Juliette Binoche’s performance in Ivo van Hove’s production of Antigone—the Greek tragedy penned by Sophocles and updated for today’s stage by Anne Carson—has been a sensation in every city in which it’s been performed. Ask Binoche, the iconic French actress whose next turn on-screen will be in November’s The 33, and she’ll tell you the appeal lies in the story’s ancient-but-timeless wisdom. Currently, the play is being performed stateside through October 4 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Here, she speaks with DuJour about the appeal of tragedy, the intricacies of an international production and the importance of art.
What made you want to do Antigone?
I met with Ivo [van Hove, the director], and we spoke about Greek tragedy. I think that was in the first meeting that we talked about Antigone. At first he talked more about Medea, but then he said, ‘No, let’s do Electra,’ so I read it and I loved it. And I told him, ‘I almost want to say yes, but I’m still thinking we should do Antigone.’ It was a bit of a battle, and then I said, ‘Why don’t we do two shows? We’ll do Antigone, and then we’ll do Electra.’
What was it about Greek tragedy that was speaking to you?
When you see a Greek tragedy, it stays in you forever because of the essence of it, the core of big questions about being human. I had seen Antigone when I was 18 years old and it just rested in me, it stayed in me, and that’s why I was so certain in a way. Also the Greek tragedies are influenced by older myths, so they’re coming from the core of humanity. Antigone is a play all about transformation; the characters are not the same at the beginning as they are at the end. I think as actors, you really want to give the essence of this history or other people.
Does something that has so much history offer more of a challenge for you as an actor than a contemporary work might?
For me, this play is totally contemporary because it is beyond time. It has to do with tradition, it’s not about the past and it’s not about the future, it’s about eternal presence. So it has nothing to do with time. It’s ageless.
Do you think that it’s particularly resonant at the moment?
Oh, yes. When a play is universal, it goes through all the ages. That’s why it’s a play that is still alive, it’s still available. And it’s something that is at the essence of a transformation that we all have to do in our lives.
You’ve brought the show to Brooklyn from runs in London and Edinburgh. Is there a difference in the crowds?
Yeah, there is some difference in the language. When they understand the words immediately, they react quicker. Some have immediate understanding, and others they need to read, so there’s a bit of a delayed reaction. When it’s a more Latin country or a more Nordic country, it’s interesting to see how the expression of enchantment is different.
Your director is a busy guy—he’s also doing two Broadway shows this season. What about him do you think has made him so in-demand?
It happens with careers sometimes. He’s been doing his own work in Amsterdam for many years, and now it’s coming out. He’s always been working the same way, it’s just that now he travels more.
And your Antigone was written by the poet Anne Carson. How does her translation play into what you’re doing?
I think to write was probably an interesting journey for her, because when you read her writing you understand that she loved her own brother and it’s a painful situation. So to translate Antigone was probably something special for her. I think that she really took the core of herself, something so loving and angry, and really gave it to the writing. It’s very human, and yet fully truthful.
Does working on a show that’s so steeped in history change what you consume in your down time? Are you more apt to dive into contemporary literature or film?
I never think that way, because for me when a story is truthful, I learn something from it, and it’s vivid and very alive and present to me. It really has to do with art, which touches something in you that is beyond time. When I read something, I don’t care if it’s contemporary or older. To me, that doesn’t mean anything.