The French Revolution
from The Herald Magazine (UK) /
Marion Cotillard captivated audiences as the iconic Parisian chanteuse Edith Piaf. Now she’s becoming a Hollywood moll – and the world awaits
Marion Cotillard is standing in a hotel suite in west London. As I enter the oak-panelled room, she walks to the fireplace and fiddles with a large, framed engraving. “I just wanted it to be straight,” says the 33-year-old actress with a smile, giving the engraving a final nudge with her forefinger. As we take our seats on the plump sofa, Cotillard’s large, smoky-blue eyes occasionally drift back towards the engraving. “I like things to be right,” she says. “If that picture was wonky it would bug me all afternoon.” It appears Cotillard, the Parisian actress who won an Oscar last year for her role in La Vie en Rose and who stars in the new Michael Mann film Public Enemies, is something of a perfectionist.
“I’ll tell you who is a perfectionist,” she says. “Michael Mann. Working with Michael, seeing him recreate the world as he does, he really does strive for perfection.” Like much of his previous work, from Heat through Collateral and Miami Vice, Public Enemies unfolds in the realm of the hard-nosed criminal. This time, however, he has plumped for reallife events. The movie focuses on one of the main instigators of the crime wave that swept through Depression-era America, John Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp), who in the early 1930s embarked upon a 14-month crime spree, outwitting law enforcers and winning the hearts of everyday Americans across the country. Cotillard plays Billie Frechette, Dillinger’s lover and a truly beguiling gangster’s moll.
The film draws from the book of the same name by Bryan Burrough, who describes Cotillard’s character as has having had “tranquil eyes and high cheekbones” (both of which the actress possesses) before noting that “like most of the women who found their way into the beds of criminals like Dillinger, she was a refugee from hard times, forced from poor rural upbringings to an uncertain life in the big city”. The city was Chicago. Frechette, who was half Native American, was raised on the Menominee reservation in Wisconsin, the daughter of what Burrough describes as “French-Canadian half-breeds”. Cotillard smiles. “That meant I had to learn her accent.”
Such was the actress’s desire to meet Mann’s famously high standards that she spent months training herself to speak only in English, even among family and friends, while sculpting and refining Frechette’s distinctive brogue. “It’s strange,” explains Cotillard. “I had to do this odd midwestern accent and I was really into the technique all the time, even when I was doing the scenes, because I wanted it to be perfect. I knew it wouldn’t be 100% perfect, so that was frustrating, but then it was Michael who taught me to let go. I would focus too much on the accent, and at some point he told me to forget about the technique otherwise the audience will notice I’m not 100% there.
“He is a perfectionist and I wanted to give him some kind of perfection, but he came to me and said he just wanted heart and soul. I learned that perfection is a technique thing. It’s in the details, and then when you set up this perfection you have to let it go. That’s when heart and soul happen.”
The film is positively bursting with heart and soul, Dillinger and Frechette’s doomed love story pulsing through it as the wisecracking gangster heads towards an inevitable end. After the chilled tones of Collateral and Miami Vice, Mann appears more in tune with his first major success, Last of the Mohicans, in 1994. His cast certainly does him justice, the likes of Christian Bale, Billy Crudup and Stephen Dorff all shining in supporting roles, while Cotillard and Depp conjure a fizzing alchemy, the latter, in particular, bringing an enigmatic charm that belies the typical movie gangster. “What’s great about Johnny is that as an actor he can do so many things,” says Cotillard. “He has this ability to be authentic and different each time. He’s also kind and generous – he cares, he’s genuine. He’s a movie star but also a normal person and his passion for his work comes through.”
This is not mere hyperbole. Depp is one of Hollywood’s gentlemen, and Cotillard should go on to be one of its leading ladies. She has been well known in France since 1998, when she played Lilly Bertineau in Taxi (a role she reprised in two sequels), written and produced by Luc Besson, although it was her Oscar-winning performance as the French singer Edith Piaf in Olivier Dahan’s biopic La Vie en Rose that forged her into an international star. In person, Cotillard is alternately effusive and coy. “I’m afraid to give the wrong image of myself,” she explains, “to say the wrong thing and for it to be misunderstood.”
