Juliette Binoche on Driving a Tough Road in “Paradise Highway”
For writer/director Anna Gutto’s feature debut Paradise Highway, a trucker named Sally will do whatever it takes to keep her brother Dennis (played by Frank Grillo) alive long enough so that he can get out of prison and restart his life. This means she’ll take on jobs that are hardly legal, but she believes victimless, in order to make a little extra money and placate the powers that be that hold his life, while behind bars, in their hands. The siblings were once the victims of abuse themselves, and their connection is of the “us against the world” variety. This is what makes life for Sally that much worse when the job at the heart of Paradise Highway is revealed—instead of moving some contraband across state lines, Sally’s being told she needs to help move a young girl, Leila (Hala Finley) in what turns out to be a child sex trafficking ring.
And who did Gutto manage to land for the role of the foul-mouthed, truck-driving Sally? Juliette Binoche, of course, one of the most beloved French actresses alive and possibly the last person you might imagine in the role. Still, it took about nine seconds to believe Binoche as Sally, the second you watch the way she moves, both out in physical space and within the confines of her beloved truck, you forget you’re watching a famous French actress and are entirely drawn into Sally’s world. Watching Binoche transform herself into a credible trucker plying the American highways is but one remarkable feature of Paradise Highway, a film that reveals how that American highway system is used to support one of the ugliest, most heinous crimes imaginable.
We spoke to Binoche about her preparation for playing a truck driver, what drew her to Gutto’s thriller, and what it was like performing with young Hala Finley.
What was it about the script for Paradise Highway that most connected with you?
Child sex trafficking is important to talk about it, to be aware of, so we can see with new eyes that it can happen in the western world, where people think we’re protected and it can’t happen here. We’re not protected. This film helps us to understand that. I didn’t know that sex trafficking happens with truck drivers, and that’s how they move from one state to another. It also touches on the topic of choosing a new family. Choosing your heart family over your blood family. This film shows how difficult it is to unplug an unhealthy blood family situation and how you take the risk when you choose your heart family, because it can be terrifying. So I liked that topic as well. And I was excited to work with Morgan Freeman and Frank Grillo, and to help Anna Gutto. It was her first feature film, and I was very happy to be a part of it.
Paradise Highway‘s subject matter is difficult; how was the filming process itself?
I could never imagine myself being a truck driver in America, first of all. That would be like, what? If someone told me that’s what I’d do in 2021! So it’s a small film that we made with very little money in a time period that was very condensed in Mississippi, where it was hot with a lot of mosquitos, and we had night shoot to day shoot to night shoot to day shoot, back and forth for or five times. We had a young actress in Hala Finley who could only work a few hours a day, so there were challenges. But we made it, and we made it with passion and a lot of belief in it.
You really carry yourself like a truck driver, to say nothing of how intimate with the truck you appear. What was that process like for you in becoming comfortable in the role of Sally?
Well, thank you. I ate in truck stops [laughs]. That’s the start. It’s such unhealthy food, being stuck on these highways where they drive nonstop. I was appalled to see the food, which is not good. I spent time with female truck drivers and observing what it felt like being in the heat. I studied maps, trying to understand where I was, and give the intensity the story needed because otherwise, you wouldn’t believe it.
The details you get in this movie about child sex trafficking are harrowing, and there’s an early sequence in the film in which you need to physically restrain Hala’s character. How did you approach that sequence?
The good news is that Hala is such a good actress that I just believed what I was seeing in front of me and feeling in front of me, so that made our journey easier. We could listen to each other and be with each other. Hala is so raw and truthful when you act with her, so that also helped. As an actress, you jump into what you need to do, so I don’t take things personally, I’m selling you what I’m doing. I remember several times with Hala, the scene when she kills the man and we’re struggling with that weapon, it was quite rough between us. I remember opening my arms so we’d cuddle and calm down the intensity. I think that’s when she probably trusted me, when I opened my arms to her. I think before we started shooting, she was a little distant because she’d had some experiences in the past where she felt the actors weren’t always generous. So when she felt like I was taking care of her, both physically and emotionally, that’s when we could laugh and cry together.
There’s quite a bit left unsaid in Paradise Highway, which deepens the sense that Sally has created her life on the road to get away from an unspeakable past. We edge towards a specific horror when Dennis (Frank Grillo) puts Leila in a dress Sally once wore—did you and Anna speak about the specifics of her past, the stuff we only get hints of?
We talked about that dress. With Anna, we had lots of discussions about Sally, and what was the most beautiful thing is she trusted me, which gives you wings because it makes all the possibilities happen.
Paradise Highway is available on demand now.
Featured image: Juliette Binoche as Sally in Paradise Highway. Photo Credit: Nick Burchell