from Vogue / by Tom Shone
Starring in Christopher Nolan’s superhero blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises and partner Guillaume Canet’s ensemble piece, Little White Lies, Marion Cotillard proves she’s that rare creature – a French siren with Hollywood appeal.
There are two Marion Cotillards. Talk to those who have worked with her and they will testify to her laserlike determination, her relentless drive in pursuit of a role – the four months of singing lessons she took to get her lip-synching exactly right for her Oscar-winning performance as Edith Piaf in 2007’s La Vie en Rose, or the nights she spent trawling Chicago’s strip clubs to research her role as Billie Frechette, the moll who steals Johnny Depp’s heart in 2009’s Public Enemies. “She’s totally immersed in what she’s doing,” says that film’s director, Michael Mann. He remembers the first time she came to his office: “No makeup, hair kind of messy. If I had put my hand over her eyes and said, ‘Marion, quickly, what are you wearing?’ I don’t think she could have told me. She’s just there. She dives in the deep end of the pool.”
Talk to her friends and they will give you a slightly different Cotillard: the free spirit and nature-lover who campaigns for Greenpeace; the gypsyish performer who plays bass and sings for the band Yodélice; the nomad-artise ho shuttles between New York and an apartment in Paris stuffed with hats and awards. *She’s kind of a bohemian in the best way,” says filmmaker James Gray. “She’ll leave a 25-minute message on your voice mail. Usually I hate that, but for some reason I love it with her. One time she left me this voice mail where she said, ‘I have to keep speaking because now I’m doing the dishes and my hands have all this soap on them and the phone is between my cheek and my shoulder, so I’m just going to talk to you until I can get the soap off…’ It was extremely funny. She’s just a character.”
The Marion Cotillard who turns up for a hike on Shawangunk Ridge in upstate New York – small and pretty in a North Face jacket, jeans, and hiking boots, with big eyes, flawless skin, and features that appear in permanent soft focus – seems a little bashful, or maybe it’s the forty wins she grabbed in the car. “I just woke up,” she says, blinking as she emerges in the late-morning light. Just over a year ago she gave birth to her son with French actor-director boyfriend Guillaume Canet. Now Marcel is almost walking but still keeping her up at nights.
“I haven’t slept in a year,” she says as we start our walk. A forest of chestnut oaks and pines stretches up to Lake Minnewaska, our eventual destination, cloaked in mist. “I basically quit. But I’m lucky, I can sleep anywhere – except maybe in a garbage bin. I can sleep on a chair. I can almost sleep standing.” (It turns out her assistant has an art project in progress consisting of photographs taken of the actress while asleep in various locations: open-mouthed in the back of cars, dozing off in a pile of coats, curled up against a wall.)
Those photographs speak volumes about the kind of “crazy, crazy” year Cotillard has had, starting with the birth of her son in May 2011 and quickly followed by three movies, shot back-to-back, in the course of which she learned how to heal broken superheroes for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, swim without the use of her legs for Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone, and speak Polish with a perfect Upper Silesian accent for Gray’s latest movie, still untitled.
Not that she didn’t take time off. Her Christmas vacation was a fifteen-day cooking marathon during which she prepared turkey, couscous, and chapon for various sittings of friends and family, plus seperate meals for little Marcel “because he only eats what I cook him,” she says. “I spent my vacation in the kitchen, and I loved it. The kitchen is one of the most important places in the house.”
Cotillard seems not just OK but entirely at ease when operating at full stretch like this. “I’ve never been more exhausted,” she tells me. “But I’ve never had so much energy. This is the paradox of being happy. That’s where it comes from.”
She flashes an infectious full-beam smile from under the hood of her jacket and pushes deeper into the forest.
It says a lot about how much Hollywood wants Marion Cotillard that when she called up the director of this year’s biggest summer blockbuster to tell him she would be due to give birth at the same time that shooting started, he was willing to rearrange his $250 million production schedule around her hospital dates. “I said, ‘Well, let’s put the dates on the table and see if we can’t figure it out,'” says Christopher Nolan, who, after working with the actress on the 2010 mind-bender Inception, badly wanted Cotillard for the role of Miranda Tate, the ecologically driven businesswoman who draws a grief-stricken Batman out of his Batcave in The Dark Knight Rises. “She’s perfect because she has this terrific warmth,” he says. So he shunted most of her scenes back a month and made room on set for Canet, Cotillard’s mother, and a nanny. “It was really down to her and how soon she was going to come back to work,” says Nolan. “It was amazing to see. She gave birth and was back on set almost immediately. She’s Superwoman.”
