The angel of Islington

Juliette Binoche is at the peak of her career in movies, with an Academy award - for 'The English Patient' - to prove it. So what is she doing at the Almeida?

WHEN ACTORS talk about courage, it tends to bring out the sceptic in the rest of us (who probably tremble at the thought of standing up on stage ourselves). It's their job, we mutter; it's not as if they're risking life and limb. But consider this. A French film star, on the crest of a wave after winning an Oscar, turns her back on the pile of scripts and heads for the stage. It is only the second theatre role of her adult career, and the first was 10 years ago. The play is little known, seldom performed and is not being done in her native tongue. And it is being staged in England, where she has had two previous experiences, both of them bad. Yes, Juliette Binoche has guts.

For the Almeida, she is the latest in a series of captures that have transformed a small and struggling Islington theatre into an international magnet. Last year and the one before, they had Ralph Fiennes in Ivanov and Dame Diana Rigg in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? This year, there's Liam Neeson as Oscar Wilde in David Hare's new play The Judas Kiss (at the Playhouse, for the extra capacity, but an Almeida production) and Kevin Spacey in The Iceman Cometh. The Iceman is not alone. Half the galaxy cometh.

The Almeida's joint artistic director, Jonathan Kent, used to have to coax and cajole, but now one coup leads to another. Kent directs his friend Fiennes in Ivanov; Fiennes gives a ticket to Binoche, a friend from The English Patient and Wuthering Heights; they all go out to dinner afterwards, and Binoche tells Kent she'd like to get back to the theatre one day. A year later, he rings up and tells her about this Pirandello play he wants to direct, just as a couple of film projects - a period love story with Daniel Auteuil in Quebec, and a drama directed by Chen Kaige in Tuscany - have fallen through, leaving a hole in her diary.

So here she is, 10 days into a month's rehearsal, breaking for lunch. She walks into the Almeida Bar, both taller and less charismatic than you expect: about 5 ft 8 in her ankle boots, an unimposing presence with an unwary smile. She takes off a trad navy overcoat to reveal chocolate jeans, a speckled grey sweater and a baby-blue cashmere scarf, which she periodically re-winds round her neck. She wears a man's watch, no jewellery and the minimum of make-up. One of the world's great beauties, up there on People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful list, Binoche seems to have the graces without the airs.

"Watching Blue, you wonder if there has ever been a more beautiful woman in the movies," wrote David Thomson, of the IoS, in his Biographical Dictionary of Film. She is no less lovely off-camera: a face in perfect harmony, framed by hair like black satin, with strong cheekbones, deep brown eyes, and a nose with a mind of its own. She's 33; her complexion is a few years behind, and she is radiant in quite a literal sense: on The English Patient, the cinematographer, John Seale, had to take the lighting down because of her opalescent skin.

Neither regal nor visibly narcissistic, she appears to have beauty without the side-effects. Her fringe looks as if she cuts it herself without a mirror, as she did, with winning matter-of-factness, in The English Patient. She's gorgeous, but not exactly glamorous. She is matter-of-fact about lunch, too, briskly ordering soup. "Sweet potato, or tomato with red pepper?" says the barman. Her English is good, but "red pepper" defeats her. English brains are racked for what remains of Thimann's French Vocabulary. The best anyone can manage is to translate into American: "Capsicum?" says the barman. Binoche, none the wiser, goes for it anyway.

When the soup arrives, in a medium-sized bowl, she says, "Gonna be hungry afterwards," and orders a spinach-and-ricotta roll.

"Like most good actors," says Jonathan Kent, "she's contradictory. There's a fragility about her, a fragile femininity, but also a resilience. That's what makes her interesting. You find this with actors - it's what they are as well as what they are, if you see what I mean."

THERE IS nothing fragile about the way Binoche runs her career. She knows what she wants, and it is not Hollywood. "I'm happy living in Paris, and I'm much more comfortable working with European directors than American ones, because I think they have more to say." She runs both hands up into her hair. "It may be terrible to say that, but I think if a director wants to be successful he's not a real director. Being a director is not about being successful - it's about having something to say that you want to share. In America you don't often meet those directors, because mostly they're so tortured by having to be successful, having to have discussions with the producers, who have a lot of power there."

In 13 years, the only American director she has worked with is Philip Kaufman, on The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1987). And the closest she has come to the Hollywood mainstream is The English Patient - which was dumped by its studio, Polygram, when shooting had only just begun, because it lacked a big American star like Demi Moore. The cast carried on unpaid until Miramax came up with the missing millions. Hard to imagine Moore doing that.

