It is the voice — lilting, lightly French-accented — that one notices first, even before fully registering the famous face. You notice it because, in the movies, Marion Cotillard so rarely sounds like herself, whether affecting Edith Piaf’s nasal warble in her Oscar-winning performance in “La Vie en Rose,” the Polish dialect of the 1920s Ellis Island emigre in director James Gray’s “The Immigrant,” or her Belgian regional accent as a downsized factory worker in Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s “Two Days, One Night,” which premieres this week in competition at the 67th Cannes Film Festival.
If voice is one of an actor’s most valuable instruments, Cotillard plays hers like a first-chair virtuoso. Early in the shooting of “The Immigrant” (which debuts in the U.S. May 16), Gray asked Polish actress Maja Wampuszyc, who plays Cotillard’s aunt in the film, to evaluate the French actress’s command of Wampuszyc’s native language. “She said, ‘Well, it’s excellent, but it has a very German inflection,’ ” Gray recalls. “So I told Marion this and she said, ‘I’m doing that on purpose because my character is from Silesia, which is between what was then Germany and Poland.’ ” After that, Gray stopped asking questions.
The 38-year-old Cotillard is that rare combination of movie star and chameleonic character actor — a shape-shifter who disappears as completely into her roles as a Meryl Streep or a Daniel Day-Lewis (whose long-suffering wife Cotillard played in the musical “Nine”) — while remaining in demand as an icon of timeless Parisian glamour. In the more than 40 films she has made since her 1994 screen debut, the actress has seemed equally comfortable inhabiting the skin of a WWI Corsican courtesan (in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “A Very Long Engagement”), a 1930s Chicago gangster’s moll (in Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies”) or a 21st-century epidemiologist (in Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion”). She was tough yet heartbreaking in one of her most celebrated roles, as a killer-whale trainer who loses both her legs in a workplace accident in Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone.” And she brought a tragic human dimension to the high-tech mind games of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” as the ghostly wife forever trapped in Leonardo DiCaprio’s memory machine.
“What I saw in Marion, and which is so rare, is that her charisma, her presence, combines the exotic with the accessible,” says Nolan, who went on to cast Cotillard again in “The Dark Knight Rises,” even retooling the shooting schedule to accommodate the then-pregnant actress (who lives in Paris with French actor-director Guillaume Canet, her partner since 2007).
In “Two Days, One Night,” she is someone else entirely: an ordinary working-class woman struggling to survive in a recession. It is, by Cotillard’s own admission, a curious piece of casting. The Dardenne brothers, among the most honored filmmakers of their generation — especially at Cannes, where they have twice won the festival’s coveted Palme d’Or — have created their distinctive cinematic universe without ever venturing far from the Belgian industrial town of Seraing, the setting for nearly all their films since their 1996 breakthrough “La Promesse.” Typically, they populate their casts with a mix of local actors, nonprofessionals and newcomers. “Two Days” marks the first time they’ve cast a performer of Cotillard’s international stature — or anyone who has acted opposite Batman.
When the actress, who got to know the Dardennes during the filming of “Rust and Bone” (which they co-produced), first learned they wanted her for their next project, she worried that the movie might be a departure from their established milieu. “I was secretly hoping that it was not different; I was hoping that I would have to go to Seraing,” she says as she relaxes into an armchair in her suite at the Trump Soho hotel, and tucks her dark brown hair neatly behind her ears. “When I started to read the script and I found out that it was actually the same kind of movie, I was very, very happy. And I felt that they’re very hard workers, because to reach this level of authenticity, you have to work a lot.”
That work entailed a month of rehearsals on location followed by a demanding shoot in which Cotillard experienced firsthand the Dardennes’ reputation for putting actors through extensive takes. The brothers favor shooting scenes in uninterrupted sequence shots lasting as long as five, six or seven minutes each. “Let’s say you have a seven-minute sequence shot and everything is going well, and then at 6:39 or even 6:49, something goes wrong and you have to start over again,” Cotillard explains. “That causes a lot of takes.” On the second day of shooting, she snapped a photo of the clapboard when the take count on one scene reached 56. On the fifth day, she took another photo as the takes for another scene climbed to 82.
