on 1 Jan, 1970
from Telegraph Magazine (UK) / by Heather Hodson
Her performance as Edith Piaf brought the French actress Marion Cotillard worldwide recognition and an Oscar, and now she is to act opposite Johnny Depp in a violent Depression-era gangster film. She talks about why she feels she was born to portray complicated women.
When Marion Cotillard was nine years old and growing up in the French city of Orléans, she had what might be described as a full-blown existential crisis. ‘I didn’t know where was my place anywhere –in school, with friends, with the other children,’ she says in her faintly broken English. ‘I was shy. I was more than shy. I think I started thinking about why I was here, and I couldn’t find any answers, so it was very disturbing for me. I was not very happy because I wanted some answers. [It was] as if my brain had lost the innocence too quickly.’
The feeling that something was amiss persisted, even into her twenties. ‘I was totally melancholic,’ she says with gusto. ‘When I think about this period, which was really long, now that I have enough love for myself I can watch this period and be touched by this child, but I couldn’t bear being in that state of sadness.’ The odd thing about it, she says, is that she has always had a close and loving family. ‘Because my parents loved us, I couldn’t dream of a better family, better brothers, better mother and father. But there was something, I don’t know, something dark, really dark about me.’
Sitting in the penthouse suite of a fashionable hotel in downtown New York one recent afternoon, the 34-year-old star of La vie en rose – whose performance as Edith Piaf won her an Oscar in 2008 – doesn’t strike you as a woman who has ever been racked with anxiety, even for a nano-second. For a start, she is quite exquisitely beautiful, with milk-white skin and wide, blue-grey eyes. There is also the matter of her style. Dressed in a charcoal-grey Proenza Schouler jacket, striped grey T-shirt, grey moleskin jeans and flat-heeled boots, she exudes the kind of nonchalant glamour that the French, particularly French actresses, are so prone to.
How could this naturally gorgeous, graceful woman feel anything other than totally confident in herself? She gives a little shrug. ‘I didn’t like myself. I don’t know if someone who doesn’t like themselves, I don’t know if they have explanations, but that was what I was. I hated myself. I just had to live and find something, so that I would do something good and finally say, yeah, maybe I’m not that un-interesting person I think I am.’ What finally stopped this business of not feeling good enough was acting. At 15 Cotillard went to drama school, where ‘I found my place,’ she says, shooting me a smile. ‘And more than my place, I found the way I could express things.’ On graduating, she made a promise to herself. ‘I [decided] I would fight, that I would do everything that was possible, in a respectful way of course, to do what I wanted to do: to be an actress, just to be an actress.’
This reveals a number of things about Marion Cotillard: there is her propensity for complicated emotion (but then she is an actress, and French, after all); there is her sense that her intrinsic worth is indivisible from her acting; and there is her fierce commitment, the willingness to do whatever it takes.
‘She is an artist who has a tremendously healthy ambition to do really great work,’ Michael Mann, the director of her latest film, Public Enemies, says. Rob Marshall, who cast Cotillard alongside Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Dame Judi Dench and Sophia Loren in his forthcoming film of the stage musical Nine (inspired by Fellini’s 8½), says she is an example of someone whose dedication to the craft of acting far outshines her status as a celebrity.
‘She’s a great and real person who doesn’t fall into the movie stardom cliché,’ he says. ‘She is an artist first and foremost, and I’ve never seen anyone work so hard in my life.’ As Luisa Contini, the wife of Daniel Day-Lewis’s film director Guido Contini, she sings and dances as well as portraying a great deal of emotional complexity. ‘When you went into the rehearsal room, there she would be, working and working,’ Marshall says. ‘She was just living the role. Daniel Day-Lewis was absolutely blown away by her, as I was, as anybody was.’
All her qualities are on full display in Public Enemies, which is released next month. Michael Mann’s film is a strange hybrid – an old-fashioned romance set at the centre of a violent gangster thriller that depicts the downfall of the legendary Chicago gangsters John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd during the Great Depression. Cotillard plays Billie Frechette, the girlfriend of Johnny Depp’s Dillinger, and the film reverberates with the chemistry between the pair. ‘With Marion, she’s totally authentic,’ Mann says. ‘You can give a great performance but you can’t give the heart of an actress without real authenticity. She’s committed and unselfconscious – she has complete artistic authenticity. You see that in different moments with other actors. Johnny has it. And with Marion, it’s every look.’
