from Harper’s Bazaar (UK) / by Lorien Hayes
With her first acting role since becoming a mother, the star has produced a surely award-winning performance of visceral emotion in Rust and Bone. So why is she putting her career on hold? Lorien Hayes meets an actor less ordinary.
It is obscenely early on the terrace at Chateau Marmont. Songbirds, perched in a lofty palm over the restaurant umbrellas, are still chattering after daybreak, while a gardener gently prunes the last of the summer bougainvillea. Marmonzettes (the legendary LA hotel’s resident waiters) zip around laying breakfast tables. In the midst of this morning activity, normally unseen by Chateau guests, sits a lone figure in a brown Borselino fedora, face obscured in shadow. The tilt of the hat’s brim itself is suggestive, its angle recalling a war-time FBI agent or cabaret chanteuse.
Which is, of course, the kind of elusive first impression that one would expect from Marion Cotillard. On the short drive from my LA home to the hotel, I have been mulling over random facts about the 37-year-old French actor who, since she morphed into decrepit, drug-addicted Edith Piaf and swiped the Best Actress Oscar in 2008, has come to be considered one of the most talented film stars of our time. Cotillard likes karaoke (signature tune: ‘Proud Mary’) and white-truffle oil (she loves to cook – especially for her son Marcel – though not with truffles); she reads Krishnamurti, admires Modigliani, Giacometti and early Dubuffet and sings with an artist called Yodélice as her alter ego, Simone.
Despite subsequent more ‘straightforward’ Hollywood roles – in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, Christopher Nolan’s Inception and, most recently, in the latter director’s third Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises – Cotillard has thitherto retained an air of mystery. She is intellectual, quirky, uncompromising, dedicatedly thespian and fiercely private, with an innate sense of style (her fedora today is twinned with a pair of red Chloé anle-boots) that is much admired by fashion houses. Galliano fell in love with her at the 2008 Oscars, and, despite his departure, she is still an ambassador for Dior. But when one considers Cotillard in all her aspects, two and two doesn’t necessarily make four.
It is likely this offbeat sensibility that has led Cotillard to her next Oscar-tipped project. Rust and Bone – the work of lauded French director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) – is a return to award-winning form for Cotillard: a starkly honest, visceral and fearless portrayal of a woman who loses her legs in an accident, and her subsequent battle to embrace love, life and sex – even at its most gritty. Indeed, Cotillard herself is fearless, if a little fearsome, on first meeting. After observing her for some time on the terrace, I approach as she returns her lipstick-smeared glass to a rather mortified waiter. ‘There have been many lips on this glass,’ she declares (her own mouth lipstick-free). This is the first thing I learn about Cotillard: she is critically observant, direct and glaringly honest – in person as in her performances.
That isn’t to say that Cotillard is not charming, it’s just that she is not necessarily willing to humour others for the sake of it. As we settle down, she chats amiably about the Bazaar shoot. ‘Couture is art,’ she says while consuming a plate of pancakes with bacon, maple syrup and extra butter with considerable enthusiasm. She continues on the subject of what she calls ‘le style Anglais‘, including a rapture on Britishness. ‘I think of England as music with fashion. You mix rock ‘n’ roll with everything, from royalty to punk to bourgeoisie. Music-wise, you’re the best. David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Radiohead, the Beatles…’
Fedora now removed, Cotillard is more relaxed and playful. Under her coat is an unpretentious cream sloppy sweater (she doesn’t know or care who by). But when I introduce the subject of Rust and Bone, her demeanor shifts. A gravitas descends on our breakfast. It’s not that she is haughty; just passionate and deeply serious about her work. Being an actor, she tells me, is ‘like you’re this tightrope walker. Even if you know how to do it, you never know if you’re going to make it to the other side’.
After La Vie en Rose, for which she underwent almost masochistic preparation, including shaving off her eyebrows and hairline, Cotillard famously felt haunted by Piaf. Her role in Rust and Bone is fictional, but her performance was still emotionally arduous. She plays whale trainer Stéphanie, who develops a relationship with bare-knuckle boxer Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts). The film is unflinching in its portrayal of disabled sex and violence, but strangely life-affirming.
Technically, she lost her legs not to a killer whale but to ‘green screen, or rather long green socks’, says Cotillard. I wince, preparing to hear the extreme emotional and physical preparation she endured for the role. After her intense immersion in the character of Piaf, she spent time in Menominee Indian Reservation to perfect a Cajun Bayou twang for Public Enemies. Rob Marshall, who directed her in Nine, says she has ‘an extraordinary work ethic. Even Daniel Day-Lewis was astounded’.
‘Well, I mean, I love my job, but I’m not cutting my legs off,’ she says wryly. In fact, for this role, it was more important to appear fundamentally unprepared. ‘Stéphanie loses her legs. It’s a shock,’ she says. ‘If she’d been without them for years, I would have worked differently. But I had to learn with her how it felt – that loss. How it changes her.’
