The great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has, throughout his 30-plus-year career, worked almost exclusively with nonprofessional actors. But he made an exception for Certified Copy’s Juliette Binoche, and with good reason. Acting opposite William Shimell, an opera singer with no previous big-screen experience, Binoche carries the film, anchoring what amounts to a series of intense one-on-one encounters between a couple whose relationship seems to shift from scene to scene, and sometimes within them. The first narrative feature Kiarostami shot outside his native country (not counting his contribution to the omnibus Tickets), Certified Copy is a striking change of pace: It’s his first narrative in nearly a decade and a dramatic departure from the quasi-documentary style of Ten and Shirin. It’s hard to think of another actress who could muster the combination of sophistication and innocence the role demands, or the immediacy she has brought to films from some of the greatest directors of the last three decades: Krzysztof Kieslowski, Michael Haneke, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Olivier Assayas, André Téchiné, and Abel Ferrara, to name only a few. Binoche sat down with The A.V. Club before the film’s screening at last year’s New York Film Festival to talk about visiting Iran, putting her heart into weird characters, and why she spent more time directing her co-star than the film’s director.
The A.V. Club: It’s hard to talk about Certified Copy without giving too much away, but it’s safe to say people come away from the film with profound questions about the relationship between the two characters. How do you play a relationship that’s constantly changing shape?
Juliette Binoche: I don’t know very much. I’m discovering as I’m going. What I knew is I could not hang onto acting skills. I had to go into different territory somehow with Abbas [Kiarostami], knowing that he doesn’t like acting and knowing that he’s frightened of actors. That’s why he chose to have films without actors, mostly. So I didn’t try and be smart in a way of choosing the neurosis that would take this character into this kind of emotional thing, where I could look on the Internet, trying to put words on what’s happening. I didn’t try to analyze it. I just took from conversation with Abbas that the character has to be close to me. I knew she had a son. I knew she was alone, feeling very alone. And that was enough. I could relate to that. [Laughs.] And I think a lot of people can relate to that, even though you’re in a relationship. Sometimes you’re raising a child with someone, but you feel like you’re the only one to raise the child. That can happen on the inside. So, I felt totally in trust with his way of putting the camera, and framing, and choosing the pace, and choosing the way of the storytelling and the structure of the film. But in terms of the acting, I had to take care of that. I had to be responsible for the pace as well, because of the long sequences. She’s driving the story somehow, because her need is so big. [Laughs.] Anyway, he has no space to talk about himself, really. So that’s that.
AVC: As you mentioned, Kiarostami almost never works with professional actors, and most of the directors you’ve worked with do.
JB: Not all of them. Hou Hsiao-Hsien doesn’t. Amos Gitai not always, but he does.
AVC: How was his direction different?
JB: It’s not direction in the sense you’re thinking of, maybe. Choosing me was already a direction. He wouldn’t talk too much. When the take was good, and he knew and I knew, we moved and went to another shot. Just once we had difficulty putting it together. It was a turning point, when I come out of the café, and I speak with my son and I speak to William as well. The way he wrote it was so funny, but he wanted me to talk to my son, but pointing to William so you didn’t know whether she was furious with her son or with him. So there was some confusion. But, when we did that, Abbas was thinking it was too aggressive, too harsh. Because if I really was playing it entirely, it’s like a punch in the face. We have to believe that the story carries on, because if I’m that aggressive, he wants to quit, he wants to go away. So, my character had to be pushy, and yet not be disagreeable.
AVC: The way your character changes, it’s like we’re peeling back more and more layers the further we go. Is there a parallel to acting there? As an actor, you’re inevitably coming from who you are initially, and then that bleeds into this other person that you’re playing.
JB: I understand. From an inside point of view, I could see that I’m totally her. And yet, at the end of the movie, I’m not. From an outside point of view, it’s two different people. From an inside point of view, it’s the same person—it’s me. So it’s difficult to answer that. If you really put your heart into the work, you don’t distance yourself, even though it’s a weird character, even though it has twists. The way you involve yourself is full, 100 percent, because you’ve got to make a parallel in acting in order to make it real. What you’re in and what you believe has a reality to you. It’s not unreal. It’s real, but it’s transferred into another road. It’s hard to understand, maybe.
