The life of an artist is full of surprises, and none has been bigger for French actress Emanuelle Riva than the one that has come late in life. The response has been overwhelming to her performance in this year’s meditative “Amour,” which brought her the first Oscar nomination of her career — and makes her the oldest Best Actress nominee ever, at 85.
Riva was best known previously for her role in the 1959 French New Wave classic, “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” directed by Alain Resnais. In Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” she plays a wife declining inexorably toward death, losing her physical and intellectual grasp.
The loving husband who cares for her is played by Jean-Louis Trintignant (above at right, with Riva and Haneke), whose breakout role was playing Brigitte Bardot’s young suitor in the original version of “And God Created Woman.”
After a lifetime of steady roles in France, Riva has spent the better part of the past year responding to global interview requests and accepting accolades, including a New York Film Critics Circle award in January that led to her first trip ever to New York. The Oscars will be her first trip to Los Angeles. It will also take place on her 86th birthday.
TheWrap spoke by phone to Riva from her family home in Les Vosges, a region in eastern France.
Thank you for making the time to speak to us.
Well, I am horribly tired. I don’t have a moment to rest. They don’t leave me in peace. But, my word, I said I’d do it.
Have you been surprised by the response to “Amour”?
It surprises us, this much success. I didn’t expect so much interest. But it’s not only to me, it’s to the film, those who worked in the film. We are very happy for this huge public response.
How did Michael Haneke approach you about doing the role?
It’s not me who decided. It’s Haneke who decided. When a director like him chooses someone, he is so precise. He knew me from “Hiroshima Mon Amour.” I was 30 years old. He hadn’t seen me since that time. And he wanted to meet me. It was done very classically. A director looks for an actor, he has a vision, we met.
And then what happened?
We did a rehearsal with the scene in the kitchen — when she begins to depart, to go elsewhere. [For my character, it’s about] the regard that’s no longer there. The absence. It’s terrible. He looked at it closely. He wanted to see me on the screen. He said I touched him deeply in this scene.
What did you think of the role when you read it?
When I read the script I found it so extraordinary. I had the profound certitude that I could do it. I felt that at that moment in my life as an actress, I was immediately capable of doing it. If he didn’t give me the role, I would have been so sad.
Were you afraid of confronting this theme of mortality?
Afraid? No, not at all. Why would I be afraid? This role presents the subject of the film that touches each of us, every human on the planet. As an actress, it’s so exciting to be engaged in a role like this. I would never have felt fear for this. If an actress is afraid, she should head for the door right away.
I was so happy in the work. Every day, every day. Two months of work. It was such happiness–a feeling of complete fullness. Of life, of death, of love. I never lost the excitement of the work. I was so infinitely happy during this shoot. So serious, but it wasn’t sad at all.
What was it like creating that intimacy with Jean-Louis Trintignant?
I’d met him in Rome many years ago when we were young, but I don’t know him well. This is the heart of our work. We meet other people we don’t know, and immediately we are in complete intimacy. I didn’t do anything. I just was there, and him also.
We started with the kitchen scene after the concert at the Champs Elysee Theatre. I seem to recall that scene. We were facing each other at the table as if we’d been for years. I just lived it. This is what’s so marvelous. When I don’t know someone, I’d say I have more freedom as an actress. Sometimes we surprise ourselves, but one can surprise the director with how deep you can go. Haneke — he is fantastic — he was the music of the film.
What direction did Haneke give you?
There was one direction, not 36. From there we had a lot of freedom. He’s not tyrannical. His direction was very simple, very rigorous. We were doing a scene and he said, “It’s very nice — very sweet, very tender — but it’s too tender. No sentimentality. From here on in, no sentimentality.” This was the key that opened the horizon of the film. Once I heard that, it became much more clear. I said, “I get it.” This husband and wife each have very strong personalities. But it is not expressed in sentimentality.
How did you react to the Oscar nomination?
I found out in New York, I was there for the critics circle award. The 10th of January, early morning. My neighbors who help me when I travel shouted for joy. I was barely awake. They were screaming, “You’re nominated!” I stayed very calm. I got up and said, “I’m not nominated.” Of course I was very happy.
And how do you feel about coming to the Oscars?
I am very calm in the face of all of this. I am 85 years old. I am not going to flop about like a fish. What makes me nervous is these hours on the plane. Frankly, it seems like a hell of a journey to me. It’s so long. But I will do things to the end. I will fall in someone’s arms if I need to.
This adventure, this gift, in the last stage of my life — it’s not easy to measure up — but it’s the exact moment in my life when I could do it. Before would have been too early. Later might have been too late. But it’s a great treasure to participate in this film.