It also tells you a lot about how much Cotillard wants Hollywood tha she made it work. The third French actress, afte Claudette Colbert and Simone Signoret, to win a Best Actress Oscar, Cotillard is the first to have an American career as vibrant as her French one, an achievement that has escaped even Isabelle Adjani and Juliette Binoche. In part, this is generational. Cotillard came of age in the globalized nineties. Her childhood was spent watching American films. Her boyfriend, Canet, is part of the wave of audience-friendly French cinema that is currently pushing westward like a warm front. Out this month is their latest film together, Little White Lies, a Big Chill-style movie that he directed, about friends on a rosé-soaked vacation in Cap Ferret, that took the French box office by storm in 2010. Also featuring Jean Dujardin and François Cluzet, it stars Cotillard as Marie, a footloose bohemian who leaves confusion, both male and female, in her wake as she tries to unknot her heart.
Cotillard always watches her films, to look for adjustments she can make, but watching this one was “incredibly uncomfortable,” she says, because “it was the closest to who I am.” She goes on, “The problem is that Marie is very, very uncomfortable in her life, even though she hides it. On the outside she’s very free, she’s happy and a good friend, she loves life, she has an amazing job. But inside it’s a disaster; she’s totally lonely, she’s totally lost.” When she watched the film, it all came flooding back: the crippling shyness of her teenage years, until she discovered acting as a way of communication with people; then the more unbridled hedonism of her 20s, as she tried to figure out who she was in the hall of mirrors that is young romance.
“I used to be like that for sure,” she says, but now, at 36, “I’m much more connected to myself than I used to be.” At least one clue to the source of this contentment is provided when she stops in front of a large pitch pine that appears to have grown right through a giant boulder, its roots encircling it, like fingers around a stone. “There is a tree just like this on the corner of Twenty-second Street. It looks like it just melted through the railings. We go past it every days on the way to the park, and every time my son stops to touch it. Like this. He loves trees. I remember the first time I took him to Central Park, he went crazy. He screamed with joy for half an hour with all the trees around him. He wants to touch the trunks, he wants to eat the leaves. He’s at the age where he wants to eat everything.”
“My little Zen Master” is what she calls Marcel. She recently bought him a child’s guitar, which they play together; she picks out the chords while he strums. The other day he hummed his first tune. “Penélope Cruz told me that childbirth is like a revolution,” she says as we resume our path beneath a dense canopy of trees. “It’s totally a revolution. Everything everybody says about it is actually true. Suddenly everything makes sense.”
The more time that you spend with Cotillard, the more you realize that the two Marions are in fact two sides of the same coin. The same energy that propels her to spend four months perfecting an accent is the same thing that drives her to produce three Christmas dinners for her family. Whatever is in front of her commands her undivided attention, her eyes filling with wonder. She speaks in a soft, certain voice that seems unbothered by the task of persuasion or argument – it’s just for her. And it is this exact quality, a mixture of fine-anntennae receptivity to her immediate environment and straight, plumb-line anchorage to something deep inside of her, that makes her so riveting to watch on-screen. There’s a scene in the 2009 musical Nine in which Daniel Day-Lewis tends to Cotillard’s hair for a screen test and then disappears out of frame, leaving Cotillard alone in front of the movie camera, and the flicker of emotion on her face – like sunlight disappearing behind clouds – tells you two things: (1) that she loves him, and (2) that she will have her heart broken by him. Two entirely contrary emotions, at the same time, all without saying a word.
“Marion can mine something that most actresses can’t these days – that quiet vulnerability, that quiet truth,” says director Rob Marshall. “She really has almost see-through skin. You feel what she’s feeling. It’s those big, beautiful eyes; they’re so hypnotic. There’s truth in them. That comes not just from craft but who she is.” She was, he says, the first to audition for the part of Day-Lewis’s wife in Nine, right in the middle of all the hoopla for La Vie en Rose: endless interviews, Oscar speculation, flights back and forth from Paris. Someone asked if she wanted a glass of water. “I said something like, ‘This must be really difficult for you,'” remembers Marshall. “She said, ‘Are you kidding? Do you know how lucky I am that I can sit here and have someone fetch me a glass of water? Nobody try and tell me I have a hard life; I know what a hard life is.’ She comes from the Life Is Too Short school, no question.”
In the tower block in suburban Paris where Cotillard grew up, the elevators would often break down. She remembers having to trudge the eighteen flights of staris up to her family’s apartment with her two younger brothers, avoiding the discarded heroin needles as they went. “We were not poor, but we were not wealthy,” she says. Her mother Monique Theillaud, was an actress and her father, Jean-Claude, a mime. Their teater friends used to fascinate the young Cotillard. “All my friends, their parents had jobs that were very repetitive – they would do every day the same thing. But my parents’ friends would go to a little town in France, the next day they would be in Peru, the next day they could be in Hong Kong. They were artists. They had freedom.”
Her head was filled with American movies. She and her brothers would sit glued to videotapes of Poltergeist, The Exorcist, and Jaws, but also the films of Judy Garland, the Marx Brothers, and Charlie Chaplin. She would replay Singin’ in the Rain “over and over, trying to lear the songs, the choreography.” Later, when they moved to the region of La Beauce, near Orléans, and her father found success as a director with his own theater company, Cotillard woud enroll at the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique, but her most important teacher was always her father. “He was, still is, a teacher of mime and expression corporelle – bodily expression. The body was something very important from the beginning. I’m one of the biggest fans of comedy, especially ‘dumb movies,’ as we call them in Franc. Will Ferrell is my hero: I would put Step Brothers in my top ten. Jonah Hill, I want to marry you!”
