from The Associated Press / by David Germain
Marion Cotillard’s first acting job was a baffling but valuable lesson in the art of denying real life in favour of make-believe.
She was three or four and playing a girl whose mother lay dead before her. Cotillard, an Academy Award nominee for “La Vie En Rose,” could not understand why the director insisted the actress playing the dead woman was her mother, when her actual mom was right there on stage with her, playing a different woman.
“I remember he said to me, ‘It’s your mother,’ and in my head, I was like, ‘She’s not my mother, because my mother is there!’ ” Cotillard said with an emphatic gesture as she recalled her first stage gig in an interview with The Associated Press. “It was so disturbing. I really remember this feeling I had.”
The French actress had made great leaps forward in her craft a year or two later, the first time she worked on a TV movie, and she was doing a scene with a dog. In real life, Cotillard did not have a dog, but she now understood the game.
“The dog, it didn’t belong to me, but it was my dog. They say, ‘It’s your dog,’ ” Cotillard said. “I went, ‘OK, it’s my dog.’ I got it then.”
Cotillard, 32, really gets it today. She put in a remarkable performance as Edith Piaf in “La Vie En Rose,” playing the French singer from her raw, fiery late teens through her frail last days in her 40s.
It was a breakout role for Cotillard, whose French credits include producer Luc Besson’s action comedy “Taxi” and its sequels and the acclaimed “A Very Long Engagement,” and who appeared in such Hollywood productions as Tim Burton’s “Big Fish” and Ridley Scott’s “A Good Year.”
Two more Hollywood films are coming up, with Cotillard co-starring with Johnny Depp in Michael Mann’s 1930s crime tale “Public Enemies” and with Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz in Rob Marshall’s “Nine,” a musical inspired by Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2.”
In “Public Enemies,” Cotillard is playing the moll of gangster John Dillinger (Depp), a role requiring her to sound like an American.
“The first thing I have to do to erase my French accent is think that it is actually possible, whereas for the moment, I think it’s not. I have a lot of work,” said Cotillard, who speaks good English but does have a heavy French accent.
Though her parents were actors and she had an early introduction to the profession, the Paris-born Cotillard had what she calls a fairly normal upbringing, taking on only occasional acting jobs.
Cotillard began acting in earnest in her late teens, her stunning looks, huge blue eyes and disarming mix of sweetness and sauciness helping to establish her.
Her eyes helped land the role as Piaf. Cotillard said when she first met with “La Vie En Rose” director Olivier Dahan, there was a list of three potential actresses to play Piaf. She was not on it.
But she later learned from Dahan that he started to fixate on her for the role after finding a book on Piaf in a shop. Something about Piaf’s eyes in a photo from when she was about 16 reminded him of Cotillard.
Cotillard had only passing awareness of Piaf beforehand.
“I was not a huge fan. Of course, I know her. I’m French,” Cotillard said.
“I knew a few songs but nothing about her life, whereas in her time, everybody knew her life, because she shared her life with the press. When she had an accident, there were pictures taken of her in the hospital room. Everybody knew where she was, what she was doing, who she was dating.
“But all I knew were a few songs she wrote, songs that are still very, very alive. In all those ‘American Idols,’ all those TV shows with very, very young people who sing, you hear people sing Piaf.”
As with Jamie Foxx, an Oscar winner for his portrayal of Ray Charles in “Ray,” Cotillard had to learn a difficult art for the music biography: how to lip-sync. French singer Jil Aigrot provided the distinctive warble of Piaf, best known for the title song and such tunes as “Mon Dieu,” “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” and “C’est L’amour.”
Pretending that Aigrot’s prerecorded vocals were coming from her own mouth was the major challenge for Cotillard, who spent long hours trying to capture Piaf’s expressions and body language.
“It’s the toughest thing, a lot of work, not the funnest. It’s long and hard. But you have to do it,” Cotillard said. “It has to be almost perfect, because the audience has to believe that you are actually singing, because you play a singer. It’s your voice, it’s the character’s voice.”
The film follows Piaf from impoverished childhood as a street singer abandoned by her mother through international stardom and the infirmities of her final years, when the will to sing remained even as her body was giving out.
While Piaf goes from bawdy urchin to commanding celebrity to feeble woman grown old before her time, Cotillard said the singer’s essence was the same throughout.
“You will always carry what you lived in your childhood, because it’s what creates what is in you,” Cotillard said. “That’s what was beautiful in her, the strong woman she was, and at the same time the little girl. The little girl who needs to be protected, to be loved, and more than loved, because I think when you’re abandoned, you will search for love all your life. And maybe you won’t find it, because you will never find your mother’s love.”
Actors usually find themselves doing interviews for a film around the release date, then putting it behind them and moving on to something else.
Not so with “La Vie En Rose, which debuted a year ago in Europe and has long since been released elsewhere and on DVD.
“I’ve never talked about a movie and a character for so long, especially since the movie’s been released everywhere,” Cotillard said. “It is strange. It’s long, but I’m happy for the movie.”