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From Ingenue To Antigone: Juliette Binoche Discusses Acting, Aging And Family


This is FRESH AIR. Our guest, the French actress Juliette Binoche, won an Oscar for her performance in the 1996 film "The English Patient." She's also known in America for her roles in the films "Chocolat," "The Unbearable Lightness Of Being" and "Clouds Of Sils Maria." She's now on stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the title role of the Greek tragedy "Antigone." This production of the Sophocles play, with a new translation, was first performed in Luxembourg, London and Edinburgh earlier this year and will tour in October with performances in Chapel Hill, Ann Arbor and the Kennedy Center. We're going to hear the interview Binoche recorded for our show with FRESH AIR contributor Anna Sale, who hosts the podcast Death, Sex & Money. In "Antigone," Binoche plays the daughter of Oedipus. Her brother fought and died in a civil war. He's considered a traitor by her uncle, King Creon, the ruler of Thebes. Creon has decreed that the brother should not be afforded the dignity of a burial. Antigone defies the order, buries her brother and is sentenced to death. She says she's responding to a higher demand than the ruling of an authoritarian king. This clip is from a BBC film made of the production.


JULIETTE BINOCHE: (As Antigone) What they call law did not begin today or yesterday. When they say law, they do not mean a statute of today or yesterday. They mean the unwritten, unfaltering, unshakable ordinances of the gods that no human being can ever wrap around. These laws live forever. No one knows how they were born. You thought I would transgress them for fear of some mere mortal man's decree. No.


ANNA SALE, BYLINE: Juliette Binoche, welcome to FRESH AIR.

BINOCHE: Thank you very much for having me.

SALE: What about this play in particular, this tragedy, were you drawn to?

BINOCHE: Sophocles is still - 2,500 years after, he's still bringing so much truth in our lives. I'm fascinated by it and how can a play - can survive that amount of time, 'cause it does bring the questions about the politics, the gods, the belief. It's a very powerful play.

SALE: One of the questions is what is the appropriate treatment of terrorists - people who were deemed terrorists by the state? And just months before the play opened in London, there were, of course, the shootings in Paris, the Charlie Hebdo shootings. I wonder how did that - did that affect your interpretation of the play and how you saw your character?

BINOCHE: It did bring some questions to me because I was reading in the newspaper that the criminals who did that - nobody wanted to bury them. The region, you know, where they were born or were raised didn't want to bury them. Everybody was trying to avoid it, and a Muslim community, finally, in the middle of the night, buried them, hidden from the others. And it really brought the question to me, you know, because Antigone, my character in the play, is burying her brother, who's a criminal, as well. And nobody wants to bury him. But Antigone, his sister, wants to bury him. And so I thought, OK, this is the case of the jihadists, you know, who - nobody wants to bury them, and yet they're being buried. I know me, Juliette, I would bury anybody. If you're a human being, no matter what you've done, you have to bury your people. That's the law that is beyond, for me, questions. It's part of what we do. We have to bury our people. It says in "Oedipus At Colonus" that if you don't bury somebody, their soul will wander around for the - until the eternity - the end of the eternity, which is never. And so, for me, probably 'cause I'm a mother and there's something about giving birth, you give the body the chance to live. You have to take care of it until the end. It's - there's no question to me. The moral judgment, you know, the good and bad is somehow on another level.

SALE: One of your first starring roles, in 1985's "Rendez-vous," was co-written by Olivier Assayas. And, nearly 30 years later, he wrote and directed you in the film, the "Clouds Of Sils Maria," which came out last year. In the role he wrote for you, you play a lauded and prolific actor, much like yourself, who is returning to a play that made the character famous. The twist in the film is that when you were young, you played the young ingenue, a character named Sigrid. Now you're playing an older, somewhat bitter woman named Helena who falls in love with Sigrid. Let's listen to a clip, and to set it up, you were giving notes to the young actress who's now playing opposite you - the actress is named Jo-Ann, played by Chloe Grace Moretz - and you're asking her about a pivotal scene where you're playing the older character, Helena. And Jo-Snn, the younger actress, is playing Sigrid, the role you played years before.


