Dutch actress Carice van Houten’s first leading role was in the television film “Suzy Q” by Martin Koolhoven for which she won the Golden Calf for Best Acting in a Television Drama. Two years later, she won the Golden Calf for Best Actress for Annie M.G. Schmidt’s children film “Undercover Kitty.” van Houten gained widespread recognition for her performance in Paul Verhoeven’s 2006 film “Black Book,” deemed the most commercially successful Dutch film to date, and for which she won her second Golden Calf for Best Actress. In 2008, she was nominated for a Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress for Bryan Singer’s “Valkyrie” and in 2010 and 2011, won her fourth and fifth Golden Calf Awards for Best Actress for Antoinette Beumer’s “The Happy Housewife” and Paula van der Oest’s “Black Butterflies” respectively. Her other notable English-language performances include Miguel Sapochnik’s “Repo Men,” Christopher Smith’s “Black Death” and Martin Koolhoven’s “Brimstone.” van Houten received international recognition for her recurring role as Melisandre on the HBO television series “Game of Thrones,” for which she was nominated for two Screen Actors Guild Awards for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series and a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series.
Tara Karajica talks to Carice van Houten about playing the character of Sylvia in the TV series “Red Light” that screened in Competition at this year’s Canneseries Festival. “Red Light” was co-created by van Houten and her friend and fellow actress and director Halina Reijn under the umbrella of their production company Man Up and is a swirling, current drama series about three women who lose themselves and find each other in the world of prostitution and human trafficking.
How did idea for Red Light come about?
Carice van Houten: I remember Halina and I sitting in a café once and she said: “I’ve just been in the Red Light District and that’s a great arena to tell a story about female identity and sexuality and power” and these have been great topics in Instinct as well, so it sort of started from there. Then, we didn’t want to focus just on the Red Light District; we wanted to use it as an arena to show more about “the woman”. That’s actually what we really wanted to do and, as Man Up, we want to basically bring lightness to the dark. We want to show topics, subjects that are often taboo because they have not been spoken about, because there’s so much shame involved, so our goal, I guess, is to give solace to people that go through similar emotions, that are not easily talked about. We don’t want to give answers; we just want to start the discussion.
You and the co-creators of Red Light have insisted on less nudity and less sex scenes in the series even with its topics. Is that due to #metoo and your experience on Game of Thrones, where graphic nudity was shown?
C.v.H: I don’t know that it has necessarily to do with Game of Thrones, but I do feel that for both Halina and I, our eyes were opened. We always thought of ourselves as feminists, but when we started this seven years ago, and while we were doing this, we thought “Wait a minute!” Instinct is a film that we did recently and after #metoo, and we really thought: “We don’t want to objectify the female body anymore. We want to do it in a different way.” And here, of course, it’s tricky with the subject, but we didn’t want to “Hollywoodize” it in terms of nudity because we’ve seen so many films and shows, mostly from a male perspective and always very glamorous and we didn’t want to show that; we wanted to show the backdoor of it all. We didn’t want to show it as a Disney kind of world.
You said that when you had your child and went back to work on Game of Thrones six weeks after, you were very careful about what you chose in the future. How has that affected your current choices in films and TV?
C.v.H.: It really affected our company. When we started Man Up, Halina and I both felt after a pretty long career of being actresses, that we don’t want to be circus bears anymore. We sort of always joke about that, that we are just monkeys and I still feel that sometimes – unless you take control, unless you create your own things and that’s what started it. And, it started, in fact, with: What role haven’t I played yet? What kind of character haven’t I played yet? That’s when we came up with this Sylvia character. But, along the way, while we were creating, it was not just about us anymore. We wanted to create an arena for a lot of characters and a lot of actors and that was a really big change in ourselves. We felt really empowered. I remember also on sets sometimes – I’m pretty visually interested and art direction is a thing that I would like to do if I wasn’t an actor maybe – when there are things on the set that I felt like: “This shouldn’t be here” or “this is distracting from the image,” I would just pick it up and feel no shame, no embarrassment because I thought: “This is my own show, I could do this.” That was a great feeling and I’m in the right, and people actually take me seriously. But it was a long, long journey because we started this, Halina and I, literally, from the beginning; we were even part of the financing. We went in our own car to broadcasters and we did it all by ourselves in the beginning. Of course, along the way, we found great producers, but we started it alone and it was a long journey from the circus bear to the producer. I remember one talk that we had with a man and he said after we pitched the project: “OK! And now, ladies, cover your ears because we’re going to talk about numbers and money” and we were like: “What?!” But we didn’t say anything. And now, seven years later, this all might have changed. We would not accept that so easily anymore. The whole show is about women liberating themselves and alongside it, we felt the same way in the creative process.
And, in that sense, how has motherhood changed you?
C.v.H.: Immensely. I feel like that’s the priority. Even shooting now – normally, when you shoot from 8 AM to 7 PM and when you’re picked up and you’re sitting in your trailer for two hours because there’s some delay or they forgot about you, I was always fine, I’d read a book, do something, but now I’m like: “Two hours! I could’ve played Paw Patrol with my son for two hours!” That’s also why I’m way pickier with what I do: Is it worth not seeing my son for this show? Without forgetting myself, my own needs and my own artistic development. But, yes, it has changed me immensely, I think.
