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Juliette Binoche: She who dares wins

Bold choices have defined Juliette Binoche's career - and her latest role is no exception. James Mottram meets the fearless actress

The last time we saw Juliette Binoche on screen, she was frantically grinding away on Robert Pattinson's crotch in David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis. Before that was prostitution tale Elles – in which the fearless 49-year-old French star confronted us with graphic masturbation – and she then took on Strindberg's Miss Julie at London's Barbican. Just a typical year in the career of the one who, back home, they call "La Binoche". "As an actor, you go into dangerous places," she shrugs. "And you're showing things that not always everybody wants to see or feel."

A doyenne of world cinema – directors Michael Haneke, Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien have all benefited from her talents – this raven-haired, pale-skinned beauty is almost volcanic in her unpredictability. The actress who once turned down a role in Steven Spielberg's dinosaur blockbuster Jurassic Park has just signed on to British Monsters director Gareth Edwards's Hollywood re-working of the classic creature-feature Godzilla, starring alongside Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen.

If this will be her first studio blockbuster of her 30 years in film, it's not hard to see why George Clooney said he envies the self-sufficient freedom of her career. So what drives her? "The challenge is encountering the new," she says, sitting with a cushion in her lap in a modish Berlin office just off the Potsdamer Platz. "What is the new? It's being creative. If you repeat things you've done before, you're dead. You're not being creative. It becomes a factory."

When we meet, Binoche – dressed in black leggings, ankle boots and tailored leather jacket– has just seen her latest film, Camille Claudel 1915, unveiled to huge acclaim. "Riveting" and "mesmerising" respectively said industry papers The Hollywood Reporter and Variety of her performance as the real-life eponymous sculptor, in what is a harrowing depiction of three days in Claudel's three-decade incarceration in a church-run mental asylum outside Avignon, where she would ultimately die in 1943.

The film is directed by Bruno Dumont (L'humanité, Hors Satan), who Binoche rang out of the blue and asked if they could meet to drum up a project. Dumont never works with stars – but Binoche felt this most divisive of auteurs welcomed her encouragement. "I think he needed that," she says. It's typical of her, nourishing a director on the fringes. Even though she has never taken a behind-camera credit, "I feel like an actor-producer somehow".

When Dumont came back to her with the idea of Binoche playing Camille Claudel, she was taken aback. "I was surprised because I had read, when I was 16, a book on Camille Claudel. And I was, of course, taken by her life story and her strength and was touched by the tragedy of her life." She even bought a poster of Claudel, hanging it on her walls when she was a teenager. "I'd never played this sort of area, being close to insanity. So that was challenging."

There is more than a hint of autobiography: she toyed with being an artist in her youth, and in 2008, amid a season of events dedicated to her at London's Southbank entitled Ju'bi lation, exhibited a series of paintings – self-portraits of her in character. Then there's the fact that her theatre-director father, Jean-Marie Binoche, was also a sculptor – though how much influence he had over her is debatable, given that he divorced her mother, actress-turned-drama teacher Monique Stalens, when Binoche was just over two years old.

Sent with her older sister Marion to a Catholic boarding school in the Paris suburbs, it was here, "in the courtyard playing with my friends", where she cultivated her desire to act. "It was my way to survive school," she says. Later, she studied her craft at Conservatoire National Supérieur d'Art Dramatique, only to quit because she disliked the curriculum. "Of course it was worrying my parents being an actress, because it was very uncertain. And being in theatre, they knew how much of a struggle it was."

Making ends meet as a cashier, she scored an early role in Jean-Luc Godard's Hail Mary, his 1985 retelling of the Virgin birth. She can still remember the day she told her boss, who was reluctant to let her go. "She said, 'You've started, and in a few years, you can go up in the shop and be a very important person.' And I tried to say, 'This is my passion. Working with Jean-Luc Godard, it's quite something as an actor.' So she said, 'Good luck, but I'm just warning you, it's a difficult job and you never know what you're going to get.'"

What she did get was a career almost unique in world cinema, somewhat contrary to Gérard Depardieu's public criticism of her when he proclaimed: "She has nothing – absolutely nothing." If there was the odd misstep, she'd always come back stronger. A year after 1992's Wuthering Heights saw mocked for her "Franglais" accent, she won the César for Three Colours: Blue as a grief-stricken spouse. Then, in 1996, she took both an Oscar and a Bafta for her nurse in The English Patient.

Amid all of this, she's nursed a chaotic love-life – never more so than when dating director Leos Carax between their two films, 1986's Mauvais Sang and the troubled 1991 on-off effort Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (for which she reputedly slept rough on the streets of Paris, to play a blind painter). Never married – "Don't think that, just because I am French, I have anything against it," she notes – she's had two children by different fathers: Raphaël, who turns 20 this year, from a brief liaison with scuba diver André Halle, and Hana, 13, fathered by Benoît Magimel, her co-star in 1999's Children of the Century.

How has she managed this work-life load? "I've had many assistants," she chuckles. "They're like a double. It's like a sister." It's a relationship she'll further explore in Olivier Assayas's Sils Maria, opposite Mia Wasikowska, which she'll shoot after Godzilla – a choice that seems utterly fitting for one with such an eclectic CV as hers. But why has it taken until now to fully embrace Hollywood? "I wanted to create my own path, my own spirit," she declares. She's done way more than that.

'Camille Claudel 1915' opens later in the year

*This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of Radar Magazine