Voice Lesson

from Men’s Vogue / by Damian Fowler

Marion Cotillard goes beyond beauty to conjure the mythic Edith Piaf – and it just might land her an Oscar.

Don’t bother trying to sum up Marion Cotillard. That’s the lesson I recently learned when, in my desire to understand the essence of the 32-year-old French actress, I stooped to the following: What color are your eyes? “Blue-gray” came her playful response in gentle, articulate English. “It depends on the weather. When it’s like this — rainy — my eyes are gray. But when the sun is shining, then my eyes are blue.” I should have known better than to bottle a rainbow.

The iridescent Cotillard secured an Oscar nomination for her remarkable transformation into the iconic French chanteuse Edith Piaf in last year’s “La Vie En Rose.” Critics have used terms like “impassioned,” “spellbinding,” and (of course) “tour de force” to describe her achievement. At 5-foot-7, the long-limbed, vivacious actress managed to transmogrify herself into the petite, birdlike but volatile Piaf. Deploying rag-doll body language and a rasping delivery — neither of which is manifest at our table at Nello on Madison Avenue — Cotillard captured the physicality of Piaf, from her early days as a street-singing soubrette to her later years as the grande dame of French music, crippled by arthritis and addicted to morphine. The actress had to shave her hairline and her eyebrows to become La Môme Piaf — “the kid sparrow.” Thankfully, it’s all grown back. Her beauty is intact.

Although Cotillard has been acting for more than 14 years (including a recent turn as Russell Crowe’s love interest in “A Good Year”), the accolades she received for her performance in “La Vie En Rose” have changed everything. She’s just flown in from Los Angeles: Hollywood is calling.

Cotillard takes a sip of fresh orange juice and reflects on the singer who inspired this life-changing performance. “My desire was not to try to imitate her technically,” she says of Piaf, who died of cancer in 1963 at age 47. “I wanted to understand what was inside that woman, what was inside her heart and soul.” To do so, Cotillard front-loaded her brain with all things Piaf until she was brimming with her ineffable essence. She also befriended the singer’s old friend Ginou Richer, who revealed that Piaf wasn’t such a tragic figure after all. “She loved life, she loved to be happy, and she was funny,” Cotillard says.

As for the singing, director Olivier Dahan knew it would be impossible for anyone to re-create Piaf’s voice. Instead, Cotillard lip-synced, an intricate process that required learning to breathe precisely like the late singer. Even before she got her Oscar-worthy role, the actress would create playlists of Piaf’s songs for various movies she worked on. “I use the music,” she tells me. “It helps me to go into certain emotions. But I don’t use my job as therapy. I feel more like an anthropologist of the inside of the human being, a speleologist!” she says with a glint of mischief in her — suddenly — blue eyes. Say what?

I nod in agreement, and when I get home, I look up speleologist: someone who visits caves. Of course.


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