s door. I couldn’t even do it. I’m way too insecure and too proud. It’s a strange combination, but I didn’t believe that could work and now for the first time I think that people react in different countries that I have a little more security to think that maybe I can do something outside my own country and I would like to because there’s not so much to do anymore for me now. I’ve done a lot and now I’ve worked with Paul. What more is there to get in my own country?
How did you get involved in the film?
Carice van Houten: I heard that he was coming back and I heard that they were looking for a woman or a girl or a female lead and I was doing theater at the moment and I had a theater contract at the time that they wanted to shoot it so I thought that if I even get the part, I couldn’t even do it because I’m doing theater. He wanted to see everyone including every cow in Holland. He wanted to see everybody because he was away for so long. I think the casting people gave him some tips on where to focus on, but he wanted to see everybody. Everybody came and was very nervous because of course, with his reputation and finally, this man is coming back. This building was shaking. I came in and shook his hand and it was completely over for me. He was so sweet and so nice. What I heard is that he’s worked with everybody with the same energy. I didn’t come into my lap.
What other roles have you played?
Carice van Houten: One of the last things I did was “Proof” here in theater. I did it in Dutch.
You have a Marlene Dietrich quality. Do you feel that affinity? How do you see yourself?
Carice van Houten: I see myself as a nerd who looks completely different when hidden behind something. When I see the movie, I see two things; I see somebody completely else and I see myself in a very strange situation, let's say.
Can you talk about working with your co-star, Sebastian. When did the real life romance begin?
Carice van Houten: I knew that he was going to play the German guy. Of course, with modern technology you can google somebody, so I googled his name and I saw this picture. It was an older picture, but I think I completely fell in love with him immediately, which is cliche, but true. He came to the first meeting and I thought 'it's going to be on my forehead,' so I have to just sort of play 'hard to get.' But the fact that I did that made him realize immediately. We were like two older people, just sitting and talking. It was not glamorous, we were very slow and we had a lot of fun. Of course it's always precarious because if it goes wrong and you have to shoot, I don't know what, you're in trouble, so we were very low key.
Can you talk about the nudity in the film? How strange was it for you to do and how ready are you for whatever the reaction is going to be here?
Carice van Houten: I'm completely ready for it. I'm not at all ashamed. I can understand people being something like 'oh, do we have to see this?,' especially the pubic hair scene. It's really Paul's handwriting there. I think it's funny and I think 'why not?' This is a part of this film. Of course I'm not an exhibitionist; it's not my favorite thing in the world to do. But I like to deal with this subject with humor; if I go on the set, I swallow first, then I undress, and I say 'boys, this is Tom and Harry, we're going to work together with them.' I'm very sensitive; I feel that if you are ashamed, then of course everybody wants to watch it. So I want the people around me to be comfortable, because with all these tensions I cannot work anymore. So it's for my own sake that I have to make jokes about it.
How big of a sensation is Sebastian in Holland?
Carice van Houten: I got text messages from girlfriends writing that they had seen “Black Book” and that they are in love my boyfriend.
Did you get together before or after the movie?
Carice van Houten: We got together during the movie, but very slowly.
What’s your fame like in Holland?
Carice van Houten: There are only two actresses in Holland. (Laughs) I never did so much commercial stuff. I didn’t do any television work. I only did movies and theater so I was never scarily famous, but Black Book is a little different. I don’t how I do it but every time the movie comes out, I look completely different than in the movie. I’m fine with walking in the street.
Carice van Houten: I have some time off and then in January I will be doing theater again.
What’s the message regarding the last scene in the film?
Carice van Houten: It's one of my favorite things in the movie, actually. It says 'it's very, very difficult to forgive.' That's probably the biggest thing. It says, even if you are a hero throughout the whole film....she's not the hero you see in books who in the end says 'I will pull you up the skyscraper because I am a good person -- I'll forgive you.' It's not like that. It's not so easy to forgive. I think it's almost a cry for..it's a Christian thing. It's a cry for peace. Paul wants to show an ugly side of life and an honest part of life. I liked it very much that she's not the hero kind. It's difficult, obviously.
BLACK BOOK opens on April 6, 2007
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