from BlackBook Magazine / by Ray Rogers
Marion Cotillard is having a New York moment. The new face of French cinema, who took home a treasure trove of gold statues from far-flung corners of the world for her memory-searing role as Edith Piaf in 2007’s La Vie en Rose, is slathering cream cheese on half a bagel as she readies for our daylong cover shoot. So much for the spread of organic salads, fresh vegetables and hot water with lemon she’d requested.
It’s no wonder she went in for the perfect morning-after food. The previous evening, Cotillard clinked glasses with the A-list of sartorial stars, Hollywood bold-faced names and music royalty at the American fashion world’s most fabulous night out, the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Ball, hosted by Anna Wintour, Marc Jacobs, Justin Timberlake and Kate Moss. Her escort? None other than John Galliano—only fitting as she is the new face of Dior. Cotillard’s night stretched on until the wee hours of the morning, winding down in Moss’ hotel room at the swank Gramercy Park Hotel.
If it seems she’s living the high life, she’s certainly earned it. But she’s also very much got her feet rooted on the ground. You’d never guess she’d been out all night from her composure on set—pleasant, polite and ready to work. In conversation the next day at The Bowery Hotel, as the chic set get their happy hour cocktails on at sidewalk tables, Cotillard, cloaked in grey cashmere that brings out the blue-gray of her eyes, sips water at an inside booth and seems most at ease discussing her craft. The hoopla surrounding it? She can do without. Not that it’s going to stop.
She’s at a crossroads right now, ascending quickly from esteemed actor to international star. Her first big screen performance after her 2008 Oscar win for La Vie en Rose comes via a Michael Mann summer blockbuster, Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp as 1930s Chicago gangster John Dillinger. In the role of Dillinger’s girl, Billie Frechette, Cotillard delivers another bang-up performance. After that, she plays opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in a star-studded cast that includes Penélope Cruz, Kate Hudson and Fergie (yes, you read that right) in Rob Marshall’s Nine. And if further proof of her skyrocketing fame were needed, she was recently cast by The Dark Night director Christopher Nolan to play Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife in Inception.
While she’s had small roles in a few American movies, including the forgettable hokum that was Tim Burton’s Big Fish (2003), and opposite Russell Crowe in A Good Year (2006), Cotillard, 33, was already on the verge of superstar status at home, where the French tabloids routinely refer to her and her partner, actor-director Guillaume Canet, with whom she lives, as the French “Brangelina.” She’d appeared in more than 25 films before Olivier Dahan’s La Môme (as it was titled in France), and already had a César under her belt, for best supporting actress, for a particularly potent performance in A Very Long Engagement (2004), alongside Audrey Tautou.
She comes from a family of artists—her mother and father are both actors (her father a director, and former mime), and her younger twin brothers earn their livings as a sculptor and writer. Growing up in Orléans, France, surrounded by a creatively fertile household, nevertheless she says she was tortured inwardly. Maybe some part of her is still working out those demons. To say that Cotillard is drawn to grueling parts is an understatement. Her commitment to the role of Edith Piaf saw her completely transform herself into the tortured genius of the French chanteuse as she rose from scrappy beginnings to the heights of fame, and then, ravaged by her fears, insecurities—and drugs—ultimately succumbed to cancer by age 47.
For director Michael Mann, witnessing her performance was a revelation. “When you see that kind of work, you recognize it for what it is: This is a brilliant, brilliant artist,” he says. “Even in the smallest gesture or expression, you can tell that there is total truth in what she’s doing; she is completely committed to every single moment. It’s not performance, it’s not artifice. It’s beyond skill.”
He took full advantage of that complete conviction. Cotillard gets pushed to the limit again in Mann’s Public Enemies, out July 1. As Billie, the round-the-clock bruising she takes from FBI interrogators leaves her sleep-deprived, bloodied and with a soiled dress. This scene is just the kind of challenge that ignites Cotillard. “I’m totally aware that it’s weird to find pleasure in that state of emotion—in violence—but,” she says with a laugh, “I like it.”
Cotillard doesn’t take the easy way out in Public Enemies. In the hands of a lesser actress, we might have drowned in an ocean of sobs or been deafened by a histrionic breakdown. In her final scene, Cotillard lets out a quiet tear, the emotion transmitting from her eyes telling the whole story.
BLACKBOOK: My heart is still beating very fast. I just came from a screening of Public Enemies.