Binoche gets "more offers than most of us have in a lifetime," Kent says, but she turns an unusual number of them down. Since her first leading role, in Rendez Vous (1985), she has made only 11 films, plus one TV movie and that single stage appearance, as Nina in The Seagull at the Odeon in Paris. She should be on our cinema screens at the moment, in the title role of Lucie Aubrac, but she walked out after a fortnight's shooting following disagreements with the director, Claude Berri, and was replaced by Carole Bouquet. All that survives of the performance is a still on the Internet, showing Binoche in a clinch with Daniel Auteuil.

She does it her way. She flirted with Hollywood to the extent of going up for the Emmanuelle Beart role in the cartoonish Mission: Impossible, but was shocked to find that the producers expected her to sign up without seeing the script. "I thought, 'This is ridiculous'," Binoche told Premiere magazine. "I asked to read the script and they gave it to me. Emmanuelle, she signed the contract without reading it and I asked her, 'How did you do that? As a person you don't know where you're going.' She didn't care anyway, she wanted to just have another experience. I read it and to me there was no real purpose to make it."

When Binoche was approached to become the new face of Lancome's Poeme, she didn't see much purpose in that either. "But once I looked at the ads Isabella Rosellini had done I thought it could be interesting. After all, perfume's very expressive and I thought I might as well give it a try before I got any older." This was said in an interview last year with a Swedish magazine, and it sounded like a cave-in. What she didn't add was that she gives all her Lancome earnings to a charity for orphans in Cambodia. "But that's not to talk about, it's almost too private."

On set, Binoche never looks at dailies - the raw footage, which some stars pore over. "Because at the end of the day you have your private life." She has a son, Raphael, aged four, by a scuba-diver boyfriend whom she broke up with soon after the birth. Raphael has not come with her to London; she feels it's better to leave him in his usual surroundings, and to fly back every weekend.

She is "properly protective" of her privacy, in Jonathan Kent's phrase. When I mention the (rather good) website devoted to her, www.binoche.com, she says with genial annoyance that there are something things she would rather not know about. The French media subject her to their customary force-10 curiosity. Last month Studio, an entertainment glossy, put her on the cover, and the article inside ran to 40 pages. But as well as insatiable nosiness, France offers its celebrities legal redress. Last June Voici, a Hello!-like weekly, shouted from its cover, "Juliette Binoche: elle a vire son joli fiance (she has given her handsome fiance the boot). The man in question was, or is, Olivier Martinez, whom she started going out with after they co-starred in The Horseman on the Roof (1994).

A month later, two-thirds of Voici's cover was devoted to a "Condamnation de Prisma Presse a la demande de Juliette Binoche", announcing that the publishers had paid her damages for drawing attention to her private life and breaching her rights over her own image. "As soon as I can, I go to court," she says, getting matter-of-fact again. "We have different laws from Britain or America. You can defend yourself as a private person."

SHE WILL be drawing on this experience at the Almeida. The play is Naked, by Luigi Pirandello, better known for the very different Six Characters in Search of an Author, and the central figure, played by Binoche, is a woman hounded by the press. The play was written in 1922. "Same problems," she says crisply. "It's a very modern subject."

She can say that again. The woman is an au pair, flung into the news by the death of a baby in her care. She is not charged with murder like Louise Woodward, but there are conflicting versions of what happened and who was responsible. A plot development which it would be unfair to give away carries a whiff of another recent front-page story.

And at the back of your mind, as always in the past five months, is Princess Diana. Binoche was not in Paris when the crash happened, but she was in France - in Provence, shooting Alice et Martin, a drama by the director who gave her her big break on Rendez Vous, Andre Techine. "I was upset. I was surprised by it: I didn't know her. But she was an outsider, a resister in her own way. And of course the accident just had a resonance into people's hearts. Anybody can imagine what it is like to have no privacy."

This was one reason why she took the role. She also wanted to feel the "warmth and proximity" of an audience, and, simply, to speak more. "Because I've done mostly silent movies, you know. In movies, I would react, and not talk that much."

She trained as a stage actor, and both her parents worked in the theatre (Kent mentions this; Binoche doesn't). Acting is acting, she seems to be saying. "The truth is the same, but in the theatre you have to turn the volume button on, which is difficult because you have still to have the intimacy. You have to reveal yourself in a different, more courageous way. The camera comes to meet you but in the theatre you have to come to meet the public."

If there is a language problem, she doesn't see it. Although her character has an Italian name, "she could be from anywhere. It doesn't matter, especially when you have a translation of the play - that's the wonderful thing about translation, you feel free to be whatever you have to be. It's mentioned that they're in Rome, but it's not mentioned where the characters are from. She's an orphan. That's where she comes from."