Evelyn ‘Billie’ Frechette was an emotionally scarred, financially vulnerable woman, the daughter of a French father and a Native American mother, who lived on the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin until the age of 13 – a life of great deprivation in the 1920s. For four years she attended a boarding school for Native Americans, moving to Chicago when she was 18 and living a hand-to-mouth existence as a dance hall girl and a dice girl before meeting Dillinger.
In preparation for the role, Cotillard talked to Wilma Mankiller, the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1985 to 1995, as well as Michael Chapman, a member of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, and spent time in Las Vegas and Chicago, talking to girls working in nightclubs and bars. Cotillard also trained herself to speak in a French-Canadian-Wisconsin accent without a trace of her native tongue.
‘It was the hardest thing, really, I’ve ever had to do. Even being old and depressed like Edith Piaf was much easier. The hardest thing was that I deeply knew that it wouldn’t be perfect and it’s – agh! It was something unbearable.’ For four months she worked with a dialect coach every day, and during the three-month shoot, in true method style, spoke only in English, even to her family and friends.
‘I couldn’t speak French. No French. Even my French friends and my family when they called me, we would speak English.’
Cotillard has acting in her genes. Her father is the stage actor Jean-Claude Cotillard, her mother, Niseema Theillaud, is also an actress. They were, their daughter says in her charming English, ‘the first in their family to take the artistic pact’, and Marion is her parents’ daughter. Even as a child, Cotillard knew that she would become an actress – ‘I’ve always known it’ – and cites her parents’ influence as a deciding factor. ‘They really developed our imagination in many ways.’ They raised Marion and her younger twin brothers, Quentin and Guillaume, in a loving, noisy, bohemian household, first in a suburb outside Paris, and then in Orléans – a time Cotillard describes as ‘magical’. She recalls how she and her brothers would be allowed to draw and paint on the walls of the family home and how her parents read them fairy tales and invented stories in which they participated.
‘I was fascinated by this world of telling stories, of having a different day every day. And my parents were – still are – passionate people, and to be raised with passionate people who open the door of your imagination and your creativity, I think it’s why I am an actress now.’
She made her first film appearance at the age of five, in a production by one of her parents’ friends, and a few years later there followed parts in two small television films, again made by a friend of the family. But she didn’t take up acting seriously until she was 15, when she entered the Conservatoire d’art dramatique in Orléans. On graduating, she dived into work, over the next half decade or so appearing in many French television and film productions, including Luc Besson’s blockbuster Taxi series, but despite her success – by now she had become a notable actress in France – the work did not satisfy her. ‘I was doing movies and I was not happy, I wanted more than what I had. I started to feel that I had some anger that it wouldn’t be fast enough, that I wouldn’t do [good roles], and I started getting jealous. It’s not very constructive for me to be jealous, so I told myself, OK, I’m going to take some time off.
I don’t want to wait for the phone, I don’t want to do things just to earn money, because a passion shouldn’t be like that.’ And then, as is so often the way with these things, at the critical moment the life-changing call came. ‘Tim Burton offered me the role in Big Fish, and this was exactly what I wanted.’ She pauses to clarify herself. ‘It was not “exactly”, it was much more than I had dreamt of. And then I told myself, you wanted to leave, and here comes something so fulfilling, so maybe you should think twice! Maybe it’s actually your right place to be an actress.’
Big Fish (2003), in which Cotillard plays the pregnant wife of Billy Crudup, marked Cotillard’s debut in an American production and established her in the international eye. There followed a series of shimmering performances, the most powerful of which were those in which she portrayed characters with some form of psychological disturbance: the wild, thrill-seeking girlfriend of Guillaume Canet in the 2003 film Love Me If You Dare, in which the lovers end up drowning in cement; the unhinged, murderous prostitute Tina Lombardi in A Very Long Engagement (2004), in which she acted the better-known Audrey Tautou off the screen and landed a César Award for the performance. But it was the world-conquering biopic La vie en rose, released in 2007, that gave us the full measure of her as an actress.
