Carice van Houten Talks to Cole Smithey About Making Paul Verhoeven’s "Black Book"
Three Close-Ups at a Good Moment
Carice van Houten
By Cole Smithey
Paul Verhoeven’s World War II era masterpiece "Black Book" owes much of its success to the nimble and delicate performance of its leading lady Carice van Houten. For the role of a young Jewish war survivor who joins a Dutch resistance group after barely escaping a massacre that claims the lives of her family, van Houten chose to play the complex character of Rachel Stein with a naive blitheness that registers as a tour de force performance.
Born in Leiderdorp, Holland in 1976, Carice van Houten possesses a chameleon-like quality that allows every tiny expression of her entrancing face to register with precise layers of richly-colored subtext. While we sat in a small room inside Manhattan’s Regency Hotel on Park Avenue, Carice was unexpectedly candid about her newfound relationship with her "Black Book" co-star Sebastian Koch ("The Lives of Others"), and just as open about working with Holland’s most popular cinematic export—Paul Verhoeven.
CS: How were you cast in the movie?
CVH: I heard that Paul was coming back [to Holland] and that he was looking for a female lead. I had a theater contract at the time that he wanted to shoot it, so I thought that if I even got the part I wouldn’t be able to do it. But he wanted to see every cow in Holland for an audition because he was away for so long. I think the casting people gave him some tips about who to focus on, but he wanted to see everybody.
Of course, with his reputation—finally this man is coming back—the building was shaking when I came in. Everybody was completely nervous. Then I came in and shook his hand and it was immediately over for me. I just thought, "OK." He was so sweet and so nice. From what I’ve heard he worked with everybody with the same energy.
CS: You’ve said that you expected Paul Verhoeven to put you through the wringer on this movie. Did he?
CVH: He did, but he didn’t do it the way I thought he was going to. I had seen documentaries about him making films in the ‘70s, and he was screaming. There were actresses who didn’t eat for twenty-four hours. So, I was a little afraid of that. I had done a lot of movies in my home country, but never so big. It’s a big responsibility to be the main part of a film because if you don’t like me, you have a problem for two-and-a-half hours.
I know that people want to hear crazy stories, but he was really the sweetest director I could have had because he knew that to do such a thing you need trust. You need somebody that leads you through that. And he did it.
Every morning when I came on the set, I thought maybe this is the day that he’s going to explode. But it never happened.
CS: Did you get a sense that Verhoeven was coming back to his European roots while you were making "Black Book"?
CVH: I’m sure he felt like he was home again. He would tell you himself that he was fed up with making "hollow" films [a reference to his last film and Hollywood flop "Hollow Man"]. He wanted to make a more realistic picture. I think it worked for him to be back there [in Europe].
CS: Had you seen a lot of Verhoeven’s films before you met him?
CVH: I didn’t see "Showgirls." It’s good that I didn’t see it because I would have made jokes the whole time with him. But he [Verhoeven] can take it anyway.
CS: Which of Verhoeven’s films is your personal favorite?
CVH: My favorite is "Turkish Delight," but it is a 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 it out. I hated it. And then Paul said (Carice speaks with in a Verhoeven voice with rapid inflection), "Yeah, of course, Sharon did it all. She did it all. She did it all." (laughs).
CS: Did you do much rehearsal for your role?
CVH: Well, I personally don’t like to rehearse so much. I really trust my instincts. I like to talk and talk and talk until we have to do it. I feel the same about theater. I would like to just sit around the table until the premiere, and then do it. I’m not a method actor. I can’t even explain so much what I do.
Obviously, Paul isn’t so interested in character building. He says, "a character is just three close-ups at a good moment." He sees it from a whole different perspective. I think I’m a very intuitive actress. With his technical skills, this combination was very effective I think.
CS: Did he give you creative freedom in developing your character?
CVH: Definitely, yes, Of course he would give me direction. He would say, "Would you make it a little bit bigger," or "a little bit smaller." But then he would say, "Well, do what you want." I felt very trusted by him.
CS: How were you raised to view relations between Germany and the Dutch?
CVH: We were taught in school in Holland that we were the victims, and the Germans were all bad. My father’s a little milder now, but the fact that I have a German boyfriend is something that, 20 years ago, he would have bigger problems with. You can see it in football; they’re out there fighting the war still. It’s still there. But I knew always that Holland gave away the most Jews of all the countries. We are not the heroes that are in the history books.
I was brought up with "The Diary of Anne Frank." I read it, I don’t know how many times.
CS: Did you read a lot of books about the war as research?
