Actress, mother, environmental campaigner – Marion Cotillard is a woman of many facets.
With her long legs curled under her on a couch, huge soft eyes and heart-shaped face, the film character Marion Cotillard most immediately resembles is Bambi. It’s not an impression that lasts long, however. Cotillard, whose riveting performance as a drug-addicted Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose won her an Oscar in 2008 and paved her way to Hollywood, has steel underneath a faun-like sweetness.
Watching her new film Rust and Bone, in which she plays a marine-park trainer who loses her legs to a rampaging orca, a New York Times critic described her as “an actress of limitless bravery and supernatural poise, who is both beauty and beast”.
“I definitely have strength,” the 34-year-old said in response. “It would be a long conversation on how strength is manifested in yourself, but … I don’t think there’s one thing I can think about that could put me down.”
In the end, that’s what you remember about her, more than her beauty or glamour: the grit, determination and indomitable work ethic that have fuelled her career. Because although her role as Piaf put her in the limelight, she had already made her move on Hollywood; she had roles in Tim Burton’s Big Fish and in Ridley Scott’s A Good Year, opposite Russell Crowe.
After La Vie en Rose, she worked furiously on speaking English with a Chicago accent for Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (“I was more than nervous, every day”), on singing and dancing for Rob Marshall’s Nine and on the imaginative leaps and bounds required for Christopher Nolan’s Inception. She rejoined Nolan for The Dark Knight Rises, playing girlfriend to the Caped Crusader. From barely speaking English to Batman’s girl in five moves: it doesn’t get much more Hollywood than that.
At home, however, she is just as famous for being half of the couple dubbed “France’s Brangelina”. When La Vie en Rose took the world by storm, the cameras began to follow Cotillard, at least to the public venues allowed to them by the France’s strict privacy laws. She was eventually snapped at an airport kissing Guillaume Canet.
Canet was a director, actor, all-round heart-throb and her friend of at least seven years’ standing, who had been divorced just a year earlier from German actress Diane Kruger; audiences may remember him from his role in The Beach, where he became mates with Leonardo DiCaprio.
As it turned out, the pair had been seeing each other for several months, and nearly five years on they have a son, Marcel, who is almost two. Since that kiss-and-fly slip, however, they have avoided the cameras.
When Cotillard starred in a film directed by Canet called Little White Lies, they did joint interviews with the strict stipulation that there must be no questions about their domestic life. At red-carpet events, they would turn up separately. As for baby pictures, no chance. We know more about Cotillard’s bank account – she is said to be worth US$15 million – than we do about life chez Guillaume.
One thing that is fairly clear is that they don’t live the kind of life you might expect for stars of that calibre. Every now and then, they are snapped shopping or having a coffee in a bar, like any other Parisian.
It isn’t easy, she says, to keep things simple. “It’s a paradox to be an actress – living in the city, taking planes all the time, trying to find the right balance in life, which is not so eco-friendly, and still try to respect the environment.”
This is Cotillard’s second life: she is one of France’s most prominent eco-warriors. For more than a decade she has been closely associated with Greenpeace – not merely as a figurehead, but as a film-maker. In 2010 she went to the Congo to make a series of videos, distributed online, about the destruction of forests, and the lives of the people who live in them, by logging companies. She tramped through jungles, slept in village huts and addressed the camera with a face scrubbed clean of stardom.
“For a pack of smokes and a few beers you can gain the right to cut down the trees, so through the first days of my trip the problem seemed really dark,” she told Nicole Kidman in an exchange recorded for Interview magazine. “But when I started talking to people, I realised that they want to get their power back. That made me feel like there was hope to make things right.”
Kidman recalls that on the set of Nine, it was Cotillard who insisted that they set up a system for recycling, a commitment she traces to childhood holidays in Brittany at her grandmother’s house when her parents, who were both in the theatre, were working. “When my grandmother cooked, she wouldn’t waste anything. And my parents always raised me to believe the most important thing was respect. Respect the place you live, be aware of the impact you have on things.”
It is an awareness that was tested by her encounters with orcas for Rust and Bone. Her character Stephanie is a cold fish herself, prickly with her peers and living disagreeably with a man she doesn’t much like. The best part of her life is lived in water with the caged whales. When the director Jacques Audiard gave Cotillard the script, she says, she loved it immediately. The fact that her character worked in a marine park, however, was a real stumbling block.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is something I cannot do,’” she says. “I cannot be in this environment. I’m not comfortable with captivity and the first day of the shoot, this came back to me, that the orcas were not like animals any more, they were like toys, like ducks in the bathtub.” The fact that a wild animal would flip over on command in return for a piece of fish appalled her.
Her opinion of performing animals hasn’t changed. But she was moved by the commitment of their trainers. “Those people are passionate about what they do. I can’t stand marine parks, but the people who work there love the animals.” Her own experience was transformed by an encounter with a killer whale. Rather than keep to the routine, she was encouraged to make her own gestures and the orca responded to her. “I decided to wave and she would wave back, I tickled her nose and she would make bubbles. She reacted to everything.”
In fact there were two orcas; the first one reacted badly to the lights and camera “and she went mad at me and screamed, with her jaws wide open. I got really scared.” But of course, says Cotillard, the orca was behaving as what she was: a wild animal.
The force of Cotillard’s performance in Rust and Bone is extraordinary. In the moment when Stephanie wakes up to discover she has had both legs amputated, we see a surge of emotions cascade across her face; then a period of something like catatonia sets in.
To prepare for the role, Cotillard watched footage of amputees to see how they moved. “Then I thought I didn’t need that. [I can] experience it with the character because it’s just happened to her and she doesn’t know, either. There was nothing more to do than be on the set and work. The complexity is in the emotional layers of the character.”
Rust and Bone is a romance, albeit a very spiky, difficult one; Stephanie becomes embroiled with Ali, a bouncer played by the Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, who is trying to scrape together money in illegal bare-knuckle fights. Ali, she soon discovers, is the only person who is utterly unembarrassed by her mutilation. There is a lot of charged sex in Rust and Bone, something Cotillard usually finds uncomfortable.
“That was very different on this movie because it’s a very important part of the story. But it’s also something that happens in her life that made me so happy for her,” she says.
In general, she says, sex scenes are much harder than, say, dying. “I hate it. It’s very intimate and very hard to imagine how a person would have sex. Kissing is already something very powerful. You feel something; it’s already intense. It cannot be your way, otherwise it would be super-uncomfortable. But, you know, everyone has a way to make sex, so a character does, too.”
Marcel was only five months-old when the film was shot. “He was a tiny little baby who needed me entirely, not me and my work,” she recalls. Her way of working, which, on La Vie en Rose, meant living with Piaf every waking hour, had to change.
“I was wondering how it would be, because Stephanie is so intense and sometimes my son couldn’t be on set because it was too much. But most of the time he was there.
“I know I can go deep inside a character, but I know how to get out of it. When you have to go back, because there is someone who is more important than anything, it’s different. It’s crazy, it’s … ” – she fishes for an expression to cover motherhood – ” it’s rock and roll! But it’s amazing, too.”
Now, as someone who has been acting almost all her life – she was a child when she first trod the boards in one of her father’s plays – she wonders if she wants to give herself over to it for good.
Other things could claim her: the forest of the Congo as well as motherhood. “Nothing can ever be taken for granted in this métier,” she mused recently.” 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.”
Rust and Bone is in cinemas on March 28.