on 1 Jan, 1970
from The Telegraph (UK) / by Strawberry Saroyan
When the director of ‘La Vie en Rose’ cast a virtual unknown as Edith Piaf he struck gold – for the mesmerising Marion Cotillard looks set to add an Oscar to the string of awards she’s already won for the role. Not bad considering this particular Little Sparrow decided to wing it without so much as a rehearsal. She talks to Strawberry Saroyan
I am in the palatial restaurant of a Beverly Hills hotel, waiting for the woman hotly tipped to win this year’s best actress Oscar and Bafta, Marion Cotillard. She is late and I want to make sure that the staff will know where to direct her when she arrives, so I approach the maître d’. ‘I’m interviewing an actress,’ I say in my – hopefully – least annoying cadence. I mention Cotillard’s name. ‘I don’t know who that is,’ the woman replies dismissively. ‘Oh. She was in La Vie en Rose… playing Edith Piaf…’ I trail off. The woman snaps to attention. ‘Wow,’ she exclaims. ‘I did see that. It was good but very disturbing.’
It’s a reaction Cotillard and the film – a biopic of the French singer Piaf – have been eliciting for close to two years, since La Vie en Rose was released (it came out in Britain last June). Indeed, when her Golden Globe win for best actress in a musical or comedy was announced last month the Boston Globe retorted, ‘Marion who?’ It’s not a question many more people will be asking. In the weeks before we meet Cotillard has been named best actress by the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the Hollywood Film Festival, and she has just been nominated for best actress in the forthcoming Bafta awards. The director Trevor Nunn called hers ‘one of the greatest performances on film ever’.
La Vie en Rose follows Piaf through her life, which included being abandoned by her mother as a toddler, raised in a brothel after her father abandoned her, too, blinded by conjunctivitis (she later regained her sight) and implicated in the murder of the man who discovered her, before finally losing the love of her life in a plane crash. By the time Piaf died of morphine and alcohol addiction at 47 (but looking 70), her divine gift of a voice hardly seemed a fair karmic trade-off.
When Cotillard arrives at the restaurant she is all apologies. ‘Sorry, sorry!’ she says and waves her hands. Dressed in skinny jeans, silver kitten heels and a T-shirt emblazoned with dozens of fading little stars, the 32-year-old oozes Parisian chic in that just-rolled-out-of-bed way. Her transformation into Piaf becomes even more startling when you learn that she is a foot taller than the singer was and has a delicate prettiness that is hidden behind the feral rage and humour she projects as the woman known as the Little Sparrow. (When I ask Cotillard if she gets recognised from the role in America she throws me a look. ‘I look quite different,’ she says.)
Cotillard speaks in charmingly broken English. She refers to memories as souvenirs, for example – simply using the French word instead – and told one reporter that a promising film deal ‘smelled good’. When I ask about the pressure she might have felt portraying Piaf, who is revered in France, Cotillard tells me, ‘I knew I couldn’t go into the wall.’ Huh? ‘It’s a translation of a French expression.’ I realise she means she couldn’t afford to mess up. ‘Really when you read a role like this you can’t fail. It’s too precious.’
I have read that Cotillard didn’t want to do rehearsals. She jumps right in. ‘I did not want to do a classic way of working that people can imagine – trying to find the old lady inside me [she plays the singer from youth to her death] or trying to find the voice of Piaf, the way she walked.’ In fact, time constraints made it impossible for Cotillard to learn to sing. Instead, she lip-synched expertly to original Piaf recordings or, where they were not available, to the singer Jil Aigrot. ‘I chose to keep, erm, surprises,’ she continues. ‘I wanted to build something inside me, and hoped that from the inside the outside would come naturally.’ She made the risky choice of not practising at all before arriving on set. ‘Ten days before going to start the movie I freaked out, totally,’ she admits. ‘I was like, “Maybe I should have [prepared in a more] classic way.”‘
Little clues she was on to something carried her through – ‘We did the costume fittings in London and immediately I felt that my body would behave like someone else’ – but she couldn’t relax until she heard herself speaking as the character during the first day of filming. After that it was plain sailing. ‘I really fell in love with her,’ she says, adding that the hardest part was letting go of the role after filming ended. ‘First of all, when you go back to your life you’re alone again. You lived for more than seven months – four and a half months of shooting and three months of preparation – with the character, so it’s like you have to mourn.’
Cotillard speaks in equally dramatic and effusive terms about her acting idols, some of whom she has met recently in Los Angeles – she lives in Paris but is over on an extended stay for the awards. She was overwhelmed when Daniel Day-Lewis presented her with the Breakthrough Performance trophy at the Palm Springs International Film Festival some weeks ago. ‘More than the fact that I admire him, I really think he’s one of the greatest actors ever,’ she tells me, adding that his calling her ‘a remarkable performer’ has left her ‘still in the clouds, like woo-woo, and the rainbows’. Encounters with Angelina Jolie and Sean Penn (whose name in Cotillard’s cadence resembles nothing so much as ‘champagne’) elicit near-equal rapture. The awe on her face at the mention of Penn tells the story, and of Jolie she exclaims: ‘There’s an amazing positive energy that comes out of this woman. She has such a wonderful aura.’
