Juliette Binoche: Irish job was business and pleasure
U2 fanatic Juliette Binoche charms Stephen Milton with tales of her stint in Ireland, and being pressured to star in 'Godzilla'...
Juliette Binoche is sincerely thrilled to meet the 'Irish Independent'. Not I, the journalist, but rather the newspaper itself after her character, an embattled war photographer in new film 'A Thousand Times Goodnight', appears on a mocked-up front page following a suicide bomb blast in Afghanistan, one she barely survives.
It's a surreal full circle for the Oscar- winner. "It's lovely to work with you again," she jokes, scrunching her porcelain, now faintly lined features. "And isn't that marvellous? A wonderful collision of reality and fiction. I find it truly fascinating when that happens. And further evidence of how much of a character Ireland was in this film."
A former war photographer himself for Reuters, writer and director Erik Poppe believed the peaceful environment of Howth Head's wind-whipped beaches created an impactful contrast to the world's most dangerous conflict zones.
Binoche enthusiastically agrees. "It became so much more than a location, but actually breathed life into the script. You don't often have that relationship. Ireland portrayed this powerful force, tormenting my character, playing on her mind."
As Rebecca, she challenged herself to understand the compulsion and need of a mother and wife willing to put herself in harm's way to tell the story.
"From meeting and speaking with photographers Marcus Bleasdale and Lynsey Addario, what I could feel is there are some kinds of wounds inside you as a child, not being seen, not being heard, where you need to go to a place where it's dangerous to be seen and heard.
"And we need to know what's happening behind the curtain, especially for women around the world in places like Afghanistan. It's horrible to even imagine what they are going through.
"But when photographers have a family, it completely changes gear, and while some don't continue in this work, some do and when you're a woman, it's less accepted than when it's a man."
While 'Game of Thrones' actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau delivers a fine performance as her husband, increasingly frustrated and betrayed by Rebecca's desire to document the front line, it's her relationship with eldest daughter Steph, played by striking young Dubliner Lauryn Canny, that effectively illustrates her emotional tumult. In the second half of the film, mother and daughter are unexpectedly caught up in gunfire when rebel militia attack a Kenya refugee camp. Rebecca must make the shattering decision to abandon her hysterical child with strangers in safety while she stays and photographs the horrifying genocide.
As a mother of two, Binoche battled with this understanding. "I like to give this example: imagine you see a house burning and a child inside? Are you going to take the risk of saving the child or stay alive for your daughter? It's a huge question. At that moment, your gut may be telling you, 'No, I have to stay and survive for my own child'.
"But you know somehow you can't. You can't let this other child die because you have this drive and trust that you're going to survive.
"That was my own understanding."
The enigmatic Parisienne believes 15-year-old Canny, from Templeogue – previously impressive in RTE drama 'Amber' – is a rising star.
"It's so beautiful to witness the birth of an actress," she says. "And I love her presence. She's true." Binoche claps her hands and pauses, ponderously gazing at the ground. She then looks to the ceiling, breathing in the words, formulating her admiration. "Lauryn's need for acting is so big. It's revealing herself through stories, sharing that into the world. It's so important. And so very early on. She was only 14.
"I don't think I was that open. I had lots of energy at that age. I was very wilful, but I started on movies later on, nowhere near as young."
Guiding her to an Academy Award win for 'The English Patient', the late Anthony Minghella once said of Binoche: "She has no skin, so tears and laughter are never far away."
His description of her comes to life when I meet the 50-year-old actress in London's Claridge's. There's a stoic, motionless reservation and a studied gaze which is regularly interrupted by an explosive firework of laughter. It ambushes without warning. Wearing black jeans and soft leather, her dark hair spiky and eccentric, her alabaster skin pale and unadorned, she has confounded and entranced since a breakthrough as treacherous survivor, Tereza, in Kaufman's 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being'.
The determined daughter of celebrated artistes, actress Monique Stalens and director Jean-Marie Binoche, 'La Binoche' (a nickname in her native France which suggests respect and diva-tude) was only 24 when Hollywood seemed ripe for the taking. The heady offers did little to persuade, notably roles with Tom Cruise in 'Mission Impossible' and Spielberg's 'Jurassic Park' and 'Schindler's List'. She found herself pulled towards Krzysztof Kieslowski's 'Three Colors: Blue' and the sumptuous 'The Horseman on the Roof'.
"I never wanted to belong to anywhere and anyone, so for me it felt right belonging to your own independence, belonging to your own challenges and path. I could have moved to America and had a big career there, but it was never a purpose for me. Independent films might be a struggle, but they belong to me. And sometimes when you struggle, it belongs to you even more. When everything is given on a platter, it's not as challenging.
"And for the record," she adds, "I didn't turn down Spielberg. I had already been asked to be in Kieslowski's 'Blue', so I wasn't available. There wasn't this big refusal, though it makes for a good story, yes?"
The delicious knock-back aside, Binoche smoothly charmed Hollywood with a moving performance as a compassionate Second World War nurse tending to Ralph Fiennes' war-ravaged titular hero in 'The English Patient'. It brought her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress at 32, though she still believes Lauren Bacall should have won for 'The Mirror Has Two Faces'.
"I didn't expect it," she says, offering a chaotic, stunning burst of laughter. "That's why I wanted to give it to Lauren Bacall. I still want to give it to her.
"I never took it personally, if I can say it like that? It felt like a big joke to me."
Only briefly taking time out to give birth to son Raphael, now 20, from her relationship with professional scuba diver Andre Halle, and 14-year-old daughter Hana, with actor Benoit Magimel who she worked with on 1999 film 'Children of the Century', Binoche has been largely active throughout a 30-year career, increasing her cinematic commitments with 15 projects in the past three years. We can soon look forward to a biopic of French sculptor Camille Claudel; family drama 'Words and Pictures' with Clive Owen and 'The 33', the recently shot retelling of the Chilean mining disaster and subsequent rescue of 2010.
"I see them as stories that need to be told. To me, they are important, they mean something. At least that is what I have in my head," she says.
So does the world really need another million dollar schlocky remake of 'Godzilla', in which she plays a pivotal role alongside 'Breaking Bad's' Bryan Cranston?
"That was my son," she says. "When I told him about the offer, and we had watched it together as a little boy, he said, 'Do it! Do it! C'mon, please do it! Finally, a film I can watch'. It was like a wink to him."
Excited about something frivolous and light within her work, Binoche relaxes her rigid poise and reserve and slightly slumps with a pleasing crumple. Watching a recent appearance on the Graham Norton couch alongside Ronnie Corbett and Ricky Gervais, she seemed lost among jovial, loudly domineering proceedings. But the actress can laugh and giggle and get silly with the rest of them.
U2 drummer Larry Mullins has a small role in 'A Thousand Times Goodnight', sharing a poignant pivotal scene with Binoche. She sheepishly confesses a giddying twinge of hysteria.
"I love U2," she coos, widening her dark hazel eyes. "I think I was excited to meet him, I love their music, so it was a good moment. Larry was scared and humble and questioning whether he was doing all right, every two seconds. He loved being on set, interested in how it was working, dealing with his fear of expressing himself. But between all that, we spoke about the band and how they continuously write music like this and endure over the years. I loved that experience. That made me happy."
She offers another unexpected burst of laughter and smiles warmly, then immediately settles back to her stoic posture. It's an intriguing encounter with the many faces of La Binoche.
- 'A Thousand Times Goodnight' is in cinemas from May 16