She is willing to talk about almost any subject, though, with one or two exceptions. The first is her relationship. Cotillard is dating the French actor-director Guillaume Canet, with whom she starred in the 2003 film Jeux d’Enfants. The pairing has led to them being described as the French equivalent of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, although their potential celebrity monikers – Guillion or Marionaume – lack the catchiness of Brangelina. Cotillard is reluctant to discuss the romance. “I can try and talk fashion,” she says, batting back my enquiries, “but I’m not very good at it.”
At first, this doesn’t ring true. Cotillard’s svelte 5ft 6in form is wrapped in a dark green Christian Dior dress. “Honestly,” she whispers, “fashion is not a big thing for me, but I have all these people I’m working with who know about clothes. I’m particularly bad with fashion talk – I just don’t know how to do it. I know what I like, and what I don’t like, but if I don’t have someone who picks out the dresses, I’ll just be in jeans and a T-shirt. Obviously, I like to wear nice clothes, [but] it’s just not a passion for me.”
This could change. Earlier this year, Cotillard was selected as the face of Dior and recently brought the character Lady Noire – created by fashion designer John Galliano – to life in an online short film by Olivier Dahan, the director of La Vie en Rose. Meeting Galliano has had an impact. “He’s so creative, making men and women look beautiul and confident because they feel good,” she says. “These great designers are artists, like a chef is also an artist.” She smiles. “You can put art in a lot of places – I learned that growing up.”
Cotillard’s formative years were a hotbed of creativity. She was born in Paris and grew up around Orleans. Her father, Jean-Claude Cotillard, and mother, Niseema Theillaud, worked as actors and drama teachers. “I lived in a big tower block in the suburbs,” recalls Cotillard. “We weren’t poor, but it’s not like living here, for example.” She points to the multi-million-pound properties lining the road outside the window. “My twin brothers and I were always painting and drawing. As kids, the walls of the house were ours.” I raise an eyebrow and explain that when I was young I had to argue for weeks just to get Blu-Tack on my bedroom walls. “I know,” says Cotillard. “I think many parents are stricter than ours were. We were lucky. All our friends used to come over and draw on the walls too, because they weren’t allowed to at home. It was very creative for my brothers and me. It opened the door of creativity for all three of us. We could do anything.”
It should come as no great suprise, then, that her brothers chose artistic pursuits for their professions, Quentin becoming a painter and sculptor, and Guillaume a writer. Presumably Cotillard thought she was destined to be an artist. “Oh yes,” she affirms, simply. Her childhood environment certainly doesn’t sound like it would have produced a brood of bank managers. “No, of course not,” she says, “although people do sometimes want to get away from the atmosphere of what their parents to. They don’t want the same job. But I had a lot of admiration for my parents.” Is that why she chose acting, rather than sculpting or writing like her brothers? “Yes, to a degree, but there’s more to it than that, I think.” Her parents introduced her to the trade at an early age, and she appeared in a play directed by her father.
“I did movies when I was very young, but I was not really aware of it all,” she explains. “It was from this that I wanted to be an actress, for sure, but had a normal life, too. I was not what you might regard as a ‘child actor’. What got me excited was when I started to do some theatre and take lessons in that world – that was when I found a way to express myself. I felt acting was my thing. I was not comfortable with expressing myself but, through someone else who was inside me, I could express myself. That’s what was most important for me.”
She claims she was neither a good nor a bad student. “I was in the middle when I was at school,” she says, “but I didn’t understand the system, how you force someone to learn something. I think when you arrive here on earth you want to learn, and then you go to school and it becomes something you don’t want to do. So, I became a good student when I left school. I love to learn things.”
