Wrestling a New Role Into Its Full Rebirth

from The New York Times / by Kristin Hohenadel
MARION COTILLARD was barefaced and sleepy eyed. “I just woke up,” she said, and did not quite stifle a yawn as she ordered room-temperature still water in a restaurant across from Central Park.

Marion Cotillard in her Oscar-winning role as Édith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose.” She said she had trouble shaking the part for months afterward, because she had so inhabited the role.

Dressed in pale-gray jeans, hands with chipped navy-blue-painted nails the only evidence of her otherwise cashmere-swaddled upper body, this 37-year-old French actress had been on something of an American journey. Her flight from Los Angeles had been diverted to Detroit the night before thanks to a northeaster. And upon landing in New York she made a beeline for Shake Shack, devoured two burgers and promptly took a nap that had made her slightly late for a conversation about her latest film, “Rust and Bone,” being released Friday by Sony Pictures Classics. Co-written and directed by the French auteur Jacques Audiard, it also stars the up-and-coming Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts.

After winning an Oscar for her role as Édith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose” in 2007 (the first Academy Award for a French-language performance), Ms. Cotillard has been catapulted into mainstream American moviegoing consciousness with turns in films like Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” and the latest Batman installment, “The Dark Knight Rises,” while retaining her art-house cred in Europe. She has caught the eye of the fashion crowd with Vogue covers, red-carpet appearances and a Lady Dior campaign, and in France she and her partner, the actor and director Guillaume Canet, are often referred to as a Gallic Brangelina. But she went unnoticed in the crowded Manhattan restaurant.

“Rust and Bone” was a critical and box office success in France and is already earning Oscar buzz for Ms. Cotillard. In the film she plays Stéphanie, an angry, inscrutable orca trainer at Marineland in Antibes, France, who loses both her legs from the knees down in a freak accident with one of the killer whales, a tragedy that transforms her from the outside in, as she becomes deeply involved with a struggling single father and former boxer named Ali (Mr. Schoenaerts). Mr. Audiard, who adapted the screenplay with Thomas Bidegain by combining stories in a collection by the Canadian writer Craig Davidson, has made an over-the-top-sounding tale into an understated meditation on the happiness that comes from opening yourself to love.

After seeing the film at the Cannes Film Festival, Manohla Dargis wrote in The New York Times that “the movie worked me over, then won me over.”

Learning how to move her body to make the amputation look convincing ended up being the least challenging physical aspect of preparing for the role, Ms. Cotillard said. She took swimming lessons to strengthen her technique during breaks in filming “The Dark Knight Rises” in Pittsburgh and spent a week at Marineland learning how to direct the whales. But she only briefly watched videos of amputees to figure out how to move her limbs. It helped that they were seamlessly altered using digital technology. (She wore green knee socks during the shoot.)

“I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t really need to watch those videos because it suddenly happened to my character that she lost her legs, and she learns in the moment how to live with that,” she said, speaking in French. “I put myself in the skin of someone without legs, and suddenly I totally forgot the lower part of my legs.”

For the filmmakers it wasn’t important to capture what an amputee might look like as if they were shooting a documentary. Ms. Cotillard chose to use a cane after her character is fitted with prosthetic legs, for example, something a real-life amputee might have no need for, but which was a visual cue to remind the audience of her condition.

But it turned out that for Ms. Cotillard the bigger challenge was putting herself into the emotionally groundless state that Stéphanie initially finds herself in.

“In the beginning of the film she is empty, she doesn’t know who she is or why she’s alive,” Ms. Cotillard said. “She is numb.” She added later: “It’s as if she were drugged. I have never experimented with hard drugs, but I’ve been at certain moments of my life in a state of shock close to something where you lose your footing, your sense of reality. I think that’s the gift of the actor, the ability to put ourselves in a state.”

Mr. Audiard said by phone that he knew after seeing “La Vie en Rose” that he would work with Ms. Cotillard one day.

“What touched me about her was her capacity to forget herself,” he said, “to really compose a character.”

Ms. Cotillard said, “I adore my own life, more and more I love being myself, but I love this work of totally changing personalities, of creating someone radically different from myself.”

But she said she was no longer the person who was haunted by Édith Piaf for eight months after shooting stopped. “I want to go profoundly into my roles,” she said. “If not, what’s the point? But I don’t think that will happen to me again. My life has changed. In a totally organic manner, when I went home to the hotel after shooting ‘Rust and Bone,’ I had my baby, and suddenly the separation between my life on set and off the set was very easy to make. Because at the time he was about 5 months old, he was a tiny little baby who needed me entirely, not me and my work.”

Nevertheless, “I think Stéphanie has moved me more than any character I’ve ever played,” she said. “She rediscovers the carnal, sexuality, love. Everything is very positive in the tragedy she faces.”

Mr. Audiard said that Ms. Cotillard’s schedule didn’t allow much time for them to consult before shooting, so he did more takes than usual. “She had worked on the character herself, and it was new for me to be confronted with the ideas of an actor without having participated,” he said.

To find the right emotional pitch, they did eight takes of the scene in which she wakes up in the hospital. “It seemed to me that Marion had a very, very tragic take on the character in the beginning,” Mr. Audiard said. “But she reminds me of a silent film actress. She is very, very expressive. The dialogue becomes secondary. We can almost do without it.”

Mr. Schoenaerts said by phone: “I saw her looking for how can I make this scene better, in every scene. She constantly questions herself to get the best of herself and knows how to be in the here and now, which is a very vulnerable state of being.”

Though the film includes sex scenes made vivid by Stéphanie’s altered anatomy, Ms. Cotillard said that it wasn’t those sequences that made her feel the nakedness of the part. “Her accident is the beginning of a rebirth,” she said, “and I had in my head during all those scenes that this was the birth of a little baby.”

Ms. Cotillard said that Mr. Audiard’s working method kept the co-stars alert.

“Once he stopped a scene and said: ‘How dramatic are you? Dramatic, dramatic, dramatic! It’s boring!’ ” she recalled. “We laughed, and it could seem a bit rude, but he was right. We were happy to have someone with that kind of genius to help us avoid going in the direction of things that are perhaps realistic but are not at all cinematic. And that’s why he’s a great director.”

She said that he often had them shooting scenes that weren’t in the original script or trying radically opposed interpretations of the same scene, experimentation that she was happy to embrace. “I love the possibility of finding a moment that will be more than authentic,” she said, “that will have a bit of magic and poetry.”

After a busy year Ms. Cotillard said she had no projects planned until next summer, though she isn’t ruling anything out. “I feel less like I have something to prove, but I still have things to prove to myself,” she said. “I’d love to do a comedy, for example. There are still plenty of risks to take. But I don’t know if I’ll be an actress my whole life. Nothing can ever be taken for granted in this métier. It makes you very exposed and that can be violent. I’m strong but also fragile, and sometimes it’s not easy to be exposed to judgment, and to play with your emotions, to go searching inside yourself to make yourself naked to the world.”


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