on 1 Jan, 1970
from California Chronicle (US) / by Donald Clarke
For Marion Cotillard, subsuming herself into the exhausting role of Edith Piaf was simpler than mastering an American accent in her latest film
SO FEW French actors – or Germans or Italians for that matter – break through into English-language cinema that we feel able to put each of the odd rogue successes into one of half-a-dozen boxes. This one’s a lesser spotted Bardot. That one’s a great crested Depardieu. And so forth.
To date, Marion Cotillard has defied this moronic class of pseudo- ornithology. When she first nudged her head above water in French comedies such as Taxi and Love Me if You Dare, she appeared to be shaping into a less blonde Catherine Deneuve. Or was she a less surly Anna Karina? Not at all. Two years ago, in La Vie en Rose, she delivered a performance of such contorted defiance as Edith Piaf, the great nicotine-coated chanteuse, that all comparisons seemed absurd. She went on to become the first actor to win an Oscar for a performance in a French film. With apologies to Audrey Tautou, Marion, who turns up this week in Michael Mann’s barnstorming Public Enemies, might now be the leading French actress of her generation.
“It was a total surprise, winning the Oscar,” she says in her strong, only occasionally eccentric English. “I didn’t think about what might happen if I won. I just wanted to live in the present all the time, because it was so entertaining being in Hollywood for two months, meeting all the amazing people while I campaigned. Because it seemed so weird that I might win, there was no pressure.”
If she’d been 50 years old and looking at a potential fifth unsuccessful nomination, then she might have felt differently. “That’s exactly right. I was more nervous for the people I worked with than for myself.”
So where does she keep the statuette? “It is in my apartment in Paris. I have not put it in the middle of the room or anything, but it’s a small apartment so you can’t miss it.”
Dark, with wide, slightly restive eyes, Cotillard is, in person, more delicate than you would expect. Indeed, she is so thin that when her arms shoot out – as they do, from time to time – she takes on the character of a very well-dressed multiplication symbol. For somebody who, at 33, has been in the business for 15 years, Cotillard seems surprisingly nervous within her own skin. Her hands rub over one another and she never quite seems to get comfortable in her seat.
Perhaps she does not enjoy the promotional side of the business. Hawking your wares in the posh hotels of Mayfair can be a little undignified. “You know I love this movie, Public Enemies, so that makes everything easy. Sometimes you do movies and you don’t know what you are getting into. Then you have to go out there and you have to lie about it to the press. It’s true, I’m afraid. But I love this movie. So, I tell you that I do not have to lie today.”
Public Enemies, a defiantly grim addition to the gangster genre, stars Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, the most charismatic of the bank robbers who gained anti-hero status during America’s Great Depression.
Cotillard takes the modestly sized role of Billie Frechette, a singer of French and Native American blood who won the hoodlum’s heart, and makes something impressively nuanced out of it. Watch out for the annihilating look she gives the camera in the last scene.
“The offer came after I had finished La Vie en Rose, but before it took off in America,” she explains. “I did get a lot of offers, but the thing that won me over was to work with Michael Mann. This is more than a gangster film.”
Lauded for directing such glossily beautiful films as Heat, Last of the Mohicansand The Insider, Mann is famous (notorious, perhaps) for his fastidious attention to detail. Every shirt collar, every raised eyebrow, every hubcap is the way it is because Mann deems it so. Yet actors rarely complain about the atmosphere on his sets. He appears to impose his will with some delicacy.
“I love that he is so precise,” she says. “I love to work with a perfectionist. I feel his confidence and that confidence makes you confident. That’s very good for an actor.”
MARION COTILLARD was born into a theatrical family. Her father, Jean-Claude Cotillard, ran a theatre company that toured the world, and her mother, Niseema Theillaud, also acted and taught. Born in Paris and raised largely in Orleans, the young Marion must surely have been destined to live life on stage and in front of the camera. Not many folk escape that environment into a stable life as a gynaecologist, train driver or fitness instructor.
“I think I actually wanted to be all those things,” she laughs. “And the best way to have a lot of jobs was to be an actress. You get to be everything. But, yeah, you know when you are in school and have to answer questions about what you are going to do? I never had a problem answering that.”
Cotillard, whose early heroes were Greta Garbo and Louise Brooks, enjoyed a relatively steady ascent to her current enviable position. “To be honest, I never dreamt about Hollywood or anything. I went into acting because I like telling stories and it’s the stories that are important, not where I get to tell them.” Early roles were small, but regular, and, before she was 30, she had gained sufficient prominence to catch the eye of Tim Burton, who cast her in his peculiar fantasy Big Fish. It was, however, that eye- watering turn in La Vie en Rosethat truly kicked her into the big leagues. By the close of the film, as the singer succumbs to drugs and decrepitude, Cotillard has become so absorbed in the role that she is virtually unrecognisable. Yet, oddly, she views getting her accent right for Public Enemiesas a comparable challenge.
“I had to work every day to get that accent,” she says. “Even becoming somebody old and on drugs was easy in comparison to that. The difference is between a technical thing and an emotional thing. It takes longer to get a technical thing right.” Despite her slightly fragile demeanour, Coltillard is clearly a serious woman with significant reservoirs of determination. Eager to get that voice right, she spent weeks talking only in English. She claims that her romantic partner, the actor and director Guillaume Canet, and her other pals were happy to get the chance to improve their own English. Still, I find it hard to believe that the experience can have been as taxing as creating her version of Piaf.
“Well, of course, it was different because I was every day on the set of La Vie en Rose. I would go to bed very late and then go to the set very early. So, maybe, when I was sleeping, I was a little bit myself. But the rest of the time I was Edith Piaf. I was in every scene. I needed to stay with her, because it took a lot of time to get inside her.”
At any rate, the performance and the Oscar it generated have now caused her to be highly sought-after by smarter directors. She admits that although she rarely “dreamed of Hollywood” as a kid, she did occasionally imagine that she might appear in a big American musical and, sure enough, at the end of this year she turns up alongside another clutch of Oscar-winners in Rob Marshall’s Nine. A musical version of Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 , the film stars Daniel Day Lewis as a frustrated film director.
“Of course Daniel can sing,” she replies to my mischievous query. “He can do anything.” Yet the increased exposure has had its downside. As the Oscar campaign gathered speed, some bright spark dragged up an old television interview in which Cotillard appeared to question the official story on the collapse of the World Trade Center and wonder whether the moon landing was a hoax. A glance at the transcript clarifies that she was consciously firing out deliberately absurd theses. Listen to her speak for a moment and you realise that, although a little unfocused, she is no sort of fruitcake. Still, fame does bring this sort of unwanted attention. Does she ever regret that a window has now opened on her private life?
“When I hear questions like that I always remember that the world is full of people who do really hard jobs,” she says.
“Hey, if I am thirsty, somebody will bring me a glass of water. Okay, it is a hard job because you have to play with your emotions.” She smiles and ventures a very Gallic shrug. “But I cannot complain. It would be crazy to complain.”
Public Enemiesis on general release