Award-winning transformations: Becoming Edith Piaf

from The Envelope / by Elizabeth Snead

Marion Cotillard on performing Edith Piaf.

In “La Vie en Rose,” Marion Cotillard was given the role of a lifetime: bring back to life the tiny, turbulent and tyrannical French singer/songwriter Edith Piaf.

Piaf’s story is the stuff of legend. She was abandoned by her parents, raised in a brothel, then randomly discovered singing in the streets of Paris. Through sheer force of personality and will, she became the most beloved French singer in history.

It took an equal amount of determination for this boot-strapped indie film to find the spotlight.

Doubly so for a young French actress hand-picked to convincingly play a French cultural icon and a self-destructive alcoholic who remains an enigma, even to those who knew and loved her best.

For her efforts, Cotillard received the Actress of the Year award at the Hollywood Awards this week. And with “Rose” now getting Oscar buzz, the actress has absolutely no regrets.

Will Edith Piaf’s life be relevant to audiences today?

She was an icon for her time, and we were initially afraid that young people would not come to see the movie. But she had such an incredible life, very extreme, and she lived with such passion. I was pretty sure that she would touch all generations. And she really was very rock and roll. She came from the streets. She was the punk of her day.

How did you find out how to portray her physically, her mannerisms, her walk?

I read all the books I could find. But what helped me the most was the footage of her in her personal life, in concert and the movies she made as an actress. The roles she chose were very close to who she was. I got to watch her walking through a room, and the energy she had. She was a small person but you can see the energy in her walk, in every motion. She was so powerful.

And what made her tick inside?

More than the physical aspects, my burning desire was to understand her. At first I wanted to understand who she was. And its’s hard to explain how one does that. How do you finally get to understand a woman without ever meeting her? But I have a very deep and interesting relationship with her. I have the feeling that I have met Piaf.

What was the biggest help to you?

The best friend I could have had to help me understand Piaf was Ginou Richer, her best friend for fifteen years. The second we met, we immediately fell in love with each other. I was so nervous. I had read her book, “Sparrow,” and when she arrived, she said, ‘Oh, I’m so nervous to meet you.’ I said, ‘No, me! I am nervous!’ She shared her life with me, a perfect stranger, when we met. This is so generous.

She met Piaf when she was only 16 and was only 30 when Piaf died. They traveled around the world together. It’s a love story between those two women.

How did Piaf’s childhood shape her life?

She struggled for love all her life. I think that when you are abandoned when you are a baby, you will search for love your whole life. I can barely imagine what it’s like to miss something forever.

And that is why she tried to find love in everyone. She needed the love of the audience. She was not a man-eater, but she looked for one man, one big love. She didn’t want many men, just one to love and protect her.

Was there a part of her personality that shocked you?

I had so much admiration for Piaf that some aspects of her were incomprehensible to me, especially the tyrannical aspect. But my admiration prevented me from understanding her. I would read things she had done or said and thought, “No! Why did she do that?” I had to come to grips with what I didn’t like in her. Finally, I realized that she was terrified to be alone. She would do anything, even tyrannizing the people she loved.

In the film, you age from 19 to 30 to a woman wasting away with liver cancer at age 47. How did they manage this?

The makeup was a big thing, and it took time to find the right person for the makeup. We tried several. Some gave up. Others were not right. But we finally found one amazing guy (Didier Lavergne) who was as crazy as we were to think that we could transform a 30-year-old woman into that tiny little woman who looked so much older than 47 when she died. In the end, it was all about finding the right balance between me, the makeup and the lights.

Just how precise was the lighting?

Sometimes I would do a scene and [writer-director] Olivier [Dahan] would tell me, ‘You have to move five millimeters to the right because the lights do not work.’

In between my lines, he would say, ‘Lift up your chin just a little. There, stop! Now say your lines.’ It was interesting. You could imagine that Piaf could not move, that she had no freedom, and she was like a marionette and actually, I liked this, I really enjoyed this, to be directed in that way, by millimeters, so technical. In that scene when she wants to have a (morphine) shot and go to the countryside, it was an amazing moment. Time stopped and we were playing with millimeters to make it work.

It’s rare for one actress to do a film like this. Was there ever a time when you thought it might not work?

Yes, Most of the time, when it’s a whole life, it’s two actresses, like in “The Notebook.” But Olivier only wanted one and lots of close-ups, which are difficult. At first, the photographer said, ‘We have to back off with the camera. We are too close! She’s 30! Can’t you see? It’s impossible!’ And the makeup artist said, “I cannot put more makeup on her. She already has five layers of Latex!” And Olivier was like, ‘It will work. You will add more makeup and you will change your lights.’ He was very calm. But they were arguing for hours. I was a little afraid, but when I would look at Olivier, who is the most stubborn person ever, I knew it would work. He wants it to work and he will make it work.

Did you want to do the singing as well?

If we had had the time, I would have tried to do the singing. At first I was frustrated, but when we found the singer, she was so perfect. When I met her, I saw that it was meant to be that she was involved in the project. We asked her to do difficult things. She had to record Piaf’s less well-known songs. We asked her to sing not so well in the beginning. She has a deep Southern accent, and I asked her to have a strong Parisian way of speaking (making a nasal sound). She committed herself and gave us everything we needed.

The makeup must have been grueling. You had to shave off your eyebrows and raise your hairline!

I had about 30 days of heavy latex makeup. One day I was in the makeup for fifteen hours. I was allergic to the protection you put on underneath the latex. It was horrible that first day, so we got rid of it. It took from three to five hours to put it all on. At the end, it was five because I also had to wear the bald cap so you can see her scalp.

The costumes span so many decades.

Marit Allen was our costume designer, and she did an amazing job. She had no money. None at all. She found things in thrift stores, had some things made, remade jewelry. And she had to dress all the extras from the ’20s through the ’60s.

Did you ever dream of a meaty role like this at your stage in your career?

When I read this script, I could not believe it. Wow, this is for me? I knew Olivier wanted to do it with me, and I had never met him before, and I was like, Wow! That guy wrote this amazing script, and he thinks I can do this. It’s the most beautiful present I could ever have gotten.


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