At 28, Juliette Binoche Was Hollywood’s Sad-Eyed It Girl

The Oscar winner reflects on her “painful” 20s.

Young Juliette Binoche, 20s acting roles in '90s
Caroline Wurtzel/Bustle; Getty Images

Looking back on her 20s, Juliette Binoche refers to the characters she played as the “sorrowful sisters.” They were consumed by darkness and often molded by tragedy — from her breakout role in 1988’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being to a painter losing eyesight in The Lovers on the Bridge to a woman having an affair with her father-in-law in 1992’s Damage. And that doesn’t even account for the grieving widow in Three Colors: Blue, for which she’d win France’s highest acting award.

Her own life was “quite painful” at the time, she says. “When you start choosing roles at the beginning of your career, you usually go to characters who feel relatable to you,” Binoche tells Bustle over Zoom from her home in France.

Still, more than three decades later, her oeuvre is full of messy ladies. In her latest project, Apple TV+’s historical drama The New Look, she plays French designer Coco Chanel, who was sympathetic to WWII Nazis. But there have also been lighter turns, from 2000’s Chocolat to the heartwarming rom-com Dan in Real Life.

Binoche insists that she is — and has always been — a joyful person, even when she faced adversity on set.

“It doesn’t mean that I was not laughing,” Binoche, now 60, says of her more melancholic periods. “But it’s true, I choose a lot of dramas because they were stories that touched me.”

Below, the French actor opens up about jealousy, the role that got away, and a book that got her through dark times.

Juliette Binoche at the Three Colors: Blue premiere in Los Angeles.Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

By the time you were 28 in 1992, you were already in a number of films and starting to launch your international career. How were you feeling at the time?

It felt like forever. When you start, you always feel that [your career] takes ages to become real, even though I’d spent years going through casting tests and passing. I was able to play in The Unbearable Lightness of Being quite early on, when I was 22. I was chosen like a week before, so it was a little bit of a shock because I had to plunge into it, jump into being a Czechoslovakian girl, knowing nothing about Czechoslovakia.

Take me back to Three Colors: Blue, which you began filming at 28. What do you remember from that casting process?

The director, Krzysztof Kieślowski, had offered me to be in one of his films, but I’d been making Lovers on the Bridge for two and a half years. I was kind of a prisoner of that film, but I didn’t want to leave before it was finished. When Kieślowski came back with [Blue], he thought I was too young for the part. I showed him a picture of me that director Louis Malle had seen, because he’d [similarly] felt I was too young for Damage. I thought, “Maybe I’ll give Kieślowski the same picture.” And it worked. He said my eyes and my way of looking at the lens felt ageless.

It’s interesting that looking ageless helped you. How were you thinking about age and aging at the time?

I didn’t. I just thought of surviving and choosing what I wanted to give to the world. It was all about exploring and growing. It was not about the result — to be in a successful film or to earn a lot of money. That wasn’t my purpose.

Being an actor, [your] encounters are so passionate, because you have to open your soul very quickly. It’s a turmoil of expectations. You learn to lose, not be satisfied, and there’s frustration as well as damage. I suffered quite a lot while we were shooting Lovers on the Bridge, because it was very long and painful. But through suffering and losing, you’re learning a lot about yourself. You need to be washed out by life, like in a machine, to choose who you want to be and how you want to live. I think my 20s were quite painful. My 30s were better.

Juliette Binoche and director Louis Malle in 1992.Bertrand LAFORET/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

I was reading in Entertainment Weekly that when you were filming Damage, it was a difficult experience. Can you tell me about that?

Well, I was trying to survive, and I felt like Louis Malle, the director, was a little passive and didn’t [get involved] much in the conflicts I had with the [other] actor. So I felt abandoned. I remember reading Talking With Angels all the time, because it was my surviving book, in order to see life in a different perspective — so I didn’t feel glued to what I was going through. Because when you are too glued to the way you’re living, and you identify so much with it, that’s when suffering is unbearable.

During this time, you were getting global attention. Did you feel pressure to become a sex symbol?

I never felt like a sex symbol. I played women who were strongly related to their sex power. But it’s an image. I was not aware of the power I had, and that probably kept me from danger. But also, not being aware is not always good, because then you don’t understand the consequences of certain situations.

When did you become aware of that power?

Much later, like 20 years afterward.

Binoche in 1991.Raphael Gaillarde/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

You said there’s less suffering in your 30s. Why is that?

Because you learn all the big words like betrayal, jealousy, envy, and the need of power, the need of this, the need of that. What does it feel to be jealous, and how do you transform it?

Did you feel jealousy in your 20s?

Well, I had boyfriends. I got very jealous when they were looking at or talking to another girl.

What about in your career?

I don’t believe a role belongs to you. I’m chosen as much as I’m choosing. With Damage, there were two other actresses, and finally I was chosen. But for The Piano, I spoke with Jane Campion at the time and wished I was doing it. But when I saw Holly Hunter do it, I was so happy because I felt I could never have done better.

What advice would you give your 28-year-old self now?

I wouldn’t give advice. You have to live your life not listening to advice. Too much advice is killing you, because then you’re frightened of this and of that. You have to go with your heart, and trust.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.