Florian Zeller, 39, is the French writer with the most works adapted for the stage in the United States. The Mother is the first instalment of a familial trilogy and is currently playing at the Linda Gross Theater in Manhattan, starring Isabelle Huppert.
Written in 2010, the play portrays the life of a woman gripped by loneliness after her children fly the nest, leaving her with her disinterested husband, played by Chris Noth (Sex and the City). Isabelle Huppert — already a regular on the New York stage, notably in Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis in 2005, Jean Genet’s The Maids in 2014, and Phaedra(s) by Krzysztof Warlikowski in 2016 — will be performing once again, in English, through April 13.
What inspired this collaboration with Isabelle Huppert?
It happened thanks to a leading Broadway producer, Jeffrey Richards. They met when Isabelle Huppert had just been nominated for an Oscar for her role in Elle by Paul Verhoeven. It takes courage to act in a foreign language, and Isabelle Huppert is one of the few French actresses to perform in English. Before her, I think the only other actress who had performed on an American stage was Juliette Binoche in Betrayal, a play by Harold Pinter in Manhattan. I am delighted with this collaboration with Isabelle Huppert. In my opinion, she is the greatest French actress today.
Isabelle Huppert. © Ahron R. Foster
What are the major differences between French and American theater?
The narration is the main difference. The strength of American theater is found in its ability to tell stories with exceptional efficiency. French theatre, on the other hand, is less efficient but more experimental in form. In a way, the same difference can be observed in French and U.S. cinema. But we are speaking generally, of course. Each author has their own particular identity.
The creative process is another major difference. In France, the last rehearsal is followed by the first performance. In the United States, there is the wonderful concept of previews. We rehearse during the day and perform in the evening in front of a live audience. This offers a highly pragmatic way of adjusting a play by taking into account the crowd’s reactions.
Are New York audiences particularly welcoming to French artists?
There is of course a certain attraction to “Frenchness” in New York, although it is a little abstract and old-fashioned. This image is a fantasized vision of a touristic France that has long since disappeared. Think of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. This movie was a fairy tale packed full of charm and there is no wonder it was so well received in the United States, but is more of a rose-tinted view than a depiction of the actual country. That being said, I have met people who did their all to help me in New York and who are walking encyclopedias of French art and culture. And for these people, actresses such as Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, and Isabelle Huppert really mean an awful lot.
What defines a text written especially for American audiences?
I feel like American plays always have a more or less stated ambition to showcase part of their country. The United States are very introspective in terms of identity and origins, and this has been the source of an incredible quantity of work. I do not share this ambition. When I write, I look to connect with something abstract, secret, and human. This is probably one of the reasons my plays are performed abroad; they are not particularly French…
Florian Zeller. © Ahron R. Foster
You say you work very closely with American actors. What inspired this love of the United States?
My plays are performed in more than 35 countries, but it is true that I am more focused on the United States and England. This is mainly because I understand the language, which enables me to monitor each step of the production process from choosing the director to the casting sessions. I am also more familiar with the way of performing, partly because movies and series have provided almost everyone with some experience of the English language.
I am also among those who have always dreamed of America. I think this fantasy can be traced back to my childhood and the fact my father spent a year at Stanford in California when he was a student. He was so enthusiastic when telling me stories of this time in his life that as a child I associated the country with some kind of distant paradise. My father later travelled to the United States for work and always brought me home a souvenir. I have a distinct memory of a baseball cap with a flamingo on it. I imagine he picked it up in Florida, and I must have worn it every single day for a year. In my eyes it was the most precious object I owned. That same year, when I was nine, I discovered Rain Man. The movie fascinated and overwhelmed me. That was my concept of America: a car driving across a vast desert to the sound of Hans Zimmer, a flamingo baseball cap, and Tom Cruise’s handsome face.
You will be back in New York in September directing The Height of the Storm at the Manhattan Theatre Club. What is your first memory of the city?
I discovered New York when I was 17, and spent two or three weeks there without really knowing what I was looking for. At the time I was a big fan of Paul Auster’s books. I still consider him to be one of the greatest American writers. I associated New York with his intellectual world. It felt like I was wandering through his books. I remember the first time I crossed Times Square. I was a little lost. I was hoping to become a writer one day, but I never imagined that my plays would eventually be performed there. It is truly exceptional. Aside from Jean Anouilh and Yasmina Reza, French plays are rarely featured on Broadway.
The Mother (La Mère)
Linda Gross Theater, New York
From February 20 through April 13, 2019
The Height of the Storm (Avant de s’envoler)
Manhattan Theatre Club, New York