“The challenge for us and for her was to give Marion Cotillard a new body,” says Luc Dardenne. “Every day of the rehearsals, we worked on her costumes, her shoes, her T-shirts, her hairstyle, looking for the simplest thing, the most banal, to give the impression that she was just like anyone else, and not that the other actors were turning around her. Very quickly, we had the sense that Marion was becoming a member of our family of characters.”
Regarding the Dardennes’ unusual shooting style, Cotillard says, “I never felt overwhelmed,” though it forced her to dig deeper into her imagination than she has for any other role. As part of her preparation, she created an elaborate backstory for her character, Sandra, that would allow her to access the emotions she needed for any given scene. “I had written her whole life before we meet her, because I needed to know why she was depressed, how it affected her relationship with her husband and her relationship with her kids, her friends, all the people she loves,” the actress says. “But after 50 takes, the story I had come up with didn’t work anymore, so I had to create something else. I was out of gas. And it was very interesting for me to find more and more things to help me keep going and to reach the same emotion that I had had 40 or 50 times before.”
Still, Cotillard says, if the Dardennes had asked for 500 takes, she would have happily obliged. “They offered me everything I had ever dreamt about in terms of the relationship between a director and an actor — two directors, in this case — because we went into the tiniest details, and we tried everything to go beyond the work, to go beyond acting. They pushed me there, and I was so happy to go there with them.”
Talk to Cotillard for a while and she inevitably circles back to the idea of finding a character’s authenticity and going to some deeper place where the distinction between reality and performance begins to blur. Speaking of her role in “The Immigrant,” she laments that the film’s modest budget and tight schedule didn’t allow her more time to perfect her Polish and research the history of the nation. “I wish sometimes that I could be Daniel Day-Lewis and say, ‘You know what? If you want me to do this, I’m going to need a year to prepare myself.’ But if I do that, they’ll say, ‘Thank you very much’ and they’ll take someone else.”
On occasion, Cotillard has gone so intensely into a character that she has trouble resurfacing. “The first time it happened, where I really didn’t know how to escape someone, was ‘La Vie en Rose’ ” — a role the actress couldn’t shake for eight months after filming ended. “I was very ashamed, because I thought it was a job and I could easily come back to my life and to myself, but it was not that easy. I realized I needed to do a deep cleaning of a role after each movie. Now I know better how to deal with this.”
Suffice to say thesping runs deep in Cotillard’s veins. She was born in Paris, into a family of actors, and knew from an early age she wanted to follow in her parents’ footsteps. She credits classes given by her mother, Niseema Theillaud, with teaching her how to open herself up as a performer. And though she prepares for each role differently, a constant, she says, is to enter into a kind of meditative state where she doesn’t so much form the individual she’ll be playing as let it come to her. “In a way, I don’t create anything, I just open myself to the character and the character takes over,” she says. “Of course, I’m aware of it and I’m driving it, but I don’t try to control it. If I try to control it, it goes wrong.”
A self-described “weirdo” and “misfit” in her youth in Orleans, she went on to study drama at the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique. By age 18, she began landing small parts in French TV series. Director Arnaud Desplechin, who cast her in one brief but memorable scene in his 1996 sophomore feature “My Sex Life … or How I Got Into an Argument,” recalls meeting a “shockingly beautiful and clever” 21-year-old actress who was far more comfortable with the scene (which required her to appear nude) than was her bumbling director. “Marion was so young and already so mature,” Desplechin says. “I explained to her how embarrassed I was. And she told me with a large smile and such confidence that she could just do it, that we would find a way.”
