on 1 Jan, 1970
from Marie Claire (UK) / by Harvey Marcus
Overcoming a childhood racked with insecurities, Marion Cotillard has grown into one of the most celebrated actresses on the planet. What changed? She fell in love
Without mentioning names, there are certain actresses whose success only serves to prompt more questions about how they actually came about their stardom. During interviews they’ll explain away their careers by vacantly punching at familiar pre-programmed settings marked ‘precocious’ and ‘outsider’, through to ‘deep’ (as in, there’s always been something deep inside of me), before finally landing at ‘lucky break’. By the end, you may not be any the wiser but, if nothing else, you are left with a greater understanding as to why, given the fragile foundations underpining their fame, so many actresses self-implode when the spotlight begins to dim.
Not so Marion Cotillard. She’ll tell you how, as a child, she inhabited ‘her own world and was not very happy’. That for much of her life she’s been involved in a search to explain away those feelings. That when she acts she tries ‘to create a way of talking, laughing and crying – a body language that is not mine’. The result of this introspection and experiment is there for all to see in the performances she gives to camera. For Mario, acting seems less a calling and more a necessity. Her star has not arrived by chance.
We’re sitting in a spartan New York office space, post-Marie Claire shoot. It’s unseasonably chilly for the start of the summer so Marion, hair pulled back and stripped of make-up, wears jeans and a navy sweater adorned with a cute sailing boat motif. An exquisitely fashioned marionette, not quite free of her strings, she’s 36 now but you imagine her appearance – pretty, boyish – has changed little since she was young, growing up in a tower block on the outskirts of Paris, and later in a village outside Orléans. It feels like she’s been around for ever, but it’s still just over four years since she ran up on stage at the Kodak Theatre to claim Best Actress for La Vie en Rose, only the second time the Oscar – the first went to Sophia Loren – has been awarded for a non-English speaking role. Back then she yelled to the world, ‘Thank you life, thank you love,’ in broken English, charming the auditorium and many a studio exec.
Today her English, occasionally stilted yet fluent, has an accent that sits somewhere between West Hollywood and the Parisian home she shares with her partner, the acclaimed French actor and director Guillaume Canet, and their one-year-old son, Marcel.
Until La Vie en Rose, her CV promised much – she would argue that A Very Long Engagement, alongside Audrey Tautou, was her first true breakthrough role – but it was her portrayal of the legendary chanteuse Edith Piaf that mesmerised audiences. It was also the first time the world came to hear of the extraordinary lengths the actress was willing to go to in order to do justice to the characters she takes on.
Her performance in La Vie en Rose, went beyond the cosmetic. Having mastered Piaf’s raspy voice, developed a stoop, then shaved her hairline and eyebrows, Marion’s performance was so all-consuming that it’s almost become cinematic folklore that, months after filming, she still found it hard to rid herself of the French icon’s tortured personality and mannerisms.
While she acknowledges the debt she owes to La Vie en Rose for transforming her career, she’s quick to dismiss any postulation on my part that the insecurities and demons she so successfully channeled belonged as much to her as the did Piaf. ‘I never really tried to identify relations between her and me. If there are some similarities it’s okay, but most of the time I try to create someone who is really not me.’ A truer reflection of her own character, she says, can be found in a small and much-underrated French film that enjoyed limited release last year. Penned and directed by Canet, Little White Lies features an ensemble cast of France’s finest acting talent, including The Artist‘s Jean Dujardin, and centres around the unspoken truths and concealed feelings of a group of seemingly carefree Parisian friends who, each year, migrate to a beach house for a summer vacation. ‘It’s very hard for me to see this movie because for most of it, it is me,’ she says of her character Marie, a young thirtysomething whose blithe insouciance belies the worries of a woman who is no longer a girl.
‘She is not comfortable in her life. On the surface she’s got a great bunch of friends but inside she is very insecure – so I see myself on the big screen. It was unbearable and I couldn’t watch it.’ Marion breaks into a smile, eager to place on record that not everything in the film is her, assuring me that, unlike Marie, ‘I’ve never slept with the entire city like she does – boys, girls. I mean, I had my experiences but not like, “Whoo hoo! Party! Sex time!”‘ Then, thinking back: ‘No, it was so weird. It was like, “Oh my god, this is me. That’s what I feel.” And you don’t want to see yourself [feeling genuinely] uncomfortable. It was kind of hard.’
That awkwardness with the world, those insecurities, have been a part of Marion’s life since she can remember. Growing up, her actor parents, Jean-Claude and Niseema, supplemented their income with teaching jobs. Together with her younger twin brothers, Quentin and Guillaume, she enjoyed a liberal upbringing in which children were encouraged to express themselves. The way she describes it, their tower block, being surrounded by actors, was a little piece of bohemia of their very own, full of theatre and art and parties – almost idyllic. Like sharing a house with a hundred people, as she puts it. Yet still, Marion couldn’t shrug off this sense of isolation and loneliness.
