When Juliette Binoche stepped onto the Rhode Island set of Dan in Real Life, she was a little confused. ”I saw a city of trailers,” she recalls, her English only lightly flecked with hints of her native French. ”I’d never seen trailers like this!”
The art-house legend, 43, had thought that the Steve Carell — Dane Cook romantic comedy about two brothers in love with one woman (Binoche, bien sûr) would be a more intimate affair: ”They got us on board saying it’s a small movie.” In fact, writer-director Peter Hedges’ indie pedigree (2003’s Pieces of April) had helped sell Binoche on Dan, his latest project. But ever the pro, La Binoche, as she’s known in France, adapted quickly. ”It was like, Okay, I’ve arrived in Hollywoodland.”
Just don’t expect her to stay for long. ”Hollywood doesn’t mean anything to me,” she declares over lunch at the Four Seasons in the epicenter of all things showbiz, Beverly Hills. ”A system, I think it’s dangerous in art. The idea is to break the system.” Even when the system awarded her an Oscar for 1996’s The English Patient, the allure of the American movie business eluded Binoche, who still refuses to make choices based on Q rating and box office: ”If you think, ‘It’s not going to be good for my career,’ you’re in the wrong field.”
Rather, Binoche tries to sniff out the challenges. ”I like risks. I like things I’ve never done before,” she says. When Carell was concerned that the way their Dan characters meet (at a bookstore) might come off as ”too cute, too precious,” he spoke to his costar. ”She looked at me and said, ‘This will not be cute, this will not be precious,”’ he remembers. ”When I looked into her eyes, I believed it.”
Since coming to international attention two decades ago in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Binoche has played a broad range of characters in some 30 films, many of them French. In each, she seems to inspire devotion: as a waitress who defies a Communist regime (Lightness), a widow in emotional turmoil (1993’s Blue), a single mother who revives a town with her sweets (2000’s Chocolat).
This past year alone, Binoche has worked in France — where she shot three movies, including the improvised Flight of the Red Balloon — Israel (the upcoming Disengagement), and Iran, exploring projects with director Abbas Kiarostami (Ten). ”I dreamt of working with different minds and different stories,” she explains. ”I feel that I’m really fulfilling my dream now more than before.” Currently on her wish list: Woody Allen. (”I’d love to,” she says. ”Tell him!”)
Of course, there’s a downside to fulfilling these dreams — time away from her children. ”I love to be a mother,” she says, ”but somehow I struggle because it’s not every day easy. But I try.” Her solution? IM’ing and chatting via webcam with Hana, 7, and Raphael, 14, who only sometimes travel with Mom. (The family makes its home just outside of Paris.) ”It does work for a certain time,” says Binoche. ”Until it doesn’t anymore, and then it feels distant.”
While growing up in Paris, Binoche watched her own parents struggle as actors. ”It was not always easy,” she says. ”I think I know what work means, and I know what luck means, and so I embrace my luck.” Which is how she sees the Academy Award she received for The English Patient: ”I was so surprised. My first impulse was to give it to Lauren Bacall” — who was the sentimental (and expected) choice, for The Mirror Has Two Faces. ”I couldn’t find her because she didn’t raise her hand.” The two actresses spoke later, but Binoche is too respectful to reveal anything about their Oscar-night talk. She makes clear — playfully — that she draws the boundaries; she doesn’t let others do it for her.
”Ha-ha-ha,” she mock-laughs. ”That’s private.” Her face lights up. ”That’s a good thing.”
Portraits of an Artist
When she’s not on a film set, you might find Binoche at an easel.
Binoche has begun a collection of portraits of her directors, plus a letter to each auteur. Like thank-you notes? ”You’ll have to read the letters,” the actress says (she hopes to collect them in a book). ”They’re love letters somehow…. It’s not always lovey-dovey. I’m not.”