AVC: There are so many different ways for actors to approach their characters. Some of them stand back from the character, making sure we know how we’re supposed to feel about them, and some deny us that distance.
JB: It depends on what you’re acting. It has to be a world of emotions. The idea was to make a position of an intellectual way of living, of dealing with the life of relationships. The other one is so needy. So presenting what she needs. Relentless about emotions. That was the subject. So I couldn’t be standing on tiptoe. It was not about that. But even though you’re playing an intellectual, there’s part of your heart you have to get involved with as an actor.
AVC: It also makes me think about the extent to which film or theater or any kind of performing art, any kind of story, is a copy of life, but it also feels like life. We feel like we know these people, and we’re involved in their stories.
JB: I prefer the word “re-creation” of life rather than “copy” of life. I think “copy” is a wicked word in a way, because it has a passive connotation. I think “recreation” is more interesting. You put yourself through the present time of something that already exists. So you’re taking the theme or the idea or something that touches you and you put it into your own understanding of it, your own experience of it. Through the present time, which is an art form in itself. But you’ve got to take the essence in order to transfer it into yourself.
AVC: Your co-star, William Shimell, is a professional opera singer, so he’s a performer but not an actor. What was your relationship like with him on set?
JB: Well, he had to be my husband, and my favorite writer, and he had to be all this. To me, he wasn’t William Shimell, opera singer. He had to embody this story. I was taken aback the first time I met with him, because on the first day of rehearsal, he knew the whole script by heart. They know the lines they’re singing when they start the rehearsal. So I was blown away by that. And also I think Abbas frightening him a bit: “You better know your text, because you’re playing with Juliette!” [Laughs.] So he learned it by heart. I was a little frightened. I was admiring the work, but at the same time a little frightened. “Oh my God, he’s going to recite his text.” Because when you know it by heart, you don’t put things in it yourself. My approach to the text is not from the head; it has to be related to other levels as well. I thought, “We’ll have to undo everything. We have to break the idea of acting in order to make it real.”
Abbas said to me, “You’re responsible for William’s acting.” I said, “Well, thank you.” [Laughs.] But I understood what he meant, because he is not an actor’s director. He knows how to use someone, and he knows how to be true to himself, when he sees on the camera. The fact that William was a performer, a singer-performer—he already knows about telling stories. Very early on, during rehearsals, we did some rehearsals together, and he got it pretty fast. Just on the first days of shooting, I could feel some sort of vertigo [from him]. How am I going to handle a situation where I need to be precise with text, precise with camera, and yet feel free, and yet combine all those elements together? And each time it has to be new.
AVC: You also make a brief appearance in Kiarostami’s Shirin, which is composed of shots of women reacting to an unseen film. You shot that in Tehran?
JB: We met under different circumstances, but one of them was in Cannes. Twice [Kiarostami] said to me, “Come visit me in Tehran.” So, the year after I went. Got my visa. We developed a friendship very easily. It was easy to talk about relationships, about how we feel about life, or being silent in front of landscape, or taking pictures together. Kind of feeling close and free, and not the embarrassment of actor or director or man or woman. I think because of that, the idea of a film came as we were going.
AVC: Is it relatively easy for a French citizen to visit Iran? It’s a very difficult procedure for U.S. citizens, and vice-versa. Kiarostami has been refused entry more than once.
JB: The idea I had of Iran before I went was very different than after I went to Iran. The picture in the media is so dark and so catastrophic, this almost retarded way of thinking. But they’re very refined, in houses, full of joy, and the women are strong. It’s a very different picture what I saw, even though it’s true that the women are asked to put the veil on, and it’s an obligation. I find it not fair in that sense; it should be free. Other than that, people have a lot of culture. They see on the Internet everything we see. And a lot of films, they know more than we do. Somehow, the restriction provokes the need for liberty, the need of knowing about the world. So, it creates the opposite. But it’s very intense. I thought there was a very intense need of the outside from them, and need of dancing, and need of music, and need of talking.