She enthuses some more about the play. "It's a tragedy with comic bits." But why has it been performed so rarely? The last major London production was in the Sixties, with Diane Cilento. "It's a mystery. I think it's a great play, and a great role for an actress."

She didn't think so at first, reading an American translation which was "dreadful". But Jonathan Kent commissioned a new version from Nicholas Wright, who translated Six Characters for the National in 1987 (it featured the unknown Ralph Fiennes). The new text is fast-moving, dramatic and intriguing, with some good jokes. Even the title has been boiled down, from To Clothe the Naked to just plain Naked. "Naked is right for the character. She is trapped and she has to be naked in order to - I won't tell you!" A peal of laughter, as hearty as her appetite. She may be the world's best-looking hyena.

Hearing her laugh, you wonder why directors so often require her to be miserable. In Naked, she has tried to commit suicide even before the play gets underway. On screen, she has been a bereaved mother and wife, numb with shock (Three Colours: Blue), a woman who feels that everyone she loves is soon to die (The English Patient), and, most harrowing of all, a young girl conducting a torrid affair with Jeremy Irons (Damage). The one comedy she has made, A Couch in New York, with William Hurt (1996), seems not to have found its way over here.

We are apt to forget that she has also water-skied down the Seine in a hail of fireworks (Les Amants du Pont Neuf), and flown like an angel, clutching a candle, on ropes rigged up by her boyfriend so that she could inspect the frescoes high on the walls of a Tuscan church.

THAT WAS in The English Patient, the film that has best harnessed her opposing qualities of stillness and animation, tristesse and joie de vivre. She went up for the role of Katharine Clifton, the doomed lover played by Kristin Scott Thomas, but had to settle for Hana, the Canadian nurse whose gentler kind of love - compassionate, for the charred wreck Fiennes, and companionable, for the Sikh mine-defuser - acts as counterpoint to the epic passion between Fiennes and Scott Thomas. She was unusually nervous, "trembling every day for a month," but she credits Anthony Minghella with getting something extra out of her. "I revealed something of myself that I didn't know before. I felt free - even though you have marks, lines, rhythm you have to remember, I could still forget about all this, and feel free. It was a real joy."

And then, last year, she won the Oscar, for Best Supporting Actress - the only one for acting out of the nine that the film carried off.

Her voice goes dreamy. "And then I won the Oscar. Can you imagine?" Her face is alight now, the way it was in those Tuscan rafters: she is not completely impervious to Hollywood.

Is an Oscar just a bonus, or does it mean something?

"Being that happy on a movie and having an Oscar - my God! How can you dream of that? I didn't dare dream of it, actually."

She had had to present the Oscar for Best Costume earlier in the evening and had a panic attack. "I was really frightened there. Just before entering I was like as if I had run 100 metres, I was doing an exercise of breathing. And then when they said my name for the Oscar I was so calm. I wasn't expecting it at all. I was sure it was going to be Lauren Bacall."

But you would have been disappointed if you hadn't won.

"No."

A little bit.

"No." Louder. "No! Don't be English!"

Where do you keep it?

"With the others." A playful smile. "With its friends." No awards ceremony is complete without Binoche, often in an oddly unflattering dress, collecting a prize: a Cesar here, an Ours d'Argent there, and the other day, in Spain, a Golden Swan, for the most romantic actress.

But where is that Oscar? On the mantelpiece, in a cabinet ... ?

"In a corner somewhere. The last floor."

If someone came to your house, they wouldn't see it?

"No."

So it's hidden away? "Not hidden. Just put away, it's different." She giggles. The big laugh is endearing, but the giggle is lethal.

"I couldn't have it on my desk, working, answering phones, watching it."

Has it made a difference to the roles you're offered?

A pause. "I react the same way, so I would say no, it didn't change anything."

At the Baftas, later last spring, she put on another overdone ballgown, picked up another statuette for the Best Supporting Actress - and burst into tears, saying something like "But I thought you British didn't like me." This is the final reason that she has come to the Almeida - to exorcise two lots of bad memories. "I was so frightened to come back here. Because my life during Wuthering Heights and Damage was very difficult. I didn't find my life here. I was in Holland Park. I know it's very perfect but it didn't suit me. There was no real intimacy in the area and I felt very uncomfortable. Islington's much nicer. London used to feel heavy and negative, but not any more."

'Naked': Almeida, N1 (0171 359 4404), previews from Thurs, opens 18 Feb, to 28 Mar. Performances are nearly sold out, but a few seats will be held back for sale to those applying in person at 9.15am on the day.

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