Cotillard’s performance is doubtless Oscar-worthy. She has what Marshall describes as ‘see-through skin. You can feel what she’s feeling. I’m hard pressed to think of an actress with her range, her vulnerability’. Public Enemies director Michael Mann, who has seen a preview of Rust and Bone, raves: ‘She is fantastic. What she is doing in that film is beyond acting.’
Her experience of shooting with director Audiard was as visceral as some of the scenes themselves. ‘When I saw Matthias do his first fight, my whole body, was – well, it was kind of orgasmic,’ says Cotillard. ‘I was enjoying the violence of the flesh. It’s why the sex [in the film] works so well. It’s all about physicality, feeling that you’re alive.’ Some may find the brutality that saturates each frame overwhelming, but Cotillard is clear that she is not condoning violence, explaining carefully that in the context of this story she feels it is the crucial counterpoint to a woman feeling physically disabled, redundant and deadened.
The shoot for Rust and Bone was the first since Cotillard became a mother, to 18-month-old Marcel, her son with French director and actor Guillaume Canet. Like nothing else, Marcel has changed Cotillard’s life. She worked right up until her birth, with Nolan organising the $250 million Dark Knight shooting schedule around her delivery dates. ‘Since having Marcel, every day of my life has been alight with him,’ says Cotillard. ‘Of course, I expected the biggest change, but I didn’t expect to fall in love.’
When I ask what she likes to do with him, she says she wants to take him to the park and teach him the name of every tree (‘I am a tree geek. Everywhere I go, I Google trees. My dream would be an app like Shazam – a tree app to give you the whole history’). She wants to sing him lullabies at night: ‘I turn stories into song.’ And right now, as tears well up in her eyes, she says she doesn’t want to go to the Toronto Film Festival later today, she wants ‘to swim back to France to be with him… I miss my son. We have not been separated like this before. I have been so lucky to take him everywhere with me,’ she almost wails. ‘I was in Whole Foods yesterday and there was this mother in line, kissing her boy, and it was unbearable for me to watch.’ Her eyes cloud over again. ‘Do you want to see some pictures of him?’ She gets out her phone and shows me Marcel – blond and divine, with his father’s eyes, and on the back of a pony.
‘I was a very, very sad child,’ she says. ‘Not as a little child, because when I see pictures of me at my son’s age, I can see I was happy. But I did lose that.’ The source of this angst, however, she does not identify. ‘My childhood was perfect. My parents were amazing parents, they gave us all the love we needed.’ They also gave Cotillard her artistic sensibility: her mother Monique Theillaud was an actor, and her father Jean-Claude a mime artist. They lived a bohemian existence in a tower block in suburban Paris, where she and her younger twin brothers, Quentin and Guillaume, scaled 18 flights of stairs dodging hypodermic needles. The children ‘were allowed to paint and draw on every wall in the house’, she says. One twin is now a writer, the other a sculptor.
Cotillard studied acting at the Orléans Conservatorie d’Art Dramatique, and made 26 films before she hit the big time with La Vie en Rose at the age of 31. Since then, she has had Hollywood directors vying to work with her. ‘She is a character actress in a leading actress’ body’, says Nine director Rob Marshall, ‘as she proved with Piaf. That truth, humour and clarity are extraordinarily hard to achieve, and actresses who can do it: the list is very small.’
As a result, it’s impossible to doubt that many more Oscar-worthy roles lie ahead for Cotilard, but at the moment she is guided by another consideration: keeping her family together. Her latest project, the aptly named Blood Ties, which is set in 1970s Brooklyn and co-stars Mila Kunis and Clive Owen, is directed by her… ‘husband?’ (I say this because she has a huge diamond ring on her engagement finger). ‘No, yes, well,’ she mutters, before gathering herself and venturing: ‘I’m very private about my personal life, but Guillaume is my inspiration. He is a brilliant director. I love working with him, and when you find that perfect balance – it’s heaven.’
After a whirlwind of projects post-Oscar, Cotillard wants to put the brakes on for a while, and has just pulled out of a film for exactly this reason. ‘I don’t know what’s next,’ she says, ‘because I don’t want to know. I need to have a break. I don’t want to have anyone else to think about, apart from myself and my family.’ So, after Toronto, Cotillard is going back to France, to Canet and Marcel and their home in Paris. ‘I need to lie in bed and listen to the rain. I want to do whatever I want to do when I wake up in the morning.
‘One of the things I have learned recently is that I have the ability to be happy.’ She smiles, donning her fedora, tilting it just-so, at the right angle, so that her face is hidden once again. ‘I have found that in my family. And that is a new thing. And that hasn’t always been the case for me – so I know how lucky I am.’
‘Rust and Bone’ is out now nationwide.