By Ali Moosavi.
I love what I do. It’s not being an actress… it’s being in the moment of work.”
If I had to pick half a dozen of cinema’s greatest actresses working today, then Juliette Binoche would undoubtedly be among them. She is just an amazing actress and a very hard working one at that. She has won every major acting prize that cinema has to offer: Best Actress prizes from Cannes, Venice and Berlin Film Festivals, a César, BAFTA, an Oscar. In this year’s San Sebastian International Film Festival Juliette Binoche’s face adorned the official festival poster and she was presented with the festival’s Donostia Award, a kind of life achievement award. Past recipient actresses include Bette Davis, Claudette Colbert, Lauren Bacall, Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau, Liv Ullmann, Meryl Streep, to name a few. She gave an emotional acceptance speech during the award ceremony thanking her “faithful travelling companion: silence”.
In this year’s SSIFF Binoche had two movies, Both Sides of the Blade (Claire Denis) and Winter Boy (Christophe Honoré). Needless to say, she is superb in both films. I talked to her about acting and other things.
I’ve seen four movies of you this year, each role totally different, ranging from a grieving mother in Paris (Winter Boy) to a Canadian truck driver in Mississippi (Paradise Highway). How do you prepare for so many utterly different roles in such a relatively short time?
Each film is different. In Mississippi it was very hot and we had the mosquitoes and had very little time to shoot and we had a first time director and a child to take care of, so there were so many components. Also, I spent time with a truck driver who taught me to drive and talked to me a lot about the condition of being a woman truck driver. I also watched a lot of interviews with truck drivers on the internet and driving such a big truck was also part of the process. I also had COVID just before shooting, so I was exhausted and I think this helped me in a way because as a truck driver you drive for hours and hours and in the situation of this film there’s such an extreme of emotions and she’s so tense that it was helpful and I used it. With Christophe Honore’s film (Winter Boy) it was like a cocoon, it was only three weeks of shooting, and I knew it was his personal story, so I was very touched by it and the boys who were playing my sons were full of life and funny, so there was a family feeling that I really enjoyed.
I play with what I have. You meet a lot of different people and you try to take the essence of them or something specific about them to help with transformation you’ve got to go through in the script. I’ve been working with a lot of different coaches and teachers as well because you need to re-nourish yourself and directors can help you understand something new, and you can teach them as well to be patient and trust what’s coming. I think that you must have a certain amount of trust when you come on a set and yet this shouldn’t be comfortable because if you’re comfortable then it flattens everything.
One thing that I have learned is that when you have a difficult scene to play, you start preparing when you wake up. So when you are in your shower you’re already in preparation. When you’re traveling, doing hair and makeup you’re in preparation, so it’s not like suddenly just when they say action or just before. Because it needs to come from a place that is already in your cells, in your heart and mind and everything. So that’s why sometimes I work with a coach because I take the time to really prepare for film before the start and it really helps me. I need to have a certain base, especially when it’s a difficult scene. For the truck driver role for example, I prepared all by myself because I wanted to. Sometimes I throw myself into film and I don’t prepare and it’s my kind of preparation because it frightens me and there’s something about the subject matter and my role that I feel I connect strongly if I don’t prepare.
Do you find it easy to separate yourself from the character you’re playing at the end of each shooting day or you stay in the character?
I can easily switch. When I’m in work, I stay in character to stay concentrated. I can have a conversation with someone, but I try not to spread myself around because I think the energy is very special and there’s something within yourself that needs to grow, but at the end of the day I need to switch off.
You are being honoured this year at San Sebastian with the Donostia Award and your face is also on the official festival poster.
The award is a way to honor a festival. In a festival you have events and this year was my year and David Conenberg’s as well. So you understand that and choose to be exposed in the public eye and I thought OK I’ll do it. But it’s almost like a duty because you’ve got to write something and you have to dress for the occasion, so it’s work anyway. And when I write, I have to think what am I going to say because you don’t want to be too serious and yet you want it to be personal, so the equilibrium is not easy to find.
I like the picture that Brigitte Lacombe took from me for the poster. When you’re in front of the camera there’s an intimacy and it requires humility because otherwise you cannot reach your humanity and when you have this kind of big thing that everybody can see, it creates a distance for me. It warms me in a way but at the same time I think I’m intelligent enough to understand that it’s only for a time and it’s because of what I do, what I chose as an actress and I’m exposing myself, so at the end it’s OK.
Silence makes me very emotional because it’s a place that is so intimate and it’s always there. You create your own silence and before acting it’s a solitary space and yet you don’t feel alone.”
Do you remember the first time you saw yourself on a big poster for a film of yours?
I remember it very well. The first time I was on the poster it was a Jacques Doillon film (Family Life, 1985) with Sami Frey in which I have a very small role and I was on the poster and you could see my breast and I was shocked that they would choose that picture of the film. They didn’t ask my permission beforehand, so I was shocked to be exposed like that. Then when I did Rendez-vous (Andre Techine, 1985) my whole back body was naked in the poster. I had done the shoot, but I had no idea what was going to be on the poster and I had no idea of the consequences. When the film came out and this poster was shown, some people just ripped it up because in the 1985 it was like seeing something that was not right and my family were kind of Catholic bourgeois and they really didn’t react well.
