To follow up yesterday’s interview with John Boorman — which you can read here — today we’re featuring the roundtable session with Juliette Binoche, who plays Anna in In My Country, which opens in New York and Los Angeles this Friday, March 11th.
As we gathered in the hotel conference room, Binoche entered with a smile. Sometimes you’re never sure if an actress will have the same presence and beauty as her onscreen characters, but she certainly did. She was well spoken and quite stunning to look at, and her answers seemed heartfelt and honest, which was pleasant.
The following is the result of that question and answer session.
Question: Did you actually get the chance to meet Antjie Krog, on whom your character of Anna was based, before filming In My Country?
Julitette Binoche: Yes, I did. Actually, she was generous enough to take me on a journey for a week and showed me the townships and different places in South Africa. She’s proud of her country and wanted to share that. It helped me, because I got to understand the country not from an outsider’s point of view, but enjoy the landscapes and the beauty, as well as the trauma of what happened during apartheid, from the perspective of someone who was there.
Q: Can you talk about what you did to prepare yourself for the role?
JB: First of all, the film was postponed for like a year, so I had a year of preparation. Which was good, because the subject as so big, so you can’t just absorb it all in one month. When I started working on the movie, I didn’t feel that my character was responsible for what happened during apartheid. And at the end of the preparation, I felt that she was responsible, and she needed to feel responsible. And for me to not feel responsible, and then to feel responsible, was a huge arc that I had to go through myself as me Juliette. Being French and being aware that Algeria and France had some problems, I had to go an investigate that. So I went to Algeria and talked to some people, and apologized because I needed to do that. I felt sorry.
Q: How did you get involved in going to Algeria?
JB: I had this friend who was doing a documentary about French perpetrators who were working in the military during the Algeria war, and I went to see this documentary (L’Ennemi intime by Patrick Rotman). It was very overwhelming because you could hear the perpetrators, and I was enraged, of course. And there were these journalists there, and they asked why I was at the screening. So I started doing this interview, and during this radio interview this well-known director said ‘we are going to Algeria next week for the 40th anniversary of Algerian independence, do you want to come and be a journalist?’ So I said yes. So I’m on this trip and I spent three days in Algeria.
Q: You already knew you were playing Anna?
Q: So this was like the character you were playing?
JB: Yes. And I wanted to put myself in the confrontation of it. When the subject is so contemporary, you have to face your own self sometimes to be authentic and involved. So for me, I felt as a French woman I had to face my own demons.
Q: How much did you learn about South Africa and apartheid?
JB: I watched a lot of tapes, which was at a point unbearable. I couldn’t take it anymore. I listened to a lot of stories from the hearings. And not seeing the faces, but just hearing the voices, even though it was sometimes in Zulu and other languages, you could feel in the voice the human beings and that was very overwhelming. And the perpetrators, which of course is a big question mark: how can a human being go so far? And I had to research, because I knew that just because your from that country it doesn’t make you evil. I mean, where does it come from? We have both sides, we’re good and we’re evil, too. It’s just a matter of choosing and being aware. So I had to investigate the history of what it means to be an Afrikaner.
Q: What was your attraction to this project, why did you choose to play this role?
JB: When I read the script I didn’t know about the history, but I was very touched by the story and the arc. And the need to reconcile with one’s self, but also with the unknown. Because we live in a society with a vengeful way of thinking and being, and it’s out of fear. And the concept of “ubuntu” was like… wow. It’s a tradition that’s so deep and it became necessary for me to make the movie. Why am I an actress? Well, it’s to say something. And I’m privileged enough to be able to choose, and go for the subject that I think is necessary. And as a white person, I’m responsible for saying what I need to say. I am sorry and we need to live on another scale.
Q: Do you think Anna involves herself in the romance to deal with her guilt?
JB: For me it’s not a romance, I can’t call it a romance. When you’ve been in a tempest, and the hearings were a tempest of emotions, because it’s so unbearable. That’s when you go out into the world and you feel like an outsider, because nobody is going to understand what happened unless they were there. So for me, her need of touching this man, the need of loving this man, is… for me it’s not a romance. It’s a physical need. It was the only way she could go through it.
Q: Did your concept of being a journalist change when you took on this role?
JB: Well, I was playing the role of Antjie Krog, who’s a poet, and she needed to be playing a role of journalist for her own country and her own conscience. It’s like me being an actress and choosing this movie, you feel responsible for people consciences. It’s like, wake up! Do you know what happened? Because you can’t guess. It was like, when I read the script, I found I had really only understood maybe twenty percent. The journalist has the responsibility of providing the link between the event and the people.
Q: How was it like working with John Boorman?
JB: This project was very close to his heart, which was one of the reasons I wanted to make this movie, because it was so important to him. And he wanted to make this movie for a long time. With John, when we started shooting, he would take one shot and one angle, and I was like, ‘oh God, I’ve done all this preparation and I can’t explore what I have in me, you know’. I said to my assistant, ‘I give up, never mind, you know, he does what he wants and I’ll be shit in this movie, I don’t care’. I was so disappointed. Then my assistant said I have to talk to John, it can’t be like this, that I need some space. So I had dinner with him and I said, ‘John, I feel miserable on this movie at the moment. You don’t allow me to do another take, the one angle thing, it’s horrible’. And he said, ‘It’s your film, I need you to be happy. When we start on Monday, you’ll have a second take if you need to’. But during the whole shooting he would not ask me for another take, so I would ask for it, which is not nice as an actor. You feel like, ‘Can I try another one, please?’ It feels horrible. There was one point, John was by the monitors and watching, and he wouldn’t even say ‘good’, he would just go to the next shot. Towards the end of the shooting he started standing by the camera and become a spectator. And then at one point he actually asked me to do another take. It was when I first see my brother, and it moved me so much that he would ask me for another take. I was like, ‘wow’. But I felt I’d done all I could with the scene, but he pushed me, and it was great. That was the take that’s in the final film.
Q: Did you feel that you had a lot of responsibility with this film compared to your other works?
JB: I think this one particularly, yeah, because when you go and see what’s going on in South Africa you feel that this is something that needs to be heard. People need to know what happened here… Suddenly, being an actress was meaningful with this film. It meant a lot to me, and I was like, I understand why I do this job.
Q: How did you feel about the South Africans offering amnesty to the perpetrators of the atrocities during apartheid?
JB: The sad thing is sometimes the perpetrators would say the truth, and they knew they were covered, but while some of them did, most of them didn’t feel sorry. And that was the pain of it. That was very painful to see. You also had some people who were in charge saying, ‘Well, we didn’t know they were doing that.’ And then the perpetrators were saying, ‘Well, we were ordered to do that’. So, it was like it was nobody’s fault.
Q: What is the message you want audiences to come away with after seeing In My Country?
JB: You have to face your devil. You have to face what’s uncomfortable to grow and become better.