CVH: Of course, in the beginning I thought, "this is a World War II part;" I have to know everything about this period." I was brought up in Holland and heard many stories from the war. I read a lot of articles about young women in the resistance. All of a sudden, I felt that if I go too much into this horror, then I won’t be able to start as a fresh character. There is so much going on in this woman’s life that I didn’t want to take every horror from the last scene into the next scene because after ten minutes it’s too heavy. What makes this character survive is that she swallows it and goes on.
CS: How did you approach playing Rachel Stein?
CVH: I had to play with the fact that I had a big, big secret. I could trust nobody and had to walk on eggshells. I didn’t want to put too much of my own knowledge about this period into this character because otherwise she wouldn’t have this sort of innocence anymore.
CS: The scene where you get a huge bucket of human excrement dumped on you must have taken a toll when you were filming.
CVH: It was a combination of potato powder, peanut butter and some cooking grease. It was so horrible that I was screaming for real shit by the end of the day. Then I can relate to that. I know that smell, but this was 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, it was very heavy. I couldn’t even stand up anymore. I didn’t know what to expect. I expended a lot of energy because I was so nervous.
I’m pretty tough on the set, and not so much in person, but I couldn’t even make any jokes anymore. It was humiliating for me as an actress, but it was one of those days where I thought that we were now reproducing history—and we are doing these things now as well.
CS: Did you have a previous singing background that prepared you for the songs you sang in the film?
CVH: Well, I had some singing lessons. I went to a drama school that was orientated toward singing, dancing, writing and music.
CS: What plays were you doing before you filmed "Black Book"?
CVH: One of the last things I did was "Proof;" I did it in Dutch.
CS: How did you get into acting?
CVH: I saw "Annie" in 1982, and I thought I want this. Every New Year’s Eve when I drink a little I have to do the little girl’s song.
CS: You have certain resemblance to Marlene Dietrich. How do you perceive your film persona?
CVH: I see myself as a neurotic who looks completely different hidden behind something. When I see the movie, I see completely someone else and I see myself in very strange situations.
My father is a silent cinema freak, and writes books about Russian cinema in English (laughs). So, I was brought up with all of these black-and-white films with Abel Gance, Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin. I think I even learned to act without speaking. In theater, the scenes I like the most are the ones where you are there and you cannot talk.
CS: How interested are you in working in American films?
CVH: I never really was interested because I thought that I am one of however many actresses they have. They are not waiting for me. I never believed in going to America with my show-reel and knocking on every agent’s door. I couldn’t even do it. I’m too insecure, and too proud. It’s a strange combination.
Now that people are reacting in different countries to this film, I think I have a little more security to think that I can do something outside my home country. And I would like to.
CS: What American directors would you like to work with?
CVH: When I saw "Magnolia" I thought if this man is going to call me, I’m on the plane as soon as possible.
CS: Can you talk about working with Sebastian Koch?
CVH: Well, I have to say that I knew that he was going to play the German guy. With modern technology you can Google somebody, so I Googled his name and I saw this picture. I think I completely fell in love with him immediately, which is a cliché but it’s true.
He came on the first meeting and I thought it was going to be written on my forehead, so I have to play hard to get. But the fact that I did that made him realize that it was so big on my forehead. We were like two older people talking. It was never glamorous. We were very slow and we had a lot of fun.
It’s a very precarious thing, because if it [the romance] goes wrong you still to have shoot, so we were very lowkey.
CS: Sebastian is a huge star in Germany. How much of a sensation is he in Holland these days?
CVH: Yeah, it’s starting in Holland as well. I get messages from girlfriends, "I saw "Black Book," it was great. Thank you, but I’m in love with your boyfriend. I’m sorry." (laughs) It’s not easy for me.
CS: Are you at all concerned about audience reactions to the graphic scenes in "Black Book?"
CVH: I’m not at all ashamed. I can understand people questioning, "Do we have to see that?" Especially, the pubic hair scene; [her character dyes her pubic hair] It’s really Paul’s handwriting there. And I go, "Why not"? This is a part of this film. 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.
I go the set, I undress, I say to the crew, "Boys, this is Tom and this is Harry [referring to her breasts]. We’re going to work here today with them. I just want to make sure everyone around me is comfortable because I take in all of these tensions and I can’t work anymore [if they are not comfortable].
CS: In the last scene, your character refuses to open the coffin for her trapped oppressor. What does that say about this movie?
CVH: It’s one of my favorite things in the movie, actually. It says that it’s very, very difficult to forgive. It says that she’s not the hero that you see in books that, in the end says, "OK, I’ll pull you up because I am a good person and I will forgive you." It’s not like that. It’s not so easy to forgive. It’s almost a Christian thing that Paul wants to make this cry for peace. I like very much that she’s not the hero.