You talked about silence in your acceptance speech for the Donostia Award. How does silence help you?
Silence makes me very emotional because it’s a place that is so intimate and it’s always there. You create your own silence and before acting it’s a solitary space and yet you don’t feel alone. I think for me it’s a necessary place because otherwise I cannot speak, I cannot feel. lt’s a place where I feel connected to myself, it’s a space within myself. There’s a sentence that I read in a book that I really like, it says, “the act that is done in time is an act that is outside of time” and I’ve found it very true for actors because you have to find the right moment in order that you’re connected enough so you go and perform it. That’s what we can experience as actors and that’s probably why after forty years I still want to do it because it’s so alive it recreates the present. That’s where you feel creative because it’s not a controlled place where you are thinking oh, I’m going to do this and I’m going to feel that and I’m going to act that. I’m not interested in that. I want to be played by the emotion as I want to be played by the other actors or the scene as written. I use that space in order to be the character. The character and myself are not separated because everything I read, even though it feels very far away, I have to find a connection that is going to be able to embody it. I’ve got to throw myself in the abyss of silence in order to be found.
When I interviewed Abbas Kiarostami, he was very complimentary about your work on Certified Copy. How was your experience of working with him?
I loved working with him. He was really wonderful. We had two weeks of rehearsals together with the other actor who was fine with me and he filmed the rehearsals and at the end of the two weeks rehearsals he said well we don’t need to make the film because I can make the film out of the rehearsals! What intrigued him is that when I’m crying when playing a scene, for him the tears were false. I would say how can you define tears being false? there’s no way it can happen, you know emotion is emotion. But he said no you’re creating this. I said yes but that’s the ability of the actor to believe and it was always a question mark for him. He could never get over it and understand that you can say the truth through fiction. He couldn’t understand that. He didn’t want to believe that.
Christophe Honoré asked you before to be in one of his films and you said no. Why did you said yes this time and was there a fear of not being asked a second time?
Yes, there was a fear because I felt well, that must have been a little hard. Last time it was his second film (Ma Mere) and it was so tough, the mother was horrible and so tough and I said to him when you resolve your problems with your mother I will work with you! He was a young director, and he was probably a little shocked but I’m so happy he came back.
You also tuned down roles in Spielberg movies three times!
Well, first of all, I don’t think they were great roles, that’s the truth of it. For Jurassic Park I had already said yes to Kieslowski for Three Colours: Blue. When you give your word, you give you word, that’s my philosophy. Before that he offered me Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but I was committed to The Lovers on the Bridge (Leos Carax) and I was not even aware that he asked me, which tells you how much I was in love with Lovers on the Bridge and he told me that he had asked me.
When [Jean-Luc Godard making Hail Mary (1985)] was coming to a place where he felt trapped in some way he would try and shake it. He was going through stuff. I wouldn’t say he was moody but that he was going through inside conflicts.”
You made you made the right choices!
He also offered me Schindler’s List and I was frightened, and the role was about beating me up, killing me, raping me and I didn’t feel like it.
How was your experience with Jean-Luc Godard on Hail Mary (1985)?
I learnt things from him but it was rough, though; I was so excited and happy. I think he was an amazing creator. I think he was trying not to get trapped with conventions. When he was coming to a place where he felt trapped in some way he would try and shake it. He was going through stuff. I wouldn’t say he was moody but that he was going through inside conflicts. He was very much in love with the actress Myriem Roussel who was playing Mary probably because there was a tint of Anna Karina in her face and he really loved her. To make you calm, he would make you go around the table and say a poem and he would film you. I had an infection in my eye and I was told that I was not getting the part and then like a month after that they said oh Godard would like you to be in his film and he wrote role for you.
At that time, you were working as a cashier in a department store. Do you still remember all the auditions you had to go through?
You never forget them! It was sometimes humiliating because you had to put yourself nude for certain roles. I remember one director saying to me you don’t have the right nose! Another time it was for a role of a dancer and I was very straight during the interview and they told my agent that I was too stiff! Lots of things like that. When I was doing an audition, I always reversed the situation. I always thought I’m testing them to see if I want to work with them. So in my mind it was half-half. It was not: are we going to like each other? are we going to work well together?
I love what I do. It’s not being an actress, I don’t care, but it’s being in the moment of work. That’s why I wanted to talk about silence in my speech, because it’s a very special place where creation happens. I remember when I was working in the department store, I had to go and see the boss of the cashiers to ask permission to go away and I was saying that I was working on a movie and she said to me it’s not a good idea to be an actor; it’s very uneven, sometimes you’ll have a job and sometimes not. Here you are sure to grow as a cashier to become more important in the department and I said no acting is really what I feel like doing.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).