Before she was the priestess of fire on Game of Thrones, we talked to smouldering Dutch actress Carice van Houten on Black Book and taking on Hollywood.
This interview was published in Issue 16 of Wonderland, December/January 2009.
It’s a year-and-a-half since Carice van Houten burned up screens in Paul Verhoeven’s brilliant Dutch-language WW2 epic, Black Book. And, better late than never, Hollywood has finally wised up and come a-knocking
“Honestly, I wished I’d been covered in real shit. I think it would’ve been preferable.” Carice van Houten isn’t joking. In fact, the most famous actress in Holland is decidedly grim-faced as she sits in the salt-white foyer of an Amsterdam hotel recalling her least favourite day on Black Book. Basic Instinct-director Paul Verhoeven’s mesmerising 2007 return-to-form made van Houten a megastar in Holland and put her squarely on the international radar. The scene in question saw van Houten’s character – a Jewish resistance fighter who dyes her pubic hair blonde and falls in love with a Nazi officer – stripped and sprayed with 200 litres of human excrement. “It got all tangled in my hair. It was revolting, humiliating,” she explains. “They used this weird mixture of potato powder and peanut butter and some sort of greasy cookie as a substitute, but it smelt so sweet, at the end of the day I was screaming for the real thing!”
If this were the 1940s, the fiendishly talented van Houten would have been on the payroll of MGM for a decade. The powers that be would have changed her name to Carrie and she’d be giving Marlene, Greta & co a run for their money. Verhoeven, for one, has described her as the most talented actress he’s ever worked with. Admittedly, many of Verhoeven’s leading ladies have not been renowned for their acting chops (Elizabeth Berkeley in Showgirls, anyone?). But still, it’s high praise indeed from the notoriously hard-to-please Dutchman. Since working with Verhoeven – who, when asked recently to compare her work with that of Sharon Stone, announced that “Carice can really act” – van Houten has made a string of high-profile movies. Her role in Leonardo DiCaprio-starrer Body Of Lies may have ended up on the cutting-room floor, but van Houten can still be seen in Dorothy Mills, an Irish child-killer thriller to be released in the new year; From Time to Time with Maggie Smith, directed by Julian Fellowes; and scifi suspense Repossession Mambo, in which she plays Jude Law’s wife. First out of the blocks, though, is her eye-catching turn as Tom Cruise’s wife Nina von Stauffenberg in Valkyrie, Bryan Singer’s Superman-follow-up, about the failed 1943 assassination attempt on the life of Adolf Hitler.
The 32-year-old was already well known on the Dutch stage before BlackBook changed everything. At the time, she claims, she didn’t dare to dream what working with Verhoeven might do for her career. “Maybe when we played the Venice film festival I thought, ‘Hey, wait, so it means that I can also touch or at least talk to other audiences,” she says. “But apart from that, I had no idea…So much has changed for me since we made that film. I didn’t believe anybody would be waiting for a little Dutch girl who’s already in her thirties.”
Whether they were waiting or not, Hollywood certainly has her in its sights now. “I think Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg and Bryan Singer saw Black Book at the same time in the same room and when they came to make their WW2 film they decided to ask me,” explains van Houten, with a smile that says she still doesn’t quite believe it herself. “I didn’t audition so that’s great; I could have really fucked it up!” So, what does she hope for from her highest profile role to date? “That people like it and that they also think, ‘This girl did a nice scene, I will go and see Black Book’.”
On screen, van Houten projects the smouldering screen confidence of a Katherine Hepburn or Joan Crawford. In person, with her slight frame wrapped in a stripey DVF cardigan, she seems far less robust. She grew up in the small town of Leiderdorp. Her father, a writer and broadcaster, instilled in his two daughters a deep love of the arts. “I remember him taking us to seeAbel Gance’s Napoleon, which was about five hours long,” she laughs. “Oh, and a lot of Laurel and Hardy. And Charlie Chaplin. He also took us to big classical concerts and would give us cassette tapes of Shostakovich. We probably wanted New Kids On The Block at the time, but I am grateful now. The silent film industry’s really dying away and I like to keep it alive. Go onto YouTube and watch W. C. Fields doing a scene called Honest John! It was such genius.”
Van Houten likes to share her passions. She also suggests checking out Dutch artist Jumbah (“For me he’s the best cartoonist around, really funny and rude”). Unlike the majority of her peers, she is also surprisingly candid when it comes to her personal life. She’s been dating The Lives Of Others star Sebastian Koch since he played her on-screen lover in Black Book. “I spend a lot of time on planes flying to Berlin,” she grins. “It’s really embarrassing but I googled him when he got the part. And I think I completely fell in love with him immediately. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. But he said that when we first met, I played very hard to get. It was if I didn’t care at all, so that it made it really obvious. He’s really intuitive – he has almost female radar in that sense! And of course it could be a little awkward on set. We had to shoot a number of sex scenes, and that can be a little weird when you’ve just started dating.”
The couple have plans to make another film together. Smoke and Ochre, a biopic of Afrikaans poet Ingrid Jonker, will also star Rutger Hauer. But what’s next on the agenda? “You know, I don’t really think particularly about the future,” admits van Houten. “I don’t see strategy. I never planned my career. Anyway in my experience you can never foresee what is going to happen. And I do think things happen for reason. I don’t feel that I have to surrender to everything. There is always choice. But usually I just think, ‘Oh fuck it! Go with the flow, for God’s sake!’” She has no plans to up sticks permanently and go west to seek her fortune, then? “I love living here. The Dutch are a little different, I don’t get hassled or anything. I can’t see any drawbacks…” She smiles; a sweet smile. “Well, maybe one: it’s probably not the very best place in the world for fashion.”
Words: Will Lawrence
Images: John Lindquist
Styling: Lauren Blane