Her breakthrough came two years later as the girlfriend of a Marseilles pizza deliveryman-turned-cab driver in the Luc Besson-produced action comedy “Taxi.” It was a subordinate role in a movie mostly devoted to the buddy antics of male leads Samy Naceri and Frederic Diefenthal, but Cotillard impressed in her few scenes. The movie’s massive success (6.4 million admissions at the French box office) thrust her into a spotlight she was ill-prepared to handle. “It was tumultuous,” she recalls. “I remember — oh my god — it was kind of hard for the people who were around me at that time. When someone would come up to me in the street, I would either run away or burst into tears. I didn’t know what to do. I don’t think you’re ever prepared for this.”
Indeed, it’s one of Cotillard’s beguiling paradoxes — and perhaps a key to her appeal — that this oft-photographed beauty, who devotes herself so obsessively to her work, still feels queasy when she sees herself on the cover of a magazine, or catches aspects of her real self in one of her performances. When she played the bohemian anthropologist Marie in the 2010 ensemble drama “Little White Lies” (directed by Canet), she initially resisted giving the character some of her own gestures and mannerisms, even though she felt they were right for the part. She found the finished movie difficult to watch. “Even though I didn’t have the same story as her, we had a lot of things in common, and I saw myself in her,” she says. “Like when she’s uncomfortable, I could feel in my body that it was the way that I look when I’m uncomfortable, and I didn’t like it at all.”
She needn’t harbor any similar concerns about her next role, as Lady Macbeth in Australian director Justin Kurzel’s version of the Shakespeare tragedy, which recently wrapped shooting in England. It’s an iconic part that Cotillard long envisioned herself playing — though she was sure it would be onstage and in French. Instead, it is onscreen and in English, opposite Michael Fassbender as the doomed Scottish king. “It’s the first time I’ve played a character with no light, total darkness,” she says. “And when she loses control … I’m affected by the character I live with when I’m shooting, so I lost control of everything, like her, and it was really hard to handle.”
She has the highest regard for her co-star, of whom she says, “I saw a lot of movies he was in, and I have the feeling he’s reached another level here. When you start a scene and you don’t really know where you’re going to go, that’s a roller-coaster. Many times I was surprised by what he does in this movie, and this is priceless.”
Fassbender likewise praises Cotillard, hailing the actress as fearless and unfailingly generous to her fellow players. “She’s got so much courage just to take on the part in the first place,” he says. “She’s quite a quiet person, but onscreen she’s just electric. I didn’t have to discuss any ideas that I wanted to do, anything that came to mind during a take. I would just do it, and she always responded. She’s just very easy to work with. Zero drama, except what’s in the scene.” The film is expected to premiere in 2015, the same year that will see Cotillard take to the stage with the New York Philharmonic in a new production of Swiss composer Arthur Honegger’s oratorio “Joan of Arc at the Stake.”
Hers is, to say the least, a varied and unpredictable career, and Cotillard wouldn’t want it any other way. Though she likes Hollywood and has achieved a level of success that has eluded many other foreign-born performers, she is every bit as likely to make a small art film in her native tongue — or some newly acquired one — as to sign on for another blockbuster.
Says Cotillard’s agent, Hylda Queally, who signed the actress shortly after “La Vie en Rose” premiered at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival: “I don’t think it’s about doing the big films and the small films and doing Hollywood and Europe. It’s just about doing good films and playing good characters and not repeating performances. What motivates Marion is the character, the script and the director. She’s not going to do something just because it calls for a beautiful French actress.”
Gazing out the window at some distant point on the lower Manhattan skyline, Cotillard muses: “I always wanted to travel the world and to travel a human being’s emotions, to understand a little more about ourselves by becoming someone who’s so far from who I am. I think it must come from this really strong desire that I had when I was a kid. I was fascinated by Peter Sellers and by Sir Laurence Olivier. From one movie to the next, you didn’t recognize them, and that’s really what I wanted to do. I guess that you attract what you need in life, and I attracted a super wide playground.”