on 1 Jan, 1970
from Independent.ie (Ireland) / by Evan Fanning
Racked by self-doubt, Marion Cotillard tells Evan Fanning she feels more secure by taking someone else’s voice
As I enter the room, Marion Cotillard is grappling with a book on Expressionism. She’s grappling in so far as she is attempting to remove it from within a pile of thick, heavy books, rather than struggling with its subject matter — on which, as a cultivated French woman, she has, I assume, a fair handle.
Expressionism is an appropriate theme when talking about Cotillard. The 33-year-old, who won the Best Actress Oscar in 2008 for her performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose, has quickly gained a reputation for the kind of all-encompassing roles which take everything she has to give, and more.
The American film critic Stephen Holden described her portrayal of French singer Piaf as “the most astonishing immersion of one performer into the body and soul of another that I have ever encountered in film”. It was a performance that made Cotillard not only the first French actress to win an Oscar for a performance in her native language, but also earned her a Bafta, a Golden Globe and a Cesar, France’s highest acting honour.
The latest of these demanding roles is in Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s tale of John Dillinger and the Depression-era bank robberies across America. Cotillard plays Evelyn “Billie” Frechette, girlfriend to Johnny Depp’s Dillinger. Frechette is more than just a gangster’s moll, however. The daughter of a French father and a Native American mother, she had been drifting through the seams of Thirties Chicago when Dillinger came along and promised to sweep her off her feet.
She insists that it was not just a case of a bored girl being seduced by the danger on offer with Dillinger and his gang. “It was the man,” she says emphatically. “He was the first man to take care of her. She was a young Indian girl in Chicago in the Thirties. It was really tough and she was by herself. Suddenly this man tells her that he will take care of her. There’s nothing like it.”
Cotillard admits she had never heard about Dillinger while growing up in Paris and then the French city of Orleans where she lived with her father (the stage actor Jean-Claude Cotillard), her mother Niseema Theillaud (also an actress) and her two younger brothers. “I didn’t even know his name,” she says with astonishment.
There was also the case of mastering Frechette’s curious French-Canadian-Wisconsin accent. Cotillard worked with a dialect coach every day for four months in order to get the accent as accurate as possible. “I knew that it wouldn’t be 100 per cent perfect,” she says modestly, admitting that it was one of the most difficult tasks of her career.
“It was really, really hard but interesting, though, because I like when I start a movie and I don’t know if I’m going to do a good job. If it’s really easy, it is fine, but when you really have to work on something in order to make it good and if you don’t work at it, your job will be really bad, I find it very interesting when you really have to do that.”
During the three-month shoot she spoke English almost exclusively for fear that she wouldn’t be able to regain the accent if she was to slip back into her native tongue. “I would speak English all the time. Even on the phone to my family in France. It was very funny because they had this French accent obviously, but they were very helpful with me. Even when I wanted to talk in French they were like ‘you know, yesterday when we spoke on the phone you said you were going to have to stick with the English because when you speak French it’s really hard to go back’. So my brothers, my boyfriend, my mother and my father, they would all speak to me in English.”
The boyfriend she speaks of is the French actor and director Guillaume Canet, director of Tell No One, whom she met when they starred together in Love Me If You Dare. They live together in Paris and are about to start shooting a film together again. The French media have attempted to dub them the “Brad and Angelina” of France, but Cotillard is adamant that they won’t be pursuing the same kinds of self-publicity as America’s favourite couple. In fact, in certain interviews she has avoided even saying his name when asked directly, only alluding to being in a relationship with a French actor.
“I don’t know how to talk about my private life and I don’t want to,” she says when I ask why she is so guarded. “I think you can talk about your private life when you know that it will bring something to people. For example, when Kylie Minogue found out that she had cancer and she shared this, this makes sense because it will help people in a way. Saying, ‘I’m in love and I’m very happy’. What’s the point?
“I do understand because we live in a world where you turn on the TV and there’s someone’s life on TV and then you turn to another channel and there’s someone else’s real life and we supply ourselves all the time. I know that because I live in this world, but I don’t want to add some water to this river. The more you forget about your life by watching all this, the more you send a weird energy to the world, and I don’t want any part of it.”
She says she would like children “at some point” and would be prepared to put these demanding roles to one side when that day arrives. Despite being raised in a loving, bohemian household, her own childhood had its difficulties. She claims to have been racked with self-doubt and anxiety throughout her teenage years and beyond.
I ask if she was sad as a child. “Not really sad, but yeah, I still wanted to know what I was doing here. But when you are very young this kind of question can be very disturbing. I didn’t know how to express myself. You just don’t feel comfortable at all with people. I struggled to talk to people.”
It seems odd that a charming, beautiful, stylish (she is the new face of Dior) and hugely successful actress could have a past where she felt so vulnerable. “When you are acting you’re not really yourself,” she says. “I mean, you’re yourself but you take someone else’s voice and attitude. I find it more secure.”
Despite this apparent lack of confidence, she has been performing since she was five when her parents’ friends put her on stage. She went to drama school at 15, subsequently appearing in numerous French television shows and films (including Luc Besson’s Taxi series) before Tim Burton cast her in his fantasy Big Fish in 2003. It was her first international role, but ironically it was La Vie En Rose, a truly French film, which made her an international star.
Following Public Enemies, her next appearance will be in Nine, where she once again pushed herself to her limits, singing and dancing alongside Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench and Sophia Loren in an all-star musical inspired by Fellini’s 8.
Surely, with this phenomenal run of success, all the anxieties of her childhood have long disappeared? Not entirely, it would seem. “I’ve always had a lack of confidence,” she replies. “But it is getting better.”
Public Enemies is in cinemas nationwide