Interview: Marion Cotillard

from (US) / by Benjamin Crossley-Marra

If you met Marion Cotillard in person you probably wouldn’t draw any association with France’s beloved icon Edith Piaf. Marion is tall, demure and extremely striking. Edith was diminutive, held a slight hunchback never bothered to carry herself in an overly lady-like manner. But a peculiar aura surrounds them both. This aura is what director Olivier Dahan must have felt when he chose Marion to portray Edith Piaf in his latest film La Vie en Rose.

When Marion walks in the room all eyes immediately lighten up and everyone becomes transfixed with every word that drops from her mouth. When Edith Piaf sang at concert halls the audience felt as if she was singing each song just for them. It’s this energy that makes Marion the perfect choice to portray this legend.

Cotillard was born in France in 1975 and made her mark on French cinema in 1998 starring in Luc Besson’s Taxi. Since then she has appeared in a number of notable films including Jean Pierre-Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement and Ridley Scott’s A Good Year.

Dahan chose Cotillard to play Edith prior to meeting her and steadfastly refused to consider anyone else. His intuition proved ingenious, as Marion’s performance is certainly one of this year’s best. She manages to channel Piaf with such ferocity and emotion it’s hard to believe that young Marion is under all that make-up.

Piaf was not an easy part to play. From the time she was seventeen to her untimely death at age forty-seven her life went through several dramatic changes. She was raised on the streets, became involved with underworld clubs, contracted arthritis at an early age, become addicted to morphine and suffered cancer in her later years. All this required extreme physical demands from the actress.

I met Marion in New York to discuss her performance, her life and her views on acting.

Q: How hard was it to transform into Edith? What was the process like?
Well it’s not so hard…it’s just work and trying to have fun with something vertiginous. There are some technical parts which are hard like lip-syncing. But there was also a technical part about the character. Of course because I didn’t know anything about Edith’s life I had to read a lot of books and watch a lot of her work that’s available on film. The most important thing was to try and understand who she was and I guess, really, this is not something technical or a process that you can explain. In discovering the life of a person you find some things you like and some things you don’t. I think it’s looking at the things you don’t like and then abandoning your judgment that you will truly find someone else’s heart and soul.

Q: What was your favorite experience while making this film?
There are so many things, but I was so afraid I would not be able to manage Edith, as her character got older. She died in her forties but looked like she was in her seventies. I was so scared but then I found my marks and when we started shooting it felt so good to be able to play like this. Ironically, I felt like I was a kid again playing pretend. It felt liberating because kids playing pretend don’t try to be good actors, they just play and have fun. Once I found out how to play with this character at that age I began to have a lot of fun with it. Especially when she’s older and in California, I loved shooting those scenes.

Q: A lot of darkness surrounded Edith’s life. Was it sometimes hard to leave all that drama back on the set at the end of the day?
I have never used, nor will I ever use, my personal life to feed a character. I don’t want to do that because I think it’s dangerous for me to think of sad events in my life to achieve certain emotions. I’m not the person who will be sad about someone’s life and go into that kind of emotional state. I see Edith’s entire life and, yes, parts of it were sad but she was also a very “living” person. As an actress it gives me great pleasure playing tragedy because it involves huge emotions where you can express a lot of things and really let go.

Q: What do you draw from to achieve the emotional state of the character then?
I think that it’s as if you take – the emotion you give to the character of course it’s your own emotions – but it’s as if you take the technical side of what the emotion is and apply it. This is really hard to explain because emotions are not really that technical. I think people who are close to their emotions can project them. When I first read the script I had an emotional reaction because it touched me so deeply, so I used that emotion in bringing Edith Piaf to life.

Q: Are you afraid to be stuck with Edith Piaf?
I think those things only happen when you think about it too much. For example, when I first got into movies in France I had great success playing bimbos. But I never believed that I would be put in a box. I think if you have that inside of you it won’t happen.

Q: But Edith Piaf is a very iconic character.
Yes, but it’s not so much about her being an icon. It’s not a matter of the subject it’s a matter of you and what you want to do. I want to have a lot of other amazing journeys and I am ultimately responsible for whether I’m in a box or not. I’m sure of this.

Q: What were your first impressions when you met with Olivier Dahan?
I had read the script before I met him. When I read the script I was speechless, I couldn’t believe Oliver would think that one person could portray her for a majority of her life. I didn’t think one actress would be able to do all those scenes. But I had just read my dream role, so when I met him it felt very natural. From our first meeting we both shared the same vision for Edith. I loved the sense of intimacy that Oliver had put into the script. From that meeting on we never really talked about his script or the character again. We just shot it.

Q: What did you learn from the experience of playing Edith?
It’s hard to explain with words what you’ve learned for yourself because it’s a feeling that you will keep forever; once you’ve had that experience of letting go. To abandon yourself to the point of being one with what you’re searching for. Maybe I feel stronger in a way?

Q: A lot of younger people have come out to see the film in France. What connections do you think they are making with Edith Piaf?
It’s the story of an amazing woman who shared her emotions all her life and who wrote the most beautiful love songs. For her time she was (actually) kind of punk rock (laughs). She was very modern and I think even today’s youth can pick up on that. Even now with shows like American Idol (we have several variations on that in France) many of the contestants choose to sing Piaf. I think it’s because the songs break through generations and are universal. Of course they don’t actually know her life. But her life was so intense and so beautiful that I think it can touch everybody.

Q: You’ve worked with a lot of interesting directors including Ridley Scott and Jean Pierre-Jeunet, is there a particular director whose process you prefer?
Well I like to work in different universes with different directors. It’s like human beings: you can’t really say what type of human beings you prefer exactly. What I really like are strong universes with strong imaginations like Jeunet, Dahan and Tim Burton. So it’s kind of hard to answer that. It’s always different because all of those directors are unique in their own way. That’s one of the things I love about this job is the opportunity to be invited to so many places

Q: Do you have any favorite songs by Piaf?
Yes, many, but I especially love Padam, Padam. I also really love La Foule and several songs that are not available anymore. I listened to everything I could when doing research.

Q: Are there any other iconic women that you find fascinating you’d like to play?
Each time I hear that question the first name that comes to my mind is someone I can’t do because it’s Aung San Suu Kyi. For obvious and emotional reasons I can’t. But I think a movie has to be done.

Q: Would you consider producing or directing it?
Yes, definitely. I could express many things through directing, I’m not ready yet, but I guess that one day I will have that experience.

Q: Would you do the Aung San Suu Kyi film as a documentary or narrative feature?
: That’s a good question, I don’t really know. She’s still alive and she’s still in prison in her own house. You know I think this story is terrible…really, it touched me and because she couldn’t visit her husband who had cancer…it’s so horrible. I love that woman really, she’s a strong, strong, lady. Fighting against the army and everything.

Q: If you made the film do you think you could change things?
Oh I don’t know, so many people sign things and so many people try to make things happen. But I think that maybe movies can put things in people’s minds more effectively.

Q: Are you writing yourself?
Yeah I try, but writing is…wow…you really have to concentrate. I’m the kind of person that has an admiration complex. I tend to admire other people then get self-motivated. You think that maybe there’s too much ego in a way, to think that you would be able to write like…I don’t know, I’m trying.

Picturehouse Films releases La Vie en Rose in theatres this coming Friday, June 8th


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