BINOCHE: (As Maria Enders) I wanted to ask you. You know the scene at the beginning of act three, when you tell me you want to leave and I get on my knees and I beg you to stay - you're on the phone ordering pepperoncini pizza for your coworkers in accounting. What - you leave without looking at me, as if I didn't exist. If you could pause for a second, you know, Helena's distress would last longer when she's left alone in her office. Well, the way you're playing it, the audience follows you out but instantly forgets about her, so...

CHLOE GRACE MORETZ: (As Jo-Ann Ellis) So - so what?

BINOCHE: (As Maria Enders) Well, when I played Sigrid, I held it longer. I thought it was more powerful and dramatic. I mean, it really played well.

MORETZ: (As Jo-Ann Ellis) Well, no one really gives a [expletive] about Helena at that point, do they? I'm sorry, but, I mean, it's pretty clear to me this poor woman's all washed up. I mean your character, right, not you.

SALE: You first had your breakthrough roles as that young ingenue, and you're at a different point in your career now. Have you felt the need to reinvent yourself, as your character in this film does?

BINOCHE: You know, ingenue doesn't mean anything to me, you know, because this innocence that has - the flavor of innocence in the ingenue word is, for me - you can be ingenue at any age. Innocence has nothing to do with age. And I would even say that as you peeling off in your life, you become more and more yourself. You take away all the education, all the fears. For me, it's - there are changes in life, you know, that definitely - you cannot hold on to things when you're reaching at a certain age because when you're holding on, it doesn't work. And this scene you just played is a pivotal scene for my character in the film because it's the moment where she sees there's no going back. And when she accepts that she cannot possess anyone, she cannot change anything, she cannot - she doesn't have the power as before, somehow she gets onto another level of consciousness and onto a level of freedom. And you gain your freedom to get to the core of yourself. That's really what I'm experiencing.

SALE: The character that you play in the film, named Marie Enders, has many similarities with you in your career. You both broke out...

BINOCHE: Oh, you think that.

SALE: Well...

BINOCHE: (Laughter) And the director makes you think that. That's how good he is.

SALE: You can tell me the ways that you're quite different from Marie, but there are notable similarities. You both broke out as young actors on stage.

BINOCHE: That's what happens to actors, mostly.


SALE: That's true. You both performed in "The Seagull," both you and the character in the film.

BINOCHE: Yeah, that - I said to him, you tricky, you know, because you take real information and put it in your - into your film. And he laughed because he knows it's true.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Anna Sale recorded with FRESH AIR - with French actress Juliette Binoche. After we take a short break, we'll talk about how Binoche was discovered by the French film director, Jean-Luc Godard. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Anna Sale recorded with French actress Juliette Binoche, who is now starring in a production of "Antigone" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.


SALE: You were just turning 20 years old when a photo of you caught the eye of Jean-Luc Godard. And he approached you about a meeting.


SALE: You starred in his 1985 film, "Hail Mary." Do you know what he was responding to from that photograph of you? Do you have a sense?

BINOCHE: Well, to tell you the truth, it was my first boyfriend. He was an Italian, wonderful person, actually, very nice and very generous. He really took care of me when I had no place to live, no money, no nothing, and I was, you know, being a cashier in a big department store and doing my theater classes in the evening because my parents couldn't help me financially. And I remember - he was taking pictures at the time. He had a camera and I asked him to take pictures of me. And I would develop the pictures myself in the bathroom, you know, developing my films and doing - because it was less expensive. So one day, I asked him to do the pictures (laughter), and he didn't want to do it. And I was very pissed with him because I needed those pictures. So finally he took those pictures, but my expression was, like, pissed off at him.


BINOCHE: And my eyes were really saying it. So I think that the intensity of my face in this picture - it was the picture that Godard liked, you know?

SALE: What was it like to work with Godard at the very start of your career?

BINOCHE: You know, when I think back, I understand him more than at the time when I worked with him because, as a young actress, you know I was coming out of this school and the teacher - my teacher at the time was just so - taking time, being generous, you know, and mothering me. So when I went to Jean-Luc Godard's film, I thought, he's going to help me, of course, and it wasn't that at all. He only had five people shooting, you know, the sound engineer, the DP, the - maybe a script. And I remember he was quite impatient. But when I look back, he always wanted - he always shot when he really felt like shooting. So there was some kind of sincere need that he was in touch with, with himself. And that I really appreciate now that I know it. At the time, I remember that I didn't know which way to go 'cause one day he was giving me a monologue and said I'm going to put an ear plug in your ear and give you the text because it was one day after the other and I didn't have the memory to, you know, perform this monologue. And then I arrive on the set, you know, ready to go with this monologue and he said, no, fine, you just say those two sentences. That's enough. You know, so I had to adapt with his emotions going up and down. So I was very insecure. I knew - couldn't bear any makeup and - because I was getting red like crazy, at the time. You know, my emotions were really close to my skin. So I remember being very ashamed of all the reds coming up my cheeks - things like that, you know, simple things.