Cotillard grew up in an artistic household; her parents – mother Niseema Theillaud and father Jean-Claude Cotillard – are both highly regarded stage actors in France. She and her twin younger brothers, Quentin and Guillaume, were encouraged to draw pictures on the walls of the family’s flat in Paris. Cotillard giggles at the memory. ‘We really enjoyed it,’ she says. ‘The living-room, all the corridors – we painted them and drew on them with crayons. We even made glue with toothpaste [and stuck artwork on the walls with it]. It was a big mess!’
Despite the chaotic warmth of her family life, Cotillard showed signs of having a tortured artistic temperament from as early as the age of nine. ‘I really started to ask myself, “What am I doing here? What are human beings doing here?” I so wanted to understand, and I didn’t. What I [wanted] in my mind was something like a perfect world, with a perfect understanding of everything.’ She laughs. ‘I thought that people were logical about life and respect and love. And when I started realising it was not that way at all, I felt that I didn’t want to live.’ Did she contemplate suicide? ‘Oh, no, I deeply love life, but I started searching quite early.’ Loneliness resulted, and performing became her salvation. ‘[When] I started to act I realised it was my way of sharing things with people,’ she has said, ‘of talking to them.’
Cotillard made her first film appearance aged five – it was a production by one of her parents’ friends – but took up acting seriously at 18. By her early twenties she was already famous in France because of her part in the blockbuster Taxi films, produced by Luc Besson. It was not the sort of fame she wanted, however. The films were slickly commercial. ‘They were a huge hit,’ she says, ‘but you have to prove something [after appearing in a film like that].’ Cotillard went on to garner roles in several well-received lower-budget pictures, including the S&M fairytale Love Me If You Dare (2004), which features her and Guillaume Canet as schoolmates turned electrically-attracted-to-each-other young adults whose relationship consists of an escalating game of truth or dare (the scene in which they die as liquid cement pours down on them is worth the admission fee alone), and Pretty Things (2001), for which she was nominated for a César. She still felt unappreciated: of the former film she says, ‘It was a success, but I think the business didn’t notice exactly what we did.’
In 2003 Cotillard appeared in her first Hollywood movie, Tim Burton’s Big Fish. I ask what it was like working with Burton, and she recalls him being even more excited than she was on their first day on set. ‘He was jumping everywhere like a squirrel and he told us, “Yesterday night I was in my bed and I was like, I want it to start! I want it to start!”‘ The following year she appeared as a brokenhearted man-eater in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement; her character kills one bound and blindfolded lover by shooting the mirror above his head, so that shards of glass fall like daggers into his naked flesh. In just eight minutes on screen she managed to steal the film from under Audrey Tautou’s nose – and won a César for her efforts. ‘That changed the vision that the French business had of me,’ she says, now picking at a beetroot-and-walnut salad with her hands. ‘They started to look at me like, “Oh, maybe there’s something more than the actress of the very commercial movies.”‘ Finally she had achieved the perfect balance of being sought-after for populist films (in 2006 Ridley Scott cast her as Russell Crowe’s love interest in A Good Year) yet respected within art-house cinema.
The role of Piaf, however, was of another order entirely. A year before she read the script her agent mentioned that the director, Olivier Dahan, was going to do a film about Piaf and was considering her for the role. ‘But at that time it wasn’t written. You don’t know what can happen. So it was just information,’ she says. She also knew nothing of Piaf’s life, so didn’t realise what a gold mine the part would be. What happened when the script landed? ‘It’s not just that I loved it,’ she replies. ‘It was the most special and incredible thing I’ve ever read. Her life is so extreme. You have to go through so many emotions… and particularly the fact that Olivier wanted only one actress to play her from 19 to 47. That was the most beautiful thing for an actor.’
Cotillard met with Dahan – they have both described their rapport as instant and ‘natural’ – and he insisted on casting her, despite the fact that she was less bankable than the actresses his producers had in mind. When they balked, Dahan chose Cotillard over their money, and made the film with less time and a smaller budget. He bet well.
So how does it feel being so widely praised for her work? Cotillard admits that, since being showered with them, she has overcome a former difficulty in accepting compliments. ‘It’s because I’m very proud of the movie and we put so much passion into it,’ she says. Her eyes light up when talking of the professional doors that have opened since La Vie en Rose, which include a starring role in next year’s Nine, a remake of Federico Fellini’s 8½ that will also star Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz and Sophia Loren. She also plans next year to film a love story set in the African desert.
Cotillard is still trying to keep her feet on the ground. ‘My dream is to do movies. It’s not to have an award,’ she replies when asked about her Bafta and Oscar hopes. But even she can’t keep the glee hidden for long. ‘I’m enjoying it totally, because it’s great,’ she says with a smile. ‘Such an award would be a very, very big cherry on the cake.’
• ‘La Vie en Rose’ is out on DVD