"I admired Greta Garbo, but I wanted to be Peter Sellers"
from Empire (UK) / by Damon Wise
“I’m happy,” says Marion Cotillard, “when I know that I’m where I should be.” It’s a cold December day in Paris, just before a white blanket descends upon Britain and parts of France, disrupting Eurostar service in the run-up to Christmas. Though Paris is her home city – she was born there, before moving to the countryside at the age of two – Cotillard nevertheless has the feeling of a woman in transit. By her own admission, she is something of a restless artiste, and in the flesh she has a beauty that’s hard to place, thanks to a series of roles that have conspired to keep her out of the present day.
Recently, Cotillard completed her first contemporary role in quite some time – not including Christopher Nolan’s Inception, because she insists, that was “timeless” – taking a small role in an ensemble drama, Little White Lies, directed by her partner, Guillaume Canet. The film is a very French and very personal affair, dealing with the lives of a group of Parisian friends who go on holiday together to a seaside resort after one of their number has been seriously injured in a crash.
“It was a great time, really,” she smiles. “We really had to work hard on the movie, because most of us are friends in real life and the locaion is the place where we go for our summer vacation. So it was very strange to suddenly be in the same places, with some of the same people, wearing kind of the same clothes and having kind of the same interactions – but with different names and different pasts. For the film we had to create entirely new relationships for ourselves.”
Coming from Canet, it’s certainly a surprise; his last film, Tell No One, was a gripping murder mystery. Little White Lies also reveals an unfamiliar side of Cotillard, who plays a freewheeling spirit with a bohemian dimension much closer to her own (although, to the best of Empire’s knowledge, the actress is not bisexual and does not smoke marijuana). Such freedom, she says, was what drew her to the project. “This film was different for me because it had been a long time since I had played a contemporary role,” she explains. “I’ve travelled back in time to the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and when you work on a movie that takes place in those times, the way you speak, the way you behave, the way you think, even, is different. So it was great for me to get back to 2010.”
At 35, Cotillard is now one of the biggest names in French cinema. Her parents were both actors, and though they didn’t push their daughter into the trade, they encouraged her to be creative. “We didn’t have TV before I was eight,” she recalls, “and I will always be grateful to my parents for that, because we developed our imaginations by creating our own stories.” As a youngster she watched a lot of movies, especially American ones, but it wasn’t the screen divas that caught her eye – it was the Tinseltown clowns. “I admired Greta Garbo but I didn’t want to be her,” she laughs. “I wanted to be Charlie Chaplin. And I wanted to be Peter Sellers.”
But for a while, she didn’t want to be an actress at all. “When I was around 20,” she muses, “I was like, ‘Do I really wanna do this?’ I wasn’t very happy with what I had. Which was, at that time, not really a lot. I wanted more. That was a fact, and I couldn’t fight it. So I went to see my agent and told him that I wanted to…” She pauses. “Not quit forever… But I didn’t want to be frustrated in my later life, and I was thinking of doing something else. And before I could say this, he told me, ‘Marion, you’re gonna meet Tim Burton…’ Now, Tim Burton was my idol. And so I told myself, ‘Wow… This is exactly what I want. This is even more than what I want! So if I get this, it means that I really have a place in this business. If not, I’ll do something else.”
Fortunately for world cinema, Burton cast Cotillard in his 2003 father-son fantasy Big Fish, re-igniting her enthusiasm for the craft. More small but significant roles followed, in Jean-Pierre Jenuet’s A Very Long Engagement and Ridley Scott’s A Good Year, but the watershed was 2007, when Olivier Dahan cast her as chanteuse Edith Piaf in the biopic La Vie En Rose, the role that brought her a milestone Academy award – the first ever awarded to a non-English performance.
“One day my agent called,” she rememberes, “and he said, ‘Olivier is writing a script for you based on the life of Edith Piaf,’ so I sad, ‘Well, okay…’” She shrugs. “But the script wasn’t written at that time, so I didn’t think much of it. To be honest, I didn’t know many things about Piaf, except that she had this amazing voice. So I listened to some of her songs, and then, about a year later, the script was written and Olivier gave it to me.”
Because it covered the whole of Piaf’s life, Cotillard was confused at first as to which part she would be playing. “And my agent said, ‘From when she’s 19 to the end’” She laughs. “I was like, ‘Excuse me? I’m 30! How’s he gonna make that work?!’”
Though Piaf is a major figure in French cultural history, Cotillard claims not to have felt any pressure. “I didn’t think about it,” she says casually, “because it would have taken me away from being inside this woman. I just wanted to understand the human being she was.” This she did through a process of research that she says changes with every project. “Sometimes it can be music that helps me find a character, sometimes it will be a picture, something that I write, or write as the character. It can have many, many forms.”
Empire wonders what form Cotillard’s research took for Inception (a movie which, of course, samples Piaf), in which she plays the dreamworld incarnation of the hero’s late wife, Mal? “Oh, that was totally different,” she enthuses. “Let’s say you’ve been to India, England, Russia and Argentina – but then suddenly you’re on the moon. It’s always different when you go to a place for the first time, but you always know what to expect there. But when you go to the moon, it’s a completely different planet.”
Cotillard refers to Nolan, half-jokingly, as “The Captain” of this intoxicating trip-slash-space mission. “And it was amazing, because The Captain is brilliant,” she marvels. “The Captain’s imagination is a mix of mysteries and answers.”
Cotillard says that the character of Mal was a collaboration, not between herself and Nolan but with her co-star, Leonardo DiCaprio. This kind of exploration, she says, is what keeps the job fresh. “It’s a fascination,” she decides. “When Michael Mann cast me in Public Enemies, I didn’t know anything about American history. I mean, not anything!”
So is she happy now? “Yeah.” Cotillard smiles. “I live as a girl who had big dreams and who is lucky enough to live those dreams while continuing to dream – while at the same time living a real life.”
A real life? What does that mean? “It means I don’t want to be someone else,” she says, emphatically, “and I’m not going to let my job take me away from myself.”
She smiles. “I’m not going to be haunted or disturbed.”