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from The Wall Street Journal / by Lanie Goodman
When French actress Marion Cotillard arrived on the Côte d’Azur last October to star in Jacques Audiard’s gritty emotional drama “Rust and Bone” (“De Rouille et de l’Os”), she knew it wouldn’t be an easy shoot.
For one, she was fighting jet lag, having flown in straight from the Hollywood set of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” with her 5-month-old baby, Marcel, in tow. To prepare for her role as Stephanie, a French Marineland water-park whale trainer, she had only one week to master a few convincing tricks with the orcas. She would have to learn to swim without using her legs in the chilly Mediterranean and practice getting around in a wheelchair. The 37-year-old actress, one of the faces of Lady Dior, was also prepared for relentless close-ups without makeup in the glaring light of an Antibes beach.
But then, glamour isn’t everything. Ms. Cotillard’s moving, Oscar-winning performance as the struggling street singer Edith Piaf in Olivier Dahan’s 2007 biopic “La vie en rose” catapulted her into the international spotlight, revealing the actress’s ability to internalize the most somber depths of a character in all her frailty.
“I knew in advance why I was choosing Marion,” says Mr. Audiard (“The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” 2005, “A Prophet,” 2009), adding that he was “blown away” by her portrayal of Piaf and had been waiting for a chance to work with her ever since.
Like Mr. Audiard’s previous titles, “Rust and Bone” combines taut elliptic storytelling with an unvarnished attention to detail. The subject, an unlikely love affair, tells the story of two contrasting solitary characters thrown together by a harsh twist of fate.
Loosely adapted from a story by Canadian writer Craig Davidson, “Rust and Bone” opens with Ali, played by Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, who is homeless, broke and suddenly finds himself in custody of his 5-year-old son. Working as a bouncer in an Antibes nightclub, he rescues Stephanie (Ms. Cotillard), from a drunken altercation. Stephanie takes his phone number but is put off by Ali’s blunt compliments. But after a terrible accident at Marineland during which she loses both legs, she decides to give Ali a call. He takes her on outings to the beach, wordlessly carrying her on his shoulders to the sea.
The raw physicality of their relationship is rejuvenation for Stephanie, who rediscovers the pleasure of swimming and eventually, sex. Likewise, she becomes supportive of Ali’s brutal bare-knuckle fighting, an illegal sport but a quick way of earning wads of cash.
“The special effects had to be incredible in the film, but it didn’t affect the shooting. We just did the work we usually do, and CGI took my legs off,” says Ms. Cotillard. “What was complex about the part was understanding Stephanie’s emotions—all the different layers. I imagined how she would react to events, to life, to love. And to put it simply, I just imagined that I had no legs. For me, difficulties are always technical ones, and there weren’t any in this movie.” The actress speaks slowly, choosing her words in English with an ever-so-slight accent that no longer sounds French.
However, filming on location at Marineland was sometimes complicated, Ms. Cotillard says, recalling a moment of panic on set. “The first whale went kind of mad during the rehearsal, since it wasn’t her usual show. She screamed at me with her jaws really wide open. It was the only time I really freaked out, even though I knew the glass was secure and the crew was right behind me.
“I was lucky to have a really strong connection right away with the second whale,” she adds. “I had to find an improvisation between her and me. I’d wave, and she’d wave back—I’d tickle her nose and she would make bubbles. You never really know how they’re going to react.”
Mr. Audiard notes: “Killer whales are very dangerous animals, and Marion is very brave. She has a tomboyish quality about her, she’s got guts.
“During the entire shoot, I had to pinch myself and say, ‘she has no legs’, since she was wearing green tights,” the director continues. “But Marion never forgot it. As a result, even the erotic dimension of the love scenes were of a different nature. The first time that Stephanie takes off her clothes, she is terrified to give herself to someone. She’s more than naked at that moment.”
Though Mr. Audiard’s dramatic approach is emotionally charged, he also encourages his actors to exercise restraint, shying away from any hint of pathos. “In one scene, we did about 10 takes because Marion was playing the role full on, as if she were an actress in a Tod Browning film,” says the director. “I told her to slow down.”
Slowing down doesn’t seem to come naturally. After winning the Oscar, scripts were thrown at her feet like bouquets of roses. The actress—who had previously worked with Tim Burton and Ridley Scott—went on to star in films by some of the most prominent American directors, from Michael Mann (“Public Enemies,” 2009), Rob Marshall (“Nine,” 2009) and Christopher Nolan (“Inception,” 2010, “The Dark Knight Rises,” 2012) to Woody Allen (“Midnight in Paris,” 2011) and Steven Soderbergh (“Contagion,” 2011).
In between her U.S. commitments, Ms. Cotillard also took part in a French ensemble piece, “Little White Lies” (2010), the third feature film directed by her boyfriend, French actor Guillaume Canet, who is the father of their son.
Born in the modest suburbs of Paris, Ms. Cotillard acquired her passion for acting from her parents, who were both working in the theater. The family later moved to Beauce, a town near Orléans in North-Central France, where her father, Jean-Claude Cotillard, a director and mime, founded his own company. Ms. Cotillard attended the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique in Orléans until 1994, then headed back to Paris, where she landed her first part as a student in the 1996 film “My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument” by French director Arnaud Desplechin.
These days, after “a crazy, crazy year” that included giving birth in May and shooting three films back-to-back, Ms. Cotillard says she is learning to juggle the demands of young motherhood while working hard.
“When I did ‘La vie en rose,’ I’d often stay with Edith Piaf and not go back to myself because it was a long way to get there every day—it was too emotionally difficult,” she recalls. “With ‘Rust and Bone,’ the character of Stephanie was also intense, but most of the time my son was on set because he needed me. So I would go back and forth.”
Ms. Cotillard says that she also enjoyed playing Miranda Tate in “The Dark Knight Rises,” the seductive wealthy businesswoman whose lofty ecological projects and femme-fatale looks jump-start reclusive billionaire Bruce Wayne back into superhero action.
“I loved working again with Christopher,” the actress says. “He’s a family guy—he’s got four kids himself—and his set is like a family, which may sound weird for a big-budget cult movie like ‘Batman,’ but it’s true.”
For her role in director James Gray’s forthcoming period piece, “Nightingale,” written with her in mind, Ms. Cotillard immersed herself in the Polish language and culture. Set in 1920s Manhattan, she plays a newly arrived, guileless Polish immigrant alongside co-star Joaquin Phoenix, a shady character who forces her into prostitution so she can pay for her sick sister’s care.
“Some of my scenes are in Polish and I also had to have a Polish accent in English. It was a lot of work,” she says.
Mr. Gray also recently teamed up with Guillaume Canet to co-write the screenplay of the coming thriller “Blood Ties,” set in 1970s Brooklyn, a remake of the 2008 French film, “Les Liens de Sang.” Mr. Canet directs a cast that includes Clive Owen, Billy Crudup, James Caan, Mila Kunis, “Rust” star Matthias Schoenaerts and, unsurprisingly, Marion Cotillard.
“I always keep something from an encounter with a director,” the actress muses. “The first thing I keep is a lot of joy…and then, it’s hard to explain what else stays with me. You share something that is deep and has found its right place.” She pauses and adds, “An actor is a kind of anthropologist of the human soul. The more you explore, the more you learn.”