The French singer Edith Piaf, who was abandoned as a child by both parents, brought up in a brothel by her grandmother, and lived as a street urchin before finding fame, led a roller-coaster life of vertiginous highs and lows, marred in its final years by her morphine addiction, and the deaths of her only child and of her lover, the boxer Marcel Cerdan. The writer and director Olivier Dahan spared none of the details, and as Piaf Cotillard delivered an extraordinary feat of metamorphosis, managing to appear a foot shorter than her 5ft 6in frame and, though she was 32 at the time, playing Piaf from the age of 17 to her death from cancer at 47 with total conviction. It was, according to the American film critic Stephen Holden, ‘the most astonishing immersion of one performer into the body and soul of another that I have ever encountered in film’, and Cotillard went on to win a Bafta, a Golden Globe and a César, and became only the second French actress to win an Oscar – and the first to win it for a performance in the French language.
Playing Edith Piaf, Cotillard tells me, changed more than just her career prospects. ‘I’ve never gone so deeply in someone’s emotions, so it affected, but in a good way, my emotions. I went deep somewhere that it has awakened things that I had hidden because it was too hard to face. And after the movie I started to face those things I was afraid of. I had to get rid of a lot of my fears.’ What sort of fears? ‘I am not very good at expressing myself in a simple way so it can create mis-understandings and I hate that. And I fight and… there are a lot of situations where if I could have handled it at the time it would have gone, and I didn’t because I’m afraid of confrontation, I’m always afraid to express myself in the wrong way and to be misunderstood and to give something of an image of myself that I’m not. So most of the time I don’t say anything because of being fearful of being wrong. And with Piaf, suddenly I wanted to face my fear, because I know that when you face your fears it disappears for real.’
Marion Cotillard may be a woman assailed by vulnerability and anxieties, but in her acting life she is nothing but formidable. ‘She likes to dive into something that’s not comfortable. I really feel that she’s fearless in that way,’ Rob Marshall says. ‘She can become so many things.’ Michael Mann agrees: ‘She can do everything. She can do absolutely anything.’ As the new face of Dior, she recently shot The Lady Noire with Olivier Dahan, a short film in which she plays a Hitchcock-style femme fatale.
She has a number of films in the pipeline, including Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi action thriller Inception, in which she stars opposite Leonardo DiCaprio, and Karim Dridi’s Le dernier vol de Lancaster (The Last Flight of Lancaster), based on a novel of the same name. In the French film she stars alongside her boyfriend, the French actor and director Guillaume Canet – he won a César for his film Tell No One – with whom she lives in Paris and whom she met when they starred together in Love Me If You Dare. On the subject of Canet, who was formerly married to the German model-actress Diane Kruger, she is uncharacteristically buttoned-up.
When I ask if she is still in a relationship with a well-known French actor she looks coy and then laughs. ‘Yeah, I am. I’m not a liar. I couldn’t say no, because if he reads that he will call and say, “Eh, what’s going on?”’ But later, when discussing her film projects, she can’t help giving herself away when she proudly mentions a forthcoming role in ‘a French movie, with the director of Tell No One, Guillaume Canet’. She slides me a look, and then lets out a raucous belly laugh. ‘Voilà!’
Towards the end of our interview Cotillard says that she would like to take some time off and settle down, ideally in the French countryside. ‘You can’t work all your life,’ she says, then adds apologetically, ‘I was thinking, of course, about my life, which is a lucky, lucky, lucky life. I have the choice to take a big break and I have to do that. I want to have babies so I must take some time to have babies.’ In this she was given good counsel by Daniel Day-Lewis. ‘He gave me one advice. Take care of my life. Don’t work too much. He’s right.
And that’s why you have to come back to your life, because it is in your life where you can find the desire to tell someone a story, and if you don’t live your life then you are not interesting any more, because what will you tell? If I’m always in different stories which are not mine I’ll be lost and I’ll be poor. Poor of my own life. And I don’t want that.’ She continues, warming to her theme: ‘There are so many things that I want to do, that I don’t do, that I could do, but sometimes I’m too tired to after a working day… I need to have some time to do all the things I really care for. So at some point I will have to sit, be pregnant, and do a lot of things! That’s the plan.’
‘Public Enemies’ is released on July 3