Interview with Carice van Houten (Rachel/Ellis)
How were you cast for Black Book and were you apprehensive about
working with director Paul Verhoeven?
I heard somebody say the Master is back! I had a theatre contract but I wanted to audition. But even if I got it I was already committed to something else. So I didn’t think my chances were good. Then I was called by the casting director and I went to a building that was trembling because HE was inside. Of course that made me a little nervous. Anyway i went in and shook his hand and was immediately free of nerves.
Were you nervous because of Paul’s reputation?
He has a reputation, yes. I saw a documentary about him making a film in the 1970s and one of his actresses said they shot for 24 hours a day. She didn’t eat and she was so thin and in between her takes she would turn her head, open her mouth and wait till somebody shoved something in her mouth so she could at least live. So I was a little worried, of course. I also saw little clips of him at work and he was just screaming like a wild animal. But he must have become milder than he once was. I had told my friends that I would come home from filming every night and be crying…he will kill me, this man. But i said I was ready for it, I wanted to have a challenge. But this day [of crying] never came. So every day on the set I wondered when he was going to scream, when would there be this big explosion coming? He was the sweetest man on the set. And I am not being pushed to say that. We had so much fun.
Did you tell Paul how you had expected him to be?
Yeah I said it a few times. But that was the whole thing. I could say anything to him…like dirty old man, just for fun, of course. I talked to him like I talk to my girlfriends. Whatever I said – even if it was very harsh or mean – he would just laugh. Even if i was very grumpy in the morning. But he knew it was a hard part for me and I needed this almost fatherly protection. And he gave me all the trust that I needed. It seemed like two different men – the one in the documentary and the one that I worked with.
Did Paul say why he chose you for the film?
I don’t know exactly. I think it had something to do with the fact that he wanted the character not to be to open, to be a little mysterious. That could be it. I remember he said something like this. Or possibly it could be that I have big tits! (Laughs) No, I don’t have big tits. (Laughs)
How did you prepare for the role?
In school we learned a lot about the Second World War, so I had a big background already. The version we had then was very black and white; my father told me that the Germans were bad. I read a lot of articles about young women in the Resistance. But at a certain point I wondered whether all this historical information could help me to play this part. I had to feel it; I had to get to the core of this woman. I thought that if I was going to carry all the drama of that time with me then we were never going to end this movie. I had to give the character a life and a power. So I did a lot of research and prepared myself but I also tried to make it as personal as I could.
What was the key then to creating this character?
The first time I read the script I immediately identified with her. Not that I am such a hero. But I wanted to give her the same doubts and fears and just make her a woman that you could identify with; not immediately a super hero or a babe or a sad, troubled girl. I started with her being sort of neutral but with a feminine power and a strong intuition. I thought that if people don’t like me, then they are in trouble for two and a half hours. So I had better make her somebody that you want to be with rather than just using the drama.
She is a complex character, was this then one of your most demanding film roles?
Yeah definitely. That is what I liked about it so much. She is not just one character, it seems like she is many different characters – as I feel that I am. She is a girl who can adapt very well to different situations.
One of the most physical scenes was when you escape the Nazis by diving off the boat and into the water. What was that like?
It was a series of three very cold days. But it was fun because all the actors on the boat were very funny. But this was the first sequence when we were shooting something real; we were repeating history. So it had a big impact on me. Also I had never done an action movie before. I did sweet children’s movies or strange parts but never real stuff. It was also shocking. There was an hour when I was not in the shot and I could look at what was going on and I saw this boat with the Nazis who were killing people. It was horrible, a strange day.
What about coping with the cold water?
The jumping into the water was not me. But being in the water and looking at the killer of my family was me. It took quite a long time but I wore something to keep me warm. I didn’t think about what might be in that water. I think I was too much in the moment. It is a very important moment because there the film starts for my character. It is the beginning of a big wound. After that we did not pay so much attention to the grief which just goes on and on.
Was the hardest scene when your character is accused to being a collaborator and covered in human waste?
In the script there were a few things that I was terrified of – a year before we started shooting. One was the scene where I had to be inside a coffin; two was cutting off a fish’s head and there was something else that I didn’t like at all. Probably the bleaching of the pubic hair. The scene in the prison I over read a little. I thought…oh then I am covered in shit, ok. I didn’t realise it was going to be so hard. When I came on the set, full of optimism and just going for it, l there was a little flower in my trailer, with a note from Paul and his wife. The note said…good luck in these coming days. I thought oh no this is going to be horrible if he says this already. It was terrible. This scene was the first really humiliating thing and again we were replaying history because this actually happened. And just to be half naked in a cold place with 150 fake Nazis around me. Then you don’t know how it is going to feel when 200 litres of fake shit is poured on you. At the end of the day I was begging for real; shit because the stuff they used had such a horrible smell. I say please give me real horse shit because it cannot be worse than this. But I knew it was good for the movie. Of course I screamed and cursed a little bit and I made a lot of jokes. I said to Paul that at the end of the day we were going to wrestle in the shit. And at the end of the day I forgot about that, of course, because I just wanted to go home. I was completely done. But Paul was there in his sneakers sassing come on then! He was up for it. That is why I think he really stole my heart.
