from NY Times T: Fashion & Beauty Winter 2007 / by Lynn Hirschberg
In “La Vie en Rose,” you play Edith Piaf from age 17 to her death at 47. Piaf was a brilliant singer, but she was also a drug addict with a deeply dramatic personality. Was it challenging to play a woman who was so extreme in her emotions?
When I read the script, I was really scared. But, of course, I was also intrigued. The director, Olivier Dahan, wrote the script with me in mind.
I never knew why, but then he told journalists, “There was something about Marion’s eyes.” He saw some tragedy in my eyes, something terribly sad that reminded him of Piaf. And I have to say, I did feel close to her. As an actress, I could understand her behavior. That made me less afraid of playing an icon that so many people love.
In the end, a role this huge is like the biggest present. So your initial fear becomes a fake fear — just a manifestation of your ego. I didn’t want to waste my time asking myself, Will I be good or not good? I realized I just had to have less ego and do more work.
Did you shoot the film in sequence, from young Piaf to old?
No. We didn’t have a big enough budget for that. On the fourth day of shooting was one of the biggest scenes — the moment in 1960 when Piaf collapsed and canceled her performance at the Olympia theater. It was the big jump right away. From day to day, I was skipping from Piaf as a girl to Piaf at the end of her life. But it was better that way — if I had to wait for the last month to be old, I would have been paralyzed with fear.
But the makeup and hair transformations must have been grueling.
After three days of latex to age me, my skin was not there anymore. I shaved my hairline back before shooting began so that I would have a bigger forehead, and I shaved off my eyebrows. It was very disturbing to look in the mirror, but I no longer looked like myself. I could see another person emerge.
Was it personally upsetting to film Piaf’s death scene?
No. Piaf was dying again and again. When she was alive, all the journalists were ready for her death. They prepared the obituaries every week! When you play someone with so many chapters and so many moods, it reminds you that life can have great intensity and depth.
You lip-sync Piaf in the film. Did you want to do the singing yourself?
Yes and no. We really didn’t have the time for me to learn to sing the songs properly. But lip-synching is the most difficult thing to do. I had to breathe like Piaf, and I worked with a vocal coach to learn her technique. I would study how to breathe, when to be silent, how to look natural and yet emotional. I taped myself, and I hate to watch myself, but I studied those tapes again and again. It might have been easier to just sing.
Now you are going to do another musical, “Nine,” opposite Javier Bardem.
I love to sing and dance. I started in musicals when I was very young. Both my parents are stage actors, and I was fascinated by their jobs. My father was a mime. When I was 5, a director friend of my family put me in his movie. I played a little girl with a dog, but I remember my scenes and I was entranced by acting. It was a dream to me — the passion of the profession was contagious.
When I was 16, I moved to Paris with my mother, and I started getting parts in films. In France, film is a strong industry, but it’s also very complicated. The French are very proud of their performers, but they don’t want you to stray too far from France. As a little girl, my dream of acting had no frontiers. I wanted to cross the sea, to meet amazing directors, even if they were not in France. The French don’t like you to leave. But there are opportunities everywhere, and as an actress, I need to tell all kinds of stories.
When you were 28, you co-starred in “Big Fish,” directed by Tim Burton. Was it hard to learn English?
Yes. Three years ago, I flew to New York and I took a Berlitz class for 18 days. I saved my money for one year to do this. I rented an apartment in Manhattan, and I submerged myself in English. There is such a different rhythm to the language. It’s exhausting sometimes, like singing a musical when you’re used to jazz. Even now, in Paris, I try to speak English every day. I have to learn to sound authentic in English — to not just say the correct words but to express feeling, too.
I loved living in New York. I saw such a difference from France. In France, you are supposed to pretend you don’t work, but in America, they give you respect if you work. In France, they don’t like success — for instance, they excoriate their hit movies. They only like the underdog. But in America, they appreciate success. That was interesting to me.
Did you get calls about American films after “Big Fish”?
No. In the movie, I’m a French girl who’s pregnant. So, nothing. No one in Hollywood was interested. But it did change a lot of things in France. It put me in that special, weird place in France. I had co-starred in the first three “Taxi” movies [written by Luc Besson], and they were commercial hits. After that, to have your place in French cinema, you have to prove that you are a serious actress in a noncommercial film.
[She laughs.] When Tim Burton picked me, they were impressed. In France, they see Tim Burton as a kind of film doctor, and the movie was not successful, so voilà!
Do you find it more difficult to star in a comedy or a drama?
Comedy may be harder, but tragedy is such fun! It’s not as narrow a form. It is much easier for me to understand something vast and complex, rather than something light and uncomplicated. Perhaps that makes me very French. But that sensibility is an element of the French that might be beneficial for America. Tragedy is almost always interesting.