MARION COTILLARD: You liked it? I saw it yesterday… I’m very happy.
I found myself really rooting for John Dillinger and for your character. What appealed to you about playing Billie Frechette?
She’s a real product of this really tough period in American history. Out of the Depression came all of these people who struggled to live. Billie had no money, and she came from an Indian tribe, which, at the time, was not easy. By the time she came to Chicago and met Dillinger, she had already lived several lives—she had been to military boarding school, to learn military manners, to “get the Indian out.” She’s a mix of someone really sweet and tough.
How familiar were you with this period in American history, when gangsters were writ large in the culture?
I loved gangsters when I started watching movies—I love the idea of freedom, perfect freedom, which I will never reach. Those characters who expressed their dark side fascinated me. It can be totally scary, because it drives you to do things that are unacceptable. But I think that kind of confidence is attractive. That is what’s great about my job—I can express and feel these things, because they’re real. Well, 90 percent real.
It could have just been a decorative role—“the girlfriend”—but you brought a real sense of integrity to her.
In Michael Mann’s movies, women aren’t just there because he needs a love interest. In the movie, you feel for Billie, because you have the time to discover who she is, to see that she was really in love.
She wasn’t just in it for the money or the adventure.
Absolutely not. And when they caught her, the interrogation lasted two days and one night, and they would not allow her to sleep. But she never said anything. Not one thing.
That scene must have been difficult to shoot.
Oh, I’m used to extreme scenes. [laughs]
You’ve done quite a few of them now.
When I did La Vie en Rose, it was harder to get back to normal, because we filmed for four months and I was so deep in it when it ended. It was kind of hard to come back to myself right away.
What was the vibe like between you and Johnny Depp?
I met him with Michael Mann before we left to shoot the movie. I was looking forward to working with him, because I think he’s an amazing actor. And I was looking forward to this experience with Michael Mann—really, I had sparkles while working, during the preparation. I was thrilled. He’s a real gentleman, a real, simple person—easy to talk with.
Johnny is, on one hand, a huge Hollywood star. But on the other, he lives in France, away from the celebrity culture. Does his lifestyle choice resonate with you?
I think that when you are an actor, and you tell stories about people, especially when you are that big, you have to find a way to stay normal. And he is. I think you just have to find a way to stay close to reality. You find, inside yourself, the way to stay close to who you are.
How do you do that?
When you start to think about your own fame, you’re in trouble. I’m not in trouble. [laughs.] People who leave their road for perdition, because something is too hard to handle, well, it comes from fear. And I think that almost everybody has fears, but the way we deal with our fears, the way we turn our fears into something else, allows us to stay close to life, to people, to reality, to authenticity.
What has struck me about your better-known performances, at least over here, is that there’s a real strength, and yet, a vulnerability about your characters. What aspect of your personality is drawn to these parts?
I’ve always needed characters who allow me to express several things, and I find that kind of person—someone who is strong, but also emotional—very beautiful.
Is that who you are?
I think that’s who everybody is. All of us are living, standing, walking and loving. We have the strength to do all of that.
What were you like as a kid?
I was very, very scared. I didn’t know how to speak to people, and I didn’t know how to express myself. I was very complicated, tortured as a kid. I didn’t know how to share things.
Why do you think you were tortured as a kid?
Too many questions too soon.
At what point were you able to move forward?
When the desire to live becomes stronger than your fear, I think you start to see things differently.
Is there a part of you that still feels tortured?
Yes. It’s tiny, but it’s there. It’s in the package. I think every human being has that kind of package. Even the happiest man in the world has a dark side. Otherwise, he would not be complete. We have to deal with that, and it’s an amazing experience.
Let’s talk a little bit about La Vie en Rose. I was blown away by it—I’m sure you hear that all the time. How did it change you?
When you abandon yourself to a character who was a real person—to live with this character, to know that she was real, that her story really happened—you discover some strength. Not that I’m more confident now, although I would love to be.
Did you learn anything from Edith Piaf, in terms of how she handled the pressures of enormous fame?
I don’t share her fear of being alone, the way she dealt with fame and the things she wanted, which never fulfilled her. Her celebrity was very important to her, but she searched in so many people for something that was hard to find: the love of another person to replace the mother she didn’t have. I don’t share that with her.
Are you enjoying the glamorous part of your job? I heard you had quite a fun night out at the Met Ball.