Cotillard’s professional education began whith a spell at Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique in Orleans. She made her feature film debut in her teens, appearing in 1994’s L’Histoire du Garcon qui Voulait qu’on l’Embrasse (The Story of the Boy who Wanted to be Kissed) before taking small roles in films like Lisa, alongside French heavyweight Jeanne Moreau, and the fantasy film Furia. After establishing her name in France on the back of Besson’s Taxi trilogy, Cotillard landed her first American movie, taking the role of Billy Crudup’s wife in the 2003 fantasy Big Fish. Before she signed on for the film, she says, she was growing frustrated with her career in France, and wanted “more than what I had”. Then one of her favourite directors called.
“Tim Burton was searching for a French actress,” says Cotillard. “I wasn’t searching for an American film but it was amazing for me because he’s one of my favourite directors. I got the part, but I’d have been in heaven just with the first meeting. When they told me I got the role, it was huge because I had never thought about doing an American movie before.”
She excelled in her next two performances, playing her real-life partner’s on-screen lover in Jeux d’Enfants – a major success in France – before a memorable performance as the murderous Tina Lombardi in the 2004 film A Very Long Engagement, starring Audrey Tautou, for which Cotillard won the César award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. In 2006, she furthered her Hollywood career, starring opposite Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott’s A Good Year.
It was the following year that everything changed when Dahan chose Cotillard to play Piaf in La Vie en Rose. The story goes that he made his choice before he had even met the actress, saying he’d noticed a similarity in the women’s eyes. Whatever his motivation, it was an inspired choice that laid the foundation for an inspired performance. The celebrated theatre director Sir Trevor Nunn described Cotillard’s portrayal of Piaf as “one of the greatest performances on film ever”, and she went on to win a Bafta, a Cesar and a Golden Globe. In 2008, she became only the second French actress to win the Academy Award for Best Actress, and the first to win for a performance in the French language. In the movie she plays Piaf from the age of 17 through to her death from cancer at 47.
“The film has changed my career, of course,” she says, “but what affected me most was the performance. Sometimes it was hard, because you go deep inside yourself and pull out something you didn’t necessarily know was there. I didn’t know I could go to such places, but when you do, and you discover new things, it opens things inside you that might have stayed closed.”
Like what? “It’s hard to say, but there were a lot of things in my life that I wasn’t comfortable with, like relationships that weren’t clear, things that happened and I wanted to forget about. And you do forget, but it’s still somewhere inside you. After the movie, I needed to face a lot of thinkgs I had put aside and tried to forget.”
Does she think piaf was a once-in-a-lifetime part? “Of course, it is an amazing role, but working with Michael Mann, and the character of Billie Frechette – I love her,” says Cotillard. “It’s totally different, but inside me it’s the same. for me, this job is all about trying to understand someone, so you can be that person. And to understand people like Billie, or Luisa Contini in Nine, or the French movie I just did… I love this experience of trying to understand someone, real or not real.”
The French movie she is referring to is Le Dernie Vol de Lancaster (The Last Flight of the Lancaster), in which she appears again alongside Canet, while in Rob Marshall’s star-studded musical Nine she plays the wife of Daniel Day-Lewis’s character. “This job always brings me the same joy, even though it’s not the same experience,” she says. “I’m young. I will grow old and there will be different roles, with the same intensity.”
What ambitions remain for Cotillard outside of acting? “I want to have babies, and a part of my life is dedicated to sharing what I know about this world, and learning how to care for it,” she replies. Cotillard has proved herself a dedicated environmentalist, working as a spokesperson for Greenpeace.
“It’s important for me,” she says. “And in a way I am doing it…” She pauses, her mouth half-forming a word then stopping. “I could never do that,” she says firmly. What exactly could she never do? “Be a politician, or something like that,” she says.
“If I could do anything in this world, I’d do something to free [Myanmar’s detained pro-democracy leader] Aung San Suu Kyi. If there was a way, I would quit my job and dedicate my life to this woman. She is my hero. That, for me, would be perfect.”
Public Enemies is in cinemas now