Had you known from the start about the graphic nudity of the bleaching scene?
It was not so much difficult to do as a little strange and a little funny as well. Of course it was just a little wig. But to have the make up woman standing between your legs with glue, that made me laugh. But every naked scene is not the most fun thing to do.
Why were you apprehensive about being in a coffin?
It was not being in a little space. I am a little superstitious and have always had a strange relationship with death. The idea of being there was something I didn’t like. It was interesting but it terrified me as well. At least there was a space I could see through…otherwise it would not have been good.
And why didn’t you like cutting off a fish’s head?
That also has something to do with death. I am still like a child about things like that.
How do you think Black Book compares with Paul’s classic film
Soldier Of Orange?
I saw Soldier Of Orange a long time ago. When I got the part I did not want to go back into all that. I wanted to start as a new project. People were talking a`bout it but I said we were making a completely different movie. Of course I see the same sort of style and Soldier Of Orange is more heroic than this.
What is the message in Black Book for today’s audience?
There are a lot of messages in this movie, which I like very much. For me personally, the message for people to deal with on a daily basis is the fact that we like to divide the world into black and white but it appears not to be like that. That is hard to understand because we like to put things in slots but that’s not how we should do it. Of course the message at the end of the movie is almost a religious thing…a cry for peace from Paul. If I hit you then you hit me back but somebody has to stop and forgive the other one. Otherwise it will never ever end. That is what I like about the movie is that my character, who is the hero of the whole thing, in the end – unlike the hero in books – lets the guy fall. That is what makes her sadly enough a human being.
Has the film caused old wounds to be opened in Holland?
We expected much more than actually happened. I don’t know it opened old wounds but it definitely opened eyes. The younger generation have been brought up with the idea that the Germans were bad and we were in the Resistance fighting. But it was not always like that. so I am happy that so many young people are seeing this movie. Because I heard that a lot of young people don’t even know when the Second World War was.
So a film like this can teach history?
Yeah and the fact that history is not always right. The cliché is that to understand the future you have to understand history. There are a lot of messages in this movie and you can fall in love with the bad guy who appears to be not so bad.
The love story in the film is powerful because it is so real?
It is! (laughs) Yeah. It was not so difficult with this particular actor to play that he was a wonderful person. Maybe that is a little too personal a point of view…
How easily did you recreate the atmosphere of World War 2 Holland?
I remember the first time I saw this big group of Nazis and it scared me so I thought how this must be if you are a 70 year old woman walking past. That happened as well and for these people it must have been shocking. The sets had lots of Nazis memorabilia – statues, and replicas – and it was a little scary that you got used to it all being around.
You had to sing in the film. Was that easy for you?
At school there was a lot of focus on dancing and singing and I was very happy that I could finally sing on screen. So that was not really a big deal. What was a big deal was to try and keep it fresh when you sang the song 25 times because Paul shoots from every possible angle. And for me singing is even more personal and vulnerable than acting. So that was a hard day as well.
And you speak in German.
I had German in school from 12 to 18 and I had a very good teacher. So I am thankful. Of course I did a refresher course. There was also a very short course – just an afternoon – to learn some Hebrew. I just learned the lines I speak in the film.
How was the film received in Holland?
Very well. I think we have 16 million people and almost 1 million have seen the movie. For a Dutch movie that is unbelievably good. I got a kick in Venice or Toronto because people who did not know the language got it. I thought then it might reach a wider audience.
Have you thought about going to Hollywood?
The movie has not been out in America yet but a few people have seen it and are very enthusiastic. But nobody has called me yet with offers. There are agents who want to represent me. But Woody Allen hasn’t called me yet, for example.
Would you think of going to the USA?
Definitely I would like to work outside of Holland.
Are you a DVD collector?
I don’t have so much time to watch DVD. But I like to buy not rent because it is like owning a book. I like to see the extras as well. The extras in The Office I really liked because they were so funny. I want to watch all the films on DVD that I didn’t see before. Of course I can watch Singin” In The rain for the 27th time but of course there is movies than that for me.