Everything that would make her a global star was there from the beginning: the love affair with Hollywood; the discipline; the physicality; the intensity of the teacher-pupil relationship with her father, which Cotillard has essentially replicated with her directors. “The first person for me in a movie, the person I will give everything to, is the director,” she says. “If I work with someone I don’t respect, or I don’t like, then I am very, very bad. The director is everything.”
To a large extent her career as depended on her ability to play muse to the world’s foremost directors: Along with Mann and Nolan, there’s Woody Allen, Steven Soderbergh, Tim Burton. “I found myself looking at Marion at dinner, watching her, thinking of what I could do with her,” says James Gray, who wrote his forthcoming film as a vehicle for the actress. She plays a Polish immigrant at sea in 1920s New York who first falls under the spell of a shady, Fagin-like figure played by Joaquin Phoenix and then finds a potential white knight in the form of a magician played by Jeremy Renner. A surprising number of her roles have been tailor-make for her this way, including those in La Vie en Rose and The Dark Knight Rises. “The word challenging is thrown around as some kind of pejorative to mean an actor who’s difficult,” says Nolan. “But Marion is challenging in the true sense of the word. She’s so good you don’t want to waste that talent. You want to hold up your end.”
“Oh, wow,” says Cotillard as we reach the summit of our hike: the top of Shawangunk Ridge, 2,000 feet above sea leel, Lake Minnewaska stretching out below us. We are standing on one of the oldest rock faces in North America. Cotillard kneels down and touches the rock with her hand. “I went to Machu Picchu for my birthday,” she says. “And there’s this sacred stone that is supposed to be very powerful. I went there with my best friend very early in the morning. You have to put your hand, not on the stone but close enough to feel it.” She raises her hand an inch above the rock. “It’s one of the strongest things I’ve ever felt. We stayed there for an hour.”
On the walk back down, I ask her whether she’s ever felt that connected to a role and she responds immediately: Piaf. “I was in a very, very special state the whole shoot and even after,” she says, describing an immersion so great that it affected her relationship at the time, with French directror Stéphan Guérin-Tillié. “I was not inside my life, so I couldn’t entirely be with my boyfriend,” she says. “My friends, they understood, but a boyfriend is different. And it really affected the relationship.”
Figuring out how to combine her pedal-to-metal devotion to her work with romantic happiness has taken time. She and Canet were friends before appearing together in the 2003 French romantic drama Love Me If You Dare. He was married to Diane Kruger at the time, but after their divorce in 2006, he and Cotillard started dating, much to the joy of the Parisian press, which reports on their every kiss and hand-squeeze with an ardor befitting their status as French cinema’s leading couple – a kind of Gallic Brangelina.
“Don’t make me talk about him,” pleads Cotillard when I bring up Canet, as we are walking beneath the shade of some pine trees. But there is a squeak of excitement in her voice, and when I ask her what made her feel ready for motherhood, she answers in that calm, unshakable way of hers, “Love tells you that you’re ready. The right person tells you that you’re ready.”
Two weeks later, at lunch at Manhattan’s NoMad Hotel, Cotillard is in a more expansive mood. Recently returned from Cannes, where she braved a couple of red carpets (“Why I don’t know, it was hooorrrr-ibble,” she says, drawing out the words like a spilled drink), she is wearing a summery, candy-striped House of Holland dress. She apologizes for being a little late: First she had to drop Marcel off at the park with friends – “He would not be carried” – and before that an Italian lesson for her role in Canet’s new film, the 1970s Brooklyn crime drama Blood Ties. “He is one of the best directors I have ever worked with,” says Cotillard, “and I am not just saying that because I am madly in love with him and because he is the father of my child.”
She orders a bone-marrow-crusted fillet of beef with parsnips and some herbal tea. “I wanted to learn Italian for Nine,” she says, “but I didn’t have any words besides ‘buon giorno.’ This time I have lines in Italian. So I work every day.” She still gets the bite of anxietey in her stomach that tells her she is going to fall flat on her face in a role: “Most of the time, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do it,” she says, pausing. “At the same time, there is a part of me that knows I can.” These days, acting is less a sublimation of self, and more like traveling in a foreign country: “You are still yourself, but you can discover something about yourself that you didn’t know. I’ve always been fascinated by people who discover the world. One of my dreams would be to take a year when my son is older and go around the world with my family. I hope I’ll do it.”
Her next project is with director Asghar Farhadi, who won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for A Separation. But first, some Breton cake. “My country!” she says when she spots it on the dessert cart. And afterward: an afternoon with friends. “I need to rest. I really do need it. I shot three movies in a year, that’s crazy. With a baby. That is too much.” She spoons some Breton cake into her mouth. “But all the things I did were irresistible.”