Oscar-winner Juliette Binoche has always forged her own path. Now, at 50, she is realising a life-long dream – playing Antigone, the tragic Greek heroine who took on a king and called down the wrath of the gods.

Juliette Binoche has a kaleidoscopic CV. Best known for her Oscar-winning role in The English Patient and Chocolat with Johnny Depp, she also does a neat line in European art house and theatre, has danced on stage, published a volume of poetry and exhibited her paintings.

Hugely protective of her artistic integrity, she famously turned down blockbuster roles in Mission: Impossible and Jurassic Park. “I would rather play a dinosaur,” she has said, “than one of the humans in that film.”

Now, at 50 years old, Binoche is ready for her next challenge: her first Greek tragedy. In August she brings Sophocles’s Antigone to the Edinburgh International Festival, after a month’s run earlier this year at London’s Barbican. The text has been translated into English by the poet Anne Carson.

Despite her many English-language roles, the prospect of working in her second language is still daunting.

“I don’t think ‘intimidated’ is the right word,” she says, “but you have to have the right muscles in place, because the words have to resonate. Although I speak English a lot, it’s not the same as when you’re born in England and have the rhythm.”

Antigone – the incestuous daughter of Oedipus and his mother Jocasta – is a part Binoche has always wanted to play. In Sophocles’s version of the story, she courageously flouts the orders of the tyrant ruler of Thebes to secure a proper burial for her outcast brother and is buried alive for her defiance. “I saw Antigone when I was 18, and it stayed in my mind very strongly,” she says.

Usually she waits for parts to come to her – “It’s not my habit to think what character I’d like to play.” – but this time the production was her idea, and she wasn’t prepared to take no for an answer from director Ivo van Hove. “I told him, ‘I’d like to do Antigone,’ and he said, ‘No, why don’t we do Electra or Medea?’ and my intuition told me this is not right, no, it has to be Antigone. Antigone is very political, and from what’s happening nowadays in the world, I found it urgent to play again.”

In what sense? “Well, the power, and how the women – or the feminine side of every human being – is not accepted yet. I believe Adam in the Bible is every human being, it’s not men. It’s men and women, and Eve is the hidden side of the self, the darker side that we have to embody so we can become one.”

As a teenager, she tells me, she had: “hesitated between being a painter, an actress or a director. But the need for company was stronger. It came from very early on, when I was a very little girl, I wanted to be with others. For me, it’s one of the deepest and oldest feelings I had… The feeling that I can share with another, that I’m not alone.”

Her mother was an actor turned drama teacher, her father a theatre director and artist, but they divorced when Binoche was four and she was packed off to boarding school with her sister. Holidays were often spent with their maternal grandmother and the sisters could go months without seeing either parent. Binoche has previously spoken of a: “strong feeling of abandonment,” that she still carries with her.

“My way to survive emotionally was to act. I was acting all the time, and it was my best medicine, creating worlds, creating relationships,” she has said.

Perhaps because of this, she always wanted to be a mother herself. “It was a dream of mine. From 11 years old, I was talking to my son already!” she laughs.

Has her own childhood impacted on how she has brought her two kids up? “Yes. It was important to give them structure — mental structure, physical structure.

“Yet I’ve always said yes to my passion because I don’t think I’d be happy if I said no. I don’t like when people say, ‘Oh, I will sacrifice myself for my children.’ For me, you have to embody your task in life, because that’s why you came here.”

Still, raising two children as a lone parent must have had its challenges. She has always refused to talk about their two fathers, although she says she doesn’t regard herself as a single mother.

“I don’t think they’d say they were ‘single children’, do you see what I’m saying? They have their fathers. I’ve lived with different partners, so I don’t feel like I’ve been a single mother my whole life. I’ve been sharing my life, entirely, it’s just it didn’t turn into a long relationship.”

I asked her how she likes to relax in her downtime. She looked confused. “Downtime is off-time? But I relax myself when I work.”

Between projects she uses her time to “learn something new”. She has started a daily class to “work on the axis, the vertical of the body. In everyday life we tend to be either too forwards or too backwards, it says something, it’s a language. What is it for an actor to be neutral, not to give something, to hide or to prove? I think it’s such a huge question about oneself.”

Where & When
Antogone, King’s Theatre, 7-22 August (not 10, 17), 7.30pm, from £10, Tel: 0131 473 200
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Words: Krissi Murison Photography: Jan Versweyveld

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