‘I had my own world and it wasn’t very happy,’ she recalls. ‘I was not a very sociable kid. That was my personality. I didn’t really know what to do with myself when I was young.’ As young as pre-school, she underlines, maybe since she was four years old. ‘Part of myself was happy and part of myself was so dark. For me relationships between people were very hard to get. I know a lot of people were jealous of my family because we had so much freedom. Our apartment was a space of creativity. We were allowed to draw on every wall of the house. I was confronted by jealousy very, very early on, and when you’re a kid it’s hard to be different. I was very sensitive.’ As a consequence, Marion would retreat into her own world. ‘A private world,’ she reiterates.
Those dark shadows have pursued her throughout much of her life; only in recent years has she been able to find some kind of accord with the anxieties she’s harboured. ‘I’ve finally made peace with myself,’ she reveals. ‘I’ve met amazing people who gave me the keys to make peace with myself.’
The catalyst for change almost certainly came in form of Guillaume Canet, one of the leading lights of French cinema who enjoyes heart-throb status in his homeland. Their friendship dates back to 2003, when they worked together on the film Love Me If You Dare, but it wasn’t until 2007, a year after Canet divorced actress Diane Kruger, that the couple got together. Their son, Marcel, celebrated his first birthday days before our interview and, accompanied by Marion’s mother, makes a visit to today’s shoot – a little billingual dynamo with the chicest of grandmothers.
Marion is typically guarded about her private life but can’t help revealing the positive effect Canet has had on her life and the depth of feeling they shere. When, while attempting to tease out the inner workings of her mind, I enquire whether she has ever had an out-of-body experience, she replies: ‘Not really,’ before correcting herself. ‘Halfway. Well, I think that when you’re in the state of extreme love you can travel with more than your body.’
Then there’s one of the books that changed her life: The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz – a new-age self-help text based on ancient Toltec philosophies (a precursor of the Aztec culture, based in Mexico), which found fame after being featured on The Oprah Show. The four agreements are: Be impeccable with your word. Don’t take anything personally. Don’t make assumptions. Always do your best. Marion confides how it has become central to her own way of thinking, before confiding: ‘My boyfriend gave me that book four years ago.’
Those past four years have coincided with the most productive period in the actress’s career. The Oscar effect has seen her star in films ranging from Inception with Leonardo DiCaprio to Public Enemies alongside Johnny Depp. This month she takes on one of Hollywood’s biggest franchises with the latest Batman movie release, The Dark Knight Rises, the details of which remain a closey guarded secret: ‘The superhero I’ve always been most obsessed with,’ is all she’ll say. Her schedule can only be described as hectic. A few days before we meet, she was in Cannes for the premiere of Rust and Bone, a French movie already touted as Oscar material. From there Marion flew back to New York, where she and Canet are currently shooting Blood Ties (he directs, she stars along with Mila Kunis, Zoe Saldana and Clive Owen). ‘Working with the man you live with? she jokes later. ‘One day I’ll write a book!’ And I’ve not even mentioned her side project as occasional member of the French rock outfit Yodelice, making sporadic guest appearances in the guise of her alter ego, Simone.
It’s evident that, for Marin, work has therapeutic benefits, allowing her to explore psychological depths she might otherwise prefer to steer clear of. While warm and charming during the interview, and quick with humour – when asked whether she’s ever considered directing she responds, ‘Maybe in a few years, but by then I’ll have 35 kids of my own!’ – she thinks long and hard before delivering her answers. It’s a habit undoubtedly exaggerated by her endeavours to master a foreign language but is also a reflection of her desire to decipher her own thoughts. You get the sense those big existential questions about why we we are here and what we are doing are a constant torment, that her search for contentment is an ongoing project.
Marion’s hero is the late Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, who became the first African woman recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. She’s also an active and passionate supporter of Greenpeace.
When I enquire if she’s surprised at the power and responsibility of celebrity, it’s apparent this isn’t the first time she’s examined a subject that has transparently been the cause of much soul-searching. ‘Lately,’ she says, ‘I’ve thought a lot about whether it really changes something if I speak for a cause or an organisation. Does it help? Is it worth it? Wangari Maathai, Aung San Suu Kyi, Mandela – they change things. But actors and celebrities, I don’t know. Maybe…’ Then, arguing with herself: ‘Maybe it’s because I don’t give enough time to people I support. Sometimes I feel like I should choose between the life I have and supporting a cause that needs all the time we have.’
I wonder what would have become of Marion Cotillard had she not succeeded in becoming the actress she is today. ‘If it never happened?’ she replies. ‘Wow! I would have been…’ And her voice falls silent. There’s a lenghty pause, part of her lost in the unthinkable. ‘I don’t know,’ she says eventually. ‘I believe that you are where you should be and I believe that things that happen to you happen for a reason. So if it had never happened it would have been because I was meant to do something else.’
The Dark Knight Rises opens in cinemas nationwide on 20 July