Fame brings you fun things, because you get to meet very interesting and funny people.
Is that a big part of your life now: hanging out with Kate Moss until all hours of the morning?
It’s been a part of my life to enjoy good times with people, and sometimes people that I’ve just met. Sometimes the people you hang out with are people whose names you know, whose faces you recognize, but you never really know people until you meet them.
John Galliano was your escort to the Ball and you are the new face of Dior. Is your involvement in the fashion world a new thing?
I have to confess that fashion is a world I don’t really know. I have to be interested in fashion, in a way, because it’s a big part of an actor’s life, but I’m not very good at talking about fashion. I like it, but it’s not a major center of interest for me. But I really admire Galliano.
He’s such a unique artist. He has always taken risks. His creativity is always alive. When I met the people at Dior, I met him. And that’s how that story begins.
Had you met Kate before the other night?
What is she like?
She has a strong personality. And she’s British—I love the British. And the way she gives life to the character she is and everything she does… it’s really something. It’s not just about being pretty and wearing clothes for her. Giving your personality like that to the art of fashion is something I couldn’t do. I need to have a character. That’s why when Dior called me and said it’s going to be little movies, and I could actually play someone, I said, Okay, yeah, that is something I can do. I get to hide, a little bit.
Soon after you won the Oscar, there was some controversy over statements you made about conspiracy theories and 9/11. I’m curious what that meant to you. I’m not looking for any defense or apology.
I don’t have to defend myself. What can you do against something that is totally different from what you really think? It was hard to live with that, because I’m not the person described in that ridiculous story. I was not happy that this story could hurt people. But I felt sorry for those French journalists—that was the thing. I felt sorry for journalism, in general. We live in a world where there is so much information, but what I said was taken out of context. It’s so common for someone who gives interviews to say that, but a cliché becomes a cliché because it’s true. Some of it was funny: the part where I thought that man didn’t walk on the moon? Man, please! It’s so ridiculous.
You didn’t say that, then?
I talked about being fascinated by Internet conspiracies, because they are fascinating. And I asked a question like that: “Did man walk on the moon?” Because the conspiracies are out there, not because it’s a question I believed.
There are no regrets about what I think or what I said, but I regret being put in a situation like that, bringing water to the river of unreal and mean things. I don’t belong near the manipulation of information.
It must have messed with your sense of trust.
As an example, I did an interview in France and the journalist asked me about the houses I’d lived in, and I said I’ve always lived in apartments on the top floor. And that became this: “I’ve always lived on the top.” It’s so easy to become this full-of-yourself person who says, “Nobody has lived above me.”
Tell me about Nine. You sing in that movie, which must have been a relief. You’ve spoken about how difficult it was to learn how to lip-synch to Edith Piaf.
It was more than a relief—it was a dream! My dream was to do an American musical. When I was a kid, I knew all of the choreography for Singin’ in the Rain. I would play the video again and again to learn everything: the songs and the dances. I thought that it was a dream that would stay a fantasy, until Rob Marshall arrived. I love to sing and I love to dance, but I didn’t know that I didn’t know how to dance. When you’ve got to dance Broadway musical-style, then you suddenly discover that you absolutely don’t know how to dance.
Do you and your boyfriend go out dancing?
My boyfriend is an amazing dancer. When you have a very good partner that makes you dance, and you know that no matter what happens he will catch you—it’s amazing.
You just finished shooting The Last Voyage of Lancaster together in Morocco. Is it hard to do a scene with him?
It’s another level of sharing. It’s weird at the beginning, but then you find the pleasure to forget that you know that person. You become someone else. In one particular scene, I thought he was so good. And I missed my line, of course—it’s dangerous because you really have to stay there, stay in the character.
What has been the most surprising thing about this journey that life has taken you on since La Vie en Rose?
Each time a director calls and wants to see me. It’s a great joy and it’s always a surprise, because my dream is still going—it doesn’t stop.
Nine’s cast is amazing. What was it like to have all of those people in one room, working together like that?
We were all so happy to do this movie. We wanted so much to make Rob happy, because he’s so smart and nice and talented. We were like a troupe of, you know, dancers.
New friends out of the experience?
Well, I love Penélope Cruz; she’s an amazing person. And Kate Hudson, too—so down-to-earth, so easy, so simple. We’re actresses, which means it’s not always that way.