SALE: Both of your parents were performers. Your mother was an actress, your father, an actor and director.

BINOCHE: So my father, actually, was touring around the world in a theater, you know, group he had.

SALE: Yeah.

BINOCHE: He was not sending money so it was very insecure sometime. My mother - she was an actress. She was, you know, studying all - in all this. And then, at 30 years old, she stopped everything and went into studying literature - French literature. And she got her exams and she became a teacher. So that was very courageous of her. But then, at 50 years old, she stopped everything and went back to acting and directing and writing, as well. So I had parents that were very kind of available to whatever they were feeling they needed to do somehow. They didn't try to be too conventional. In that way, that was a wonderful, you know, model as you go with what's inside. It doesn't seem secure from outside, but inside, you have to start from inside. And that's really what happened. So whether I was an actor or painter or dancer, it didn't matter - or whatever I wanted to do, it didn't matter. It's just that you follow what's inside.

SALE: So you started studying theater and acting...

BINOCHE: Very young.

SALE: ...As a teenager.


SALE: And then you lived with your sister after leaving school?

BINOCHE: At 15 years old I was still at school and had the idea whether I was going to go to a boarding school, you know, an hour from where my mother was living or go to Paris with my sister and live there with my grandmother, actually, was working. We were living in a Presbyterian because she was the cook of the priest. And we had - we rented to all - know all the details, sorry about that - and we rented a little old studio there where I lived with my sister.

SALE: You and your sister - how old were you?

BINOCHE: I was 15.

SALE: And how old was she?

BINOCHE: Eighteen.

SALE: How did your relationship with your sister change when you became famous?

BINOCHE: She went to China for a year during that period of time when I became more well-known actress in France. So when she came back from China, she was very surprised. And she actually changed her name because every time she had to sign a check she had to say how we were related and all that. And it was really a pain in the ass for her.

SALE: (Laughter).

BINOCHE: So, you know, I totally understand. Probably not easy for her to start with. Now - I mean, we talked a lot about it. We're very close.

SALE: I want to ask you about what happened in your life in 1996 when "The English Patient" came out and was this critical and commercial juggernaut, winning nine Oscars, including yours for Best Supporting Actress. How did starring in that film change your life?

BINOCHE: The shooting was - the - to start with, literally, my hands were trembling. I was so frightened. I don't know why. I think it had to do with the challenge of it. There was something that I was playing this role scared me. I don't know exactly what it was but there was an inside feeling that made me shake. And then the second month of shooting, I was totally confident because I was in his arms, somehow, in Anthony Minghella's arms, because Anthony Minghella was a force.

SALE: The director.

BINOCHE: He was - he has this ability to support in being present and intelligent and adapting himself. And he had a vision of his film quite clear and very supportive and loving. And so out of that, the whirlwind of the promotion and the amount of interviews we did for the film around the world, traveling around, it was, like, new to me. But, you know, to tell you the truth, just before the Oscar - three months before - I was fired from a film. And it was the most horrible experience I had because I've never been fired by anyone because I give myself so much - 200 percent. I didn't expect it. And I was really at the bottom of the - how do you say - of the well.

SALE: Yeah.

BINOCHE: That, you know, three months before - and so when I got the Oscar, it was like a big joke to me. I just could laugh inside so much because life is - it never ends, you know? It's always surprising you.

SALE: Did it transform your life?

BINOCHE: It transforms my interviews.


SALE: That's funny. Juliette Binoche, thank you so much for joining us on FRESH AIR. Thank you very much.

GROSS: Juliette Binoche spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Anna Sale, who hosts the WNYC podcast, Death, Sex & Money. Binoche is starring in a production of "Antigone" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with performances through October 4. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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