The French acting veteran talks about turning down Spielberg, getting her start as an actor, and exploring the complexities of femininity.
In Early Works, we talk to artists young and old about the jobs and life experiences that led them to their current moment. Today, it's actor Juliette Binoche, who currently stars in two recently released films out now: Bruno Dumont's period satire Slack Bay, and the live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell.
When I was younger, I did some theater with my mother because she had a theater group. But she never wanted me to be an actress. She was worried about me being an actress because of the money and the uncertainty of that path. My father was oblivious to what I wanted to do—he was living in South America doing theater. But I was certain that my passion was so big that they didn't question it. When my mother heard that I wanted to act, she gave me the name and the phone number of a private theater school. I went there when I was 18, after I placed my exams.
I started consciously pursuing acting when I was 17, after I directed and played a role in a production of Eugène Ionesco's Le roi se meurt—that's "The King Is Dying" in French. It's about a king in his realm who's losing power and how difficult it is for him to lose his power because everything's falling apart. It's very political and also human and full of humor; it's absurd theater—Le théâtre de l'absurde.
Afterward, I was aware that I wanted to go toward the theater. I had no consciousness to act in films, because even though I love films, I was not in that world. I was in the theater. I met a casting director through a friend of mine, and he said to me, "Do you want to make films?" I said, "No, I want to do theater," and he said, "You can do both." So I said, "OK then, I'm open." That's how it started.
It was rough, because I had to find a way of existing and surviving. I have to thank my first boyfriend, because I lived with him during my first years of acting. My parents supported me, but they never helped me financially. I got a little bit to pay my first private home when I was 18, and my mother helped me for about a year, but other than that, I was doing everything by myself. So my parents were in awe that it worked out so well, and that I was in Cannes when I was 21. My mother came along, and she asked me at the end of the screening, "How did you do that?" The desire, the passion—it takes you, you know? Nobody can understand it, not even yourself. It's something that's beyond comprehension—a fire that needs to be expressed. There was some kind of energy I had in me that needed to be there, needed to live.
As a young actress [on Jean-Luc Godard's Hail Mary], I was full of expectation. I thought that Godard was going to help me act and go into new places—probably because I just came out of classes where the teacher was actually behaving that way. But Godard was totally the contrary. At the time, I felt that he was going through a lot of conflicts, and that working with conflicts was somehow helping him get into his craft. I wanted to be a good girl and listen to every bit he had to say, but I think that wasn't really what he wanted. I learned not to expect anything from a director—just come on set with your work done and don't expect anything. It was exciting, in a way—it wasn't this nice, warm, mothering or fathering kind of relationship. It was about thinking, feeling, and craft.
Turning down Jurassic Park was not an easy decision. You don't have Spielberg calling you every morning and asking you to be in a big blockbuster. At the same time, taking risks is in my roots—as an artist, you want to go to the new. Of course, Jurassic Park that would have been totally new to me. But I was so touched by the story of Three Colors: Blue, because a friend of mine who had lost her husband and child, so for me it was a dedication to her. Even though I didn't know her son before he died, I somehow felt connected to him.
I mean, of course I'd loved to work with Steven [Spielberg]. Who wouldn't? But what I'm missing sometimes in the filming side of humanity is female energy. I wish I was actually in his films, giving that a little bit of that layer. I talked to him about it once, and he said, "No! In my early film there was only women in the film, lots of women." I don't know exactly which film he was talking about, but I felt that's what we need in films. That's why making Ghost in the Shell was so important to me—because it's about two women and their relationship.
I feel bad, in a way, that I didn't say yes [to Jurassic Park], but maybe we can work together one day on something. When I think back, I think my choice was right, because Three Colors: Blue was a very important film in my life. Actually, when I spoke on the phone with Steven [about Jurassic Park], I said, "I can play a dinosaur; I'd love to do it." And he laughed. It was my way to make him laugh and not feel bad. But I don't think he needs me. Everybody wants to work with him, so that's good.
I loved the experience of making Clouds of Sils Maria. Working with [Kristen Stewart] was the best—discovering her as an artist, because she has so many talents. I think that we bonded. It feels that we will always work together while we're growing old. The film itself talks about an actress, and we were laughing a lot doing the shooting because my character is a little ridiculous. She's full of pride, and she has to descend from that pride in order to grow in another way, which was very interesting. So we laughed about the subject matter, and the mix of what's true and untrue. Having to play in this sort of film was exciting as an actress. It's interesting how we age.
By shooting with women, [Clouds of Sils Maria director Olivier Assayas] explores his feminine side, which I think is really wonderful for a director—that he has this curiosity and passion to know in the opposite sex. What's in there? What's serious about this side of ourselves that is more difficult to catch? The male side of ourselves is the force, the passion, the fire, the going, the showing up, the power. But to descend from that and go into other layers takes courage, it takes love, and a lot of emotions.