When you’re portraying a woman in this world, there’s always this discussion about whether there’s empowerment or victimhood. In your character’s case, is she an accomplice or a victim? Can you talk about that?
C.v.H.: When we did research in the Red Light District world, it is a question you can hardly answer. It’s so complex because we spoke to so many different people. In Amsterdam, we were raised with the idea that it was normal to have the Red Light District. We’re from the ‘70s and thought it was a cool thing, that we were progressive in a way. But then, when we dove into it, we met women that we felt were very vulnerable. But there are also women who speak about it as: “How dare you even judge me? Why do I have a lesser life than you just because I’m a prostitute? And, it’s just my work and it’s just my body. Other men work with their bodies on building sites and we work with our bodies too.” Even though they were very convincing – and I was very confused sometimes when we did the research – I think a lot of women might not be conscious of the suppression yet because they come from a completely different background, so we really couldn’t answer. I thought that the core of the character of Sylvia is that we don’t really know whether she is a victim or an accomplice. She is being suppressed, she has a terrible co-dependent, really abusive, weird relationship, but we also wanted to show that there was real love; we didn’t want to just show: “This is the pimp. He’s the bad guy and this is the prostitute.” We wanted to show a 3D character. So, it’s a really complex arena and, of course, this show is not just about prostitution. With the three women, we wanted to sort of make a portrait of a woman as a whole. And, I think that, in fact, there are a lot of things that these characters have in common and we didn’t want to just make it “she’s a cop, she’s a prostitute, and she’s the opera singer.” We really thought they should merge into each other. I don’t know if you’ve seen the poster, but we tried to not show what they were, to not show police badges, and just to make them one, basically.
Did you change your attitude towards prostitution and human trafficking after this research and playing Sylvia?
C.v.H.: Well, we spoke to a District Attorney who deals with a lot of human trafficking cases, so we did a lot of research on that and there’s a whole world that we don’t know about; terrible things are still happening. And, it’s not just women, it’s men and kids as well and it’s terrible. But, of course, we didn’t want to just make a social drama, we wanted to show more. We wanted to show three different characters. But the thing that struck me the most is that there is hardly any solution because will you legalize it? That, we sort of did, but it’s not really working. If you prohibit it altogether, then it all goes to hell as well. It’s so complex. And, it’s frustrating for people who work in that field because they see how little progress there is; it’s really, really hard. And also, we don’t really want to give answers in this show at all. We just raise questions because we don’t know.
Sylvia is really physical in the way she walks and the way she moves. How did you prepare yourself physically for this role?
C.v.H.: It’s funny that you say that. I don’t think I’ve actually really prepared physically. On the contrary, I feel like I haven’t seen a gym in twenty years, but if I understand you correctly, I did feel like I didn’t want to play sexy prostitutes. She’s just a sort of street-wise character that just fights her way through life and has a lot in common with my own physicality, to be honest. I feel like a boy sometimes. I don’t have a great posture; I just slouch and I really embraced that character. I loved playing this character so much that I improvised the hell out of it. Something in me just started talking and I’m normally quite introvert, but this character just liberated me. It was really great!
How did you distribute the roles?
C.v.H.: Well, funny enough, it started as: “Yes, I’d like to play someone from a different background in that sort of world,” but at some point, we were so busy with the whole thing that we really didn’t care who was playing what anymore. At a certain point, we actually did think: “Oh, maybe I should play the opera singer, maybe it’s a bit more obvious…” So, we juggled it over a long time until it sort of diluted that I was going to play Sylvia.
What is your attitude towards #metoo and other female movements?
C.v.H.: The #metoo movement… As I’ve said before, I always considered myself a feminist, but once #metoo started happening, all of a sudden, I sort of woke up and looked at things quite differently and I was confronted with the way I behave in certain situations, where I feel like I shouldn’t behave like that or that I shouldn’t find this a normal behavior or, I shouldn’t be protesting this. But, again, in the process of making this show, we had to fight for ourselves to be heard. We also draw from our experiences, Halina and I, and sometimes I’m on a set and there are mostly men working and you come up with an idea and you try to sort of help with a certain scene or with the set up and you’re like: “I might have an idea…” I still notice the: “I’m so sorry, can you… It’s probably nothing, but…” The way we women are still sort of finding excuses and are not comfortable with speaking up and in that way – I’ve been really awakened about how I still behave in certain situations. And then, when I come up with an idea that I think is pretty smart, nobody listens and ten minutes later, some man says: “I have a brilliant idea” and he just says the exact same thing and I’m like: “Nobody actually heard me! They weren’t even listening!” So those things are still quite shocking sometimes and I’m not here to blame men; it’s just the situation we’re in. And, Halina and I laugh about it a lot and how we are then afraid to go against it. We call ourselves feminists, but we get into situations where we are not really feminists and we want to show that duality.
What are you working on now?
C.v.H.: I’m doing a show called Temple. It’s the second series for Sky Atlantic and it’s with Mark Strong, Daniel Mays, Catherine McCormack… Really great English actors! I really enjoy it, but it’s a completely different way of working now. I think everyone is really desperate to hug each other again!
Photo credits: Janey van Ierland.
This interview was conducted at the 2020 (hybrid) Canneseries Festival.